Iran, US Need Road Map

03 September 2013 | 19:17 Code : 1920832 Interview General category
An exclusive interview with William Luers, the Director of The Iran Project and Adjunct Professor at SIPA, Columbia University
Iran, US Need Road Map

September 3rd, 2013 - by Sara Massoumi

The nuclear dossier, the Syrian crisis, the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, intensified security and political unrests in Iraq, political instability in Egypt, and the unsuccessful start of peace talks between Palestine and Israel are all just a few of the many developments that are increasing chaos and unrest in the region day by day. Meanwhile, Rohani has come to power in Iran with a message of moderation in foreign policy and peaceful relations with all countries under the shadow of mutual respect. The presence of Rohani and his cabinet has raised hopes for a reduction of tension between Tehran and Washington. Many analysts believe that the key to ending the most major unrests in the region can be found in breaking the Iran-US deadlock that can be traced back to over thirty years ago. William Luers, the Director of The Iran Project and Adjunct Professor at SIPA, Columbia University, is one experienced US diplomat who for many years has tried to persuade the White House to revive relations with Iran. Mr. Luers, who was the US Ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia, believes in dialogue between the two countries to bring their positions closer together. The following is Iranian Diplomacy’s exclusive interview with William Luers.

In your opinion, with the absence of diplomatic relations between the two governments of Iran and the United States, how efficient would dialogue between the two nations be in reducing tensions between the two governments?

Thank you for offering me the opportunity to have an exchange on such an important set of issues. I want to clarify at the outset that all the responses represent my personal point of view and do not reflect the policies or approaches of the United States Government.

The opening of direct, official and regular discussions between Iran and the United States is the only way to determine whether together the leadership of the two nations can reduce tensions. It is difficult to anticipate in advance where a direct dialogue will lead without trying one. Over many years of diplomatic experience I am persuaded that talking together is far better than cutting off all contact. Mutual understanding and mutual respect are impossible without direct contact at many levels.  I recall President John F. Kennedy’s charge 50 years ago to the American people that when they look at other nations “not to see only distorted and desperate views of the other side, not to see conflict as inevitable, and communications as nothing more than an exchange of threats” If Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States could enter direct discussions guided by such thinking I believe that much positive could be accomplished. 

Right now, are there any communication channels for dialogue between the two nations in
different religious, educational, or research fields?

Yes, there have been numerous low and middle level non-official communications channels between Iran and the US over the past decade. I have personally been fortunate to have been involved in some of these unofficial dialogues. They have inevitably clarified issues for me and developed a greater respect for Iranian colleagues I have met. Such exchanges have not expanded and indeed become more restricted over the past several years. Each government should encourage return to much broader exchanges among Iranians and Americans.

There have been no direct relations between Tehran and Washington for 30 years, and this has created a lot of demands for both sides. What do you think is the one basic step for both sides to determine their demands?

 The most important first step is that the two sides designate trusted representatives who can begin to outline carefully without preconditions the range of issues that will need to be addressed with mutual respect and justice over the coming years. Such conversations between Iranian and American official representatives will likely be long and difficult and will require each side to try to understand the deeper meaning of the demands of the other side. But the first step must be to begin those discussions on a bilateral and sustainable basis.

Do you think that Iran and the United states need a road map?

Yes, I believe that Iran and the United States must have a road map that will set direction and priorities and that will give each side assurance that its principal needs, questions and insecurities will be addressed at some point along the way. The goal of any roadmap would be to outline together the major areas of differences and agreement and to set out ways in which the differences can be narrowed and the areas of agreement can be expanded. Without such a road map each side will likely set objectives and priorities that the other side cannot tolerate.

What do you think is Tehran's most important demand from Washington and vice versa?

The most important demand from Washington will be to limit Iran’s nuclear program. The US will want to have much greater access to the program, will want to get agreed and verifiable limits on the program, and will want an outline of the mid and long term purposes of the program. Above all the United States will want verifiable ways to assure that Iran will not develop a nuclear weapon.

I cannot of course speak for Iran but from my reading of Iran’s point of view and my understanding from speaking with Iranians I expect that Iran will want assurances from the United States that, as soon as it achieves its objectives on Iran’s nuclear program, that the U.S. will not revert to its 30 year-long effort of trying to isolate the Islamic Republic and provoke a change of government. Iran will probably also want the United States to commit over the long term to reduce and eventually eliminate sanctions and to respect and work with Iran as an important nation in the Middle East. In that context Iran will also probably expect that the United States and other permanent members of the UN Security Council will recognize Iran’s nuclear program including the enrichment of uranium.

In sum, the United States has immediate demands and it will want agreement over a short period of time.  While Iran probably has the long term objective of getting American assurances that it is prepared to respect and work with Iran as a recognized important nation in the Middle East and in the world. The task will be for each side to resolve these different time frames creatively and convincingly.

Iranian officials have believed for over three decades that Americans, one day by supporting Saddam Hussein and another day with military expeditions all around Iran, show their animosity towards Iran and make efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime. What is Washington supposed to do in order to remove these bitter memories?

Only a determined, new and sustained set of policies by the United States will begin to “eliminate these bitter memories”. Whether the Iranian “bitter memories” are fully justified is another matter.  But that those Iranian memories are real, there is no doubt.  New United States policies evolving incrementally in response to Iran’s policy and attitudinal shifts will help over time to change attitudes on both sides. Iranians should not forget the long list of American “bitter memories” that inhibit the will and the ability of the US to take the steps necessary to begin the healing process. The healing of three decades of distrust and “bitter memories” will not be easy but it must begin.   As the rebuilding of mutual trust begins I am reminded of the wise warning from the great American theologian Reinhold Neihbur.  Neihbur observed that there are self-righteous extremists in America who would threaten adversaries that   “we must fight their falsehoods with our truths.”  His advice to the self- righteous was that “we must also fight the falsehood in our own truth” Both Americans and Iranians have extremists in their societies with their own “truths” which when examined purposefully might find falsehoods or distortions.

President Barack Obama, who came to office with the slogan of "Change", announced in his early days in the White House that he would extend a hand toward Iran but with all this, in the past few years,
the most severe sanctions have been imposed against Iran under his administration. How do you explain this paradox in the US’ words and actions?

It is correct that in March 2009 President Obama said “My administration is now committed to diplomacy and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the International community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect”.  Those sensible words from over 4 years ago I believe still reflect the thinking of President Obama in his approach to Iran. The “paradox” of why have sanctions increased while the words were so hopeful is a result of the multiple events that undermined the good intentions that both sides had in 2009. In both nations there were domestic political developments and other international actions and priorities that yet once again intruded on the good intentions and the hope for a new chapter in US-Iran relations. Both sides contributed to this disappointing year which then led to yet another downward spiral in distrust and hostile action and words. US Iranian modern history is spotted with dozens of failed efforts to change direction. Let us pray that this time both sides will be more determined and more successful. 

Now, with Iran's new government, what outlook do you see for negotiations between the US and Iran?

The new Iranian government is clearly well prepared, experienced and willing to change course. I believe this is one of the most hopeful moments we have seen in two to three decade to change the course of US Iranian relations. The outlook is optimistic. Yet each side will still have to face up to some difficult choices over how much it is prepared to put on the table in order to achieve the objectives it must get out of a first agreement. The fundamentals of the tension have not changed even though the atmosphere and the even intentions seem to have changed. The danger will be that each side will think that it is now up to the other side to make the first big move.  Where there is a mutuality of interest in negotiating there must likewise be a realistic assessment of what each side must give to get what each side must have.

Jeffrey Feltman recently traveled to Iran as the United Nations Undersecretary General for Political Affairs. Some believe that this visit can be described as the first diplomatic talks between Tehran and Washington since the Revolution. Do you agree with this interpretation? Can you define a purpose for Feltman's trip in this regard?

UN Undersecretary Feltman is a now an international civil servant working in a senior capacity for the United Nations.  In that capacity he cannot and, I think, does not have any role in representing the United States Government on any diplomatic mission to the Islamic Republic of Iran or to any other government. I do not know the reasons for His trip to Tehran but understand that at least part of the reason was to consult with the Iranian officials on the international conference that is being discussed to seek a political solution to the problems in Syria.

The United States is currently facing severe political and security challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Egypt. Do you think that the tense situation in the region will push the US to engage with Iran?

Yes. The world community and particularly the nations of the Middle East are facing the severe political and security challenges in the nations you mentioned. These are not just problems for the United States. Simply summarizing this range of issues underlines the fact that the range and depth of these challenges involves all the regional and many of the world powers.  It is not only the US that faces challenges. It is precisely for this reason that the United States must seek collaboration with other nations in the region to achieve shared participation in resolving the mounting regional problems.  I have maintained that Iran should, if it is willing, be a constructive partner with the international community and with the United States in the search for political ways to reduce the violence and bring about greater stability to the region. I have long held that it is time to include Iran in all international efforts to find peaceful solutions in the Middle East.

If Washington gets closer to Tehran, what is the US’ strategy for persuading its allies like Saudi Arabia, which is Iran's biggest rival in the region?

How best to incorporate America’s friends in a new relationship with Iran represents a diplomatic challenge but not an insurmountable obstacle to the US as it works toward improved relations with Iran.  Most of the governments in the region will come to accept over time the reality of Iran’s important role as these crises develop and as internationally supported solutions are required. An agreement to establish better international access to and limits on Iran’s nuclear program will be an essential first step to greater cooperation among all nations in the region.

tags: iran united states nuclear washington tehran rohani obama