Early Steps Need To Be Taken

07 October 2013 | 15:34 Code : 1922553 Home Interview General category
An exclusive interview with Thomas Pickering, a former US Ambassador to the United Nations
Early Steps Need To Be Taken

October 6th, 2013 - by Sara Massoumi

Some have drawn an analogy between the US and Iranian Presidents’ 15 minute phone conversation and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Meanwhile, the Arab states and the Zionist regime have felt threatened by the potential closeness of the two countries. The new Iranian president’s first trip to New York to attend the UN General Assembly along with the Iranian Foreign Minister’s interesting interviews on the sidelines of the official meetings will be the subject of the analysis of politicians for a long time. Iranian Diplomacy spoke with retired United States ambassador Thomas Pickering about Obama’s speech at the UN and that of the new Iranian president and the new and different approaches of the two countries toward each other. Mr. Pickering’s four-decade-long career in the US Foreign Service included ambassadorships in Russia, India, the United Nations, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan. Additionally, he served as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs from 1997 to 2000. He holds the rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the US Foreign Service.

In your opinion, how different were Barack Obama’s statements on Iran at the UN General Assembly this year compared to his previous statements? Are we witnessing a shift in the US diplomacy system with regard to Iran?

I think that the statement was quite different, particularly in things like referring to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the kind remarks about the election and President Rohani and I think it was definitely intended to signal a different approach to Iran than what had previously been the themes and hallmarks of his earlier speeches in the General Assembly after 2010.

How do you assess the Iranian President’s statements at the General Assembly?

I thought too that they set a very positive tone. They came as a result of a number of statements that President Rohani had made leading up to the General Assembly, which were clearly designed from the American perspective to try to set a tone that was quite different than his predecessor in office, one that sought opportunities on both sides to see whether there was a way to come together on the numerous issues that have over the years divided Iran and the US.

What is your analysis of the first telephone conversation between the presidents of the two countries after three decades? Are you hopeful about the continuation of this initial step?

I think the tone was a very positive one. I paid special attention to the way in which President Obama described it to the American public and it was designed to tell the American public in a very clear way that there were expectations of change, that they would take place through negotiations but that nevertheless his hope was and his expectation was after his talk with President Rohani that progress could be made together on both sides.  And I think it was important that this talk took place because it was obviously the first contact in 33 years between the presidents of the two countries. And that in itself was an extraordinary step. And it was a way of dealing with the question of were they going to meet, was that going to be carefully prepared. In fact the phone call I think was a brilliant idea and a very useful way of in fact putting a very positive statement on President Rohani’s visit to the UN.

As you know, Mr. Obama said that we are not seeking regime change in Iran but many observers in Iran consider the US’ strategic policy in the region in the past to be regime change. Do you think it is true that the US has stopped seeking regime change?

I think the American President has never sought regime change.  It is not something America’s historical record at trying to accomplish has been very effective at doing. Secondly, it is not something that I think any American president harbored any hopes of trying to do. Thirdly, I think it is very important that while the mere statement of a president of the US will not be necessarily taken inside Iran as an absolute proof. It is in the follow-up and the kind of actions that will be taken including the organization of the next steps for negotiations in the nuclear question that will, I think, begin to convince Iran that that is true. But there is of course an equal and opposite question on the US side. There has always been distrust of the professions on the part of Iran, however solemn and however religiously-based that it was not seeking nuclear weapons. So each side labors under a difficulty of convincing the other side and the only proper and useful way to do that is to demonstrate that through action as well as through words. Because words alone are not sufficient given the degree of distrust and misunderstanding that has characterized the relationship up until now.

Is the Iran policy being set at the State Department or at the White House?

Well I think that the White House is in charge of American foreign policy. Secretary Kerry has played an enormously important role in the recent events as it should have been the case and I think that his advice and his thoughts and indeed his long experience in dealing with this because he has been dealing with it for a long time as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will be a very very important contribution to the effort.

It seems that Iran’s nuclear dossier has turned into the principal issue of talks between John Kerry and Javad Zarif and then in the conversation between the two presidents. Could this issue ultimately help to remove tensions between Tehran and Washington in other areas?

I believe so and I have for a long time. I think that it goes both ways. I think that if it is possible to make progress on the nuclear question, it will very much contribute to the ability to make progress on other questions, such as Afghanistan and differences over Iraq where we have also many common interests. I think even in Syria where recent progress in removing the threat of the use of chemical weapons has been very important. But I also would think that if it is possible to make progress in those questions, and Syria is one of them, it could contribute obviously to building confidence and making progress on the issue of nuclear weapons.

Iran speaks of a reduction of sanctions as a pre-condition for negotiations to begin and the US also looks to gain concessions such as the suspension of enrichment or the halt of Iran’s activities at nuclear facilities like the one in Fordow. How would it be possible to create a balance between these two demands in order to be able to establish continuous positive negotiations?

I think it is of course important to know that neither side seems to be asking for pre-conditions, that is that something must happen before they can speak. What they are asking for is early movement on critical questions of importance. Here I would think that certainly relief from some sanctions in return for some early movements in bringing about a further statement of confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and is being conducted in that direction and that areas of that program which have lent uncertainly in the US and the rest of the world, things like the production of uranium enrichment up to 20%, perhaps beyond what quantities are necessary for use in research reactors in Iran could be early first steps and I would think that steps along those lines complemented by reduction of sanctions would be a way to start. We should be careful not to try to do too much that we could get nothing done.

In your opinion, to what extent have regional crises such as the issue of insecurity in Iraq, instability in Afghanistan and the Syrian crisis, forced Washington and Tehran to move closer together?

It is a difficult question obviously. It will be resolved when the leaders of today talk to the historians of tomorrow about precisely what they were thinking of and doing. But it does appear that there is an enormously useful conjunction of events. For many years, a number of Iranians who understand the situation very well have frequently told me that when the US had been ready to move Iran was not and when Iran had been ready to move the US was not. Now seemingly we have an opportunity with both countries ready to move to take advantage of something that hasn’t occurred for 33 years and it is important to do that. It is important to obviously make the kind of progress that I have been speaking about as early as possible even if it only represents the beginning of an effort to try to solve all of these problems.

The telephone conversation between Obama and Rohani led to a wave of negative reactions especially in Israeli media. In your opinion, what measures will Washington take to remove Israeli concerns in this regard?

I think of course that that is too bad. I think that in some ways the Israeli reaction to progress in Iran is something not in their own interest. There is no military solution to the problems that arise between Iran and the US and Iran and Israel. But there is now a potential for a negotiating solution. Iran has gone through an important election. The people have spoken. They have chosen President Rohani. He seems to be very broadly supported by the Supreme Leader of Iran which is extremely important. So now we have to see what that particular set of changes plus the efforts on the part of the US to signal it wants to make change can produce in the way of bringing about the assurances which President Rohani said he obviously felt was important in his speech to the UN when he said that Iran has no interest in making nuclear weapons and using nuclear weapons or in any way being associated with nuclear weapons. So this is one of those rare opportunities where diplomats and leaders on both sides need to work very hard and it would be in Israel’s interests, in my judgment, obviously to see this brought to a conclusion satisfactory to both sides, particularly with respect to the uncertainties that have long existed in the US and in Israel about Iran’s nuclear program and its purposes.

How do you see the reactions of the US’ Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar if an agreement is reached between the US and Iran?

They too of course have been concerned not only about uncertainties regarding Iran’s nuclear program but obviously about Iran’s interests in and role in their region in the world. Over the years they have met from time to time; those uncertainties have not been dispelled. One could see the beginning at least of contacts not in a situation in which one side would capitulate to the other but a situation in which each side has the opportunity to clarify their views, their motives, their aspirations and the general direction their policy will take. There is a role for a country like Iran in its region in the world of course. It is not a hegemonic role. It has to exist with other countries. It has continued to say that it wants to do that. The other countries of the region harbor suspicions about that. They are not seeking to be hegemonic either and neither is the US. So there is now an opportunity, particularly if conversations are carried forward successfully in the nuclear question, to begin to address those issues which are of paramount interest to the Arab states. They ought to be certainly consulted and become part of the process. They have their own relationships with Iran and over the years they have continued to conduct them. So, once again this looks like an opportunity for new openings rather than a time of deep suspicion or a sense of one way or another one side betraying another. I would certainly convey to my friends in the Arab world that it is such an opportunity and they need to be intimately involved as they have always been in looking at events in their own region and hopefully they will do so in a positive way particularly if the Iranian response is positive and it has so far begun that way.

This telephone conversation was just the first step in removing the existing tensions in relations that have a 30 year history of hostility. What suggestions do you have for the next steps?

I think of course as we have just discussed it is important that both sides have said that they are willing to sit down early and begin to discuss the nuclear question and seek some early first steps. As I said earlier I think that it is too soon to try to resolve everything in one grand bargain and one grand design. But I do think we need what I would like to call a grand agenda to work at and that would be something that particularly Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif could work on as they guide these negotiations and put their hand to moving them ahead directly. I would like to see in addition to progress on nuclear questions leading perhaps to an early discussion among the sides about how they see the general broad outcome of these discussions as well as the implementation of first steps take place but I would also like to see some early further discussions. They have been tried in the past on the future of Afghanistan and how both sides see that; on questions of Iraq in which they share a common interest and certainly on the very difficult and challenging question of Syria but now that there is a new opening there I think that could take place. I think there are many other questions in the background of our relationship which also could be addressed but I would be the last person to suggest in fact that we put too much on the camel’s back, so to speak, right now. We have to do this carefully. It has to be well-prepared and well-planned and that series of meetings particularly at the foreign minister level also carefully prepared could help to do this. I know both ministers well and I think they are both extremely well-intentioned, I think they are highly compatible in many of their views and I think that they are the kind of people who could find their way through to this in terms of the next steps. But I think early steps need to be taken to show the people in both countries that this is a real change and not a question of endless palaver.

It seems that Barack Obama believes in diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran more than his predecessors and this is while the US Congress has ratified a wave of sanctions against Iran. Are we witnessing differences between the Congress and the White House over the Iranian dossier?

I think there are certainly differences. I think that the last action taken in the House of Representatives was taken after the election but so soon after the election that it was not taken in any apparent knowledge of what it is that the election really meant or what it is that President Rohani who has now had a chance to make clear the direction he would like to see things move and the Congress did not understand that as well. So I think that the President should be widely supported by the American public in giving diplomacy a chance and I think additional sanctions at the present time would not be seen either in Iran or I think by wise people in the US as giving diplomacy that kind of chance. So I think we need a little bit of a holiday on sanctions to see in fact what can be produced and the next stage of sanctions ought to be to see how by taking them off we can make the most progress in areas of joint agreement of interest to both Iran and the US.

tags: iran rohani Thomas Pickering