The Islamic Republic of Iran’s diplomacy apparatus is as busy as ever. Following the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva, it seems that relations with regional countries have become a top priority for the diplomacy apparatus. Despite the evident frustration witnessed from a number of the US’ regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and the Zionist regime, following the nuclear deal and the apparent détente in Tehran-Washington relations, it seems Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is determined to promote ties between Tehran and Iran’s neighboring countries. Iranian Diplomacy recently spoke with Dr. Kayhan Barzegar, Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University in Tehran, about Tehran’s efforts towards détente with the West and its role in the regional and international scene.
December 8th, 2013 - by Sara Massoumi
There have been several analyses regarding the international and the internal politics’ consequences of the Geneva nuclear deal but one of Iran’s main achievements was the demonstration of Iran’s diplomatic ability in these negotiations. What is your take on the recent nuclear deal?
I agree with the generality of your categorization. We can evaluate the Geneva nuclear deal from the perspective of internal power and politics in which case we should enter into the details and discuss what Iran has gained and what it has lost in an inch-to-inch kind assessment. In this context, what matter most are identical and value-oriented issues, state’s prestige, regional power equations and Iran’s relations with regional countries and great powers. In my view, we cannot measure the Iran -P5+1 deal from this angle, because each party has its own interpretation. Iran can claim that it succeeded to ensure the right of enrichment on Iran’s soil which is important in terms of internal politics, prevented the possibility of war, preserved the interest of the political system and created breathing room to more carefully examine the consequences of sanctions. From an intellectual point of view, we all had made several statements regarding the necessity of a win-win situation in any nuclear deal and there was no more room for maneuver. In world politics and diplomacy, sometimes we reach a point where there is no possibility of moving any further.
But we should note that this nuclear deal has a broader aspect in international relations. From this angle, Iran could manage to strengthen its regional and international status. In this context, a look at the achievements of this deal indicates the positive results of the agreement. For instance, as soon as Iran and the P5+1 reached a nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia became worried. The same nervous reaction was seen from Israel. Turkey, although its officials showed a sense of relieve, is concerned that the closeness between Iran and the US could sideline Turkey’s role in the regional political equations. This traditional concern regarding Iran’s increased role in the region has somehow existed among the regional countries. The immediate result of this deal is therefore the release Iran’s energy in the path of development and increased political role. So from an international relations perspective this is a win for Iran. Iran was able to stand by its strategic principles as an important regional power and, while reiterating its nuclear rights, bring great powers the negotiating table. While the West asserts that sanctions forced Iran to come to the negotiating table, Iran’s determination, its advanced nuclear program, and the existence of 19000 centrifuges, have convinced Western powers of the necessity of reaching a deal with Iran at this stage. If we look at the deal from this angle, certainly it is a win for Iran. Of course, in the international arena, each country seeks to maximize its own interests. For example, each of the P5+1 member countries, including Russia, China, the European countries, and the US, pursues its own national interests. It was on the basis of these interests that we saw that, in the Geneva-2 negotiations, France, in an unprecedented move, entered the scene at last moment and changed the text of the final agreement. Prior to that, the US had attempted to take the power of action from countries like Russia and China by misrepresenting Iran’s nuclear program, political pressures and economic sanctions. Of course, we should wait and see how the two parties can move closer to each other’s positions during the next 6 months. As you know, reaching an initial agreement was very difficult, not from a technical aspect, but from a confidence-building one. Now both parties need to balance their internal politics during this interim six months for reaching a permanent agreement.
Recently, there has been talk of bilateral negotiations between Iran and the US in a third country namely Oman. Do you think that the time for finding a mediator for bilateral Tehran-Washington negotiations has passed and both countries have reached an agreement to enter into the phase of direct negotiations? Would you consider such talks to be useful?
We should be cautious about the Iran-US relations at this stage. I personally believe that if there are going to be any contacts with Washington, they better to be in the context of the P5+1 negotiations and through concentrating on the nuclear issue or, in other words, we should follow a step by step approach. This means that we should take something and give something. The Americans seek to maximize their interests in this deal; hence, whenever they feel that their interests are better preserved, they might change the course in the middle of the way. On the other hand, the Iran-US relations are filled with ideological and value-based differences, mistrusts, and bitter past history, especially the ruling political-security elites of both sides, still do not trust each other. Of course, this issue might be different in the eyes of their public. The opponents of restoring relations in both countries have still the potential to create obstacles if bilateral relations between the two countries advance more than they think it should. Therefore, I think it is better both sides make some trusts first in the mentioned context and then think of increased bilateral relations. Of course we should not ignore the fact that direct contact with the US can accelerate the process of reaching a permanent deal. The criticism against the P5+1, which is to some extent correct, is that the group is a collection of different countries with different interests in dealing with Iran. This matter has made this task difficult and at the same time slowed down the decision-making process. For example, even China views Iran’s nuclear threat to be different of that of Russia. In a general framework, China does not generally perceive Iran’s nuclear program to be a threat form a national security perspective, but Russia considers it a threat in the context nuclear geopolitics. On this basis, the views of France and Britain are also different from each other. For France the issue of nuclear prestige matters most, so any advanced nuclear activity such as that of Iran is against France’s nuclear posture. Britain seeks more reconciliation with Tehran these days.
The US is of course the biggest behind-the-scene actor in the P5+1. One should even say that this collection is the result of the US’ efforts. So, when Iran could somehow enter into negotiation with this power, it has sped up the process of reaching a comprehensive deal. The interesting point is that the US, as a superpower, opposes Iran’s role in regional issues but at the same time, due to this country’s global strategic view, Washington is ready to resolve the issues within the framework of a package. On this basis, I believe that the Americans, compared to some other countries in the P5+1, are more motivated to reach an agreement with Tehran. Thus, I consider the increased relations between Tehran and Washington to be beneficial in the context of nuclear negotiations, but due to the existence of numerous ideological and value-based issues, talking about general relations between Iran and the US would have its specific complexities at this moment. I mean, it can ruin the entire nuclear negotiations between the two sides, which is the most issue for Iran right now. So, I think that it would be better to separate the issue of talking with the US in the context of nuclear negotiations with that of bilateral relations. The latter should come after a permanent deal. Right now we need to take bilateral and multi-lateral confidence-building measures within the P5+1. As I have previously mentioned , the nuclear issue is the only national and strategic issue which could gather the necessary political consensus among the ruling political forces inside Iran to go and talk with the US. Other issues of common interest such as the regional issues do not have this potential. For example, consider the Syrian crisis among other common issues of concern wherein there are different viewpoints and Tehran and Washington have defined their roles against each other. Regional cooperation should come after reaching a permanent deal and making sure of coming out of the existing threat perception at least on Iran’s side. Talking on a nuclear deal is an advantage for Iran because Iran has something, that is mastering the nuclear fuel, that all other parties involved want to take it from Iran. Besides, since the technical matters of Iran’s nuclear program are under the supervision of the IAEA, any negotiation with the US would be to Iran’s benefit. In this issue, Iran can claim that it has a clear nuclear position within the framework of the IAEA and everything is determined on the basis of the existing nuclear regulations of this organization. Nuclear agreement and cooperation between Iran and the US in this regard could lead to the further regional cooperation. It should not be expected that the relations between Iran and the US will return to those of several decades ago because Iran considers itself a regional power which pursues its own independent foreign policy while traditionally the Americans seek to control the political and security trends in the Middle East. I think normalization of relations between Iran and the US would only be achieved when both parties reach a similar conclusion that each one should play its own role in the region, trying to not eliminate the other. Under these conditions, both parties should respect each other and divide the scope of their role and influence on such a basis so that their interests are simultaneously preserved. I think Iran is ready to enter in such a situation, but I am not sure about the Americans, they are having a hard time to balance their domestic politics to go in this way, although I believe that they will ultimately move towards this direction. What Obama has done regarding the nuclear deal with Iran is, in fact, preparing the ground in this direction. President Obama is somehow breaking the conventional wisdom about Iran in Washington. And again this is a win for Iran.
You consider the nuclear issue to be the best point to begin negotiations between Iran and the US. This is while there are numerous common issues in the region like the Syria and Afghanistan’s crises which need the bilateral cooperation of the two countries. What about these issues? Should we wait for the resolution of the nuclear issue to jointly resolve these matters?
Yes, there is the possibility of bilateral cooperation in this regard as well but its success depends on the Americans. Of course the US needs Iran in solving these issues but the existing question is whether Iran should enter into this phase of cooperation or not. What Iran gets in return? I think the Iranians have a bad experience of cooperation with America in Afghanistan. While their key cooperation led to the rapid downfall of the Taliban regime, the US puts Iran in the axis of evil part. Ever since, there has been mistrust among the Iranians which somehow is right. Iran’s question is, why should it cooperate with the US after this bitter experience and if so on what issues? In Afghanistan, both Iran and the US support the state system and the survival central government in order to avoid civil war and spread of extremism. They have common interests but do not trust each other. That is way they have their own agenda in establishing security and stability in the country. Of course this mistrust is more instilled in Iran because Tehran does not know what it would receive in lieu of this cooperation. Of course, the US would welcome Iran’s cooperation as it says. But again, the issue is why Iran should cooperate with the US? In my view, if Iran and the US do not reach an agreement on the nuclear issue, bilateral cooperation between Tehran and Washington on other regional issues would be meaningless. Iran should first be assured that the Americans want to change their traditional strategy in introducing Iran as the main source of threat to the region and that they do not want to minimize its regional role. If the phase of confidence-building is successfully passed, then this Iran-US cooperation could provide common strategic and geopolitical interests.
In an atmosphere where Iran and the US attempt to take more confidence-building measures, how could Tehran simultaneously maintain the other regional rivals and prevent negative sensitivity among them?
Increased relations between Iran and the West won’t necessarily lead to the weakening of Iran’s regional relations. Iran should strengthen its regional relations through a smart foreign policy. Recent visits made by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were also based on assuring the regional countries that there is no threat in the possible closeness between Tehran and the West. Strategically, Iran should send the message to the Americans that closeness between Tehran and Washington should not lead to the weakening of its regional relations. This is Washington task to convince its regional allies. In the end a country like Saudi Arabia will follow Washington although it shows that it has its own independent agenda in the region or some of its officials saying that the Kingdom should reconsider its relations with America. It is hard to believe that Riyadh will separate itself from Washington with the all current intense classic relations on Weapons deal and security assurances. Meanwhile, the weakening of regional relations will lead to the increasing role of the foreign actor in a regional issue which would ultimately weaken Iran’s role. It is on this basis that when a terrorist attack happens in Saravan, Iran prefers to refrain from creating tension in its relations with Islamabad. There is a strategy behind this policy because if the relations between Tehran and Islamabad enter the phase of tension, the foreign actor will heavily enter the regional equations and that would be at the expense of these two players, for instance, in solving Afghanistan crisis, based on their interests. I think Iran’s relations with the West to much degree depend on its regional relations. Every country enjoys more power to maneuver in its surrounding region. Perhaps Saudi Arabia is very worried about the increased Iran-US relations as a result of the recent nuclear deal, but Tehran’s policy to keep trying to become closer to Riyadh is right. If Iran removes Saudi Arabia in its regional calculation and strategies, it has led it to sabotage Iran’s regional efforts. In recent regional issues, the regional players overwhelmed the role of foreign actors. For example, regarding the Syrian crisis, it is true that Russia and the US have had certain role, but the main players right now are the regional ones, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In this context, it is safe to say that nothing meaningful will be achieved in the Geneva-2 conference without Iran’s presence. The same is true about the Saudis’ not participating in the conference. Turkey was heavily involved in this crisis at one time but its role has severely been reduced. They themselves have accepted the fact that they should not have gone too far conflicting other regional states’ interests. This is while Iran has successfully linked the crisis to the geopolitical interest of the state, showing determination to follow its foreign policy principles. On this basis, holding the Geneva-2 conference is 100% to Iran’s benefit because that would mean that Iran has been able to convince the foreign players about its regional role and the need to find a regional solution acceptable by all parties involved.
How could Iran strike a balance between its relations with the West and with the region and continue its political maneuvers while considering both?
This is the main point, that Dr. Rohani’s administration should not sacrifice relations with the West at the expense of regional relations. As the reality of Iranian statecrafts’ behavior, close relations with neighboring countries has always been a priority in Iran’s foreign policy. Increased relations with the West especially with the US is important and it is a fact that due to Iran’s need to export energy resources, attract foreign investments and converge in the global economy, Iran needs to establish some degree of relations with the West. But it should not be forgotten that Iran’s value is in its attachment with the region’s politics and its regional role. This reality should also be considered that the grounds for peace and stability in the region, which are necessary for economic development, will not be prepared without the consensus of the regional countries in solving a regional issue. It is better Dr. Rohani tries to build a bridge between the regionalization and globalization aspects of Iran’s foreign policy trends. This means that if up until now Iran viewed the regionalization merely from the perspective of regional power and politics, such as impacting the crises in Afghanistan and Iraq from their domestic politics or their regional relations, it should now consider the issue that Iran’s presence in regional issues is also aimed at affecting international politics and the US’ role in the Middle East.
Will the US, under such circumstances, accept Iran’s new regional and international role?
This acceptance is unavoidable, because there is the state strategy behind it. For example, Iran’s policy to convince Bashar Assad in accepting the destruction of chemical weapons is a regional issue with global impacts. What happened in Syria in this regard was to Tehran’s advantage from the aspect of Iran’s display of power indicating the fact that it is able to constructively address the international community’s concerns about an international issue. Of course there are people who claim that by rendering these weapons, Bashar Assad has, in fact, lost his pre-emptive deterrent power, thus, Iran and Syria were the losers of this deal. But the question is, where would these chemical weapons be used? The issue is that, through this move, Iran also showed that using weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, has no place in Iran’s defense strategy. Therefore, this link between regionalization and globalization would add to Iran’s strategic value. Knowing Mr. Rohani’s state of mind, I trust that he will prioritize regional issues, and given his long presence in the High Supreme National Security Council, he is well aware of the fact that the others would take Iran serious only when it plays its appropriate regional role. If Mr. Rohani did not have the card of Iran’s powerful role in the Syrian crisis, he would not have much to offer in the long and hard way of reaching a permanent nuclear deal with the West. Perhaps not now but certainly within the future months, this issue would be significant for Iran. Perhaps some regional countries might be worried about Iran’s regional policy, but in the end they will accept it. Regarding the US, when the White House understands that Iran will stand firm on its foreign policy principles as it did in the case of Syria, it will come to accept Iran’s role.
In that case, wouldn’t this issue lead to the weakening of the role of the US’ regional allies like Saudi Arabia?
Probably not. The basic question is, what is the concern of Saudi Arabia about Iran right now? We sometimes see that the Saudis exaggerate Iran’s threat. No one believes that Iran will attack the Kingdom. Of course they have this traditional fear of Iran as a big size country trying to dominate the region. This fear of Iran is not only related to the characteristic of different Iranian governments or presidents, whether he is Ahmadinejad or Rohani, because the same feeling existed among the Saudis during the Pahlavi regime. The Saudis consider Iran as a hegemonic power that is standing in the upper side of the Persian Gulf trying to institutionalize its increased role. Saudi Arabia’s strategy has been determined during all these years to contain Iran’s power. If the Saudis are convinced that Iran’s policy does not have an expansionist characteristic and Tehran does not intend to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, they will accept Iran’s regional role. For example, in the crisis in Bahrain, we saw that Saudi Arabia was concerned about Iran’s influence. But Tehran was careful to not going in that direction. In fact, Iran’s political role in Bahrain was completely balanced. Therefore, when Saudi Arabia’s traditional concerns are removed, this country would have no other choice but to accord itself with the existing reality. For the sake of managing the damages, Iran and Saudi Arabia should work with each other and I think it is Iran’s task to encourage this cooperation because it is Iran that is now at the center of regional developments.
Do you think that during Barack Obama’s presidency, there would be an attempt to disrupt the US’ traditional structure of allies in the region?
Yes, the issue is that if the Americans could, they would be very interested in aligning Iran with themselves and their policies in the region. One should note that changing the conventional wisdom in Washington is not an easy job. We should not ignore Obama’s considerable efforts in dealing with Iran right now. As mentioned, with this nuclear deal, Obama has entered, for the first time in the past 34 years, a path which could change the conventional wisdom in America’s foreign policy which has been on introducing Iran as a threat for the US. With this development , Obama has somehow isolated the Israeli lobby, paving the way to withdraw from US traditional strategy of the necessity to contain Iran. The traditional view in the US is that they should use every means necessary to contain Iran; from limiting Iran’s oil income to preventing the building of Iran’s Peace gas pipeline to Pakistan, etc. Right now, by changing the track in this traditional view, President Obama is attempting to prepare the grounds for accepting Iran’s role. For years, Iran was missed in US foreign policy and this has imbalanced the US’ interests in the Middle East power equations.
But it seems that due to Saudi Arabia’s fear of the establishment of close relations between Iran and the US, it attempts to retaliate Obama’s measure and find its own regional allies by moving closer to Israel and creating secret channels of meetings and consulting with this regime’s officials.
Any increased relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is a strategic, and of course dangerous, mistake for Saudi Arabia itself and the other countries of the region. No doubt the Israelis are interested to attract Saudi Arabia towards themselves. You see that, during these past years, the Israelis have always talked about the nuclear weapons free zone in the Persian Gulf instead of talking about the Middle East nuclear free zone as a comprehensive solution and the Saudi’s followed this way at some point. This move by the Israelis is in fact an attempt to divide the Arabs and Iran., of course mostly on the nuclear issue. The Saudis have unfortunately somehow been aligned with them. Nevertheless, I believe that the degree of closeness of the Saudis with the Israelis is limited. The continuation of this move could create numerous challenges for the Saudi regime in its internal politics in terms of questioning its legitimacy. Now if the US accepts Iran’s role in the region in a strategic decision and Iran is removed from being on top of the threats in that traditional view, a new development will take place in the regional equations which would free Iran’s economic and political stamina, and that means strengthening Iran’s regional and international status. Time has come the Americans change their style of dealing with Iran.
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