Iran and the US Can Disagree on Some Issues But Find Zones of Cooperation

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Iran Review's Exclusive Interview with Ret. Admiral James G. Stavridis
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Although Iran and the group of six world powers (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) that have been working for several years to find a solution to the controversy over Iran's nuclear program failed to meet the self-imposed July 20 deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement after concluding an interim accord on November 23, 2013, the fact that the time limit for the negotiations have been extended for another 4 months leaves room for great optimism and hope that the decade-long dispute can finally be settled, though with difficulty and intricacy.

A former NATO official and high-ranking U.S. Navy officer believes that the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries are immensely important and reflect the importance the international community attaches to relations with Iran.

Ret. Admiral James G. Stavridis says that Iran and the United States can cooperate to find venues for cultural exchanges and pave the way for forging economic and political ties in the future. He is of the opinion that economic and political cooperation between Tehran and Washington can benefit both sides and contribute to the national interests of Iran and the United States mutually.

Admiral Stavridis says that there may exist some differences and disputes, but there are ample opportunities for putting aside these points of strife: "we need to move to a situation where we can disagree about a variety of issues, but find zones of cooperation – piracy, counter-narcotics, and a stable government in Iraq are all possibilities."

"The advantages to the world community of an Iran that is not living in sanctions are high, and hopefully concluding a reasonable agreement on the nuclear question will be possible," he told Iran Review. "Then we can explore greater cooperation. As an educator today in higher education here in the USA, over time I would welcome exchanges in that sector."

Prof. James G. Stavridis is currently the 12th Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also the Chairman of the Board of the U.S. Naval Institute. Stavridis served as the 15th Commander of the U.S. European Command from May 2009 until May 2013. EUCOM is one of nine Unified Combatant Commands of the United States military based in Stuttgart, Germany. He has also been NATO's 16th Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and the first navy officer who has held these two positions.

Iran Review had the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview with Admiral James G. Stavridis on the prospects of Iran-U.S. relations and the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: In one of your recent articles, you talked about the need for Iran and the United States to cooperate on such issues as the rise of Sunni extremists in Iraq, the naval pirates in the Horn of Africa and drug trafficking in the unstable Afghanistan. Is it really possible for the two rivals to put aside the acrimonies and differences of the past and work for finding solutions to these problems? In practice, how can they collaborate on addressing these concerns?

A: Step one would be resolving the nuclear question in a positive way. The recent negotiations are at least a step in the right direction. In terms of other projects, I would start with counter-piracy; Iranian vessels have been engaged in the mission, as are ships from many other countries, including the USA. Why not set up a dialog about information and intelligence sharing on pirate movements? I believe the same can be said of counter-narcotics, where both the USA and Iran have a strong interest in reducing the flow of opium from Afghanistan. Begin with small things – intelligence, information, technology sharing – and over time, confidence builds and we might be able to take on other challenges together.

Q: So, what will be the benefits of reengagement with Iran for the United States and its NATO allies? Mutually, how can Iran take advantage of reconciliation with the United States? Do you agree with the premise that cooperation instead of confrontation will be in the interests of both Iran and the West?

A: The benefits are very clear for both countries. We need to move to a situation where we can disagree about a variety of issues, but find zones of cooperation – piracy, counter-narcotics, and a stable government in Iraq are all possibilities.

Q: In this light, something which the Iranian politicians have usually complained about is that the United States and its European partners haven't ever talked to Iran, as a nuclear interlocutor, with the language of respect and on equal footing. At least in the recent decade, whenever there were negotiations between Iran and the six world powers, there also existed a threat of military intervention, and the option of increased sanctions on the table. Don't you agree that better results could have been achieved in the past decade if Washington and its allies had approached Iran in a more respectful, friendly manner?

A: There have been attempts to reach out in general to the world of Islam [including] President Obama’s Cairo speech. In terms of the nuclear talks, I believe it is showing a great deal of respect that six world powers will all come to the table with Iran to discuss the right way forward. While there is admittedly implicit in the conversation the potential for using other instruments of coercion - military and trade - the fact is that the West is sitting at the table, continuing the dialog, and hoping to resolve the differences in a way that will not lead to conflict. A less respectful approach, frankly, would be to simply resort to active military action – that has not happened because the West wants to try and resolve things peacefully and I would argue that is a respectful approach.

Q: Iran and the six world powers agreed to extend the nuclear negotiations for another four months. Given the successful experience of the Joint Plan of Action that was signed in November 2013 after several rounds of talks, are you hopeful that Iran and the P5+1/EU3+3 can conclude a long-term, final agreement? How does a comprehensive deal look like, in your view?

A: I am hopeful, and I believe the chances of an agreement are much higher than they were several years ago.  Partly this is the result of diplomatic efforts on both sides to prevent combat which would hurt the global economy; and partly it is that there are so many other crises occurring - Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza - that the motivation for all concerned to find peaceful resolution is very high. A comprehensive deal is one that permits Iran to have access to peaceful uses of nuclear power in a monitored setting and ensures access to all facilities to make sure the agreement is legitimately observed. It probably limits the number of centrifuges based on need for appropriate levels of nuclear material based only on peaceful uses. The fact that the dialog continues is a good sign, and we should hope for a positive outcome.

Q: Iran just commemorated the anniversary of the 1953 coup that toppled the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and brought the unpopular monarch Mohammad Reza Shah to power. In August 2013, CIA admitted that it played a role in the coup, both in planning and executing it. Do you think that the United States needs at all, or will be able to change the negative conception it created in the minds of the Iranian people as a result of engineering the coup and collaborating with the UK to execute it? Iranians refer to the coup as one of the dark junctures of their country's contemporary history. What's your take on that?

A: I think broadly the people of Iran want to remember the past, but not be imprisoned by it. In the U.S., on the other hand, people tend to remember the hostage situation when so many Americans were held in Tehran immediately after the revolution. Both nations should seek to move forward beyond earlier events and look to the future.

By that, I mean I believe that both nations would accept a positive relationship with the other over time.  Whenever I have encountered Iranians around the world, we have been able to have sensible and rational conversations about the relations of our nation[s]. Iran is an important nation with a deep and impressive history and culture. The advantages to the world community of an Iran that is not living in sanctions are high, and hopefully concluding a reasonable agreement on the nuclear question will be possible. Then we can explore greater cooperation. As an educator today in higher education here in the USA, over time I would welcome exchanges in that sector. There are cultural and athletic connections to be explored as well. And in time, linkages in trade and economics could be very beneficial.

Q: Let's get to an important regional concern, too. In a recent interview with Spain's La Prensa, you stated that NATO will continue to maintain around 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, that will be working on mentoring and training operations, but not combat missions. What's NATO's long-term plans for Afghanistan? Has NATO ever considered the possibility of pulling out from Afghanistan completely and leaving the security of the country to its people and armed forces?

A: NATO is planning strongly to remain for at least several more years with a significant presence of about 15,000 troops – well below the peak of 130,000 some years ago, but enough to help the Afghan security forces hold back any Taliban insurgency through training and mentorship, but not combat operations. The coalition will continue to fund the afghan security forces for at least a decade. I believe a stable and democratic Afghanistan is in the interest of Iran, as it will provide a stable neighbor, reduce heroin and opium production, and provide trade opportunities.

Q: You have argued that the U.S.-NATO operations in Afghanistan were fruitful and represented a successful example of the use of smart power. You said somewhere that the 21st century is the time for creating bridges instead of erecting walls. However, the 2003 invasion of Iraq which had apparently taken place with the aim of deposing a dictator who possessed WMDs, doesn't seem to have yielded positive results, and the country is now grappling with political instability coupled with the rise of a terrorist cult under a religious banner. So, the use of smart power, which you've defined as a mixture of soft power plus hard power, doesn't always lead to significant, desirable outcomes. Do you agree?

A: No one approach will always be successful, but I believe that smart power – the combination of military and other “hard tools” with development and trade “soft tools” - will yield the best outcomes over time.  Look at Europe and Japan after WWII – the use of smart power rebuilt those economies and those societies are powerful and important members of the global economy. More recently, experiences in both Colombia and the Balkans have shown very positive outcomes for smart power. Are there challenges and failures?  Certainly, but I for one believe it will continue to be a mix of soft power and occasional use of the military instrument that will be the best solution.

Key Words: Iran,US,  Zones of Cooperation, Afghanistan, Sunni Extremists in Iraq, NATO, Europe, P5+1/EU3+3, Joint Plan of Action, Stavridis

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