Rouhani and Obama Want Compliance with the N-Deal to Happen on Both Sides

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with John Hudson
By: Kourosh Ziabari

The nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers survived a vote of disapproval in the US Senate on Thursday, September 10 after no more than 58 Republicans and Democrats voted to block the enforcement of the deal by the Obama administration – while the adoption of disapproval deal needed a minimum of 60 votes to pass the floor. Secretary of State John Kerry has appointed the former U.S. ambassador to Poland Stephen Mull as the lead coordinator for the implementation of the deal now that the Congress failed to kill off the deal during its 60-day review time.

At the moment, President Rouhani administration in Tehran is waiting for the debate on the JCPOA to come to an end in the Majlis so that it can start putting into action the commitments undertaken by Iran – namely the technical restrictions on the country’s nuclear program, to be reciprocated by the proportionate action of the European Union and the United States in lifting the economic, banking and energy sanctions.

A heated debate on the nuclear deal with Iran is booming out from the presidential race in the United States these days, with some hopefuls firmly vowing that they’ll tear the agreement apart if elected to the White House, while some others maintain a more pragmatic, rational attitude, saying that any future U.S. President should honor this agreement, which is a multilateral, international accord, with the United States being part of it.

While traveling with East-West Center’s Senior Journalists 2015 in Hawaii, I had the opportunity to talk to John Hudson, a senior reporter with the Foreign Policy magazine and an East-West Center Fellow, who has been closely covering the developments of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the United States, and written dozens of reports about the fluctuating Tehran-Washington relationships over the past decades.

John Hudson, who covered the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and Abkhazia and has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN and Fox News radio as a commentator, believes that the nuclear deal will be a litmus test which will indicate whether or not Iran and the United States can cooperate on other areas of mutual concern in the future. He believes that they’re the future leaders of the two countries – including the next U.S. President, to be elected in November 2016, and President Rouhani’s successor – who will determine if this agreement is going to endure and succeed.

Mr. Hudson names people-to-people, cultural engagement as a means of promoting understanding between Iran and the United States, the two adversaries that he says can be “partners for order and stability.”

In this interview with Iran Review conducted on August 30, John Hudson talked about the Iran deal, its viability, the U.S. media coverage of Iran, the public perception of the nuclear agreement in the United States and the future horizons of Iran-U.S. relations.

Q: I’ve been following your coverage of Iran and I see that you have been monitoring Iran’s political developments closely and deeply. How do you think the U.S. mainstream media are giving coverage to the developments surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and, in a broader sense, the Iranian culture, daily life and everything pertaining to Iran and its people?

A: I think the media in the United States has done a fairly good job, not a perfect job; it never gets everything right. The Iran deal has been largely portrayed as a historic moment between two powers that have been adversaries and even enemies since 1979. You have seen a genuine debate. Now, whether or not the hawks have had more coverage than the doves, is subject to debate; but I think what is true is there was a legitimate debate in the American press and it was a healthy debate and all sides got their view portrayed. It wasn’t perfect; there were factual errors and misleading reports along the way, but there was definitely a real debate.

Q: When you look at the polls and surveys that have been recently conducted, the results are somewhat surprising; they indicate that the majority of Americans are still feeling unhappy about the nuclear agreement with Iran and maybe the recent poll, by Gallup I think, indicated that only 34 percent of the Americans approve of the nuclear deal with Iran. So, what do you think is the reason behind this somewhat huge opposition to the accord?

A: Yeah. I would not overemphasize what those polls say, and the reason is, as you know and as anyone knows who has looked at this deal, it is an extremely technical deal and even very senior national security journalists looking at this need the assistance of nuclear physicists, non-proliferation experts and diplomatic experts to really understand the nature of the pros and cons of the deal. And normal Americans – not to say the normal American is not someone who’s intelligent – is just ill-equipped to make a very good assessment. Early on, the polling showed that Americans were more open. You’re starting to see some negative sentiment about the deal and that’s largely because you have seen a 20 to 45-million dollar air campaign. And when I say air campaign, I mean advertising commercial campaign. I live in the United States; it’s what I’ve seen on TV: “Stand against Iran! Don’t let Iran get a nuclear weapon”, like “Why is Obama letting Iran get a nuclear weapon? Call your Congress member!”  These ads are everywhere right now in very targeted markets. So, it’s only natural that if a polling expert asks you “what do you think of the nuclear deal?” and you might say “I’m not sure. I haven’t thought about that that much but I did see that thing on TV and it didn’t look that good!” But these are not views that will likely be iron-clad. It depends on how Iran conducts itself during this phase. If there’s evidence that Iran has been cheating on the deal, that’s going to drop the approval ratings of this significantly; and you will hear about that because Iran’s critics will be watching very closely to make sure that compliance has happened.

Q: There has been much talk about the possibility of Iran violating the terms of this nuclear agreement and whether it abides by its commitments or not. But in Iran, there are also some people, and some cynics who believe that it’s the United States that’s going to be violating the terms of the agreement by perhaps finding some pretexts to re-impose the sanctions at some point in the future or at least pressure the European firms and companies to block their business with Iran, or reinstate the secondary sanctions or the financial and banking sanctions. Do you think that the United States is going to abide by its commitments and is willing to pave the way for the removal, not suspension, of the sanctions as it has been clearly confirmed in preamble to the JCPOA?

A: I think that if Iran abides by its part of the deal, then it is unlikely that the United States would slap new sanctions on Iran. However, of course it’s a prediction and I think it’s a valid concern on the Iranian part, just as I think it’s a valid concern on the American part that the Iranians could cheat. If any one side starts non-compliance, there are options for the other side of non-compliance as well. It appears that Rouhani and Obama want compliance on both sides to happen. And, you know, only time will tell.

Q: And do you think the U.S. domestic politics are going to play a major role in the process of the implementation of the nuclear agreement? Are you really concerned that a Republican president – well, it depends on who is going to be elected – is going to honor the agreement? For example, will Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz tear the agreement apart and trample it underfoot, citing concerns about Iran being a state sponsor of terrorism or things like that? Under this pretext, would they refrain from putting the terms of the deal into practice? So, after all of the procedural arrangements, if the deal is endorsed and signed into law as an executive order by the president, will the next president really have the leeway to tear it apart and refrain from implementing it?

A: The next president will have the ability to violate the deal just as the next leader of Iran will have the ability to violate the deal. The next president of the United States is going to have just as much of an opportunity to violate the agreement as the next leader of Iran. So, you know, both leaders will have to consider what the negative consequence are to be in breach and violation of the deal; and it’s certainly the hope of this administration and of many, many Americans in the diplomatic and national security space that if the Iranians abide by the deal, Americans will abide by the deal and it will stand in place.  

Q: Let’s get to some more tough questions. We have seen a very widespread acclamation of the nuclear deal and there have been many endorsements coming from different countries, mostly from the European Union nations, and many individuals, including current and former American diplomats. They have been supportive of this deal and only a handful of actors, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia were dissatisfied with the outcome and voiced their anger at the conclusion of the nuclear negotiations. Why do you think these two countries are so fearful and angry about the deal and what might be at stake for them?

A: It’s a really good question and I can’t say that I know the answer. There are a number of theories; one of them being for Israel that they did not want to see the lifting of sanctions on a regional adversary. They see any sort of reduction of sanctions as empowering Iran. That’s one idea, but there are many others. For the Saudi perspective, I was told by a Middle East diplomat a few weeks ago that some joke that if the Iranians agreed to never cross the Euphrates, the Arabs would actually purchase a nuclear bomb for them. It’s a silly idea of course, but it touches on the fact that many Arab governments view Iran as more of conventional and cultural threat rather than a nuclear threat.

Q: So, you said the Israelis might be fearful that if the sanctions are lifted, then Iran’s economy will revive and a more powerful Iran will emerge. Are there also Republicans in the U.S. Congress who feel the same way, and as a result, continue to pull out all the stops to make the approval of the deal impossible?

A: Absolutely, and they’ve specifically stated that they don’t want to see billions of dollars go to Iran; and the administration’s response is that it would be impossible to maintain sanctions on Iran anyway and so why not create a regime that imposes inspections and imposes all these restrictions and get something out of that in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, as opposed to international sanctions just falling apart, because the U.S. is seen as an unfair negotiator which is what many believe would happen in the absence of a deal. And so yes, there are a number of Republicans and some Democrats who express their opposition to the deal by saying that “we don’t want to see any more money go to Iran.”

Q: And the worst-case scenario is that the nuclear deal is not approved by the Congress and the president is not able to sustain his veto. It’s very unlikely but it’s a possibility. So, what happens in that case while the Security Council has already endorsed the JCPOA through a resolution 2231 and also the majority of European Union countries are resuming their trade ties with Iran? In that case, is it conceivable to say that the U.S. government would be singled out for not being able to uphold the agreement while all its European partners are already doing it?

A: Yeah, it’s a big unknown what would happen if Congress does reject this and overrides a veto. I’ve talked to a number of European diplomats, senior European diplomats, who say that it will be impossible to prevent all 28 European countries from resuming trade. There will be some countries that would not choose this path because some of those sanctions are so strong, especially the banking sector sanctions, and it’s a little bit unclear if the U.S. kept those on, who would want to stay in Iran; because the United States is just such a giant financial force in the world that many countries would say it’s better for me to stay in good ties with the U.S. even if we disagree with this, and then do some minimal trade with Iran. But ultimately, these are so many unknown things about what would happen. It’s really not clear.

Q: Keeping in mind the complexities of Iran-U.S. relations, do you foresee any possible rapprochement in the future? As some say, the nuclear deal can be a starting point, and President Rouhani has already indicated that there might be some talks on other areas of mutual interest. As Stephen Kinzer says, Iran and the U.S. are not fated to remain enemies forever. What is your idea on that?

A: Yeah, it’s certainly possible. If Iran keeps its part of the deal and if the U.S. keeps its part of the deal, there is definitely an opportunity for a rapprochement. You’re already seeing a push to deal with Syria next. There was so much diplomatic effort that was soaked up by this Iran deal. Now, there is more space to do other things and Syria will be the next testing ground, according to some experts. And we’ll see if it can be done. Obviously in the last time they held talks – I believe it was in London – Iran was not part of the conversation and many people in the United States in the diplomatic elite saw that as a big problem. You’re never going to have a solution to the Syria crisis that doesn’t bring Iran into the talks. So, we’ll see what will happen.

Q: Right! On different occasions, President Obama has indicated that the Americans have enormous respect for the Iranian people and their culture; every Nowrouz, the Persian New Year, he sends a greetings message addressed to the Iranian people and leaders, as the previous U.S. Presidents did. It sounds like the U.S. establishment is coming to appreciate the importance of Iran and the fact that it’s not a dispensable role-player. Do you think that finally, as this nuclear negotiations proved, the two countries can reconcile their differences? Is it possible that the two countries can finally put aside these resentments and really work for reconciliation based on mutual respect, as both President Rouhani and President Obama have signaled?

A: I think it is possible. There is a totally complicated history with faults on both sides. Look at Japan for example; we dropped a nuclear bomb on this country and we are rock-solid allies! So, it can happen and things can change very quickly, but also things could change for the worse quickly. But I do think that as chaos from non-state actors becomes an increasingly important part of the Middle East, there is an increasing realization that the partners for order and stability are needed and Iran could be an important partner for order and stability, or it could contribute to further instability. It’s unclear.

Q: We have been sporadically talking about the coverage being given to Iran developments and Iran events in the U.S. media. And when you come to the States and talk to the ordinary American citizens, they’re mostly ignorant about what’s happening in Iran; they mostly think of Iranians as fundamentalist people, fanatic people who are dangerous, who are not civilized and cultured. How do think this narrative can be changed and how do you think it’s possible to modify the portrayal of Iran? Well, there is a very large Iranian community in the United States; many of them are in academia; many of them are in arts and culture. So, they are contributing to the progress of the American society. How is it possible to give a better view of Iran to the American public and make them believe that Iranians are not really what the media are sometimes saying?

A: Yeah, people-to people engagement will be important to that. For me, the first time I met an Iranian was when I was in Yerevan in Armenia; and it was kind of a very small interaction with an Iranian at a fast-food place; he was very westernized and very just humorous and fun and engaging. And to me that was a sign that if there was more people-to-people contact, it would be helpful. And I think the Persian-American community in the United States has a role to play. They’re an interesting group; because many have very real grievances and I’m sympathetic to the grievances they have with the government now. But, you know, their children are of an increasingly open mindset to a rapprochement with Iran; and they have their own interests and their own history. And so, that’s a role to play. If the statesmen in Iran were to lower the fiery rhetoric that they have – because that always creates headlines; every time they say we need to eradicate Israel from the map, or embrace anti-American rhetoric, that affects the American mindset of Iran. But I would acknowledge that when U.S. lawmakers utter very vitriolic remarks about Iran, that damages Iranians’ impression of America as well.

Q: Ok, let’s touch upon one of the other sensitive issues involving both Iran and the United States, which is the unstoppable growth of the terrorist group ISIS. We know that both Iran and the U.S. have an interest in defeating ISIS and in bringing down this barbaric group. First of all, what’s the public perception about ISIS in the United States? Do the people really think that it’s an Islamic state or represents the Islamic ideology; and second, how is it possible for Iran and the U.S. and also other partners with vested interests to form some kind of a coalition maybe – not a military one but a political one – and finally address this concern?

A: Regarding the first part of the question, the Obama administration has worked very hard to try to convince the public that the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state; and essentially the U.S. position is that this is a perversion of Islam. Of course, not everyone believes that; some people view ISIS as a group that focuses on Quranic texts and interprets them in a very radical sort of way. But the main thing that has left an impression on the American public are these horrific execution videos. Those videos practically guaranteed that the U.S. would declare war on ISIS in some form and they really galvanized the public and it also somewhat took the U.S. out of its war-weariness, not completely but people began accepting that we would have an air campaign in Iraq and Syria. So, everyone will interpret ISIS in different ways and the American public will interpret it in many different ways, but people still fundamentally understand that ISIS does not represent all Muslims. The second part of the question was on the coalition efforts?

Q: Yeah, some partnership between Iran and the U.S. to work for the eradication of ISIS.

A: Yeah, this is a really good question and as far as I know – I’m not a Pentagon reporter and so I don’t have perfect intelligence on this, but I believe that the Iraqi government serves as an intermediary between the U.S. and Iran and they try to de-conflict and then make sure that they’re not hitting each other; and even that is somewhat controversial in the United States, because Congress is very concerned that there be no coordination between the U.S. and Iran. But ultimately, the main engine for the U.S. combating ISIS is in this coalition, that anti-ISIS coalition. And that’s a very diverse group, but it doesn’t obviously include Iran. So, will we see an increased cooperation between the U.S. and Iran? I don’t know. It’s certainly possible.

Q: Right, and let me ask you my final question. Over the course of past four decades, a great deal of hostility has been accumulated between Iran and the U.S. As a senior American journalist, what do you think is the best solution for these hostilities to be taken out so that the mutual distrust could turn into mutual confidence and mutual respect, and a new era of relations can start between the two countries?

A: It does seem like this deal, if implemented, will lessen the likelihood of conventional tit-for-tat violence between the two countries. When you have no relations, when you have no economic ties, when you have no deals, when you have no diplomatic relations as we do now – we don’t have formal diplomatic ties, the cost of a military conflict is less. But since these talks began, there has been much more engagement, which could reduce the likelihood of an expanded military conflict theoretically. Of course, things change; governments change; governments could change in Iran; governments could change in the U.S. Theoretically, it’s also possible that this deal could lead to more violence. In that situation, Iran would take advantage of getting funds released and subsequently make a race to the bomb or after many of the restrictions expire, it could race towards the bomb; and perhaps that would lead to greater violence. Nobody knows for sure.

P.S.: This interview was conducted before the 60-day review period of the U.S. Congress on the Iran deal expired, so the question that had been asked of Mr. Hudson about the possibility of the rejection of the agreement by the Congress and President’s incapability to sustain his veto was posed when the Senate and House of Representatives’ decision was not determined yet. 

Key Words: Iran, The United States, Cultural Engagement,Order and Stability, Iran Deal, U.S. Media Coverage, Public Perception, Sanctions, Violation, JCPOA, Israel, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Congress, ISIS, Hudson

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