Back Channel US-Iran Talks Contributed To Successful Negotiation

03 December 2013 | 17:31 Code : 1925496 Interview General category
An exclusive interview with Gary Sick, professor at Columbia University and analyst of Middle East affairs
Back Channel US-Iran Talks Contributed To Successful Negotiation

November 24, 2013 has become a memorable date in the history of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the P5+1. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as the representative of this country in the nuclear negotiations, signed an agreement entitled the “Joint Plan of Action”. Both Iran and the US claimed victory for this event. It was early Sunday morning when, in a press conference, Zarif stated that not only had Iran’s right to enrichment been recognized in this six-month agreement, but that the sanctions would also be gradually lifted. Then it was the turn of Zarif’s American counterpart to make a statement. John Kerry stated that they had not given Iran the right to uranium enrichment and that they would have daily supervision over Iran’s nuclear activities.

This contradiction in statements made by the Iranian and US officials has now entered a new phase following the publication of the complete text of the “Joint Plan of Action”.  Although the opponents of this agreement inside Iran attempt to continue their criticism with a friendly tone, they believe that Tehran has given more than what was necessary in the first step. In the US as well, Barack Obama, who had chanted the slogan of change in foreign policy and interaction with the world since the first days of his presidency, invites his numerous critics to be patient. Iranian Diplomacy recently spoke with Gary Sick,  American academic and analyst of Middle East affairs, about this nuclear agreement between Iran and the West and its causes and effects. Mr. Sick has served on the staff of the US National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, and is the author of two books on US-Iran relations.

December 3rd, 2013 - by Sara Massoumi

The Geneva-3 meeting ended with the signing of an agreement between Tehran and the P5+1. Considering the publication of the complete text of this joint plan of action, do you consider this agreement to be a win for Iran in the first step?

It is a good agreement because it is a win for both sides. Basically both sides have to give something up and both sides got something and people could argue about who got some better deal but from my point of view both sides have gained something and basically are on track to complete some kind of a major agreement within 6 months. I think that is a win for everybody.

Some critics of this agreement, both inside and outside Iran, claim that the concessions given by Iran outweigh the sanctions that will be lifted in this round. Do you agree with such an interpretation?

I think Iran did what it had to do. Basically, after the Ahmadinejad years, it’s necessary for Iran to do something very bold and clear in terms of reestablishing credibility with the international community and I think what Iran did is exactly what Iran offered to do 10 years ago when Rohani and Zarif were in negotiation with the E3. Then he offered what he called the concrete steps. Those efforts faded away slightly because of the US and the unwillingness at that time for the US government to accept any kind of a deal. So basically that was the George Bush administration and they were busy with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and they were not interested in negotiations. That now has changed and Iran has gotten back to the same offer very similar to the one they made 10 years ago but now we have a different president in the US and I think president Obama is quite interested in finding a way to work out a relationship with Iran. So regarding these changes, what Iran is actually giving was similar to what they offered to give 10 years ago and this is simply more specific. I think Iran did a great deal and basically they said for years that they are prepared to give these assurances and in my view that was not excessive.

I think with regard to the sanctions the relief has been very small and a few things have changed. Iran is going to be able to start selling its oil and is going to have access to some of its own funds, it will be able to do more business with Europeans and on the whole the real thing that happens is that Iran has established the fact that it can talk directly to all the parties involved and has actually gotten all those parties to agree to a settlement that was not easily foreseeable. In my view, Iran has made huge progress in this process and I think Zarif and Rohani are very much aware of the fact that they are not going to give everything at the beginning.

These days we hear so much about back channel talks between Iran and the US. How much credibility do you consider for these rumors? Do you think the latest agreement is a result of those bilateral talks behind the scenes?

I have no doubt at all that there were talks going on behind the scenes. I think that’s a very good thing. I think the last time we talked actually you asked me what would I suggest after the Rohani election, and I said that the first thing I would recommend is having some quiet talks on the side that would let people actually explore with each other what kind of a deal they were prepared to accept, how far they were prepared to go, whether they were prepared to deal directly at all. And those kinds of preparatory talks are really very valuable. Now, when it actually gets to the negotiation, that was not done in secret and it was not done on the side. Basically, the secret talks were done to explore with each other whether it was worth going ahead, whether there was anything to talk about, and I think both sides came away assured that indeed there was something to talk about and that it was definitely worth proceeding. Then the actual negotiation reverted to the P5+1, and that’s where the real negotiation took place. So, although there were quiet talks in advance, that actually was a reflection of the fact that there are better relations now between the US and Iran and I assume that there are going to be private contacts in the future as well because we now have broken the ice, we now are talking to each other on a regular basis, and if there’s a question or a problem, there’s no reason in the world that we shouldn’t have a conversation on that subject, and I think that is something that has bothered us in the past, that the two sides were not able to talk directly to each other, and that actually stymied and complicated any kind of a relationship. So, I personally see this as a very good thing, I don’t see anything sinister about it, and I think that it actually contributed to a successful negotiation, that it was not the negotiation itself.

Could we consider the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 to be an introduction to closeness between Iran and the US in other areas?

Well, I think it’s a very common view that if you took the nuclear issue off the table, basically if the nuclear issue was neutralized or solved in some form, then actually Iran and the US have a number of things in common, we have a number of interests in common, whether that’s stability in Afghanistan, dealing with the near civil war in Iraq, trying to find a solution to the Syrian issue, and many, many other issues including the overall security and stability of the Persian Gulf. All of those things are areas where the US and Iran have overlapping interests, even if our interests are not identical. So, the fact that we are now able to speak to each other directly suggests that if these other issues come up, and if we aren’t spending all of our time dealing with just the nuclear issue, that indeed there should be conversations about these other issues as well. I can’t predict exactly how far that will go, but I think that clearly is part of what President Obama sees as a breakthrough, he sees this as a major new development in terms of his foreign policy in the Middle East. And the reason he sees it that way, and certainly the way I see it, is that many many of the problems that the US has in the Middle East are related in one way or another to Iran, and if we can take care of the nuclear issue, many of those other issues are up for discussion, and I think that’s a very healthy thing.

Do you think this agreement will have an influence on Iran’s political power in the region?

That’s up to Iran. Foreign Minister Zarif the other day wrote a very interesting piece for an Arab newspaper, an op-ed piece, where he said that Iran was interested in good relations with its neighbors. I think that was a good first step. Mr. Rohani has also said that Iran is very interested in good relations with its neighbors, and he has a certain track record on the other side because he helped to negotiate an agreement. So it’s really up to Iran to satisfy some of the concerns of its neighbors. And I believe that if the nuclear issue becomes less significant, if it actually becomes less of an issue, then many other issues of concern to the Arabs and others in the region should be able to be dealt with more effectively. But again, just as Iran in this latest negotiation provided assurances to the P5+1, that it was really serious about negotiating and that it was prepared to take serious steps to make the negotiation work, Iran is going to have to do something similar with regard to its regional neighbors who have come to fear Iran or to see it as a threat to their interests. So I think Iran is going to have to lead the way. They don’t have to do everything, but I think they do have to at least make clear that they are willing to go the first mile in dealing with some of these issues.

This agreement has enraged many of the US’ allies in the region, including Israel. The agreement moves Iran far away from Netanyahu’s famous red line, so why do you think he is still angry?

Well, Israel is taking a maximalist position. They are insisting that Iran should not have any independent nuclear capability at all. And the reality is that that’s never going to happen, and I think that the Israelis actually know that. Many people in Israel are saying that they are basically satisfied with this agreement or they think that it’s a very good step. The government however is pushing for a maximalist position which is to say that Iran should have no nuclear capability at all, no independent nuclear capability. And that is partly a bargaining position but it’s also partly a result of the mindset that Israel has adopted that says that any possibility of Iran getting a nuclear weapon is a serious threat to Israel. And they have made that a fixed part of their policy, and of course even one centrifuge turning would potentially be a threat if Iran decided to build a nuclear weapon, having one centrifuge would be a step in the right direction. Of course it would be a very long and arduous task to build a bomb with one centrifuge but basically you can. And that’s what a lot of the negotiation will be about, starting in January when the six-month time period begins. There will be serious discussion about just how big a program Iran should have. Of course Iran will be negotiating with the P5+1 about that, and I think Israel is making a point here that they want that number to be as small as possible. So in that sense I think it is a negotiating position, but it goes beyond that. I think there is really a resentment of the fact that, if this deal goes true, Iran could begin to play a more normal role in the region, a role not as a pariah state, not as a state that is isolated and on the outskirts of the region, but actually a functioning part of the Middle East and a functioning part of the region. Iran has not been that way since the Revolution actually. And the prospect that Iran might come back and play a more active role in the diplomacy and the economics of the Middle East is something that I think a number of countries, not just Israel but also the Arab states, are concerned about. They are accustomed to having Iran in effect isolated and not participating actively in the region, and the fact that Iran might begin to do that changes their calculations as far as the balance of power in the Middle East. So I think they are very concerned about it and that goes back to the point that I made in the beginning and that is that it will be up to Iran to provide some degree of assurances to those states that they should not be concerned about Iran’s participation, in fact they should probably welcome it.

You talked about the US’ Arab allies too. Could this agreement be the beginning of a change in Washington’s choice of allies, at least among the Arab countries?

I think it’s very premature to talk about any real change of alliances. I think a number of the Arab countries are worried about that, they’re worried about the relationship between the US and Iran, and they remember very well that the US had a good relationship with Iran under the Shah, that the US secretly tried to open up to Iran with the Iran-Contra affair during the Iran-Iraq War, they remember those things and they’re concerned that any engagement with Iran will be at their expense. That doesn’t have to be true. I mean there’s nothing that says that the US can’t have a reasonable business-like relationship with Iran and maintain its alliances with the Arab states as well, we’ve done that in the past. Even under the Shah we had a situation where the US looked to both Iran and to the Arab states to support US policy in the Persian Gulf. So it’s not impossible for the US to have a good relationship with Saudi Arabia or with Iran without threatening Saudi Arabia or the Arab Gulf states.

tags: iran israel US zarif nuclear