Bad Idea for Congress to Tie President’s Hands in International Negotiations

10 December 2013 | 23:38 Code : 1925853 Interview General category
An exclusive interview with Thomas Pickering, a former US Ambassador to the United Nations
Bad Idea for Congress to Tie President’s Hands in International Negotiations

December 10th, 2013 - by Sara Massoumi

Equations between Tehran and Washington have changed form; a change which has not suited many American radicals including members of the Congress and the Senate and of course the Israeli lobby in this country. From US President Barack Obama’s speech at the UN General Assembly, which did not include the previous threats towards Iran, to his telephone conversation with Hassan Rohani, the Iranian President, which broke a 30 year old taboo. From Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s 20 minute meeting with his American counterpart on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to reports of secret meetings between Tehran and Washington in a third country, which the Iranian Foreign Ministry has denied. The expectation of a normalization of Tehran-Washington relations, with more than three decades of hostility, is neither logical nor probable, but détente in these relations can play a significant role in resolving many of the region’s crises and of course ending the marathon of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the West. Iranian Diplomacy recently carried out its second exclusive interview with retired United States ambassador Thomas Pickering about the Iran-P5+1 nuclear agreement and the difficulties it faces and Barack Obama’s foreign policy in his second term as US President. 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.

You have been a supporter of using diplomacy with regard to Iran. Can the agreement made in the Geneva-3 talks be regarded as a sign of the victory of the diplomacy of interaction against the slogan of war? If this agreement had not been reached in Geneva-3, would we have another war in the Middle East?

First I think it’s too early to say that agreement is victory for diplomacy. We have to see whether the agreement is going to be carried out on both sides or not. But it certainly looks that way and both sides have acted certainly sincerely about wanting to carry it out. So I think that that part of it is good and I think that the idea of having agreements rather than conflicts is certainly very very important. I don’t think anybody in this country who is serious about looking at the international situation would like to see another conflict in the region.

There have always been differences of opinion between the White House and some representatives in the Congress and the Senate with regard to Iran. What is the view of the US radicals and the Israeli lobby about this agreement?

I think that they have shifted from complaining about the present agreement where their complaints were highly exaggerated to talking to the White House and the Congress about what they would like to see in a comprehensive agreement. They have I think exaggerated ideas of what can be achieved there but it’s much better to talk about the future than it is to complain about the past.

Do you think that these opponents of negotiation with Iran are going to remain silent for the next six months and give this opportunity a chance?

I don’t know about that. I think that there are at least rumors that there will be some effort to have legislation which ties additional sanctions in with certain kinds of approaches to a comprehensive agreement , but I think it’s a very bad idea for the Congress to try to tie the hands of the executive branch with respect to a negotiation with any country.

What points would you mention in this agreement as Iran’s political achievements, at the regional or international level?

Well I think that this agreement is a very important one because it begins the process of adding a note of stability, rationality, and good sense to the treatment of issues in the Middle East rather than deep concerns and fears about nuclear weapons or instability or the use of violence, and I think this agreement could be a stepping stone forward in that direction particularly if it’s carried out faithfully by both sides.

Some analysts claim that, after three decades of hostility, the US has reached the conclusion that the lack of cooperation with Iran is the main problem among all of Washington’s problems in the Middle East. Do you agree with such an assessment? 

No, I think that there are a lot of problems faced by the US. Certainly the question of Iran is a very important one and I think the fact that it got the personal attention of the President over many years, and has led to a negotiated arrangement rather than the use of force is a positive sign and we ought to continue to see that as a very useful way to continue a process which has now been started.

How do you evaluate Israels strange reaction to this agreement?

The potential for the Iranian nuclear program being used to produce nuclear weapons has been the centerpiece of the negotiations that have been carried out up until now. The first-stage negotiations in my view have begun a process of demonstrating that Iran is prepared to cooperate in terms of getting sanctions relief with a set of ideas and principles that in fact make the use of its nuclear program to develop nuclear weapons harder and I think that that’s a useful basis for continuing to proceed.

It seems that, in the second term of Barack Obama’s presidency, he is still attempting to make key changes in the US’ policies in the Middle East. Among these diplomatic changes are changes in the US’ relations with its traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia. Will this approach become the permanent strategy of the US State Department or is this development caused by the presence of a Democrat as president?

No, I think that first I would be careful about making conclusions about radical changes in approaches towards Saudi Arabia or the Arab states in the Persian Gulf area. I think that that would be a mistake. I think that the Saudis have been very careful in their public statements about the agreement. Indeed they have said if the agreement is carried out in good faith, it will be a positive contribution to the process of assuring that there are no nuclear weapons in the Middle East at some time in the future. And so I think that in that regard making conclusions that are cataclysmic but unjustified should be avoided by people who are either for or against the agreement depending upon their attitudes.

How serious is Washington in transferring the center of its international concentrations from the Middle East to Asia?

I think that it’s inevitable that the US as a country with worldwide interests is going to have numerous centers of its interests. Transferring is a very bad term. It was implied by the use of pivot or rebalancing by some to describe it. I think the US believes it was important to pay a larger amount of attention to East Asia than it was. I think that’s useful, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of the time and attention that it also provides to other areas particularly the Middle East which as you know has been an area in which there has been tension and turmoil and conflict all of which obviously requires American attention.

Regarding Syria, we have witnessed a kind of cooperation between Russia and the US. Have the new regional developments and the collection of Arab revolutions given a special political weight to Russia?

No, I don’t think so. I think that the Russians have unfortunately blocked the progress of the Security Council on a number of key points. Some of that has now shifted and it’s important therefore that the US work to bring Russia in.

Can it perhaps be said that Washington is attempting to divide some of the regional issues between itself and Russia?

It’s not attempting to divide the solution to these problems. I think it’s attempting to find a cooperative effort jointly to address these issues as it did for example on the destruction of war gases in Syria.

The prolongation of the crisis in Syria and the disunity among Bashar Assad’s opposition was somehow to the disadvantage of the opposition. Can it be said that despite all the criticisms against Iran’s role in Syria, Iran succeeded in confirming its role as an active player in this issue?

No. I think Iran at the moment has failed to support the Annan plan at least in a public and vocal way. I hope that that could be achieved as a very useful step and that might be a useful way of bringing Iran into the negotiations which are clearly based on the effort to carry out and fulfill the promises of the Annan plan.

In your opinion, what is the best scenario for US interests in Syria now?

Well, the best scenario is to continue the effort that Secretary Kerry has started and at the present supports seeking a political solution to the problem of Syria. There is no military solution and the situation is deteriorating and becoming more radicalized and more destabilizing to countries in the region. That’s not in anybody’s interests, neither the US nor Russia nor Iran nor certainly Syria.

Will the US invite Iran to participate in the Geneva-2 conference?

I think that Iran has unfortunately at least in the view of the US not accepted the Annan plan. Perhaps if it can find a way to move in that direction it would be easier for the US to see it playing a useful and helpful role in the resolution of the Syrian conflict.


You can read Iranian Diplomacy’s first interview with Thomas Pickering here.

tags: iran middle east nuclear obama US syria saudi

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