Will Iran and the US make a deal?
Interview with Rouzbeh Parsi
“[Rouhani] wants a deal but he is also going to stick to Iran’s red lines. We are dealing with a greater flexibility on the part of Iran on the modalities of reaching a goal which everyone is familiar with by now: Iran is going to have enrichment of uranium on their own soil. Anything else is untenable. When the U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice and others from the Obama administration go out and say that the U.S. will not allow Iran to domestically enrich uranium, they are not talking about the real world. They are speaking as if this was 2002, when Iran didn’t have any centrifuges. Iran is already enriching uranium today, and they have somewhere around 14 to18 thousand centrifuges, they have all the relevant industrial know-how and they can rely on their domestic manufacturing capability.”
Rouzbeh Parsi is Senior Lecturer at Section for Human Rights Studies, Department of History, Lund University. Previously 2009-2013 Senior Research Fellow at EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris. The following interview was conducted in two parts on separate dates.
Interview by Poyâ Pâkzâd
Recently we have witnessed rather significant developments in both tone and substance in terms of U.S.-Iran relations. Yet in the past we’ve seen attempts at diplomacy failing. Do you think they will succeed in the coming months?
The most interesting thing is that foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry both have said that they want to resolve the issue in the shortest span of time. The Iranians have publicly said three to six months. But if you talk to the people who deal with the technical stuff and who have actually looked at the problem, myself included, they would say that this timeline is not realistic. The Iranians have put it in those terms because one of the accusations against them by the West has been that Iran is simply playing for time. This way the Iranians are basically saying: ‘Look, you say we are stalling but we are willing to do this in three to six months, are you willing and able as well?’ And in many ways the West isn’t able because the last ten years we have been spending our energies thinking up a web of extensive and intricate new sanctions on Iran. Now we have to do a 180 degree turn and figure out how we can undo some of the ridiculously complicated sanctions in a relatively short time. The need to prove your credibility exists on both sides.
Why is the timeline unrealistic?
Well, have a look at a very recent and detailed simulation done by the National Defense University in which they basically parcel out a treaty, clause by clause, about what steps each side has to take within a realistic time frame. Within five years, they say, both sides could sign and ratify the deal. In the meantime both sides have to take measures smaller steps, some temporary, to prove their sincerity and build trust.
So all we will see in the coming months will be symbolic or temporary gestures?
Yes, but they are crucial in order to start a process that stands a chance of surviving against all the odds and interests that are stacked against it.
Washington says “sanctions have worked” in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. If correct, the deeper question is why now? What is your take on that?
I would caution against such reasoning because then the expectations are not only that Iran will come to the table and talk, but also that Iran will come to the table and fold. Not only is this causality false, but more importantly you will delude yourself into thinking you have a stronger hand than you have. Obviously the sanctions have had an effect but they haven’t accomplished any of their core strategic objectives. Rouhani is not going to fold at the table. He is not being nice because he is being compelled to surrender.
What does he intend?
He wants a deal but he is also going to stick to Iran’s red lines. We are dealing with a greater flexibility on the part of Iran on the modalities of reaching a goal which everyone is familiar with by now: Iran is going to have enrichment of uranium on their own soil. Anything else is untenable. When the U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice and others from the Obama administration go out and say that the U.S. will not allow Iran to domestically enrich uranium, they are not talking about the real world. They are speaking as if this was 2002, when Iran didn’t have any centrifuges. Iran is already enriching uranium today, and they have somewhere around 14 to18 thousand centrifuges, they have all the relevant industrial know-how and they can rely on their domestic manufacturing capability. Even if you were to physically isolate Iran it would still have enough material to build another couple of thousand centrifuges at the minimum. Rouhani intends, I assume, to strike a deal that everyone ultimately can live with.
In your opinion, what are the hurdles facing the White House in reaching such a deal?
If the Obama administration is to stand a chance it will have to unify its own position. At the moment we have been hearing different voices from within the administration. It’s difficult to know exactly why that is so. Is it because they don’t synchronise internally? Or are they obsessed with looking tough in public until Iran delivers?
Who are they trying to look tough for?
Well, coming back to your initial question, the hurdles facing the Obama administration are the U.S. Congress and Israel, and they are interconnected. If this had been a partisan issue, the Democrats would stand with the president, but they don’t because they are traditionally very pro-Israel, and Israel looms large in views of US Congressmen when looking at Iran and the wider Middle East. So they are constantly trying to push through new sanctions even as we are speaking. It is partly due to the radicalization of the Republican party and a raging obsession with Iran in recent years. Metaphorically speaking, the sanctions against Iran enacted by Congress are the American equivalent of Iran’s “Death to America”. The Obama administration will face trouble in Congress if and when it wants to lift sanctions on Iran since most of the sanctions are enacted by Congress and are only reversible with its acquiescence. Another variable in the equation are the Europeans, who are much more flexible.
What do you mean?
Well, they are the ones who can lift sanctions with relative speed, and these sanctions actually mean something because in the past the European Union did a lot of business with Iran. It is more likely and sensible for an Iranian bank to do business with a European bank rather than suddenly after thirty years re-engage itself with American banks. In the last five years the European financial sanctions have been a carbon copy of U.S. policy. Fifteen twenty years ago, during the Clinton administration, the Europeans refused to adapt to U.S. sanctions and specifically informed their business community not to abide by U.S. sanctions. [What of U.N. sanctions?] Those sanctions primarily target specific companies and entities and they deal with what are called ‘dual use technologies’ related directly to the nuclear issue.
So hypothetically speaking there is a way for the Obama administration to circumvent Congress, by passing it to the Europeans?
The Europeans can act as the bridge in ensuring that our side delivers its end of the bargain. But they’re in a catch 22 – they would never initiate such a move without a clear signal from the US, even though it is in their own interest and a deal with Iran cannot survive without this action. And if the Iranians and the Americans pursue a more robust bilateral discussion and achieve some success this ought to make the Europeans act, because otherwise they risk simply becoming irrelevant.
Another issue I would like to talk to you about is the regional aspect since it undoubtedly plays a compounding role in all of this. What are the Iranian stake in Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s regime? Why do they support him?
There are several reasons. First of all because Syria is Iran’s only lasting ally in the region. It has been so for almost thirty years. It is not someone they will just lightly abandon. Secondly, Syria is also a vital physical link to Lebanon, which means Iran’s ability to replenish whatever material that Hizbollah (in Lebanon) consumes, is made much more difficult, if Syria is not in Assad’s control, or shall we say not in the control of a government which is friendly enough to Iran to allow those kinds of shipments. Those are in my opinion quite important reasons for why Tehran would be reluctant to see Assad go. That being said, you can see throughout the conflict in Syria that when the Assad government was not faring well, the Iranians were putting out feelers to different Syrian groups in the opposition in order to establish some kind of relationship in the event that Assad would be forced out. In realpolitical terms it is not an ideological matter – at least not for everyone in Iran – it is more a question of making sure that Syria doesn’t fall out of the Iranian camp and into Saudi Arabia’s camp, which would make it impossible to maintain Syria as a conduit for anything to Lebanon.
Does that mean you think Iran could be persuaded to abandon Assad, because they don’t have any investments in him per se but in the political government that is going to rule Syria after the war is over?
Well, that would be my interpretation, and I don’t think I am alone in that assessment. The problem if you will is that on both sides, indeed on all sides, you have paranoid hawks that help reinforce each other’s paranoia. So, you could be sitting in Tehran and making very plausible arguments for why this is not really about Assad for the Americans, but about slowly and steadily suffocating Iran to get to the point where a military attack on Iran would have been made much easier. From this kind of paranoid “domino theory”, by removing Assad you are a) weakening Iran, b) making a future strike by Israel on Hizbollah a one time thing, since there would be no way for Hizbollah to refurnish what they lose in such an attack, and c) once Syria and Hizbollah are out of the picture, Iran has no strategic depth beyond its own borders which can help it keep the Israelis away. From then on whatever attack that happens can concentrate on Iran proper.
From this point of view, Iran reads U.S. policy in Syria as a way to increase the likelihood of a war on Iran itself?
What I am trying to say is, that I am sure there are people who think in these terms in Tehran, and they would not be totally wrong in doing so, because all they have to do is look on the American side and the American discourse on Syria to find their own equivalent there, if you will. Your functional equivalent of being a hawk and paranoid, saying things such as: ‘this really is or should be about Iran. So let’s squash Assad now in order to send a signal to Tehran, or even better, since we don’t believe Tehran is going to read any signals properly, let’s remove Assad in order to make it easier in the event of an attack on Iran itself’.
During his presidential campaign Hassan Rouhani, who is termed a moderate, said ‘we shouldn’t refrain from calling “brutality” by its name even when it is committed by a friendly country’. And then we have the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who according to the Persian press has said that the Syrian government was behind the chemical attacks in Damascus in August. Do these statements tell us that there is a veritable split on Syria between hardliners and softliners in Tehran?
I can only speculate about this. I would say that what you are seeing is exactly a continuation of the discussion on whether supporting Assad as such is worth the price you are incurring on yourself, and secondly, to what extent can you really sensibly continue defending him? There are definitely different takes on this in Tehran. There are those who think that this has gone too far, and I am also pretty sure that earlier on, before this turned into a civil war, there were those in Iran who were advising the Assad government to use a “soft touch”, i.e. learning from the Iranian playbook. Instead of that, Assad sent in the tanks and made the situation much worse.
There is a continuing debate in Iran on all situations like this, which is somewhat reminiscent of a person gambling in a casino, spending money trying to win more. The further you are in, either you decide I have lost enough money and I know the chance of winning them back is small. Or, getting into this kind of demonic spin if you will, where you think that one last try will get your money back by spending even more. And I think that is a debate you will always have. What has been added to this debate after Rouhani’s election is whether this line of hard and tough thinking even works at all. I don’t think it is a split, but I do think there is quite a lot discussion taking place in Iran on whether it is wise what Assad is doing, and whether it is wise for Iran to be associated with it. Then of course the next question arises about what Iran could do differently in a way that won’t leave them vulnerable. The same perception is to be found in the Obama-administration: whatever you do, you should not come out looking weak.
What options would Iran have if they were invited to a regional peace conference on Syria, and which incentives could the West give Iran for it to reverse course?
We have to remind ourselves that Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi [the two representatives of the Secretary General of the United Nations] have already proposed the establishment of a regional contact group where Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Iran would participate, as a way of creating regional ownership of a process in which this conflict would be solved well before it became a civil war. This proposal was made before things got really bad, but the American reaction expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to shut it down more or less immediately. We cannot know whether that attempt would have been successful, but what we do know is that not many were interested in even exploring it. If they had done that then, the chances of success would have been much better today, because now much too much blood has been spilled. I still think a regional conference of some kind could achieve results, if nothing else because it is criminal not to try it. The issue has been neglected in political terms for so long that everyone is fed up, and they think bombing is the only thing that will solve it. As far as the incentives for Iran are concerned, well they are the same as they always have been: Iran wants to be recognized as a regional power house. I paraphrase Madeleine Albright who once said that the United States is an “indispensible nation”. We can turn that around and say, well, Iran is not indispensible, but they are an unavoidable actor in the region. And if you are not willing to acknowledge that and think you can ignore them while still getting things done, then you end up with tomfoolery like this. And then Iran’s only incentive will be to countervail the U.S. course in order to show, that they are, at a minimum, unavoidable. As far as the Iranians are concerned, sitting at the negotiating table is a victory in itself. Is that sufficient? Does it mean they are going to give up Assad and voluntarily disappear? No, but the fact that they will be granted a seat increases the chances of something looking like a more realistic and more lasting solution, than if we have a regional conference excluding the regional actors we do not like. In fact, that is not even a negotiation.
How do you assess the “red lines” being put on Iran’s nuclear program? The “red lines” on the Assad regime haven’t amounted to much. If the U.S. does not attack Syria, will the Iranians see this as weakness and a blank check to pursue its nuclear program?
I think the calculus is much more complex. You could also argue this the other way around. The Iranian elites are sophisticated enough to know that their problem at the moment isn’t just the White House. Washington has many people who are willing to try to explore a deal with Iran. The major obstacle is connected to sanctions, which is the major component which the Iranian’s are trying to escape, and that is in the hands of the U.S. Congress. The Congress’ behaviour in this has been highly irresponsible. You could just as well argue, that if Obama can not get Congress to agree to attacking Syria, which usually is a matter under the jurisdiction of the Executive anyway, the chances of him getting Congress to agree to lift sanctions, which is under their writ, is close to mathematically zero. You can play out all the versions of this game you like, but in the end I think it is politically very silly to hinge your credibility on your ability or willingness to bomb some place or the other. And I think Obama put himself in that place and it was a very short-sighted move. The idea of going through Congress may have some probability of success but mostly it is just a losing proposition no matter the outcome. In a sense Obama is now stuck in a place where no matter what he does, he is going to disappoint some important constituency and it certainly won’t gain him anything politically speaking. If the issue actually is Syria itself then the calculus is somewhat different, since this is separate from the issue of “credibility” which is mostly an element of domestic American politics, not the substance of the issue of Syria.
For a long time there has been talks about a so-called “Grand Bargain” between Iran the West, most prominently the United States. What is this bargain about, and could it be expanded to include Syria?
The “Grand Bargain” has always been there, but it is not that simple. It is not like a negotiation in which I give you an apple and you give me an orange. It is far more about taking a strategic look at the region in order to figure out a modus vivendi between two powers that can’t avoid each other. It has to cost both of them less and achieve more than the current scenario. The Iranians can scream “death to America” as much as they like, but they need to come to terms with the U.S. and vice versa. In this sense, the nuclear issue, despite all the brouhaha, is really not that big. The nuclear issue has become that big because everyone is obsessed with it. The long term relationship, or lack thereof, that’s the real issue, and that is what the “Grand Bargain” in the end is all about. It is about some kind of accommodation between the United States and Iran on all outstanding issues between them. In short this is about going from a dysfunctional non-relationship to a functional one – and then, who knows, perhaps it could even become a real relationship.