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Even Imperfect Negotiations Have Benefits for Both Iran and US

Friday, November 13, 2015

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Suzanne Maloney
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Following the successful conclusion of the talks over Iran’s nuclear program, and as the negotiating parties gear up for the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), there are still concerns and uncertainties on the commitment of the interlocutors to the terms of the deal.

The 2016 U.S. presidential election is approaching, and some candidates have openly vowed that they will scrap the nuclear deal with Iran if elected to the White House, including GOP hopeful and Florida Senator Marco Rubio who has said he will tear the agreement apart on his first day as the U.S. President.

Now, having invested a great deal of political capital on obtaining this agreement, it’s inarguably crucial for both Iran and the E3/EU+3 group to make sure that the deal will be implemented with good faith and resolutely.

Iran Review discussed the significance of the nuclear deal and the obstacles to its implementation with Dr. Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution.

Suzanne Maloney is the deputy director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. A long-time expert on Iran’s domestic and foreign policy, she published her latest book “Iran’s Political Economy since the Revolution” in August 2015, which was released by Cambridge University Press. Maloney has previously served as an external advisor to senior State Department officials on Iran. She holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Dr. Maloney tells Iran Review that even limited and imperfect negotiations between Iran and the United States help the two nations make headway and settle some of their longstanding disputes. She believes that the next U.S. President will come to accept the fact that the nuclear agreement with Iran is a done deal, and would have to be implemented.

The following is the transcript of our phone interview with Suzanne Maloney.

Q: The U.S. House of Representatives has just passed a bill that will call on Iran to pay $43 billion in damages to those Americans and their families who are claimed to be the victims of Iran-sponsored terrorism before the nuclear deal can be implemented. Well, this seems to be a questionable claim that Iran has been a sponsor of terrorism. Beyond that, why do you think the Republicans are so persistent in blocking the Iran deal and preventing it from coming into effect at any cost?

A: Well, I think it became a very significant aspect of President Obama’s foreign policy; one that, to be quite honest according to opinion polls, is somewhat controversial more broadly among the American people. And so it’s a domestic political issue; the Republicans saw two very clear benefits to opposing the President on this. The first, that it would undermine something that is very important to his legacy and the second that it could conceivably expand their popularity within the American voting population because in fact opinion polls show that most of the American public or the majority of American public is skeptical of the nuclear deal.

Q: Don’t you think the fact that the majority of Americans are opposed to the nuclear deal is because this agreement is essentially so technical and complicated in terms of its wording and its stipulations, and the American people have not been sufficiently briefed and enlightened about the advantages that it might entail?

A: Yes, I think you’re right. There is certainly some evidence that shows when the members of the public learn more about the details of a deal and understand the alternatives available to a deal, they in fact grow more strongly in favor of supporting the deal. So, I think you’re right; the opposition isn’t necessarily based on the specific details of the deal, at least among the public at large, but the simple reality is that for Republicans who are looking to extend their base and position both individually for the elections and as a party for the 2016 presidential vote, there are a great deal of benefits, from making this a very central issue in their campaign.

Q: As you know, the Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz has explained in detail how this agreement – JCPOA – would block all the four pathways for Iran to possibly obtain a nuclear weapon. So, why do you think with this important achievement at hand, the Republicans are still adamant that the deal should be trampled?

A: Well, obviously, there are differences of opinion and I think that many of the Republicans genuinely believe that the terms of the deal are not sufficient to ensure that Iran does not continue to make progress toward a nuclear weapon. I’m not validating that point of view, I’m not endorsing that point of view but just as in Iran there are multiple perspectives on the value of the deal and its specific terms, there continues to be here as well, and of course there remain other significant foreign policy differences between the two countries and that I’m sure motivates some of the Republican opposition to the deal. In fact, I tend to think that if there were no other differences, this would not be a central issue but the very longstanding challenges that the U.S. and Iran have faced involving their competing interests and allies in the region really exacerbate the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. So, the allegations of Iran’s support for terrorism, the role that Iran has played in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, these issues really I think motivate those who oppose the deal more than almost the specifics of the deal itself.

Q: And do you think that there is still some willingness on behalf of the Republicans to push for a military option or to take up armed action against Iran in order to stop its nuclear program?

A: No, I think there has never been any. And certainly in Bush administration I didn’t see any eagerness then to embark on a military campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. I don’t see it in the Obama administration either, and despite the commotion in the campaign season, I suspect any Republican president who comes into office in January 2017 will also be very circumspect about how he or she uses force to address the challenges that are posed by Iranian policies.

Q: In his statement following the announcement of the nuclear agreement with Iran on July 14, President Obama said, “American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change -- change that makes our country, and the world, safer and more secure.” He said he was confident this deal would meet the national security interests of the United States and its allies. Now that Iran has agreed to restrict its nuclear activities to build confidence that it won’t pursue nuclear weapons, why do some of those U.S. allies including the Arab states in the Persian Gulf and the Israelis vehemently oppose it and say they cannot live with such an agreement?

A: Well, I don’t know if they’re vehemently opposing at the stage. You see, Prime Minister Netanyahu is coming back to Washington; he’s deliberately embarking, while he’s here, on some efforts I think to conciliate the relationship with the President and with the Democratic Party more broadly. There are ongoing negotiations about the deal and how Israel can be reassured with the implementation of the deal. And, the same conversations are ongoing with the leaders of many of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf. So, you know, it’s a process of ally-management which takes quite a lot of time and obviously in the aftermath of this considerable controversy among all the parties, it takes on greater importance. But I don’t think we see any evidence that the Israelis are determined to do something to upend the deal. There is really nothing that they can do to alter the commitments of each of the parties to sustaining their obligations.

Q: Statements were made by Saudi officials few days after the announcement of the deal that Iran is still a dangerous country with expansionist policies. Do you think these statements by the Saudis and similar remarks by the Israeli officials originate from their fear that the elimination of sanctions against Iran would pave the way for Iran to emerge as a new economic power in the region and that would threaten their regional dominance and hegemony?

A: Well, I think that there are still big differences between Iran and many of its neighbors, in particular Saudi Arabia, that didn’t get better with the results of the nuclear deal but probably didn’t get a whole lot worse either. They would exist with or without a nuclear agreement. So, this is something that’s going to have to be addressed, I think not by Washington, but by Iran and Saudi Arabia in terms of making efforts to find some common ground in the areas such as Yemen and Bahrain where they have conflicts.

Q: How would it be possible then?

A: I simply think that Iran and Saudi Arabia have to come to some kind of modus vivendi, some agreement between the two governments so that they can find solutions to their differences; not to be close allies; but the sectarian tensions that are being exacerbated by both countries, the warfare that is ongoing in Yemen and in Syria just have to be stopped as it is ultimately going to come back to haunt both countries and both governments.

Q: It’s conceivable that after all these uproar and tumult in the Congress, public sphere, media and advocacy organizations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will be implemented and both sides are going to ...

A: It’s not conceivable; it’s inevitable. That has happened!

Q: Of course, but after all there are always chances of non-compliance on either side. So, both parties are looking at it somewhat skeptically. Both Iranians and Americans keep saying that the other side might cheat or fail to abide by its commitments, and this is what I’m exactly going to ask you. Do you think that the next U.S. president, who might be a Republican, may tear the agreement apart and claim that he would not honor it, reinstate the sanctions and even turn to a military option?

A: No, I don’t! I think as long as the agreement has been implemented by all the parties with a certain degree of civility, that is there hasn’t been right for cheating, then I think any American president will effectively be forced to accept that it’s a settled issue and a done deal; walking away and ripping it up is not practical. Even some of them are mainstream Republican candidates who say that isn’t the appropriate sort of action. There are several fringe candidates who say that they’ll tear the deal apart to win votes; even if we’ve got a President Rubio or someone with a similar approach and thinking, I think once he comes into office, he has greater intelligence and greater advice from serious people, then I don’t think it’s a realistic proposition.

Q: So, you think that people like a President Rubio or President Trump, as they pledged, would not tear down this agreement and say that they will not implement it because they believe it’s not a good deal for the United States?

A: Well, if there is a President Trump, then bad for us! But I suppose it’s not conceivable anymore. I don’t think we can exactly predict what Trump would do simply because he’s such an unlikely candidate; there is no neutral judge, but presuming that he staffs his administration in the same way that every other prior American president has, with people with long policy experience as opposed to the people he has introduced on television shows, I think, I expect him to behave in the same way that any other American leader would, which is if an agreement that has been signed by its predecessors and has been abided by all the parties, there is really no incentive and no value in trying to renegotiate it after that.

Q: You have surely heard that during his speech to the 70th UN General Assembly, President Hassan Rouhani said a new chapter in Iran’s relations with the community of nations has started. He said that Iran does not consider this nuclear agreement a final objective but a development which can serve as the basis for further achievements to come. He was apparently signaling a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. With all the difficulties that are in sight, do you give any chance to the settlement of disputes between Iran and the United States and the conflicts that have kept them away from each other? And do you believe that any normalization of relations in the future is thinkable?

A: I think it’s possible but it’s not a short-term proposition. It’s only because of the sort of things that Ayatollah Khamenei has been saying in recent weeks. I don’t believe that there is real political will on the Iranian side to engage in any kind of rapprochement. And I think the differences that we see today are at least as severe and dangerous as they’ve ever been and so if Iran truly would like to have a different relationship with the United States and with the broader international community, then the highest priority have to be ending the violence in Syria. Iran has been responsible for much of that violence, violence against innocent civilians. It is a historical tragedy. So, I greatly hope that what we see now is in process of some kind of political dialog on the question of Syria but not just dialog, real conflict resolution.

Q: But as you talk about the crisis in Syria, there are people in Iran, both reformist and Conservative, there are many people, many pundits, academicians, media personalities and political heavyweights, who believe that it is the United States that is playing a detrimental role in Syria through funding the Salafis, Wahhabis and Takfiri terrorists. These allegations have been made on both sides; the U.S. government accuses Iran of fueling violence in Syria and Iranians at the same time assert that the U.S. government has been contributing to the continuing bloodletting and unrest in this Arab country.

A: Well, this is an equal blame situation! Even the U.S. government can only claim that only 26 to 27 [unintelligible] are in Syria. We have actually no efforts on the ground whatsoever in Syria. You have generals dying in Syria. There isn’t a parallel between what the United States has done and what the Iranians have done and I understand the rationale for the strategic relationship with the Assad government, but Assad is a war criminal and he has butchered his own people and that is something that Iran, having suffered at the hands of another war criminal, should simply not have anything to do with. It is a moral crime.

Q: You know that the history of Iran-U.S. relations in the recent four decades has been replete with mutual skepticism, mutual distrust and lack of confidence. Do you see any chances that this mistrust can be overcome and be replaced with not necessarily amicable ties but mutual respect? As it was the case with the nuclear agreement, negotiations and diplomacy have proven to yield significant and favorable results. Do you think that this success story could be reproduced in other areas and be used as a model for cooperation?

A: Yeah, I think you answered your own question! I think that in fact we’ve seen in the nuclear negotiations that despite all the differences, despite the lack of a diplomatic relationship, despite all the handicaps that we have in terms of really getting things done, we’ve been able to get things done and even imperfect negotiations have benefits for both sides. So, I hope that can be replicated in other arenas and I hope that it simply leads to greater contact between two governments and between the two people.

Q: What should Iran and the United States – as the two main parties to the nuclear agreement – do in order to preserve the legacy of more than two years of honest negotiations so that domestic politics cannot influence it, including a change of governments, and both nations can ultimately benefit from better bilateral relations?

A: I think the only real answer is to be continuing dialog and that fundamentally is the only mechanism for overcoming the domestic political imperatives that send the two countries in opposing reactions.

Key Words: Iran, The United States, Imperfect Negotiations, U.S. House of Representatives, Nuclear Agreement, Bilateral Relations, Mutual Skepticism, Distrust, Diplomacy, Syria, Salafis, Wahhabis, Takfiri Terrorists, President Hassan Rouhani, Republican Candidates, Congress, Bashar Assad, Sanctions, Arab Countries, Barak Obama, Maloney

*Photo Credit: David Hawxhurst / Wilson Center

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