US, Iran Should Open Private Channel for Talks
In an interview with Iranian Diplomacy, Gary Sick, who served on the U.S. National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, and who has authored two books on U.S.-Iran relations, states that it is not important which party takes the first step towards improving Iran-US relations, but rather for the two sides to create a private channel where they can have direct bilateral talks outside the glare of publicity.
How do you think the Obama administration and Iran must begin to break the existing deadlock? You dealt with the Iran issue when you worked with Carter. Do you have any advice for the U.S. position?
Both Iran and the US have a similar problem. Their domestic politics for many years has focused on the other side as the enemy. So in the United States, Iran is seen as an enemy and is viewed with great suspicion for anything that it does. Similarly in Iran, the Revolution was in many ways anti-American as well as anti-Shah. So over the next thirty-four years, Iranian public media and rhetoric has made the United States as the enemy, the Great Satan. So each side sees the other as an enemy, each side is very suspicious of the other, each side is accustomed to being very doubtful about the statements that are made by the other or even any changes. So when Obama came in, there was a real reluctance on the part of the government in Iran to say that there is really any change. Their view was that this is probably more of the same and we can’t trust Obama until we are really sure that something has happened. Similarly, when Rohani was elected, many in the US said that nothing has really changed and that he is just the same and we have to have absolute proof that there is some kind of change. So when this happens it means that the leaders on both sides are very reluctant to take any positive step. From my point of view, what I think needs to be done, and this is a view that is shared by a great many people, is that the US and Iran should open a private channel, at least for the beginning effort. And this is the view that I say is shared by many people, not everybody, which would then give them an opportunity to actually talk seriously to each other instead of just posing for the cameras, because that has been part of our problems. That everything that gets done, the P5+1 meetings, are big media events. People go in, they have a meeting, and then everybody comes out and says that here is what we said and here is what they said and everybody is afraid to actually do anything. There needs to be a discussion quietly between the US and Iran about what each side is prepared to do in reality. And then once some kind of a framework is developed, then you can begin with the public meetings and probably get somewhere. So my advice would be simply what I said, that the US and Iran should quietly send communications to each other that they are prepared to meet and discuss substantive issues. And that would be a helpful step; just the fact that each side is willing to do that would in fact be an indicator that something has changed.
Why do successive U.S administrations not listen to the advice of many experts who have sufficient knowledge of Iran such as you? Do you think it is Iran that needs to make the first move in breaking the deadlock or is it the U.S that needs to do so?
It is not just that successive US administrations don’t listen to advice but also successive Iranian administrations don’t always listen to the advice of the people who know what they are doing. This has been very true during the eight years of the Ahmadinejad administration where they simply were not open to new thinking and really were much more interested in demonizing the US, and the US responded in kind. So I don’t really care who makes the first move but I think this would be a perfectly good time for the new Rohani administration to let the US know that they are prepared for serious talks and to do so privately but I think it is also the time when the US could also make such a move. But it absolutely takes both sides. One side can’t do it by itself.
How do you evaluate the Israel lobby’s role in U.S policy on Iran? Is it an obstacle to any possible rapprochement?
With regard to the Israeli lobby, yes it is a very powerful lobby in the US but the reason that the Israeli lobby is very successful in the US is not just because they have a powerful lobby but because a lot of people in the US, who have nothing to do with the Israeli lobby, also share the view that Iran is an enemy. So making their point and trying to really stress the fact that Iran is an enemy and should be treated as an enemy is actually much easier than it should be. And that is simply a fact.
Yesterday, one Arab expert told Gulf News that the difference between Rohani and Ahmadinejad is just like the difference between Coca Cola and Pepsi. Do you believe in this point of view?
That is just not true. That is a popular point of view among the people who don’t want to see any progress. You have to remember that Iran and Israel are rivals and they look at each other as rivals. So as one side gains, the other side loses. The same thing is true with the Arabs. They see Iran as a rival and if something positive happens in Iran, that is a loss from their side; it is a zero-sum thinking. So one answer to that if you are an Arab or an Israeli and you believe in that is to say nothing has really changed. Everything is as it was before and so our old policy of hatred and lack of any progress is the way we should go. There is no new possibility. People say that and it really is an expression of the fact that they are worried that, in fact, any positive change would be a loss from their point of view. Although a lot of people are saying that, my own understanding is that they are losing the battle. The reason that they are making these statements over and over and over is because people believe that there has been change. So they have to keep repeating that there has not been any change, but in fact there has been and most people actually know it. They are fighting a rearguard action to try to prevent that from being recognized.
As you have said before, Mr. Zarif is fluent in English and is very intelligent. He has many friends among U.S officials but conservatives in Iran believe that his views are too western. Do you believe that he has the potential to improve U.S - Iran relations?
Yes, but not by himself. He has to have the support of Mr. Rohani, and he has to have the support of certainly the Supreme Leader. But he is a very talented diplomat. Basically, I have always felt that if the US and Iran were going to make any progress, they would need somebody like him, actually on both sides, and there are some talented American diplomats as well. So I can very well imagine Mr. Zarif sitting down with a senior American figure and having a very serious discussion. He has one great advantage. It is not just that his English is very good; it is that he knows many of the people involved. He was in New York for a number of years and although some of the hardliners in Iran are using that as ammunition against him, the reality is that he has met with people at almost every level of the American administration and also the private American think-tank world and the academic world. So he knows American politics and he knows what is possible and what is not possible. In that sense, he certainly is someone who is highly qualified to be part of that team that would, in fact, make a change.
Like some groups in the U.S, 50 Iranian prisoners sent a letter to Obama and asked him not to punish Iran with harsh sanctions. How would you assess the chances of letters like these changing U.S policy on Iran?
Letters like these in themselves do not change policy. The US government does not receive a letter like that and say we must be wrong and we have to change our policy. But when you have a series of letters from American experts and people who have been involved in the program for many years, many retired officials in the US, political prisoners in Iran, and so forth, when you get a series of these letters, it does register and it does get heard in Washington and people pay attention to them. So again I don’t think it is a magical solution but it is part of a process of convincing people in Washington that in fact something has really changed and that they should be paying attention to it. And I think it is a very helpful thing. It won’t solve the problem by itself but it does help.
In the case of the dual track policy followed in the U.S, some believe it is not useful and many in the US Congress push Obama to continue this process with regard to Iran. What is your opinion on this issue?
You have to remember that although a number of people in Congress chose to pass a bill in the House of Representatives asking for more sanctions to be imposed on Iran just as Mr. Rohani was about to be inaugurated, that does reflect a particular view and it certainly is a powerful view in certain areas of the US. Also because of the long history of enmity between the two, it is an easy political position for someone to take in the US. Politicians and their constituents will not think there is anything wrong with voting against Iran. That is a popular political position and so it is an easy thing for them to do. But that law that they passed has not taken effect. It has not gone through the Senate which it would have to do and it has not been signed by the President. And so at this point all it does is express the view of a lot of people in Congress, many of whom also sent a letter to President Obama saying that they wanted him to improve American diplomatic relations with Iran. So they are basically voting both ways. They are basically sending a letter saying that they want him to speed up diplomatic initiatives and they turn around and say we are also in favor of imposing more sanctions. That was an easy vote to do because in fact it didn’t accomplish anything, it didn’t in fact impose new sanctions, but it made them look good with their constituents who are for the most part opposed to Iran. So this is in fact something that the President actually has to deal with and this is true in Iran as well, that the Supreme Leader can’t act without the support of large popular coalitions. He has to think about the political positions that he holds. And he has the same problem, that if he goes too far too quickly with the US, it looks as if Iran is caving in to the US and that makes him look bad. Similarly the same thing is true on the American side. That is why it takes real courage for leaders on both sides to take some initial steps to break through the wall of mistrust as some people have called it in the past. That hasn’t happened yet but I hope that it will. And this is one of the more promising moments that we have had over the last thirty years. There have been others which have come along; each time there was a new opportunity, something went wrong. So I am keeping my fingers crossed but I am also realistic enough to know that the best of all possible options does not usually happen with the US and Iran. But this is one new possibility and I think we can all hope for the best. I certainly do.
You said that Iran and the US must have a private channel to communicate with each other. In the past three decades we have had these channels but they are not sufficient and not very useful. Do you think any change has occurred now for this channel to become more useful?
Well, I am not talking about official messages being sent back and forth, using for instance the protecting powers in Washington or in Tehran, that is not what I have in mind. The channels that exist are just fine for sending a message saying that we are interested in closer contact and yes, that is easy to do, but then the real trick is not the existing channels. What I am suggesting is opening new channels which would be actual meetings between Iranians and Americans to talk about the substance of the issues that separate them.
You said that if Iran and the US want to improve relations, they need someone from both sides to negotiate; in Iran maybe we have Mr. Zarif. Who would you suggest as a representative from the US?
Well let’s just assume for talking purposes that either Iran sends a message to the US or the US sends a message to Iran and says we are prepared to meet in Istanbul or Geneva or at any mutual site that is acceptable and then the other side says we are prepared to send so and so, so they would name an individual, it might be Zarif on the Iranian side, it might be somebody else, whether they would send the foreign minister in the first round, maybe or maybe not. The other side would then pick someone of equal stature. So you could have a personal representative of the Secretary of State. Usually at the beginning you do not start with foreign ministers themselves, so my guess is that each of them would nominate someone to represent them in an initial meeting and see if there was something to work on and then you can go on from there. But those are details that really have to be worked out among the parties. This is something the two sides have to decide, at what level they want to meet. There were meetings between the US and Iran in the past, where Mr. Zarif was at an ambassadorial level and he met with his counterpart, the US special representative to Afghanistan, in the negotiations that took place in 2001. Those are details that have to be worked out and each side would have to decide what at level they wanted to be represented and I can’t speak for either side on where they would actually begin that process. I do know that, for instance, William Burns, who is now the Deputy Secretary of State, met with Mr. Jalili in the past, and so he is still there, he might be someone who would be nominated to be present for the first round of meetings and maybe it would be somebody else. I can’t speak for either side but that is something they would have to work through the protocol of where they want to begin some kind of a contact.
As you know, the main problem between Iran and the US is that the US says that Iran should take the first step in confidence-building and as you mentioned, we have to take the first step. What kind of initial step would you consider?
I cannot speak for the US government. What I am suggesting is that they have to talk to each other first, and then if the United States says that we need a gesture on your behalf I expect the answer would be from Iran that we need a gesture on your behalf too, that you need to lift some of the sanctions and we are prepared to take a step, for instance to cap our enrichment at the present level, that we are not going to go higher than this at the moment, so that the two sides can continue to talk. Those are the kinds of things that the two sides could offer to each other. But again, only the two governments can do that; they have to figure out what is important to them, what is necessary for them. That is why they need to have a discussion. Having these discussions in the abstract does not work. The two sides have to actually talk to each other and find out what is important to each of them and that’s not an impossibility, but you have to start somewhere.