Current US Policy toward Iran

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Interview with Dr. Kayhan Barzegar
Director, The Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies

Kayhan Barzegar maintains that the prospect of Iran’s nuclear dossier is not totally disappointing arguing that although it has caused challenges between Iran and the West, led by the United States, it has brought about opportunities . According to Barzegar, whenever US President Barack Obama concedes that his “sanctions for negotiations policy” against Iran has failed, then he would resign to negotiating with Tehran to find a peaceful settlement to Iran’s nuclear file.

Persia Quarterly: We all heard Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign promising he would negotiate with adversary countries such as Iran and Cuba. He pledged he would sit at the negotiating table with Iran without any preconditions and in dealing with Iran’s nuclear file, contrary to his predecessor, he would make efforts to solve the issue peacefully. But we all have seen that he practically could not act the way he had promised. Instead of solving the problem through unconditional dialogue, he imposed more severe economic sanctions on Iran. What was the reason that Mr. Obama failed to implement his policy of “change”?

Barzegar: Obama entered the US political scene in a new atmosphere and gave promises to employ a new strategy of “change”. Utilizing this approach, he won the contest against neo-conservatives during the presidential campaigns and ultimately was elected as president of the United States. Based on Obama’s policy of change, the US foreign policy throughout the world was to be modified, most importantly in the Middle East where the most essential change was to take place regarding the US approach toward Iran. For this reason, President Obama announced that the settlement of Iran’s nuclear issue would be one of his priorities in the US foreign policy. Wein Iran also looked forward to a change of policy and not pursuing the predecessor George W. Bush’s policy that was chiefly based on trying to close Iran’s nuclear file through resorting to force and military threats. Here the aim of both US presidents was to somehow contain Iran’s nuclear file of course with different approaches. They believed that Iran’s access to nuclear weapons would endanger the US national security and interests. They have asserted that Iran’s main objective was to build nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the Americans have not been able to get rid of the thought that they should make a distinction between the “peaceful theme” of Iran’s nuclear program and the issue of “weaponization”. Thus, Obama’s main challenge is how to create a balance between the issue of “weaponization” and “deterrence” on the one hand and the “peaceful” aspect of Iran’s nuclear program on the other . As he has been unable to create such a balance, the situation ultimately moved ahead in a way that anti-Iran trends and factions, along with the Israeli lobbyists in America put the Obama’s administration under pressure to choose one of the following three options: First, beginning unconditional negotiations with Iran and accept it as a regional power. here along the negotiations about iran’s nuclear program, the US can also discuss regional crises with Iran in a package. Second, using force against Iran to stop its nuclear program. And third, put Iran under strict economic sanctions forcing Tehran to change its nuclear policies. Unfortunately, the overall situation made Obama opt for the third option.

Persia Quarterly: What made Obama and his foreign policy team feel that the imposition of coercive economic sanctions was the best option and better than unconditional negotiations?

Barzegar: His decision to impose economic sanctions is based on certain assumptions, i.e., those who have projected this strategy believe that there is a relative nuclear consensus in Iran and even the government critiques consider a return from the policy of enriching uranium on the Iranian soil as unacceptable at present and that no one inside agrees with enrichment suspension. Therefore, the West is somehow convinced that it should put the Iranian government under pressure by imposing severe economic sanctions, thus weakening Iran’s economy, a measure that, in their view, would eventually change Iran’s nuclear policy. Such an assumption is based on another supposition that once the Iran’s political system comes under pressure, the people take the government responsible for the hardships and its nuclear policy would lead to international isolation and economic pressure on the people, eventually compelling the government to change its nuclear policy. Imposition of severe sanctions is basically an American policy but has been inevitably accepted by other states such as the European Union member countries. In fact, its acceptance was a very intricate issue for the European countries as they have huge economic and political interests in their relations with Iran. At the moment, the Americans are hoping that severe economic sanctions would change Iran’s nuclear policy. It is likely that Obama was initially intended in solving the matter through negotiations but a series of issues, including US domestic problems and the crises in the Middle East, stopped him from decisively pursuing the policy of negotiation. Meanwhile, Iran’s 2009 post-presidential elections developments somehow confused the Americans encouraging them to contemplate whether it would be possible to change Iran’s policy through means that cost less and take advantage of the internal rifts inside Iran. In fact, all these events happened one after another causing to eliminate the optimism that Obama’s policy of change had created. The US chose the middle way between unconditional negotiation and using military force, namely, the imposition of coercive economic sanctions.

Persia Quarterly: Do you think this strategy would be effective?

Barzegar: It is unlikely that the implementation of such a policywill change Iran’s nuclear policy at the time being. The US main problem is that it ignores the Iranian government’s current constraints and demands while it tries to look at the issue unilaterally and merely based on its own interests. The other problem is that President Ahmadinejad has paid high political costs for his nuclear policy and can not abandon the policy of enriching uranium on Iran’s soil, which is the core point of his administration’s nuclear policy, in exchange for removing the sanctions. The main US challenge with Iran is about this particular subject. I believe if both sides choose to move toward a middle-way solution, Iran’s nuclear crisis would still be far away from a thorough impasse. It might be true that Iran’s nuclear file has created many challenges for both sides, but it has also brought about many opportunities to them. For instance, Secretary Hillary Clinton implicitly agreed with conditional uranium enrichment on Iranian territory in early December 2010 just before the 2010 Manama Security Conference . On the other hand, the US expressed on further severe unilateral sanctions right before the Istanbul Conference inaugurated in January 2011. Such a contradictory policy leads me to conclude that the US has implicitly accepted the issue of independent enrichment on the Iranian soil but at the same time it tries to achieve as much bargaining power as it can in any negotiation process in order to impose tough monitoring systems on Iran’s nuclear activities, thereby minimizing what it considers as the risk of weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program.

Persia Quarterly: If Iran’s sanctions policy would not be effective, what would be Mr. Obama’s next move?

Barzegar: At present, the Obama administrationwants to evaluate the effects of the sanctions. The US policy-makers hope that the sanctions would lead to the creation of opposite political blocs inside Iran and eventually cause Iran’s nuclear policy to change. In other words, an argument would emerge in Iran reasoning that continuation of such strict nuclear policy would jeopardize Iran’s national security. We know that, it is unlikely the US will launch another war in the region, as neither the American public nor the army has the spirit or capability to conduct such a war. The Obama administration is currently talking about exiting from Iraq and Afghanistan by the summer of 2011. Thus, the administration’s only hope is to continue to implement the coercive sanctions. The other option is to engage the USmore with international institutions, such as the United Nations and the Security Council, so as to create an international consensus or mobilize the world’s public to put Iran under pressure to change its nuclear policy. Therefore, I believe that Mr. Obama would continue his current policy and wait to see its results. When the Americans in the coming next few months witness unity and consolidation inside Iran and observe that the sanctions were not effective in creating rifts in the country, then they would try to administer the issue through dialogue rather than war threats and sanctions. Of course, the issue greatly depends on the degree of resistance by the Iranian government. Therefore, Obama is waiting to see what would happen within the next one year. In fact, the issue may last until the next US presidential elections. By then, Obama has no other alternative but to bring some results to the Iranian dossier because during the upcoming elections campaign he has to show some achievements regarding his foreign policy conduct especially regarding Iran’s nuclear program. During the time, Obama would have two options: either to launch a war trying to close the file or to negotiate. The other issue that may reduce the emergence of war is the West’s reasoning that such a war may create a more precarious situation in the region. As some Western analysts maintain, it is likely that once the war begins, Iran may expel the IAEA inspectors and move toward weaponization in matter of one to three months. Thus, the war option is not a wise solution. However, based on a win-win strategy, the West can accept enrichment on the Iranian soil under the condition that Tehran gives assurances to not going towards weaponization I believe there is a better chance for this option. Obama has no other alternative but to enter negotiation with Iran which is good for both sides. It is, though, better that the negotiation takes place as soon as possible and thus reduce the incurring costs. But the US is not yet convinced that the sanctions have been ineffective. Thus, this policy continues.

Persia Quarterly: Why the US does not accept the realities of Iran’s nuclear program? And why the sanctions will not yield the expected results?

Barzegar: One should bear in mind that for the US, that consider itself as the sole superpower, it is unbearable that a country like Iran stands on its way as well as its so-called regional and international interests and challenge it while treading its own independent path. It is unacceptable to them that Iran defies the overwhelming trend in the IAEA and pursues a comprehensive nuclear disarmament in the region, an issue that challenges the status of the key US ally, Israel. It is even intolerable that Tehran bring under question the US role in the security and political trends of the Middle East region. Americans can hardly bear such a situation as they basically think of preserving the US dominance and leadership over the world. To them, such dominancy is both their “right” and “responsibility”. It is true that the US is a major power but that does not necessarily mean that it can act unilaterally in the world arena. I believe a great power like the US has even a heavier responsibility toward the world as it should settle global issues through dialogue and based on bilateral interests, because it enjoys both the influence and instruments in international bodies. But there are also other nations throughout the world that would like to express themselves, at least, in their own region. Our nation alsowould like to play a role through its nuclear program. In fact, its nuclear dossier is something more than just an energy issue. It is also aimed at acquiring prestige in the region and has turned to an identity issue for the Iranian nation. It carries everything within itself: from the independence and resistance of the Iranian nation to achieving progress and regional and world status. Iran’s nuclear dossier is the only issue that since the advent of the 1979 Islamic Revolution has included every aspect within itself and this characteristic can be a challenge for the Americans.

Persia Quarterly: Despite your all-inclusive explanations, it is still difficult to accept the logic that Iran’s access to nuclear energy could contradict the US interests.

Barzegar: It is difficult for the United States because Iran is treading a new and independent path. Iran says it has the potential, money and energy and according to the NPT regulations, it has the legal rights to enrich uranium independently on its own soil. But the West states that such a development is unprecedented in the world. Because, they say, other countries like Argentina, Brazil, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, etc., which have gained access to nuclear energy, have pursued Western criteria and have given the West the necessary guarantees. But Iran has embarked on a new path and has challenged the existing order. I believe in this way Iran is not necessarily trying to sabotage the existing trends in the IAEA Rather, it wants to play its own role and have a share in it. It maintains that it wishes to perform enrichment within its own territory and in cooperation with the IAEA. In contrast, the West says that it has no confidence on Iran and therefore, it cannot carry out enrichment independently on its own soil. Because, they continue to argue, in such a case they can have no control on Iran and do not know whether their program would be diverted to weaponization. Such a judgment is more based on probabilities and on Iran’s possible intentions in future. But, in reality, it is very difficult for the Americans to recognize Iran’s independent path which may lead them to loss their monopoly over making and exporting the nuclear fuel, or better to say, to loss control over its possible weaponization. It is unprecedented that an IAEA member country treads a path other than that of the Agency. Iran’s policy has brought under question the Agency’s legal status and its existing order that considers the West as the dominant trend. As a proof to this, one can refer to a document disclosed by the Wikileaks according to which the Agency’s current Director General Yukia Amano has said that he favored the US approach to the issue. If the document is authentic, then how can one expect the Agency take the side with Iran and not with the West? Thus, Iran’s policy challenges the authoritarian policy of the Security Council, the existing monopoly in the IAEA and other international bodies and that it is quite natural that the Western powers would not accept such a challenge. Of course, there always exist the international community’s concerns which Iran should also address. But again and as discussed, a win-win situation can solve the issue.

Persia Quarterly: Some would say that one other reason the West cannot accept a nuclear Iran is that they have faced with problems in other spots such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, the West is annoyed by what they term it as Iran’s non-cooperation in those countries. Based on this analysis, it can be said that other issues have in fact cast shadows over the Iranian nuclear dossier. What do you think in this regard?

Barzegar: Iran rightfully ties the nuclear issue with other regional problems because it has strategic privileges in such issues. For example, Iran can help the US to exit from Afghanistan and Iraq and also in bringing stability in those countries in the post-withdrawal era. Owing to its geopolitics and dynamic ideology, Iran has the upper hand in the regional crises. That is why all proposal packages that have been offered by Iran to the West, urge to discuss international and regional issues as well because there are strategic gains for Iran in such issues. The Americans, however, are required to create a balance between their demands in the nuclear and regional issues. But they would prefer to exclude the regional issues from the nuclear file, because they know if they give any credit to Iran in political and security issues, then Tehran would ask for some concessions in its nuclear issue. For this reason, the US has made efforts to draw a line between the two. I believe the nuclear file will bring about both opportunities and challenges. That is why many believe that because of the grandeur of Iran’s dossier, both sides have strengthened their strategic cards in such a way to be able to resist. Therefore, a series of other types of cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan can lead to taking confidence-building steps for Iran in spite of the fact that specific challenges are embedded in such cooperation. For example, the Americans have always complained that Iran never fully cooperates with them in Iraq and Afghanistan. As an instance, Iran does not always take part in all related conferences and peace initiatives related to the Afghanistan’s crisis. But one should ask why does Iran have to cooperate? When they impose sanctions on Iran, pose it as the main source of political and security threat in the region, declare its nuclear program as a threat to the international security, they should not expect Tehran to have an all-out cooperation with them. It would be a grave foreign policy blunder for a country to help its enemy to win in an adventure and then the same enemy engages in a fight against it. Such logic is totally unacceptable. Therefore, every form of cooperation in regional issues must take Iran’s strategic interests into account as well. This I would call a win-win strategy, namely, Iran’s all-out cooperation in the settlement of the regional issues must be considered as a strategic benefit for Iran in its nuclear file.

Persia Quarterly: Thus, according to you, Mr. Obama can overcome his problems in Iraq and Afghanistan if he accepts Iran as a nuclear power and a peaceful settlement of its nuclear file based on a win-win strategy. Is it also possible to say that Mr. Obama may even guarantee his victory in the 2012 presidential elections if he opts for the peaceful settlement of the issue? Does the settlement of Iran’s nuclear file have any effect on the forthcoming US presidential elections?

Barzegar: If president Obama would be able to solve Iran’s nuclear file, he can leave a positive impact on those who voted in favor of him and to his policy of “change” boasting that he has solved at least this one case through dialogue. Essentially, the prevailed spirit among democrats and their supporters, mostly university professors, intellectuals and the youth, is such that they consider a president popular who can solve an American international challenge through peaceful means. John f. Kennedy is still popular among Americans because he solved the Cuban missile crisis. Also Richard Nixon is still admired because he settled the US challenge with China through the strategic dialogues. If Obama, could take the courage to solve Iran’s issue, which has turned into a major concern since 32 years ago, through dialogue as he has promised during his electoral campaign, then he would be able to impress his electorates. It is very likely that Obama would be reelected. But for this to materialize, he needs to take a positive action in the forign policy context. Starting from Iran is important. This can even turn into a winning card for him in his challenge against the Republicans who in the past have spread a spirit of war and tension in the US foreign relations.


More By Kayhan Barzegar:

*Iran-EU Relations: Time for Restoring Negotiations:

*Iran-Saudi Relations: Time for Active Diplomacy:

*Iran's Interests and Values and the "Arab Spring":

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