[Prefatory Note: This post is an edited version of an interview on 11 August 2019 by an Iranian journalist, Nozhan Etezad, and published in Iran Newspaper. It addresses various aspects of the troubled recent relationship between Iran/U.S.]
1-Why is there a contradiction in Trump’s policy towards Iran? On the one hand, he says he wants to negotiate, and on the other, US government is boycotting Zarif and the supreme leader of Iran. What do you think about this issue?
You are quite right to take note of this striking contradiction, but the world has come to expect such inconsistencies in Trump’s diplomatic style between Trump’s forthcoming and forbidding sides. He is consistently unpredictable, and as such, is capable of moving without much warning in either belligerent or accommodating directions when it comes to decisions involving action. On balance, he seems to prefer negotiations to warfare. If so, it would seem sensible for top Iranian political leaders to make clear statements indicating their willingness to discuss any concerns with Trump, expressing their interest in a meeting and their commitment to the avoidance of further war endangering confrontations.
Two important unknowns should be read as qualifications to my response: how much effective pressure are outside actors putting on Trump to maintain an aggressive approach to Iran; how strong is the opposition in Tehran to any Iranian compromises or to displays of an unconditional willingness to engage in direct talks with the U.S. Government given Trump’s hostile behavior up until now. Would too great a show of eagerness for accommodation and normalization suggest Iranian weakness, including a readiness to offer concessions?
2-Some say Rouhani is not on the sanctions list of US Because Trump want to meet him. what is your opinion? Is it possible to negotiate with him in the current situation? Even when Ayatollah Khamenei has stated that neither war nor Iran will be negotiated?
There are two concerns here. First, would Trump be more receptive to Rouhanithan Zarif as a negotiating partner? Possibly, because Rouhani is the president of Iran, thus possessing an equal status in government as Trump. It might be worthwhile for Iranian leaders to explore this possible diplomatic opening, and the fact that it seems inconsistent with other aspects of U.S. behavior should not be taken too seriously as an obstacle if the initiative otherwise seems worth exploring.
The second concern is on the Iranian side. Would Ayatollah Khamenei or others in Iran block such a meeting or oppose following up should it achieve a positive outcome? I have no special opinion about this, but a lack of sufficient support on the Iranian side could have the effect of making the current situation between the two countries even more dangerous by making diplomacy appear to be a dead-end, and this could give warmongers in the U.S. Government additional influence on policy toward Iran.
3-How do you evaluate Iranian diplomacy as a means of countering Trump’s pressure? Has Iran’s diplomacy been successful?
I think that Iranian diplomacy has so far exhibited composure and resolve, communicating to Washington a determination by Tehran not to be intimidated even by the ‘maximum pressures’ reportedly mounted by Trump. These signs of Iranian strength and political will may be over time improving the prospects for a diplomatic accommodation as it should now be clear that coercive moves by Trump short of war will not lead Iran to back down or surrender politically in response to sanctions or other hostile acts, and recourse to war, as dangerous as it would be, so far seems only to be. relevant as a default option, that is, occurring by miscalculation or accident.
4-Do you think it is possible in the current situation to create Track II Diplomacy for behind-the-scenes negotiations between Iran and the US? Is there any will in America for that? Do you think Iran is interested?
These questions are all difficult to answer as Track II diplomacy to be effective must be undertaken and carried forward discreetly at its early stages without public disclosure or political comment. In my view, considering the difficulties of achieving a breakthrough by way of traditional diplomacy, it is worth giving consideration to a Track II approach. Whether either government has the will or capability to pursue such a course at this point is not evident. Finally, without proper authorization by political leaders, Track II initiatives have a risk of backfiring by being disowned through contentions that the initiative was improperly authorized or dealt with in bad faith.
5-Why was Zarif sanctioned in your opinion? Is Trump angry about his diplomatic ability and his relations with the media and American politicians? Will subtle sanctions make him unable to travel to New York? Will the American media no longer interview him?
My response to these questions is necessarily highly speculative. Zarif has been quoted at one point saying that agreements with the U.S. are not worth the ink used to write them, and that might have been regarded by the White House as an unacceptable insult, although I regard it as a reasonable reaction to the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, familiarly known as the 2015 Iranian Nuclear Agreement) and other unprovoked unfriendly and damaging policies pursued by the United States. Other motivations may arise from Zarif being seen as the architect of the repudiated agreement that Trump has rejected in such a defiant manner, making him disposed to be a difficult negotiator.
If Zarif comes to NYC on an official visit to represent Iran at the UN I would expect that he would be allowed to enter the US, but restricted in his movements beyond the city. While present on a UN mission, I do not think the media would be hesitant or precluded from talking with him.
6-Some believe that Iran is now launching a maximum countermeasures campaign against the United States and exerting pressure on the EU. These counter-measures have so far taken the form of increased uranium enrichment and the seizure of several foreign oil tankers in the Persian. Gulf. Why has Iran taken such action? Is it in the interest of Iranian diplomacy? Can Iran use the leverage of these measures in a possible future negotiation with the US?
Both the incremental withdrawal of Iran from the obligations of the JCPOA and the tanker seizures in the Gulf seem designed to demonstrate both Iranian readiness to stand upfor their national interests and legal rights, and its pursuit of a policy of retaliatory response to provocative actions taken against its country by Trump. By so acting Iran has is sending a message to the effect that if the U.S. or others act strongly to imperil Iran’s wellbeing, then Iran will react with equivalent measures of hostility and displays of defiance.
Iran’s approach has risks but it also is the most promising alternative to a no-win strategy of passivity. In effect, I think Iran is making it clear that the coercion of the sort deployed will not work to weaken their political will or alter their policies, and that either there must be genuine moves by the U.S. toward normalization and respect for Iran’s sovereign rights or there could be a war that would have bad effects for many political actors. I am assuming that Iran is hoping that its adversaries realize that war would be devastating for all involved, and that in the end compromise and accommodation is the best approach for both sides. We cannot be sure about this, especially considering the various irresponsible influences at work, both seen and unseen. Given the alternatives, I believe Iran has adopted correct policies to uphold its sovereign rights in this vigorous manner given Trump’s provocations.
7-Do you find it possible to negotiate with Iran during the Trump era? If there is a negotiation, what kind of cards does Iran have for playing?
We cannot be sure about anything with regard to international negotiations in the Trump Era, but it is probably helpful to remember that Trump would politically gain immensely from walking back the crisis and achieving normalization with Iran, and lose dramatically if the crisis spins out of control, and a costly and chaotic war ensues. Remembering that presidential elections in the US are scheduled for November 2020, American domestic politics exert a huge and greater than usual impact on foreign policy. In this sense, Iran holds the cards that could give or withhold a huge political victory for Trump by whether or not it reaches an agreement.
It may be instructive to consider the approach adopted by Trump toward North Korea in somewhat parallel circumstances. His Korean diplomacy can be interpreted as a sign of the willingness of Trump to pursue a war-avoidance diplomacy with a long-term adversary of the United States even in the face of criticism from some advisors. The. Iranian situation is, of course, different, especially as it is closely linked to the U.S. relationship with Israel, and touches on other complexities of Middle East politics. On balance, Iran should be cautious about being too hopeful about normalization in the near future, but at the same time should remain sensitive to the emergence of potential opportunities for a diplomatic breakthrough.
8-Do you think that if Trump is reelected there will be a change in Iran’s approach to negotiations? What should the Iranian diplomacy team do if confronted by a reelected Trump?
It is almost impossible to predict what Trump would do with respect to foreign policy if reelected. On the optimistic side, he might want to simplify the challenges facing the. U.S. by resolving foreign policy concerns to the extent possible so as to focus on such domestic priorities as health and immigration. His presidency might also shift from popularity with voters concerns to legacy concerns, and whether in the end Trump wants to be remembered as a geopolitical warrior or as an innovative peacemaker. We can only hope that the latter possibility prevails if political misfortune befalls, and Trump is reelected. I would also suggest that at this point it is not more than 50% likely that Trump will be reelected. It depends on whether has Democratic opponent has unified support among Democrats and whether the American economy remains strong (employment, stock market).
With respect to Iran’s response to Trump’s reelection, it seems like to depend on intervening developments, and whether Trump seems combative in depicting American foreign policy toward Iran and the Middle East. I would recommend that the Iran diplomatic team assess the situation as it unfolds without endorsing expectations either of accommodation or intensifying confrontation. The most likely future is continuity, a small variation in either direction as compared to the present unsatisfactory situation.
9-Why did Trump abandon a military strike against Iran? Was it because of the fear of Iran’s military response deterred or because of Iran’s diplomatic consultations?
The true motives for such a sudden policy reversal are rarely truthfully disclosed by governments, I suspect a combination of factors converged in this instance of which the most important was the sense that the conflict would dangerously escalate once military force was used, raising the risks of a foreign policy disaster to unacceptable levels. Besides, Trump had campaigned in the past against war making in the Middle East, and during his presidency while he has often irresponsibly bluffed and threatened, so far he has not acted militarily.
10-How successful has Iranian media diplomacy been in influencing regional and global public opinion to counter Trump’s policies? Does Trump Really Want Negotiation or War?
Iranian media diplomacy has been successful in conveying to the world the resolve of Iran to resist by all available means pressures from the U.S. and its regional adversaries. This has likely made regional actors advocate caution on the part of U.S. allies at least via confidential communications. There are few voices in the region that view a war with Iran as a viable option, and what Iran has shown by its strong recent responses to the repudiation of JCPOA and sanctions is that without war no political victory can be achieved merely by relying on threats and various forms of coercion. Also relevant as discouraging military action are the experiences of war in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen
11-How successful has Iran’s diplomacy been in persuading Europeans to profit economically under a nuclear deal?
I am not an expert on this, but see little evidence that Iran has been able to work out significant beneficial arrangements with European countries, especially with respect to arranging oil sales. My impression is that while Europe is critical of the Trump path it is not prepared to risk worsening its economic and diplomatic relations with the US by rescuing Iran from the sanctions policy.
12-Some believe the US cannot make peace in Afghanistan without Iran’s participation. Is it possible for Iran and the US to discuss an Afghanistan arrangement during the Trump era? Some reports suggest that Russia will hold a summit on Afghanistan soon. Do you think a meeting is possible between Iranian and US officials on the sidelines in the course of such an event?
I think anything is possible along these lines with respect to finding a path to peace in Afghanistan, which seems a high priority of Trump, as well as of other political actors. It all depends on how priorities are weighed against one another by Washington and others. There is no requirement of overall consistency when it comes to policymaking. Iran might also resist constructive participation in Afghan negotiations favored by the West so long as Iran is targeted by sanctions and by threats/warnings.
Informal meetings on the sidelines are also quite possible as both sides may want to signal their willingness to find a mutually acceptable path to normalization and away from a slide toward war that would have catastrophic consequences for all involved.
13-Some people are saying that if US Senator Rand Paul’s meets with Zarif it could lead to improvements in Iran-US relations. What is your opinion? Others say appointing a representative, such as Zalmay Khalilzad, would be a better idea to negotiate with Iran because he had previously talked to Iranian officials about Afghanistan. What is your opinion? If Trump wants to deal with Iran might he indicate this by giving Paul a green light to go ahead?
I doubt that Rand Paul would be given any serious diplomatic role. He is looked upon in Washington as an eccentric and inexperienced outsider that is not trusted by the political mainstream, including by most members of his own political party. With Trump, nothing can be ruled out, and it is possible Paul would be used as an expendable triial balloon. In contrast, Khalilzad is an experienced and mainstream envoy whose appointment would signal an intention to give diplomacy a serious chance. But it might also require a commitment to diplomacy that Trump is not presently ready to make. If so, Paul could become a preferred option as there would not be strong expectations of success created by his appointment.
14-What will be the position of Trump as stand between Bolton and Pompeo and the pursuit of his anti-war approach towards Iran? How much diplomatically is it possible for Iran to convince the new British government to come to an agreement with it? What is your prediction? Will Boris Johnson be closely associated with Trump after Iran’s election or will he pursue a more independent policy?
As far as the relationship of Boris Johnson’s leadership of Britain to Iran is concerned, I imagine that the most likely course is one openly supportive of Trump. Johnson will be preoccupied with minimizing the post-Brexit challenges facing Britain, and will be highly motivated to seek positive and enhanced trade and finance relations with the United States to offset an economic freefall some expect to follow quickly in the event of a no-deal departure from the EU. Under these conditions Johnson is almost certain not to allow any friction in relation to Iran to interfere with this overriding priority. At the same time, Johnson is ambitious, impulsive, and unpredictable, and might take the chance of adopting a more independent approach to Iran and the Middle East generally.
15-Finally, Could Trump risk making a military strike against Iran before the 2020 election? What if he wins again? Do you think it will be possible for the US or its allies to attack Iran after the election?
Anything is possible, but as my earlier responses suggest, it is most likely but far from certain that Trump will seek to avoid war with Iran and not follow the advice of such anti-Iranian hawkish advisors as Bolton and Pompeo. I think the inhibitions on recourse to military action against Iran will be somewhat stronger before the 2020 election than after a Trump political victory in the form or reelection. At such a point, I would still expect that Trump would seek to avoid war with Iran, and also that even Israel in the end would also not want an. actual war, which could cause Israel to experience massive devastation, and therefore, behind the scenes Israel can be expected to push either for a continuation of the present diplomacy of exerting pressure as at present or even might favor deescalating the conflict for fear that it could at some point unintentionally produce a mutually destructive war.