In Switzerland today, there is still a chance that Iran, the US, and five other world powers will reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program. Talks ran over deadline on Tuesday night, but so far, all parties seem committed to reaching a deal. The world powers, which include Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China along with the US, want to ensure that Iran cannot build a nuclear weapon. Iranian negotiators want to minimize restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, and quickly roll back sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.
Yesterday, IranWire spoke to three veterans of US Iran policy--including one former hostage-- about the negotiations. All of them were optimistic.
Charles Naas was US deputy ambassador and charge d’affaires in Tehran at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. He takes a historical view of Iran’s nuclear program, which the Shah launched with American help in 1957. He says Iran has been trying to increase its electrical output for domestic purposes ever since. When the Shah decided to build 20 nuclear reactors, France and Germany took the lead in developing Iran’s program. The US was late to the commercial nuclear game in Iran, and the 1979 revolution got in the way. “A new agreement on the use of nuclear energy was initialled by the United States in 1978, but was held up because of the increasing political instability.” he says.
The Iranian Revolution changed everything. At first the new government neglected Iran’s nuclear program, and Ayatollah Khomeini denounced nuclear weapons. But the Iran-Iraq War caused Iran’s leaders to re-explore nuclear options. Today, Iran says its program is only for peaceful purposes. And even though Iran has been secretive about its program, some Americans are convinced. Henry Precht spent four years in Tehran as a political-military officer, and was in charge of the State Department’s Iran desk during the revolution and hostage crisis. “I believe what they say,” he says. “It's for power generation, with perhaps some use in medicine. I don't believe that they would be foolish enough to embark on a weapons development program. They know that they would be inviting a disastrous war.”
John Limbert was a 37-year-old political officer in the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979, when students loyal to Khomeini took him and 51 other embassy staff hostage for 444 days. From 2009 to 2010, he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He says that when US President Barack Obama came to office in 2009, he was determined to change the United States’ entrenched enmities. “Obama said look, we need to talk to our adversaries. That's in the American interest. We don't have to just sit on opposite sides of an abyss and glare at each other and trade insults, accusations and threats. There's a different way of doing it.”
But it hasn’t been easy. “What I found when I was in the government,” Limbert says, “was that what people knew how to do was to bash the other side. What they didn't know how to do was to change the relationship into something better.” But there is no going back now. Relations, he says, have already taken on a new character. “It's not that we have become friends, but we’re at least able to talk to each other,” he says. “Our president and their president have spoken on the phone. Our foreign ministers meet regularly. They describe the discussions as productive and constructive. Think back. When was the last time any Iranian-American encounter was described in such terms?”
Israel and the Arab Gulf States see the affair in colder light. They resent the new US-Iran diplomacy, which they feel emboldens Iran at their expense. “Israel and the Arab states often speak of their concern about Iran becoming a nuclear power,” Naas says. “I think that's somewhat of a legitimate concern.” But they are also guarding jealously their influence with a powerful ally. “They have had particularly good relations with the United States, and without Iran in this calculus, they've had sort of a free run at things.” But from America’s point of view, he says, it’s important to talk to Iran, which is one of the biggest countries in the region and which now has an intelligent foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who the US can talk to openly.
Inside Iran and the United States, too, there are powerful groups that want to slam the brakes on new relations.
In Iran, Precht says, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is not someone who naturally trusts the United States. But Precht thinks Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarif—who is leading negotiations for Iran—will convince Khamenei that a deal is necessary for stability in the country, for economic progress, and to reintegrate Iran into the world community. ‘Persuading him is quite a job. But I think they have a lot of influence over him.”
Then there’s the question of public opinion in Iran. “It's pretty clear this is a popular issue among most Iranians,” Limbert says. Iranians, after all, came out in huge numbers to vote for President Hassan Rouhani in 2013. “[Rouhani and Zarif] seem to have presented a story that says, well, all of our problems, our economic problems, our social problems, we could fix if we could somehow fix this relationship with the United States. Is that true? I don't think so, but people seem convinced of it.”
In the US, Naas says, Republican members of Congress have limited US negotiators’ freedom of action. While they speak of pressing for a “better deal,” Naas sees them as deliberately obstructive. “The American Senators simply do not want the agreement with Iran. They don’t want us discussing Middle East matters with Iran.” Precht says if there was a prospect of a better deal, US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has led negotiations from the American side, would have obtained it. “Iran is not going to make gestures to the American Congress or Israel,” he says. “It's going to proceed on what it thinks is dictated by its economic needs and above all, its national pride.”
At core, these negotiations are about nuclear non-proliferation. Some Middle East specialists fear that Iran’s chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia, will acquire nuclear weapons if it feels world powers have negotiated an insufficiently restrictive deal with Iran “I think the risk of proliferation is overstated by those who oppose the Iranian program,” Precht says. For Saudi Arabia, he says, such a move would not be worth the trouble. “Saudi Arabia certainly has the money, but it doesn't have the industrial base, it doesn't have the trade man power.” He says its best option would be to buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan. “Would the United States tolerate that? I rather doubt it.”
So what will happen next? “I still feel optimistic that today or tomorrow there will be a general agreement,” Naas says. “That means that from then on, the big problem is putting this in fine detail into a written document.” Precht says he expects the parties to agree on general wording soon and give themselves till June to handle the details. Not that this will all be over by then. He expects the idea of a new era in US-Iran relations to be a central controversy in American politics for a long time to come. “There will be people who will oppose that general agreement, and there will be a battle, largely in Washington, about who is going to prevail in guiding American foreign policy in the region.”
Read the full transcript of the interview with Charles Naas here.
Read the full transcript of the interview with Henry Precht here.
Read the full transcript of the interview with John Limbert here.