More Normal US-Iran Relationship Would Benefit Both Countries

21 January 2014 | 19:22 Code : 1927651 Interview General category
An exclusive interview with Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor of international relations and an analyst of Iranian affairs
More Normal US-Iran Relationship Would Benefit Both Countries

January 21st, 2014 - by Azadeh Eftekhari

During the past six months, the change from a conservative administration to a moderate one has manifested itself mainly in Iran’s foreign policy. During this period, a nuclear agreement, even though preliminary, has been reached, something that seemed impossible during the past decade. On the other hand, the technocrats in the Foreign Ministry of Rohani’s administration have extended a hand of friendship towards Iran’s Arab neighbors and relations with Turkey are returning to their golden days. More importantly these days, Iranian and American officials sit at the negotiating table and smile in front of the cameras while sitting in front of each other. Public opinion also follows this improvement of relations between the two old enemies without the sentimental approach which existed before. But how far can Tehran and Washington go? And in which direction will the balance of power go after the preliminary nuclear agreement? Iranian Diplomacy recently spoke with Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor of international relations and an analyst of Iranian affairs, about the Iranian nuclear issue and the future of Iran’s relations with the West and the US.


The implementation of the Geneva Joint Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 began on Monday. How do you evaluate the way forward toward a comprehensive deal? Are both sides sincere in wanting to reach a final deal?

Yes, I think both sides are very interested in a final deal.  But what each side wants in that deal are somewhat different, and the challenge will be finding sufficient common ground to allow a final agreement to be reached.  Neither side is going to get everything it wants, and both sides are going to have to be willing to make some compromises.  And remember: if one side or the others is really unhappy with the deal and believes it is either unfair or dangerous, it will be more likely renege on it at some later stage.  For this reason, both sides have an incentive to reach an agreement that each believes is in its interest.

In recent days, an invitation for the Geneva-2 conference was sent to Iran, but was taken back in less than 24 hours. With Rouhani in office, could you envisage a change in Iran’s attitude toward Syria?

I think it is clear that Iran is not entirely happy with its Syrian partner.  But the latest news reports suggest that Iran is not willing to accept the precondition of a transitional government and the removal of Assad, and will therefore not be attending the conference.

Following the recent developments in Iran (the nuclear deal, direct talks with the US, improvement of relations with the Arabs and Turkey), how do you picture the Persian Gulf in the context of the “balance of power” theory?

There is a roughly even balance of power in the Gulf at the present time.  There is no country either inside or outside the region that can dominate all of the others, and I hope each government there recognizes this fact and does not overreact to minor dangers.

An old political logic would say that the Obama administration is looking for a balance of power between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. A more Machiavellian look would say that the US seeks to pit the Sunnis against the Shias, and the Arabs against Persians, to maintain the bipolar atmosphere in the region. What is your point of view on this issue?

It is in the United States' interest for there to be a rough balance of power in the region; Washington does not want any state in the Gulf to become too strong.   At the same time, the United States also has an interest in peace and tranquility in the region, which is one reason why the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was such a blunder.   Today, the United States should oppose efforts to stir up rivalries between Arabs and Persians, Sunni and Shia, etc., because these tensions could escalate and make the entire region more volatile.  This would not be good for the different countries in the region, and it would not be good for the United States either. 

One of the most important geopolitical shifts in 2014 might be the easing of hostilities between the United States and Iran. How far can this US-Iran rapprochement move ahead?

I don't know. I believe that a more normal relationship between Iran and the United States would be of great benefit to both countries, in economic, political, and strategic terms. There is still a lot of history and suspicion to overcome, as well as opposition inside each country, but I continue to hope that the progress that has recently been made is just a first step toward better relations in the future.

tags: iran US