Richard J. Heydarian: Iran-West détente best foreign policy legacy for Rouhani and Obama

TEHRAN (FNA)- The normalization of relations between Iran and the United States and the recommencement of talks between the two countries to find a diplomatically viable and sustainable resolution to the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program is one of the sensitive issues receiving wide attention from the public, leaders, politicians and mass media in different countries around the globe.

Iranians are relatively mistrustful of the United States and its policies, citing the long history of Washington’s interference in their country’s internal affairs and its efforts to destabilize Iran. However, there is some optimism that these differences may be solved if the United States shows goodwill and takes action to win the confidence of the Iranian people and engage in talks with Iran based on mutual respect and on equal footing.

Political commentator and academic Richard Javad Heydarian said in an interview with Fars News Agency that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the US President Barack Obama can leave a historic legacy by solving the disputes between their countries and realizing a long-sought détente and rapprochement.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based author and academic focusing on Iran and international security. He is a lecturer in political science and development at Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU), and a consultant to the Philippine Congress and varying institutions on foreign policy and development issues.

As an expert on Asian geopolitics and economics, he has written for or been interviewed by Huffington Post, New York Times, Bloomberg, International Herald Tribune, Asia Times, The Diplomat, World Politics Review, Tehran Times, among other publications and news networks. He is the author of the forthcoming book “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Arab Uprisings”.

In order to discuss the prospect of Iran-US talks and the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, Fars News Agency conducted an interview with Mr. Heydarian.

What follows is the text of the interview.

Q: President Rouhani’s foreign policy is predicated on détente and rapprochement with the international community. His conciliatory tone has appealed to the West and it seems that the chances for a negotiated solution over Iran’s nuclear standoff have been revived. What do you think on that? Can President Rouhani and his negotiating team find a definite and viable solution for Iran’s nuclear case?

A: President Rouhani’s pragmatic approach to foreign affairs is by no means a novelty, nor is it a significant departure from the Islamic Republic’s three-decades-long pattern of foreign policy-making. After all, since its very inception, Iran’s foreign policy has been a combination of principled-based advocacies inspired by the 1979 Revolution, on one hand, and rational strategic calculations inspired by a more conventional understanding of national interests, on the other.

From one administration to the other, however, we saw varying permutations of this dualistic approach, with certain administrations placing more accent on one pillar over the other, depending on their understanding of Iran’s national interest, the dynamics of Iran’s domestic politics, and the exigencies of the international environment. Nevertheless, the election of President Rouhani has opened up an unprecedented opportunity for national reconciliation, a highly-professionalized and technocratic governance, and, perhaps above all, a new chapter in Iran’s international relations, especially with respect to the West.

What President Rouhani brings to the table is a an excellent balance between the two pillars, combining Iran’s revolutionary ethos of independence and self-sufficiency, which for instance explains his uncompromising position on Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil, and constructive relations with the outside world, which for instance explains his appointment of top diplomats to handle the foreign policy apparatus, including the ongoing nuclear negotiations with world powers, the so-called the P5+1 group.

This explains why President Rouhani represents a perfect “consensus leader”, since he, as of this writing, continues to enjoy support from all major sections of Iran’s pluralistic political landscape, with the Iranian people by and large celebrating his ascent to power. And this is why the Western powers have also welcomed Rouhani’s presidency, because they recognize his strong domestic political base, his top-level experience with diplomacy, and his vision for a new configuration in Tehran’s ties with Brussels and Washington.

Q: What’s your assessment of the recent talks between Iran and the six world powers? The Western side hailed the talks as constructive and promising, saying that it was for the first time that they entered discussions with Iran on the technical details. Do you think that the future talks can continue to take place in the same positive atmosphere? Iran has paid a lot to master nuclear technology and indigenize it, and it doesn’t seem rational and realistic for the P5+1 to demand Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program. But as Iran’s leading negotiator Abbas Araqchi has said, the amount and quality of enrichment can be subject to debate. What can Iran do to allay the West’s concerns and create more confidence on its peaceful program?

A: To be fair, Iran-West nuclear negotiations have experienced some ups and downs in the last decade, but this is not the first time that Iran and the West have held constructive, detailed, technical talks. After all, President Rouhani, then as the chief nuclear negotiator and the head of the Supreme National Security Council, was responsible for a historic accord in the early-2000s with the European powers, which saw the temporary suspension of Iran’s nuclear enrichment to facilitate a diplomatic resolution. The West squandered this excellent opportunity for a lasting, diplomatic breakthrough by giving in to the Bush administration’s call for a total suspension of Iran’s enrichment rights.

So what we have been seeing in recent months is a second try at striking a reasonable, mutually-satisfying deal between the two sides. Obviously, given Iran’s major strides in the nuclear technology sphere, with the massive expansion of its centrifuges and enrichment capacity, the suspension of Iran’s enrichment rights is out of question, and I believe much of the Western establishment understands this. But Iran has consistently, even during the Ahmadinejad administration, expressed its willingness to cap its enrichment levels (i.e., 3-5% purity levels) and agree to a much more comprehensive inspection regime, under the auspices of the IAEA. For sure, Rouhani’s conciliatory tone and pragmatism has lent more credence to such position, and the Obama administration is, in turn, exploring ways to reciprocate Iran’s offers.

So far, we have seen, in contrast to the Bush administration, a greater willingness on the part of Washington to accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its soil. The fact that President Obama doesn’t face an elections challenge explains his willingness to take a bolder position on Iran, given the degree of hostility he is facing from the hawkish legislators on the issue. And this in itself represents a major achievement. But, in my opinion, the bone of contention lies in the ‘sequencing maze’: how much and how fast is the West willing to offer sanctions-relief in exchange for Iran’s inspections- and enrichment-related concessions. Given the deep history of mistrust between the two sides, the primary issue here is establishing an agreement over appropriate confidence-building measures (CBM) to pave the way for a more comprehensive, time-specific end game.

Both sides seem to grasp the urgency of arriving at an amicable resolution in the short to the medium-term. Rouhani is keen on removing the barrage of Western sanctions hurting the Iranian people, while the West is trying to avoid confrontation with Iran. Meanwhile, major business interests within Iran and the West are lobbying for a diplomatic resolution, given the importance of Iran’s economy and hydrocarbon resources in both regional and international terms. So I am cautiously optimistic that some kind of diplomatic solution is possible within the next 12 months. But of course, much will depend on the political will of responsible leaders, and their willingness to go the extra mile. An Iran-West détente would surely be the greatest foreign policy legacy for both Obama and Rouhani.

Q: There are politicians and lawmakers in Iran who are not optimistic about the United States and say that more than 60 years of America’s interference in Iran’s internal affairs and its destructive policies toward Iran make it an unreliable partner. How should the United States win the confidence of them? Moreover, Inconsistent voices are being heard from the United States. Some neo-cons and Israel-backed Republicans in the Congress are calling for further sanctions, and some Senators are also pushing for more pressure on Iran, while the government is seemingly resisting and trying to maintain the path of diplomacy. How is it possible to justify these incongruities?

A: A major challenge in foreign policy-making is domestic politics. This issue becomes more acute when one talks about relations between two long-estranged countries. Therefore, both Rouhani and Obama face the challenge of managing domestic opposition to any effort at building rapprochement. The Shanghai Communiqué between Mao’s China and the Nixon administration should serve as a classic template. And domestic reactions to the nuclear negotiations as well as the recent exchanges between the Rouhani and Obama administrations quite lucidly reflect this.

To be fair, I think that President Rouhani, enjoying his months-long “political honeymoon”, is still in a relatively strong position — but not indefinitely — to strike an amicable deal with Washington over the nuclear issue, but I am relatively less certain about the White House’ willingness and ability to overcome spoilers at home and abroad in a fairly expedient manner. Currently, the Obama administration is facing an uphill battle in the hawkish Congress to not only forestall impending sanctions, which could detail ongoing negotiations and more decisively disrupt Iran’s economy, but also abroad, especially with respect to certain allies in the Middle East, which lament the emerging thaw in Iran-US relations. The fear among anti-Iran hawks is that Iran’s recognition as a full-fledged regional power, enjoying functional relations with the West with a booming economy and advanced technology, could usher in a new Middle Eastern order that is more multipolar, less US-centric, and above all much more reflective of the region’s popular aspirations.

However, there are reasons for optimism, since President Obama is encouraged by the fact that recent polls consistently suggest an overwhelming (a) opposition to war and (b) support for a renewed diplomatic initiative towards Iran among the American people. Much of the American defense establishment, which is battered by an ongoing sequestration and increasingly focused on the Asia-Pacific theatre, is also not keen on a major military confrontation in the Middle East. Moreover, Obama has also been encouraged by the constructive efforts of the Rouhani administration to resolve regional crises, especially the recent efforts — in tandem with Russia — to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons and achieve a political solution to the ongoing crisis there.

But Obama knows that he is not only facing mistrust at home and among allies, but also among sections of the Iranian society. So, recognizing the US’ decades-long interference in Iran’s affairs, beginning with the 1953 coup against Iran’s first democratically-elected leader, President Obama has been increasingly far-reaching in his rhetoric and speeches to the Iranian nation and its leaders. He has also repeatedly said that Washington is not seeking regime-change in Iran, and that he seeks a new chapter in bilateral relations. But obviously he has to walk the talk.

This means that he should stop provocative statements such as the proverbial “military option on the table” threat, step up his dialogue with the Congress to forestall impending sanctions, adopt a detailed plan and put in place contingencies to reverse the existing sanctions regime against Iran as the negotiations bear fruit, develop the political will to stand up to hawkish elements and garner growing public and international support for a diplomatic agreement with Iran, and, above all, respect Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear enrichment. Time is of essence, and both Rouhani and Obama will have to carefully manage their domestic constituencies, while skillfully negotiating the contours of a lasting nuclear accord, which could pave the way for a new regional order — and see Iran emerge as a major stakeholder in the international system.

By Fars News Agency


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