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There Are Hopes for A Breakthrough in Iran-US Talks: Gary Sick

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Gary Sick
By: Kourosh Ziabari

In less than 3 days, Iran and the six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) will be sitting at the negotiating table in Geneva to discuss the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program and find ways for getting out of the stalemate that has marred Iran’s relations with the West for more than one decade.

Following the victory of Dr. Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s June 14 presidential elections, hopes were revitalized that the nuclear standoff can be resolved as Iran’s new president categorically promised to find a viable, comprehensive and peaceful solution to this erosive confrontation between Iran and the Western powers, including the United States. President Rouhani has proposed transparency and confidence-building measures which will help Iran maintain its nuclear rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while allaying the concerns of the international community that Iran’s nuclear program may have military dimensions.

In order to discuss the future of Iran’s nuclear talks with the P5+1 and the statements by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 67th session of the UN General Assembly (in 2012) who had demanded the U.S. to draw a red line for Iran’s nuclear activities, Iran Review conducted an exclusive interview with Prof. Gary Sick, a prominent political scientist and former member of the U.S. National Security Council.

Prof. Gary Sick specializes on Iran affairs and has worked with the U.S. government from 1976 to 1981. He has served as the Deputy Director for International Affairs at the Ford Foundation from 1982 to 1987 and is an adjunct professor of International Affairs and a senior research scholar at Columbia's School of International & Public Affairs.

This interview was conducted before the trip made by the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to New York on the final hours of which he held a historic, 15-minute phone conversation with his American counterpart Barack Obama. So Prof. Sick’s timely references and his allusions to the upcoming talks between Iran and the United States were made then. What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed the cartoon of a bomb with a fuse to the world leaders in his speech to the UN General Assembly and talked of a red line which Iran would cross if it continues its nuclear activities. What do you think about this red line? Israel has constantly threatened Iran of a military strike in the past years. Is this red line the repetition of the old war rhetoric, or a serious warning?

A: Well, I think it should be taken seriously, but I also think that these various red lines have been crossed many times in the past by Iran. So, I don’t see it as a particular warning, but I do see it as a new benchmark. Basically, what it defines is something that in fact Iran was already doing, and that is Iran’s position that it started creating 20%-enriched uranium to fuel its nuclear research reactor in Tehran that it’s used for medical purposes and this grew out of a long controversy with the West for providing fuel plates for this research reactor. The two sides have been unable to work out that arrangement to supply the fuel, so Iran said that it would do it itself. The efforts that they’re putting in 20% enriched uranium, by Iran’s own standards, was basically for one reason, and that is to provide fuel plates and not to create a large quantity of 20% enriched uranium. So, in a sense, Iran was already doing even before Mr. Netanyahu spoke to the UN. They were doing what Israel said they should do and in that sense, I think that the request or the demand was in some ways more symbolic than being something new or significant in that Iran has not been accumulating that much 20%-enriched uranium. I don’t see it as a real crisis.

Q: Right. It seems that Israel’s differences and conflict with the United States are coming to surface, and Washington has refused to set the red lines which Israel demands, although it should be noted that Obama has repeatedly said that Washington will not take any option off the table while being personally reluctant to engage in a war with Iran. What’s your take on that?

A: The reality is that neither Israel nor the United States has launched any military strikes against Iran and President Obama has reiterated the U.S. position that the best way to deal with this problem is diplomacy and that is a position which certainly I share and many other people do, and I think the American people have no desire for another war in the Middle East which would be much more destructive than the two wars in the recent past. So, from my perspective, the desire on the part of both sides to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue is real and I would say that particularly now, after Mr. Ahmadinejad is gone, because he complicated the situation, rather than helping it, with the introduction of a new team in Iran plus a greater resolve on the part of the United States to find a diplomatic solution, we are in a better position to actually encompass on the nuclear issue better than any time in the recent past. That doesn’t mean that everything would be resolved quickly and easily; that doesn’t mean that the negotiations wouldn’t be difficult. But it does suggest that elements are in place to have a serious and productive negotiation. That is something that I very much hope would be seen on both sides and can be a basis for a negotiated solution. That is not an impossible thing to do.

Q: Several U.S. intelligence agencies have testified in a report published in 2007 that Iran does not have the intention to produce nuclear weapons. So, do you think that the United States and Israel are really afraid of a nuclear Iran? Don’t they know that Iran is ideologically and practically opposed to nuclear weapons? Is the nuclear issue simply a pretext for confrontation with Iran?

A: The U.S. intelligence community did in fact report that as in 2003, at least, Iran had abandoned the notion of experimenting with military related programs in its nuclear program. That was a very significant finding, and the fact that all the American intelligence community agreed to it was quite important. The fact that at this stage, Iran is not showing any evidence of actually using its nuclear program to build a nuclear weapon is very helpful, and that is the basis for any kind of negotiation that may take place now and this is a basis for any kind of settlement, because the question is not whether Iran is presently building a nuclear weapon. At this stage, there’s no evidence that it’s true. But Iran is creating a capability that would permit it to build a nuclear weapon quickly if it in fact chooses to do so, and I think negotiations are really intended to provide assurances to the United States, West and rest of the world that Iran intends to continue along this path of building a nuclear power capability, and not a nuclear weapon. That is the topic and subject of any negotiation that would take place. For that reason, the Iranian side needs to provide concrete assurances that there is no weapons development, and it’s up to them to begin the negotiations seriously on this issue.

Q: You spoke of Iran’s possible capability of producing nuclear weapons. But at the same time, we know that countries like India and Pakistan have already mastered the nuclear technology and produced atomic bombs and ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. So, how is it possible to justify this dual-track policy of pressuring Iran over its nuclear program, and neglecting the military nuclear activities of Pakistan, India and Israel?

A: Well, the reality is that India, Pakistan and Israel are not and have not been members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which has certain responsibilities, as well as certain rights for the members of the treaty. And, that is not an excuse, but in fact we have the examples of other countries that have secretly developed nuclear weapons against the will of the international community, and at the time that the international community was in many cases imposing sanctions on them and opposing them, certainly in the case of Pakistan, the United States was providing military assistance to Pakistan. Those examples are what we are concerned about. But basically, Iran, is not, to the best of our knowledge, building a nuclear weapon. So the object of any discussions and negotiations would be to determine what kind of assurances can be given on both sides to reduce any chance that Iran may build a nuclear weapon. This is what the negotiations will be about. And I think that’s a legitimate issue and something which is worth talking about. The new government in Iran understands this very well. Mr. Rouhani was in fact the head of the negotiating process 10 years ago and he knows the concerns very well. He completely knows what the issues are and what they are not. The issue with the negotiations would be to build assurances that Iran will not use its peaceful nuclear capability to create a nuclear weapon. Peaceful nuclear research and activities cannot be used for other purposes. So, it is possible for Iran to provide some kind of concrete assurances to the West and rest of the world that its program will remain peaceful. And in return, the West, the United States and other countries, should be willing to give something to Iran, and mostly, that is a relief from sanctions and other pressures that are being imposed on Iran.

Q: Right. Do you agree the U.S. administration and the Congress are unconditionally supporting Israel and following in its footsteps with regards to Iran? They are ratcheting up the political and economic pressures on Iran in order to demonstrate their commitment to Israel and appease it with the aim of decreasing the chances of Israel unilaterally attacking Iran?

A: One of the reasons, and the principal reason why the United States and American politicians had been very easy to adopt a very negative position with regards to Iran is because of the experiences of the past, as the history of U.S.-Iran relations is full of disappointments and humiliation on both sides. From a domestic point of view, the United States finds the history of its relations with Iran very problematic and it’s mostly one of the repercussions of the hostage crisis when the American hostages were held in Iran for more than a year. That provided a basis that determined what the U.S. policy would look like. So, for American politicians it’s very very easy to vote against Iran. In Iran, the Revolution was of course an anti-American revolution. It’s almost totally clear. It was also an anti-Shah revolution. In Iran, today, every week, at the prayer session in the Tehran University, people stand and in unison chant “Death to America.” That suggests that there’s a problem on the Iranian side, as well. So, any kind of compromise which has to be worked out in the negotiations is not so much a matter of foreign policy. It’s a matter of domestic policy on both sides. The two sides should encourage each other to find a solution.

I would say that the recent Iranian election has been a very impressive step in that direction. The people of Iran voted for a much more moderate approach to the domestic and international relations and that is something which has been voted for. It can lead to an agreement, which has to be seen, even though we are at the beginning of the process yet. But I must say that Mr. Zarif’s opening statements and his initial interviews were very helpful and laid out a set of strategies on Iran’s part which are quite reassuring. I’m moderately optimistic about what will happen in the future, although we are at the beginning of the way and it’s too early to make a judgment.

Q: What’s your take on the future of nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers? We saw that the previous talks in Geneva, Istanbul, Moscow and Almaty yielded insignificant results. Will the West move toward winning the trust of the Iranians and easing the tensions by lifting at least part of the sanctions?

A: I would say that I very much share Mr. Rouhani’s view which he expressed during the presidential campaign that making speeches is not answer to the negotiating problems. I think he was aware and saying it very clearly that the negotiating team Iran had in place headed by Mr. Jalili who was also running for president was in fact giving long speeches but very short in providing any kind of concrete offers or changes in Iran’s activities. So there were different difficulties on the way. The West made that mistake, too. The history above the Iran-U.S. relations has been one of the missed opportunities and there’s simply no doubt about it, and I think both sides are aware of their responsibilities. But we now have a fresh page, and the possibility for a new beginning, and as I said, the basis exists for some progress. So, I assume that within the next months, we will have some initial contacts that I hope will lead to some serious negotiations, and so that would be something to be very pleased about it. The elements are in place for a breakthrough, for improvement in the relations between the two sides, and I very much hope that it will come true. It is a matter for both sides. If one side is ready to negotiate, but the other side isn’t, then nothing will ever happen. So, I’m hoping that it’s going to be one of those rare opportunities when both sides are ready to negotiate seriously at the same time. If so, what is required will happen and there will be room for some progress.

Q: What’s your viewpoint on Israel’s shadow war against Iran, including the assassination of Iran’s nuclear scientists, sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities through the release of such computer viruses as Stuxnet, and funding the MKO? Can we consider these actions a prelude to a military strike against Iran?

A: My own view is that Iran has been under incredible pressure, and some of that pressure has exceeded any kind of normal activity. The reality is that the way to get away from that is basically to help a negotiated solution in which the two sides agree on the elements of a settlement. The two sides should be competent to understand what the other side is doing and is prepared to provide assurances, which from Iran’s point of view would involve assurances that activities such as those which you underlined are not going to be repeated. So each side has something to give, and I very much hope this is going to be the opportunity that they will use to make gestures and concessions to each other that would provide them with the kind of assurances they need to go ahead.

Q: Imagine that you were the coordinator of the six world powers in the nuclear talks with Iran. What practical methods would you adopt and suggest for the progress of the talks and the finding of a viable and comprehensive solution for Iran’s nuclear standoff and the alleviation of the concerns of the two sides?

A: In my view, the first thing that has to happen, and the one thing that I would most like to see happen, is direct contact between the United States and Iran, perhaps outside nuclear publicity; the negotiations in which everybody shows up, they’re all interviewed before going to the meeting, meet for a few hours, come out and then everybody is interviewed again and everybody is required to posture, pose and provide the correct spin to their position. That really has not proved to be a good way toward the negotiations.

What is required is some quiet diplomacy on the two sides in which they agree on a framework, not a solution to the problem, but a framework for actions on a step-by-step basis: they would agree, if you do this, I would do that. And they work on a step-by-step process with a clear goal in mind, exactly on a certain agenda. If the two sides meet and work out a program like that, the chances of a real progress in these more formal and public meetings would be far greater, and that has never happened before.

The number of meetings between the United States and Iran has been very few, and most of them have been really only symbolic, so each side can agree to sit down seriously and discuss the issues seriously and work out a framework for a settlement. To me, that is what seems to be required. To me, that first step is crucial, and there needs to be a serious cooperation. I think meeting for an hour on the sidelines of another meeting is not really the way to solve the problem. It’s only going to sustain attentions. The United States and Iran have on occasions had direct connections. Right after the invasion of Afghanistan, Iran and the United States had a longstanding relationship which was extremely fruitful for both sides. Unfortunately – this is another example of a mistake which was made – after that relationship began to pay off, the United States unilaterally identified Iran as a member of the Axis of Evil which undercut that very fruitful process that was underway. So, from my perspective, it’s not at all impossible for Iran and the United States to work together. They each have to get their domestic politics under control, because their domestic politics is pushing them the other way. The domestic politics in Iran and the domestic politics in the United States are pushing the two sides to a confrontation. The two governments have got to be able to deal with their own domestic opposition in order to make any progress. That’s a very hard thing to do and thus far, it has never been successful. But in each case that comes along, there’s always hope that this may be an exception to the rule.

We know from the past that each time there’s some hope, something comes along that destroys it or undercuts the effectiveness of it, either by Iran or the United States. This time, I hope we have learned from the past to be aware of that danger and realize that it is a two-sided process. It’s not something which one side or the other can do by itself. And I really believe that people in Iran and the United States, in the high levels of power, are conscious of that. But it is unclear to me that they actually have the will to proceed, and in a way, it is going to be in many cases unpopular with their domestic constituents, because their domestic constituents, which one may call the radicals or whatever, are actually not interested in a negotiated settlement. They are really pushing for some kind of confrontation, and the leadership in the two countries has to be able to overcome that opposition in order to make any progress.

Key Words: Iran-US Talks, Breakthrough, Benjamin Netanyahu, Military Strike, Nuclear Weapons, US Administration, Geneva, Sick

More By Gary Sick:

*Netanyahu's Crying Wolf on Iran: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Netanyahu-s-Crying-Wolf-on-Iran.htm

*Iran and the West Have Strong Incentives to Continue Talks: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran_and_the_West_Have_Strong_Incentives_to_Continue_Talks.htm

*It Takes Two to Tango: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/It_Takes_Two_to_Tango.htm

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