Political Will & High Cost of Failure: Two Factors for Resolution of Iran’s N-Dossier

Monday, June 23, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Farideh Farhi
By: Firouzeh Mirrazavi

Representatives from Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have opened a new round of talks over Tehran’s nuclear energy program in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that Iran and the Sextet of world powers have begun drafting a final deal on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear energy program, despite a number of differences that yet remained unresolved.

In another development on June 10, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants captured Mosul, the province of Nineveh Province, after soldiers and police forces fled en masse, which was followed by the capture of Tikrit, located 140 kilometers (87 miles) northwest of the capital Baghdad. Iraqi forces continue their battle against the ISIL Takfiri group as the militants are advancing in Iraq and threatening to take their acts of violence to several Iraqi cities, including Baghdad.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani says the Muslim Iraqi nation will push back terrorists and their supporters, stressing that the Islamic Republic will spare no effort to protect holy shrines in Iraq. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Seyyed Abbas Araqchi has dismissed speculations that the ongoing crisis in Iraq will feature in the course of Tehran’s new round of talks with the Sextet of powers in Vienna.

Iran Review.Org conducted an exclusive interview with Dr. Farideh Farhi about nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group, the prospects for the resolution of the nuclear standoff, the important measures to decrease misunderstandings between the two countries, existing problems between Iran and the United States and closer cooperation between Iran and the United States over management of regional issues.

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua (University of Illinois Press) and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and was most recently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group. What follows is the text of Iran Review’s exclusive interview with Dr. Farideh Farhi.

Q: Given the fact that the progress toward a final agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group was relatively slowed down during recent nuclear negotiations in Vienna and now that negotiations have reached a stage where the two sides appear less flexible, what is your opinion about future prospect of these talks? do you believe that announcement by both Iran and the United States to the effect that they are serious in reaching a final result through negotiations, is a sign of an irreversible change in bilateral relations which may lead to a final solution to the nuclear issue?

A: Two factors work in favor of the eventual resolution of the nuclear dossier and transformation of US-Iran relations from a constant state of hostility and non-communication to interaction, even if not necessarily in constructive ways at all times. One is the seriousness of the negotiations and the political will on the part of the current administrations in both countries to prevent the nuclear dossier from becoming a pretext for war or spiraling into something uncontrollable. And the second is the high cost of failure now that both sides have invested so heavily in the talks.

But there are also factors that inhibit confidence in assuming a point of no return to status quo ante. First, in both countries there are political forces that oppose any type of interaction and lessening of tensions, although at this point my take is that opponents, encouraged by regional players, have more significant institutional power in the United States than Iran. In other words, along with political power, they have extensive policy instruments – the most important of which are legally embedded in the sanctions regime – that can be relied upon to undermine or prevent political accord between the two countries.

The second factor is the unequal power relationship between the two countries, which has consistently led various US administrations to be tempted by the argument that economic, political muscle, and military threats will eventually pay off and force various administrations in Iran to give in irrespective of domestic political equations and the stances they have taken within their own political environment. Currently, this second factor is part and parcel of broader indecision or uncertainty in the US’ strategic calculus regarding whether to come to terms with Iran as a prominent regional player or continue its three decade policy of containing it and alternatively Iran’s commitment to being an independent and powerful regional actor irrespective of fears in the neighborhood.

This dynamic of one side always wanting more than the other can give and/or alternatively being unwilling or incapable of matching concessions with what the other side deems as comparable concessions has been the source of impasse in negotiations. This is not to suggest that inflexibility or lack of realism only comes from one side. During the previous administration, Iran also miscalculated in its assessment of the leverage the United States could build through its ferocious sanctions regime in the same way the United States miscalculated in its assessment of the extent to which Iran could expand its nuclear program in the face of sanctions. As such, Iran’s expectation for the sanctions regime that took years to build to be lifted quickly and permanently is as unrealistic as the US expectation for Iran’s enrichment program to be significantly scaled back.

As to the impact of Iran-US direct talks, it is still possible for the unprecedented high profile direct engagement between the two countries in and of itself to lead to some sort of transformation in the relationship irrespective of the results of nuclear talks. If indeed the two countries’ foreign ministers or even presidents can continue to pick up the phone and talk to each other over matters of common concern or for the sake of de-escalating tensions, that by itself is an important achievement of nuclear talks and its significance should not be under-estimated. But this also depends on how the potential failure of nuclear talks is managed by both sides. 

Q: Do you think that closer cooperation between Iran and the United States over management of regional issues can be considered a precondition for the resolution of the nuclear issue? On what regional issues, do you believe that Iran and the United States can cooperate?

A: The United States and Iran are only two actors, albeit key ones, in a region that has many actors with both complementary and competing interests that manifest themselves in complicated and at times very strange ways. So the notion of these two countries cooperating to “manage” regional issues together is rather far-fetched. Indeed, the whole notion of any country or combination of countries being able to manage regional issues is what is being challenged in the intersecting conflicts of the region at this moment.

It is true that the United States and Iran have similar interests in certain areas and in the fast-changing Middle East region these shared interests are manifesting themselves more often than not. But areas of serious conflict or rivalry also persist and the two countries have yet to find a modus vivendi for combining cooperation in some areas while competing in other areas.  For years pundits and politicians in both countries have argued that Iran and the United States have mutual interests, for instance, in Afghanistan and control of narcotics and at least some overlapping interests in Iraq. In Iran, in particular, there have been some who have argued or hoped that these mutual interests or Iran’s effective capability to pursue these interests along with the US can be used as leverage in nuclear talks. This argument, I assume, underwrote the attempt by Iran’s previous nuclear team to broaden the agenda to include other regional issue. It hasn’t worked so far. Although an argument can perhaps be made that over the years shared interests have been helpful in bringing more flexibility to the US’ overall disposition to nuclear negotiations, it hasn’t yet been forceful enough to cause a clear strategic shift in the United States in terms of its acknowledgment and acceptance of Iran’s regional prominence. And in Iran, the idea of potential cooperation in these areas of mutual interest is mostly forwarded as an abstract leverage in convincing the United States that the Islamic Republic is a key regional player here to stay in spite of US pressures. The implications of such cooperation for Iran’s broader disposition towards the United States have not been fully worked out or continue to be hotly contested domestically. As such the nuclear talks and eventual loosening of the sanctions regime – the most manifest expression of US policy of containment of Iran - will probably have to be the gateway to constructive interaction in areas of mutual interest and not the other way around.

Q: During the past few years, Iran's approach to regional issues has been quite different from many other countries, especially the Western states. At present, there are signs to show that Iran's approach has been correct. Iran warned the West, Turkey, and Qatar not to support the armed opposition in Syria and now, everybody believes that what is going on in Iraq is a result of miscalculations by those countries. Iran was trying to gather the Islamist movements, which emerged victorious in Arab Spring uprisings, around greater concepts such as Islam and Muslim faith, prevent tensions from taking a sectarian turn, and keep those movements united against Israel.  However, due to interventions by some fearful monarchies in the region, the Muslim Brotherhood has already lost its power in Egypt while the people in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Jordan have not been benefitted by huge developments in their countries. What is your opinion about the concern that is currently being expressed by the US president and member states of the United Nations Security Council over the course of events in Iraq, about which Iran had already warned them? What should be done in order to attune to reality the viewpoints of major regional and transregional players about delicate and strange developments of the Middle East?

A: Certainly the deterioration of security situation in the region and spread of insecurity to countries that are US allies has shown the fallacies of outlooks and policies in the past decade that have presumably attempted to establish a regional security structure at the expense of Iran’s insecurity. But evidence of wrong outlook does not necessarily lead to significant shifts at least not immediately. While these policies have significantly harmed the people of the region through reckless violence and sectarian polarization, vestiges of past policies as well as powerful interests in charge of various countries in the region continue to shape US foreign policy towards the region. And as the most powerful global actor, the US is bound to be influenced by these powerful interests which also happen to have developed sturdy means to impact its domestic politics.

The expectation for a global actor such as the United States to see things in ways that Iran sees them – or has warned the world about - is at best naïve and not cognizant of the reality that the US, in its self-defined role as the policeman of the Middle East, has to balance many competing interests. It is true that there is increased ambivalence about this role in the US itself, precisely because of the failures and tragedies that has beset the region; some as direct result of wrong-headed US policies, some as side effects, and some due to outright negligence.  It is also true that these failures have led to calls or desires for disengagement from the Middle East. But as the recent events in Iraq are showing it is not easy to disengage and the Middle East continues to beckon the US on a case by case and sort of “wing it” basis. Under these circumstances, right or wrong, the onus is on the Islamic Republic to develop a relationship with the United States that in effect convinces it to consider Iran’s security and stability of value for the US’ regional policy as well as its desire to focus attention on other parts of the world. Iran as a country that claims regional prominence also needs to understand that its disengagement from the United States – forced or otherwise – is implicated in the problems of the region as well. It cannot play victim and enforcer at the same time.

Q: In view of your long residence in the United States and your familiarity with Iran and Iranian culture as well as the structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran, what do you think could be the most important measure that should be taken to decrease misunderstandings between the two countries? What approach to this issue can lead to a sustainable solution and where should be the starting point?

A: Although misperceptions and miscalculations about the other side’s strength and ability to harm are significant in the deteriorations of relations between the two countries, at the core of the tension is the Islamic Republic desire is to be treated as a key regional actor and the US’ hostility and ambivalence towards a country that continues to chant Death to America. This is a concrete conflict with concrete external manifestations such as the sanctions regime and Iran’s challenge of US policies and allies in the region.  In easing the tension, I do not see any other way but to maintain the line of communication that has now been opened.

Key Words: Resolution of Iran’s N-Dossier, US, P5+1, Political Will, High Cost of Failure, Mohammad Javad Zarif, ISIL, President Hassan Rouhani, Final Agreement, Regional Issues, Misunderstandings, Farhi