Iran and the US: Time to Talk

18 August 2013 | 18:36 Code : 1920068 Interview General category
An interview with Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist and expert on Iranian affairs and US foreign policy
Iran and the US: Time to Talk

Interviewee: Hooman Majd . Writer based in New York. He has written for GQ, the New York Times, The New Yorker, the New York Observer, Salon.
He often writes on Iranian affairs. He has also served as an advisor and translator for two Iranian presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on their trips to the United States and the United Nations, and has written about those experiences.

Interviewer: Sara Massoumi. Editor in Chief Of Iranian Diplomacy.

How would you define the dual track policy of sanctions and negotiations long followed by the Obama administration and both Congress and the Senate?

I would define it as a failed policy, and many in the US would agree. Clearly, nothing has been accomplished, neither from the US viewpoint, nor from Iran's. If the intention of sanctions was to induce Iran to make changes to its nuclear program (or to get Iran to negotiate to the US' benefit), well, that obviously hasn't happened. And if the intention was to use sanctions to cause the people of Iran to rise up against their government (as some in the US have suggested in the past), well, that hasn't happened either. For Iran, there has been no positive outcome either: diplomacy has stalled, and sanctions have only caused economic distress.

I think it is becoming increasingly clear, to many analysts, journalists and experts, if not the Obama administration or the Congress, that the Iran policy of the US government is dysfunctional, not clearly thought out, and counter-productive. Whether with a new administration in Iran the Obama administration will rethink its policy remains to be seen.

Many people think Rouhani might represent a chance for better relations between the U.S. and Iran but we have received mixed signals since Rouhani’ s election. One day, 131 congressmen signed a letter and asked Obama to give diplomacy a chance, the other day, 400 congressmen passed a new bill of sanctions. In the Senate, in an attempt to encourage President Obama to bring a renewed sense of urgency to the process, a group of 76 senators sent another letter in this regard. How would you define these mixed messages?

I think mixed messages are quite normal, and to be fair, Iran has often sent mixed messages on relations with the US, too. It's important to recognize which messages are the important ones, and which ones reflect the true desires of the government. With someone like Dr. Javad Zarif at the helm of Iranian foreign policy, I believe that misunderstandings will be diminished. We have to remember that there is still much disagreement in US circles over what to do about Iran (especially the nuclear program, but also regarding its influence in the region, on the Syria question, and its support of Hezbollah and Palestinian groups). There are also other factors are work here, mainly the pro-Israel lobby and the influence that the Netanyahu government has in the US, especially in Congress. There are those who believe that sanctions are what caused the election of Dr. Rouhani, in other words, brought Iran to a point where it had to change course, and therefore think continued pressure will eventually persuade Iran that it must listen to the US on important issues. Then there are others who harbor a particular animosity toward Iran, and are encouraged in that by groups such as AIPAC and even the MEK. But I think Iran should read between the lines, and not necessarily take the statements of some Congressmen or Senators as reflective of the administration position going forward. Obama is in his second term, doesn't appear to have any desire for military entanglements, and as such, knows there is only a diplomatic solution to the pressing issue, which is the nuclear file. He might, now that he doesn't have to deal with a president and administration in Iran that seemed to take pleasure in provoking the US, and employed rhetoric that made it virtually impossible for Obama to sit down with, have the courage to forge a deal that will satisfy the various political factions at play in the US. Iran, with a new president and new foreign minister, is in a position to make Obama's job a lot easier, which doesn't only benefit the US, but benefits Iran's national interests. 

Rouhani is the man who made a huge concession to the West in offering to suspend nuclear enrichment in 2005. In return, the Americans, under Bush, simply threw everything back in his face. Now he is the president of Iran, who has sent a clear message of cooperation to the West since his victory. How can the US guarantee that this time they won’t make the same mistake as during the Bush era?

The answer is that they can't. There are never any guarantees, but times have changed, as have US administrations. It is always possible that negotiations will fail, and outside pressure may derail even the most sincere US efforts. But there are realities now that didn't exist in 2005, and neither Dr. Rouhani nor President Obama is likely to make any guarantees that will end up biting them down the line. There is a solution to the nuclear issue, and it will take some courage on both sides to achieve it, but I don't think it’s useful for either side to think about past mistakes or missed opportunities. What is important is to remember that opportunities were indeed missed, but dwelling on suspicions and grievances have gotten neither side anywhere, not in 34 years.

It seems that the problem with Iran's nuclear program is its insistence on uranium enrichment. The basic problem is that the NPT gives countries the right to nuclear power but the West believes that enriched uranium can be used for bombs as well as producing electricity. Rouhani confirmed that Iran won’t stop enriching uranium. Under these conditions, how could Iran and the West reach an agreement?

I don't believe enrichment is the main issue any longer, and the Obama administration has signaled that enrichment could be part of a deal. On enrichment, I think the main problem seems to be that Iran is insisting that its "right" to enrich be recognized officially, and the US view is that the NPT gives no such automatic "right" and as such it is unwilling to make such a commitment up front. Given that the UN Security Council has also demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment activities, it is difficult for the US to accept enrichment on Iranians soil without a comprehensive deal that will be acceptable to other Western nations (and to some extent, Israel). So if Iran were to agree that its right to enrich will be agreed upon when all other issues are cleared up---ratifying the Additional Protocol, limiting enrichment to less than 5%, reducing its stockpile to what it requires for its reactors for the next few years, etc.---then I think the semantics of "right to enrich" might even become irrelevant. The problem also seems to have been that both sides have been intransigent over the last two or three years---the US insisting on Iran giving concessions with only minimal reward, and Iran insisting that the US recognize its right to enrich and to lift sanctions before any deal is finalized. Moving forward, and based on what Dr. Rouhani has signaled (and even what Dr. Velayati stated in the presidential debates), I think there is room for some optimism in the US that Iran might be less intransigent. As such, there will be pressure on the US, not least from Americans but also from other permanent Security Council members, to also be less intransigent and to offer real rewards for Iran's cooperation, and substantive guarantees that enrichment won't afford Iran a path to nuclear weapons.

In his first press conference on Aug.6, the new Iranian president said he supported dialogue and a “win-win” solution. Do you think that the best or maybe the last option in Iran's nuclear talks is a joint meeting of Iranian and U.S officials?

I think ultimately the only way a deal will be made is for Iran and the US to talk directly. No deal that the US has made with its enemies hasn't involved direct talks of some kind. The Paris Peace talks during the Vietnam War, every agreement with the former Soviet Union---the US always negotiates with its enemies, and even did in Iraq with the insurgency. And it's willing to negotiate with the Taliban, now, so I think the US recognizes that direct talks are important, and it seems that Iran does too. If there is a will on both sides, Iran and the US could probably work out a nuclear deal in a matter of days. I'm certain that Dr. Zarif and the new team Dr. Rouhani is putting together are perfectly capable of coming to an agreement that would be, as he says, "win-win". We have to wait and see if the will is there on the Obama administration's side. So yes; perhaps it is indeed the best and last option.

It seems that Iran and the U.S. are waiting for each other to make a nuclear compromise. What kind of compromise do you think Iran expects the U.S to make and what about U.S demands of Iran? Due to differences between the White House and Congress in dealing with Iran, is it possible for Obama to reduce sanctions as a symbol of confidence-building?


The US will not take a dramatic first step, mainly for domestic political reasons but also because it sees no need to. Certain small steps have already been taken---sanctions waived on electronic equipment (you can now even access the Apple Store on the web in Iran), and certain medical supplies relief. It seems that Iran would like to see more, but the US will move cautiously and not make any major moves until a framework for negotiations is agreed on, whether with the P5+1 or with Iran bilaterally. The US president can veto Congressional bills, and can issue waivers, too, so I don't think Iran should get too hung up on what Congress does or doesn't want, (although it should also not ignore Congress' role in US policy). 

I think it’s important for Iran to remember what happened when Obama was first elected. His offer to "extend an open hand" was dismissed in some circles in Iran as just 'talk', the velvet glove concealing a clenched fist, and many insisted that Obama needed to show a new direction in the US' Iran policy by actions. (Such as lifting unilateral sanctions on spare airplane parts) But now the roles are reversed, and Iran has a new president and is offering a new direction, and the US is saying virtually the same thing Iran did five years ago---that 'words' are fine, but they need to see action. Distrust and suspicion don't disappear with words, not for either side. Perhaps Iran and the US aren't so different in their outlooks, after all. That should be reason enough to be optimistic about the potential for a deal.

tags: iranobamanuclearsanctionsrouhani

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