Growth of Tehran-Washington Mutual Trust Possible Over Time

Monday, February 29, 2016

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with William Harrop
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Two years of successful negotiations between Iran and the United States to achieve a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear challenge and the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action announced on January 16 verified the assumption that cooperation on the basis of mutual respect makes a reality out of what may obstinately appear impossible.

Now, what has come under spotlight is the possibility for Tehran and Washington to emulate the success story of the nuclear talks and work together in other areas of shared interests, including the fight against ISIS, the security of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

A distinguished American diplomat says despite the difficulties ahead, Iran and the United States can continue building trust and working together more closely, particularly if the nuclear deal is implemented in good faith

“... the development of mutual respect and trust after generations of distance and animosity will be a gradual process in any case, but is possible and quite worth working for,” said William C. Harrop.

The former U.S. Ambassador to Israel tells Iran Review that he sees a good chance for the “continuation of the incipient detente symbolized by successful negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” by Iran and the United States.

William C. Harrop has served 39 years as a Foreign Service Officer. He has been the U.S. ambassador to Guinea, Kenya, the Seychelles, Democratic Republic of Congo and Israel. His last diplomatic assignment before retirement was ambassadorship to Israel from January 1992 to May 1993. While he was in Tel Aviv, Israel recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization for the first time, and the talks that led to the Oslo Accord were set in motion. In 2015, the American Foreign Service Association granted him the Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy Award in recognition of his notable Foreign Service career. Harrop has been a member of the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs and a director of the American Academy of Diplomacy, too.

Amb. Harrop took part in an interview with Iran Review to discuss the implementation of the nuclear deal, the impacts of the upcoming U.S. presidential election on the possible improvement or decline of Iran-U.S. relations and Washington’s role in the Middle East developments. Harrop emphasized that he is a retired diplomat and his viewpoints don’t reflect the official policy of the U.S. government. The following is the text of our conversation with Amb. William C. Harrop.

Q: Although the July 2015 nuclear deal signed by Iran and P5+1 group of countries diffused some tensions between Iran and the United States, mistrust still prevails and it’s caustic rhetoric that is being exchanged by the two sides. How is it possible to overcome this mistrust that prevents Iran and the United States from realizing their potentials for full-blown collaboration on such sensitive matters as Iraq, Syria and the fight against ISIS, where they apparently have shared interests?

A: The mistrust is indeed deep-seated on both sides, and there are substantial divisions within each political system over where national interest lies. Restoration of trust will at best be a long and gradual process based upon the actions of each side and upon reciprocal perceptions of those actions. I believe growth of mutual trust is possible over time, although advances will be followed by retreats. For example, Iran’s implementation of concrete steps to limit its nuclear posture as provided in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the corresponding release by the United States of blocked Iranian assets, seemed positive to both sides, forward motion.

However, bombastic declarations by Republican presidential candidates in the United States, reinforced by threatened restrictive legislation, must be worrisome to Iranians; harsh statements by the Supreme Leader have not been reassuring. And Iran’s well-publicized advances in ballistic missile development, although not covered by the agreement, have been emphasized by American opponents and led to imposition of sanctions, albeit based on UN resolutions rather than the JCPOA. Much will depend upon military action on the ground vis-à-vis ISIS, and by how the level of Iranian support for Hizbollah and other organizations seen as terrorist is perceived in the U.S. 

Iranian belief in the goodwill of the United States will be affected by the rhetoric of the American presidential election, and its outcome. The perception of the Iranian public about the benefits of greater opening to the West, and how well candidates viewed as “moderates” fare in the February 26 election to the Majlis and the Assembly of Experts will be seen by Americans as an indicator. The decision by the Guardian Council on February 6 to authorize many more candidates to participate seemed positive. Such indications will be evaluated by both sides and could result in measured forward progress.

Q: Do you believe the Republican-dominated Congress will continue its efforts to spoil the Iran deal by adopting restrictive measures that complicate trade and business with Iran? The recent HR 158 Act included in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill is an alarming legislation that will discourage many European and Asian business people, as well as tourists, from grasping the new opening with Iran and traveling to this country. How do you see the whole picture and the impact of such actions on the smooth implementation of the nuclear deal?

A: Congressional actions to discomfit Iran and undermine the agreement, even the threat by Republican presidential candidates to annul it, are in part caused by deep-seated suspicion of Iranian good faith. But they are also a manifestation of partisan hostility toward President Obama and the Democratic Party. Iranian behavior will of course strongly influence both the executive branch and the Congress. The American election in November will determine control of the House and Senate as well as the White House. It is likely that a Democratic president will share President Obama’s interest in demonstrating the value of the agreement, assuming good faith implementation by Iran. It is also possible that a Republican president, motivated by actual responsibility for security policy, would become more inclined to work to make the agreement succeed.

Q: As you surely admit, the United States has a track record of successful rapprochement with two of its major adversaries, China and Cuba, and restored diplomatic ties with the latter just last year. However, its efforts to ease tensions and forge closer ties with the Soviet Union failed in 1970s, resulting in a lengthy Cold War and the breakdown of SALT II as a major armament control treaty. Which scenario will be replicated in the case of Washington’s relations with Tehran? Will the nuclear deal survive even if the two sides do not succeed in solving their differences in Syria, Iraq and areas of controversy such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

A: The JCPOA focuses upon the capability of Iran to develop nuclear weapons and does not address other differences between the parties involving Syria, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, or Iranian support of organizations such as Hizbollah. Such issues are likely to remain divisive but do not necessarily prevent the evolution of more civil and constructive relations. Much will depend upon a gradual increase in trust and respect, which in turn depends upon good faith implementation of the agreement, internal acceptance that it is in the interest of both countries, and the weight of public opinion in both.

Q: How will the United States play a role in the future of the Middle East at large? With the November 2016 presidential election in sight, will a president with an adventurous foreign policy like George W. Bush provoke a new military confrontation in the region? As to the U.S. partnership with the Arab world, will the Arab states of the Persian Gulf need to continue relying on Washington to ensure their national security, or will the U.S. government ask them to play a more proactive role in protecting their own interests?

A: Regardless of the outcome of the presidential and Congressional elections in November, the United States will continue to be the leader of the Western world and will continue to play a dominant role in seeking world stability, the freedom of the sea lanes, and the resolution of conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is most unlikely that the next president would provoke a new military confrontation in the Middle East. As to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, their mutual security understandings with the United States will continue. While they will continue to be responsible for their own national security, they will no doubt look to the United States for support if threatened by a larger power in the region.

Q: Finally, how do you see the outlook of Iran-U.S. relations some two years from now? Shall we gear up for heightened hostilities between Tehran and Washington under President Obama’s successor? Do you give any chance to the continuation of the detente just started?

A: I see a good chance for continuation of the incipient detente symbolized by successful negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. President Ronald Reagan coined the term “Trust but verify,” a policy embraced by both major American political parties. This can be expected to be the approach of whichever candidate is elected to succeed President Obama. Much will depend upon the policies and actions of Iran. As discussed above, the development of mutual respect and trust after generations of distance and animosity will be a gradual process in any case, but is possible and quite worth working for.

Key WordsIran, The United States,Tehran, Washington, Mutual Trust, Nuclear Challenge, Implementation, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, US Presidential Election, Middle East, Iraq, Syria, ISIS, Congress, Arab world, Harrop

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