Iran and US Should Take Note of Each Other’s Concerns
By: Kourosh Ziabari
With the conclusion of the November 24, 2013 interim nuclear accord in Geneva between Iran and the six world powers, the experts, diplomats and political commentators on both sides welcomed the deal as a breakthrough agreement that has brought to an end some 10 years of fruitless talks and opened up new horizons for cooperation between Iran and the international community.
It was during these talks that for the first time since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Iranian Foreign Minister and the U.S. Secretary of State sat at the negotiating table and conferred directly.
The proponents of détente and rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. that have had marred and blurred relations since 1979 believe that the Geneva deal was a beginning for a long-term agreement that can lead to the complete resolution of all the misunderstandings and conflicts between the two countries.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and the Under Secretary of State for International Security Affairs Frank G. Wisner is one of the senior U.S. diplomats who hailed the Geneva deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action, and said that his country and Iran should seize this historic opportunity to settle their disputes and move in a direction that will satisfy the national interests of the both sides.
Dr. Wisner, who has served as the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, India and Zambia believes that Iran and the United States should be watchful of each other’s concerns and refrain from taking steps which bother the other side.
“I’m pleased that finally, Iran and the United States are negotiating in good faith and good spirit; but again, I warn you. Both sides should reflect the other side of the mirror. What bothers the United States in reverse will bother Iranians; what bothers Iranians will be bothersome inside the United States. We have to be patient during this course of this period of negotiations and reaching an understanding. We shouldn’t allow our politics to get ahead of our national interests,” Wisner said in an exclusive interview with Iran Review.
Ambassador Frank Wisner took part in a one-to-one interview with Iran Review to discuss his viewpoints regarding the recent agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the future of relations between Iran and the United States. What follows is the text of the interview.
Q: Mr. Ambassador; thank you very much for taking time to take part in this interview. I think given the recent openings between Iran and the United States, and given the fact that chances have emerged for reconciliation between the two sides, this interview is going to be important from different aspects.
A: Let me first of all say that it’s an honor to be interviewed by you, in particular given your background, and I concur in the points which you just made. I perhaps add that it’s not only important that we speak to each other, but to listen to each other. I say that because given the history of relationships between the United States and Iran, we have a lot to yell at each other about and many fingers to point at each other, but it’s very important that we listen and understand each other’s point of view. It’s going to be hard to do; there’s an accumulation of mistrust, but it’s important for us to engage.
Q: Thank you. So as my first question, what’s your assessment of the recent Geneva interim accord on Iran’s nuclear program and the efforts made by the Iranian government and the six world powers to implement since January 20? Does this agreement have the capacity to, first bring to an end the decade-long controversy over Iran’s nuclear program, and also pave the way for a comprehensive agreement that can lead to the complete resolution of the nuclear case?
A: The agreement which was reached in Geneva is by definition an interim agreement. Until a final agreement is negotiated, we will not know if the nuclear issue, which has sharply divided Iran and much of the international community, notably the United States, has been satisfied. At this stage, we can say that the interim agreement offers a promising beginning, but it’s only a promising beginning if the both sides, the P5+1 and Iran, commit themselves to achieving the final agreement. It’s in that agreement and in the details surrounding that the final resolution will play out.
I note, however, that with regards to the interim agreement, it has many benefits, both tangible and intangible, as to the terms of the agreement to both sides, but it also has the possibility of indicating that Iran and the nations of the P5+1 can do serious business with each other, and this would be the first important step in building trust, without which we cannot solve any other issues; this being the most sensitive. It comes first. The interim agreement must be strictly implemented and both sides must respect all of their undertakings.
Q: The new bill that a group of U.S. Senators have introduced and will impose new sanctions on Iran if passed stipulates that Iran should terminate its ballistic missiles program and also cease its support for terrorist organizations; otherwise, it will face serious punitive measures. These variables, the development of missiles and “supporting terrorism”, are not at any rate quantifiable, and also are not claims which Iran admits. Why have the Senators brought in the discussion over Iran’s missiles program and the allegations of support for terrorism, while the Geneva talks were simply oriented on Iran’s nuclear program?
A: Right; let me be very clear that in the United States, there’s a separation of powers. The United States Constitution gives the President the authority to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs, but it also accords an important role to the Congress, and in this case, the Senate. The bill which you talked about, the Menendez-Kirk proposed piece of legislation has been actively opposed by the President of the United States. He has made it clear. He not only doesn’t like the bill, he is prepared to veto the bill which will force its sponsors to find 67 votes in order to override the veto.
Not only has the President said he will veto and opposes the bill, he has spoken coherently and on a sustained basis against the bill and he is actively working to rally support for his point of view. He is not alone in believing that this bill is ill-timed and wrongly-timed. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates the other day called the bill a strategic error in the recommendation that the provision of sanctions be authorized. As best I can tell at the moment, there’s weakening support in the U.S. Senate for the bill, given the current situation between Iran and the P5+1 and the recent accomplishment in terms of the interim agreement. I’m going to hope that the support will result in the bill not coming to the floor. I will not defend the bill, I don’t agree with it. I’ve added my voice to many others in opposition to it.
Q: So you disagree with the bill and believe that it’s ill-timed and will be vetoed by the President.
A: Yes, the President has overly stated that he will veto the bill if it’s passed by the majority in the Senate which will force a second vote at a higher level than the majority.
Q: There seems to be a certain degree of mistrust in the Iranians and the Americans who evaluate each other’s approach toward the nuclear deal quite skeptically. For example, the White House has just released the details on the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action which Iran has rejected, saying that the White House has published its own interpretation of the Geneva agreement in a biased manner, not the actual conditions of the implementation of the deal. Where does this mistrust and lack of confidence stem from, and how is it possible to eliminate it?
A: I don’t think you can eliminate it easily. Mistrust between Iran and the United States has been a constant factor since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran and since the hostage crisis that followed very shortly thereafter. The relations between our two countries have been marred by frequent demonstrations of mistrust. Mistrust goes well beyond those in power and stretches into our publics. Therefore, there is a real job of building trust and that’s why the achievement of an interim agreement is constructive, not only on its merits, but on the fact that it’s the first time we’ve come together and sat down. I believe, most passionately, that the disagreements are best managed in diplomatic exchanges with each other. We have to keep our tempers under control. We have to recognize that what one side says will offend the other, and what the other side says will offend, in a similar manner, the other party. We have to be very careful. We have to be calm and let the painful words stay far back. The key point is to execute and implement the agreement to the level of what was achieved.
Q: So, do you believe that the differences and disputes between our two countries can be resolved through continued negotiations and talks and lead to the complete removal of all misunderstandings, first on the nuclear program, and then on the other issues which Iran and the United States disagree on? Do you think that the reconciliation platform that Iranian President has taken up will bear fruits?
A: Well, that’s obviously my hope that we are on a different path now than the one the two sides, the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have been on for the past decades. It’s very important that we try to stay on that for if we leave the path that has been opened, we go back to the very unpleasant prospects of sliding into war and it’s worth all our life to struggle against such an outcome and to both be tolerant and patient and to work diligently to implement what has been agreed and then to move on to other agreements.
With each agreement, there will be additional trust. The agreement that is reached on the nuclear file will not solve all the problems between Iran and the United States; it will only resolve the nuclear one. But the nuclear agreement is the most sensitive and the most concerning, and if you can attack this toughest question, and come with an understanding, it will have an influence on the way the two parties deal with other questions. The security of the Persian Gulf, the future of Iraq, the future of Afghanistan, the future of the Middle East region and all the spots and issues where the United States and Iran differ on their points of view and have different perspectives. Therefore, you’ve got to get the nuclear question settled if you’re going to deal with the other questions, but the list is on, and it’s going to take days, months and beyond months, years of patient negotiations to get the nuclear and other issues solved.
Q: Just following the election of Dr. Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president, many world leaders sent congratulatory messages to him, welcoming his election and expressing hopes that a new era of friendship and cooperation between Iran and the international community will begin soon. What’s your evaluation of the election of President Rouhani and the fact that he has promised to constructively engage with the world?
A: I strongly welcome the approach taken by President Rouhani and his government and the support that the policy he’s pursuing has received from the Supreme Leader. These are positive steps, in my judgment, but words are one thing, and the practical results are something else. Therefore, the interim agreement and the nuclear agreement followed by other engagements on regional security issues have got to follow before we can be confident that new directions and new promises are translated into new realities and that remains the challenge before us. I’m pleased that finally, Iran and the United States are negotiating in good faith and good spirit; but again, I warn you. Both sides should reflect the other side of the mirror. What bothers the United States in reverse will bother Iranians; what bothers Iranians will be bothersome inside the United States. We have to be patient during this course of this period of negotiations and reaching an understanding. We shouldn’t allow our politics to get ahead of our national interests. We need to let our national interests take their direction. Our national interests lie in peaceful relations between the two governments, the two countries, respect for each other’s sovereignty and respect for each other’s institutions. It’s on this basis that the external relations between our two countries can reach a satisfactory point.
Q: Do you see the readiness and seriousness in the United States and its European partners to take practical steps to life the sanctions, as foreseen in the Geneva interim accord? Iran’s commitment to the terms of the agreement will be certified by the IAEA. Is there any way to guarantee that the six world powers will abide by their commitments?
A: I could turn that around and say instead that, is there any guarantee that Iran will respect all its engagements and commitments? The answer is we both must keep our word, and be seen and understood to keep our word, and when are sorting out our disagreements, we must keep our patience. Remember that what will wound one side will wound the other and we need to show forbearance as we move through the negotiations.
Q: One of the provisos of the bill put forth by the 59 U.S. Senators is that the United States should give support to Israel if it decides to launch a military strike on Iran at any time. First, doesn’t such a condition kill the chances of diplomacy by convincing Iranians that talks will not solve the nuclear crisis and that the United States is still bent on its long-sought policy of regime change in Iran? Secondly, does it really sound reasonable to give a third country a blanket commitment to wage another war in the region at its discretion at any time?
A: You put your finger on one of several reasons why I find the Menendez-Kirk legislation wrong-headed. I don’t believe it makes any sense for one branch of the government to issue blanket authorization which could lead the United States to go into a war. I find that particular stipulation both ill-phrased and ill-judged.
Q: The main U.S. demand is that Iran should not be able to produce an atomic bomb, and the main Iranian concern is that the economic sanctions should be removed altogether, whether they’re the unilateral sanctions, multilateral sanctions or the Security Council sanctions. Is there any way for the two sides to alleviate each other’s concerns and reach a solution that is satisfactory and acceptable for both of them?
A: Yes, there is, and that’s what the interim and the full agreement will be about. The careful elaboration of understandings that those trust that Iran is not on its way to break out of its current nuclear program and move into a nuclear weapons capability, and on the other hand that the P5+1, including the United States, respect their commitments, recognizing that Iran has a claim to enrichment and the gradual end of sanctions.
The only way, I believe, any of these objectives would be achieved, is that the terms of the agreement should be done very carefully, respected completely and are done step by step, with each step each party takes be matched by the steps the other party takes so that confidence would be made along the way.
Q: Do you consider Israel and its lobbying organizations in the States capable and powerful enough to sabotage the negotiation process with Iran and derail the chances of a final, comprehensive agreement? Given the importance the United States attaches to its “special relationship” with Israel, will Washington sacrifice a final deal with Iran to please its allies in Tel Aviv?
A: I assume you understand that I’ll respond to that question somewhat differently. I don’t have any doubts, and I think that my Iranian friends have no doubt about the strength of the American commitment to the state of Israel, its existence and its future. Israel is a part of the region and it has made itself a part of the region. Its security, therefore, is important to the American interests, and we intend to stand by that interest.
That said, the United States has broad national interests in the peace and security of the entire Middle East region, and the Middle East sets in to a global order that the United States wishes to see protected; an order, stability, negotiation and compromise and the resulting maintenance of peace. The United States will have to follow its core interests and a global condition of stability which would be our strategic objective. We won’t lose sight of Israel’s security, not in the interim agreement, not in the final agreement and not in the steps beyond. But I’m not at all persuaded that the interests of the United States and those of Iran and also the interests of Israel cannot be brought into effective alignment where each side lives in confidence, respect and security with the other. I remain convinced of that, otherwise I would be deeply troubled about the prospects of the negotiations. I look at these negotiations as the best opportunity our countries have had for generations to achieve what we want, that is peace and good relations between our two nations.
Q: The U.S. mainstream media have long portrayed a distorted and biased image of Iran, and the American people do not have a positive conception of Iranians in mind. In order for the two countries to sit at the negotiation table, solve the differences and put aside the acrimonies of the past and move toward reconciliation, the two peoples need to think of each other fairly and realistically. What do you think about the role the mass media can play in paving the way for the success of the talks and presenting a positive image of Iran in the minds of the American citizens?
A: Well, I think that’s an important point you just made. Early in our discussion, you and I touched on a vital problem and that is the problem of trust and confidence. I hope I’ve expressed myself clearly in saying that over three decades, Iran and the United States have been on opposing courses; much later been minor exceptions. That has led to a situation in which there are deep feelings of hostility in your country towards us, and in my country towards Iran. Changing those conceptions will come about easily, but they can’t occur as long as the practical, realistic steps are taken that confirm our two countries are able to make and keep agreements, and our leaderships defend those agreements in the face of public criticism.
It’s on the basis of reality that the press can build a new image. Realistic understandings between Iran and the United States, the press can release the stories they want, but nobody is going to believe them. The change of public attitude takes time, but it must start with hard, realistic agreements.
Q: Great. And my final question; as a high-ranking diplomat, what’s your message to the Iranian people? What would you tell them if you want to reach out to them directly through an Iranian English-language media outlet? Do you have hopes for the future of Iran-U.S. bilateral relations?
A: I perhaps have to remind you, that I was a senior American diplomat. I’ve been retired from my nation’s diplomatic service now for nearly 15 years, so I don’t claim to speak for my government, I speak for myself. But I believe my concern about the U.S. relationship with Iran is reflected in our conversation and my personal record over these years of attempting to promote dialogue and engagement between the two sides.
My message, therefore, based on years of study, concern and involvement is that Iran is an extraordinarily important state in its region; it’s a great nation and a great civilization. The United States similarly enjoys special responsibility on the global stage, and has responsibilities towards the Middle East where Iran is situated. For Iran and the United States to neglect each other’s interests is to only contribute to the tensions that have so far troubled the waters of the region.
It is important without sacrificing for a minute, in fact the interests of the other parties in your region, Israel, the Persian Gulf Arab states, the Arab world in general and Iran and the United States to find an equilibrium that preserves the peace and promotes chances for stability at the time that the region is under considerable unrest, violence, danger and doubt about future, whether it’s Syria, Iraq or the Persian Gulf states, where we face many threats to the peace. They can only be approached in a cooperative manner and through the eyes of a balance of interest between the parties.
So, my appeal to my friends in Iran is the same as my appeal to my friends in this country, and that is “take the other side’s interests into account and seek a balanced, respectful outcome.”
Key Words: Iran, United States, Concerns, Reconciliation, Iran’s Nuclear Program, Sanctions, Terrorist Organizations, Joint Plan of Action, Hassan Rouhani, IAEA, U.S. Senators,