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Resolution of Iran’s Nuclear Standoff Victory for the Entire World

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Jim Walsh
By: Kourosh Ziabari

As Iran and the group of six world powers convene in Vienna for a new round of talks over the Tehran’s nuclear program, it appears more important to study the different aspects of the decade-long controversy that has marred and tarnished Iran’s relations with the international community, especially the United States and the European Union.

Signs are emerging that Iran’s blemished relations with the West are being reconstructed, especially after Iran signed a breakthrough deal with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on November 24, 2013 known as the Joint Plan of Action.

Following the election of Hassan Rouhani as the President of Iran in June 2013, seven European foreign ministers, the EU foreign policy chief and parliamentary delegations from different countries traveled to Iran and voiced their enthusiasm for expanding their respective countries’ ties with Iran.

Iran Review has conducted many interviews with American and European scholars regarding the new turn in Iran’s foreign relations and the importance of the ongoing nuclear negotiations. Our latest guest is Dr. Jim Walsh. Dr. Walsh is a Research Associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. His writings and analyses have appeared on several prominent publications including the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, Associated Press, Reuters, Time magazine and the Economist. Prior to joining MIT, Dr. Walsh was Executive Director of the Managing the Atom project at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a visiting scholar at the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Jim Walsh believes that although Iran and the United States have historical grievances toward each other, they can put aside the differences and move toward the complete normalization of the bilateral relations progressively. He believes that although there are several issues which keeps the two nations away from each other, reconciliation and détente would be possible through continued talks and negotiations. On the nuclear issue, he says that he is opposed to the military nuclear programs of such countries as Israel, Pakistan and India and believes that it’s in the best interests of the whole international community that all the nuclear weapons states eliminate their arsenals.

Iran Review conducted an exclusive interview with Dr. Walsh on the new round of talks between Iran and the six world powers, the future perspectives for the resolution of the nuclear standoff and the ways for the improvement of Iran-U.S. relations. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: Following the election of President Rouhani, a new era started in Iran’s relations with the international community and negotiations once again started to resolve Iran’s nuclear standoff and finally the two sides came to an interim agreement known as the Joint Plan of Action. What have been the obstacles to reaching an agreement in the past years? And in your view, what capacities have emerged for the change in the direction of talks between the two sides following the presidential election in Iran?

A: In the past and over many years there have been moments when one party, either the U. S. or Iran has been ready to seriously negotiate. But the other party for whatever reason, domestic reasons or whatever reasons, based on the attitude of the government, was not ready to negotiate. And so in 2003 to 2005 Iran was serious about negotiation but the United States under George Bush did not have an interest in negotiation; they did not to negotiate. So one side was ready and the other wasn’t. Later in fall 2009, negotiation restarted around the issue of Tehran research reactor, and the P5+1 was ready to negotiate seriously but Iran was not ready, and so there were never any meetings and they never came back. So there is a history of missed opportunities where one side is ready and the other side isn’t, and then the other side is ready and the other one isn’t.

This is the first time in more than a decade that both sides are ready and serious at the same time. So that’s a part of it. And part of that, one of the reasons, is President Rouhani’s election. You know, by the end of President Ahmadinejad’s term, he was in a weaker position politically; he was a politically damaged figure in the United States because of the inflammatory comments that he made. So it would be difficult to have serious negotiation with him because of the anger he caused in the U.S. and so he would have been a difficult negotiating partner. This is the situation where President Rouhani was elected, the Iranian government is unified, and the Supreme Leader supports President Rouhani and the negotiation process. And so there are no divisions that make negotiation more difficult and no infighting that makes the negotiation more complicated.

And so having President Ahmadinejad finished his term, it created a new window and a new opportunity for someone to come anew and start afresh. And of course President Rouhani is an extraordinary expert in these issues since he has been with the lead negotiators in 2003-2005. So he’s completely the perfect person, and his team is very skilled. And so I think his election really created a new opportunity since it allowed everyone to turn the page and start afresh and to engag in serious talks when both parties were interested, both at the same time. This is the first time that all the parties are all interested, all at the same time.

Q: This argument is being made in Iran by influential lawmakers and some politicians that during the talks between Iran and the three European countries under President Khatami, the Western side didn’t stick to its side of commitments and reneged on its promises. So Iran left the negotiation table and should not make concessions and trust in the West in the future talks. Confidence-building measures and offering transparency is seen as giving and not taking in return by some influential people, lawmakers and politicians in Iran. What’s your viewpoint on that? Is there any guarantee that the West will keep its word?

A: Well, I think it’s certainly true that in 2003, Iran and the EU3 hoped that this negotiation would be successful and Iran was frustrated by the results. But I don’t think it was deceitful. What do I mean by that? It was clear that Bush administration at that point certainly was going to oppose any negotiation and the Europeans were hoping that they could bring the Bush administration along to show progress in the negotiations but the Bush administration was highly ideological, especially the president himself, and then they made clear from the outset that they did not support the EU in the negotiation process. So I don’t think that was any surprise; it was a disappointment, it was frustrating, it was a missed opportunity. But it’s not that the United States said to Iran at that point, we support the negotiations, we want this negotiation to be successful, and then turned the way around to change the position. The U.S., unfortunately had a very clear, consistent position at that point, which was they didn’t support the negotiations.

It is not the case today; there is unity within the P5+1, with the U.S. and with the Europeans and with China and Russia; all of them favor the negotiations. So I think the situation today is far different from the situation in 2003 when the negotiating parties and the negotiating allies didn’t agree on the value of negotiations. And it’s not true today.

Q: Following the conclusion of the Geneva interim accord on November 24, 2013, the U.S. officials especially President Obama and the Secretary of state John Kerry have been constantly making threatening remarks against Iran, saying that as the result of the deal Iran’s nuclear program has been dismantled, the structure of the sanctions remains intact and all the lifted sanctions will be reversible in 24 hours. Such remarks, I think, seem counter-productive while the two sides are negotiating for a final solution. Why are the U.S. officials making such statements while they know that the final agreement would be constructive and helpful for the whole international community?

A: Well, I think it’s for the very same reason why officials of Iran have said the things that have not been helpful from a U.S. perspective. The reason is that both governments have domestic audiences. There are people in the U. S., especially in Congress who don’t like Iran and don’t want to have a negotiation. [And] there are people in Iran who don’t like the United States and don’t want to have a successful negotiation. And so the leaders in both countries, when they make those statements, their audience are their domestic audience, not the foreign audience. So president Obama has to convince the skeptical Congress that this deal is very tough and this deal is going to work, and if it doesn’t work, you still have the sanctions regime. Some of those statements uttered by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran [officials] saying that we can turn around and produce 20 percent enriched Uranium right away is the same thing as saying that we can impose sanctions as we wish, and in both cases what the government is trying to do is to calm down domestic opponents about negotiation. And so my advice is, and I say this to Americans and I say it to my Iranian friends as well, don’t get upset when the leaders of your country or the leaders of other countries say such things. Why is it that? Because that’s part of the practical reality in politics. There are the opponents who attack President Obama every day for being weak and for selling out American interests. Just like there are also people in Iran who criticize President Rouhani for being weak and selling out Iranians’ interest. For that reason, President Rouhani and President Obama are forced to defend themselves when their political opponents at home attack them. And in defending themselves, they say such things. But I think it’s actions more than words that are important. And what’s really important is not what is said from a TV camera in Washington or Tehran. The most important thing is in the negotiating rooms in Vienna and in Geneva. You know the truth is that as we get through the comprehensive agreement, there are going to be other circumstances and other [sic] and which leaders say things that make people of other country upset. That’s the way it is, that’s the way politics works. So what I’m saying is that don’t pay attention to political statements; pay attention to what happens at the negotiation table.

Q: Well, my next question; the Iranian people chose a new path and approach in foreign policy by electing Hassan Rouhani. In this light, it can be said that at least the European powers have received the message imparted by the Iranian people. So far, a number of European foreign ministers and EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton have traveled to Iran. Do you think that the U. S. government has also recognized the message? Has the Obama administration made any changes in his approach and attitude toward Iran following the election of President Rouhani? And if the response is positive, then how can we interpret the statement that all options are still on the table regarding Iran’s nuclear program?

A: Well, I think obviously the Obama administration did change its view after the election of President Rouhani because we have these negotiations now. If it had not changed that view, we wouldn’t have the negotiations, we would not have the Joint Plan of Action. So definitely President Rouhani’s election made a big difference in President Obama’s views. And not only do we have the negotiations, we’ve also had bilateral discussions for the first time and quite some time in years between diplomats from the U. S. and diplomats from Iran and of course, we did have the phone call between President Obama and President Rouhani. So I think his election made a big difference now.

I think the point we’ll see significant changes in the U. S behavior will be after a progress in agreement is finalized. Politically it is a hard work for president Obama to come out and change all his politics towards Iran or say all wonderful things about Iran when we don’t yet have a negotiated agreement. The most important thing is to have a negotiated agreement and to be able to say that politically at home. And so if he’s not going to say much about Iran, he can manage to avoid that but until we reach an agreement. When we do have a final agreement, I think we’ll see even more changes in U. S. policy and more exchanges between the U. S. and Iran. But I think we have to do this in right secrets.  It’s politically dangerous to bring the change about the politics towards Iran until we first mange to get the agreement done. Then it will be much easier for him to do so.

Q: Do you think that the Israeli lobby is capable of disrupting the course of talks between Iran and the six world powers, pressuring the Obama administration to refrain from striking a final deal with Iran or ask for concession which Iran will not accept and, as a result, the negotiations will ultimately fail?

A: No, I think at the end of the day this would not happen. The Israeli lobby has always been a critic of Iran and has been a critic of the negotiation and a critic of the Joint Plan of Action. That has not stopped the U.S from moving forward in its negotiations. And there are other regional players that also are opposed to the progress in its relationships, obviously Saudi Arabia, for different set of reasons has been critical of this negotiation and its process. And obviously because U. S. must keep good relations with everyone in the region it should listen to what this government says and try to take that into account. But at the end of the day, it’s a decision by the negotiating partners that should not be determined by other countries, but determined by U. S. national interest and that’s the reason why we have the Joint Plan of Action now. It’s because the U. S and Iran and the other negotiating partners want to move forward even though others in the region may object. I think it makes it more complicated, I think it makes it more difficult, but at the end of the day, this continues to move forward.

Q: So what I understand is that you believe the Israeli lobby will continue to pressure the Obama administration but at the same time, the Obama administration will not leave the negotiation table and continue to take part in the talks for a constructive and comprehensive agreement?

A: Yeah, that’s right. I think again that there will be continued criticism from Israel, from Saudi Arabia. It will be continued criticism from members of the Congress on Capitol Hill, but I don’t think that could stop the negotiations.

Q: We have seen in some cases that the United States government, in order to appease the Israeli lobby or the pro-Israeli Congressmen, has tried to change some of its approaches or for example veto the UN Security Council resolutions that are the critical of the Israeli state. Do you think that in this special case, in the case of Iran’s nuclear program I mean, the U.S. will stand against Israel and avoid being influenced by the Israeli lobby?

A: You know, my view is on the nuclear issue but I think the agreement will be more than simply the nuclear issue. I think once we have an agreement on the nuclear issue and sanctions relief, that would create the opportunity for cooperation on many issues in the future like Afghanistan or Iraq or even Syria. So I think the nuclear issue would be the game play and a door to other sorts of cooperation in other areas but, to get to your point, my own view is that Israel and the United States and Saudi Arabia and all the countries in the world share a common interest here. Iran says that it did not want nuclear weapons and it would be bad for Israel and the United States and Saudi Arabia and all the other countries in the region and elsewhere if Iran acquires nuclear weapons. And so an agreement that increases confidence in the international community, if that will happen, it is a win for all the parties. It’s a win for everyone; it’s a win for Iran, it’s a win for Israel, it’s a win for Saudi Arabia, it’s a win for the U.S. if everyone recognizes and accepts that Iran does not want to acquire nuclear weapons and will not move in that path. So that’s what I try to emphasize to my colleagues in Israel, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere that we all have a shared interest, and Iran has a shared interest, and if we make sure that everyone understands that Iran is not going to have a nuclear weapon, then everyone benefits from that. So that’s why I think this particular Israeli government and the Prime Minister Netanyahu should recognize the importance of the negotiations. You know there is difference in opinions in Israel; he seems to be very much critic of this negotiation, but I think if you step back and look at the broader interest of everyone concerned, nuclear weapons are bad, no one wants nuclear weapons, no one wants countries to have nuclear weapons. This is something that we can all agree on and Iran has said this many times. And so that’s where the focus should be. I think a successful nuclear agreement improves the situation for everyone including the role-players of the region.

Q: I think I only have three or four questions left. Do you think that the relations between Iran and the West will improve following a possible comprehensive, final agreement which Iran says can be reached in less than one year and result in the enhancement of political and economic ties between the two sides? In this regard, do you think that Iran’s relations with the U. S. can improve concurrent with Iran’s relations with the European Union, or do you think that the betterment of Iran-U.S. ties demands further factors and is dependent on other elements?

A: I would expect that following a comprehensive agreement, relations between the U. S. and Iran will improve but it doesn’t mean that the U. S. and Iran are going to agree on every issue. Iran and the U. S. are not going to agree on Syria, for example. There may be other issues where we disagree. But that is normal international politics. The U.S. and China don’t agree on every issue and the U.S. and Russia, God knows, don’t agree on every issue like Ukraine. And likely the U.S. and Britain don’t agree on every issue. But I do think that there would be continuing differences between the two countries but there are also the areas of common interest where we will be able to cooperate. And in the past we had those common areas of interest but have not cooperated because the relationship has been very poor. I think that after an agreement, the relationship would be more normal on the areas where we have common interests. For example, I think Iran obviously does not like chemical weapons and probably would like help Syria give up its chemical weapons.

Iran supports Syria right now and the U.S. is supporting the rebel sides but we can both agree the chemical weapons are bad. And there have been the issues where the U. S. and Iran disagree like that of Bahrain or some other issue. But there have been also other areas where we have common interests. We both want the government in Iraq to be successful. We both want the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, to be successful, and for Afghanistan not to fall apart in the violence. So I think an agreement, if it’s not going to make us best fiends, it makes us adults and realize that we can have normal relationship in which we will disagree in some areas and will cooperate in others.

Q: In one of your interviews you had noted that it’s not logical to expect an overnight transformation in the course of Iran-United States relations and years of acrimony between the two sides cannot turn into friendship and affinity all of a sudden. Would you please tell us more about the obstacles that are ahead of Iran-U.S. relations? And can these obstacles be overcome in a process of talks, negotiations and cooperation?

A: Well, the answer is yes. Some issues are going to take time and it’s not going to happen in an overnight as I have pointed. There are issues in both countries. Iran is an Islamic revolutionary republic and there are many people who are still angry with the U.S. over its role in toppling Mosaddegh or other issues. And there are some people in the U.S. who have bitter views towards Iran because of the hostage crisis in 1979. So there are some historical grievances that are still painful for the two peoples. But I think over time, as we have a more normal relationship that will fade. You know, we don’t live in heaven; there is no perfection on earth and so it’s natural for countries that are in different parts of the world with different problems to have different points of views. So I don’t expect Iran to always agree with the U.S. and I don’t expect the U.S. to always agree with Iran. But I do expect that over time, we will find ways to cooperate more and then in the areas where we have disagreements, we can negotiate and talk and compromise.

We sometimes just agree to disagree. That’s what countries sometimes do; they simply don’t agree that rather than making threats at one another, they simply agree to disagree and they compete politically rather than in other sort of ways to be more destructive. There are a lot of people in the U. S. who are fond of Iran and there are a lot of Iranians who are fond of the United States. Iran is a big country with lots of people and lots of opinions. That’s also true in the United States. Some people are never going to like Iran and some people are never going to like the U.S. but I think that will fade over time and some of these memories would fade, as well. And as we begin to know each other more and have greater economic and cultural exchange, I expect the relations will improve, but that won’t happen overnight.

Q: And a final question, the United States and the European powers want to make sure that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons. And on its part, Iran wants all the sanctions, The UN Security Council sanctions, the EU and the U.S. sanctions to be removed. Do you think that the United States and its European partners have the readiness and the resolve, and the determination to remove and lift all the sanctions if Iran agrees to make concessions and take confidence-building measures? Do they have the readiness to remove all the sanctions in order to reach a compromise?

A: Yes, I do think so. I don’t think everything is going to be done, again in 24 hours. Some sanctions will be easier to remove and can happen faster; some will take more time. But yes. There are people in the U.S. government who are responsible for this issue and fully recognize that in order for there to be a serious negotiation, the U.S and the EU and other parties have to be willing to give sanctions relief. If there’s no sanctions relief, then there is no way Iran is going to agree to its commitments. So I think the governments are fully committed to that. Yeah, there will be members of Congress who still want to impose sanctions or want to resist giving sanctions relief. But this is largely a function of the executive branch not Congress. And I’m convinced that if there is an agreement that we expect is going to work and that all parties are going to stick to it, then the U.S. and the Europeans will absolutely follow through and provide the sanctions relief.

They are fully aware that they should do that, because there is no point having a negotiation here unless the P5+1 is serious about sanctions relief, as we all know that that’s what Iran wants and unless and if Iran follows it as a part of the agreement and P5+1 fails to follow through on sanctions relief, that agreement would fall apart and everyone knows that.

Key Words: Iran’s Nuclear Standoff, P5+1, President Rouhani, Joint Plan of Action, Confidence-Building Measures, Catherine Ashton, EU Foreign Policy, Israeli Lobby, Comprehensive Agreement, UN Security Council, Iran-U.S. Relations, U.S. Sanctions, Walsh

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