Iran and the United States: History, Hopes and Missteps

Leader vetoed Iran plan to attack Afghanistan/ Washington’s two historic mistakes

08 July 2014 | 19:13 Code : 1935489 From Other Media General category
Second part of Asia Society’s panel discussion with Hossein Mousavian and Gary Sick
Leader vetoed Iran plan to attack Afghanistan/ Washington’s two historic mistakes

The Asia Society think tank hosted a panel on June 3rd 2014, in which Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator, and Gary Sick, a former American diplomat, discussed the history of Iran-US relations following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. The first section of the talk was published on July 6th. Following is the second part of the talk, which revolves around the issues of the decision-making dynamics of Iran, and the diplomatic mistakes of the two sides:

HB: Hossein, one of the most confusing things about Iran for observers is how decisions get made. There is obviously the Iranian government but the scope of its executive powers don’t seem to be quite the same as many other governments in the sense that it appears some of those decisions can get overridden or second-guessed by the religious leadership. For example, you mentioned the hostage crisis and in the hostage crisis it was never clear to what extent either the Bazargan government or the Bani Sadr government had control over the student hostage-takers in the embassy who seem to have had the backing of the hardliners. That confusion continues even today where those in United States accept the fact that President Rouhani is a reformist and is looking for a comprehensive deal, discount the probability of success by saying that it doesn't really matter what President Rouhani thinks. The ultimate decision lies not with him but lies with the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader's statements suggest that he is deeply distrustful of the United States. So let me begin by asking you, having been deep in the decision-making body of the country, how does decision-making actually work and are any points of view other than the Supreme Leader's that count in terms of the ultimate decision?

HM: The decision-making process in Iran is similar to the US. I mean, our parliament is playing the role of your Congress, the national security of Iran is playing a role like the national security of the US; the authority of the leader is very similar to the authority of President Obama. If you go to the constitution, 90 percent of the Iranian constitution is like the French constitution. Although the leader is ultimately the decision-maker on foreign policy, he does not have the legal authority to veto parliamentary decisions, laws and legislations with the parliament. On foreign policy he is the ultimate decision-maker but my experience during 30 years within the system is that he has never vetoed over 95 percent of the decisions made by the National Security Council of Iran, although many times I knew and the politicians knew that he really doesn't like the decisions.

HB: So what is the role of the president in the decision-making process?

HM: The president is the head of the executive branch of the constitution. He is the chair of the National Security Council, the most important decision-making body on foreign policy and security issues. The National Security Council is headed by the president and whatever they decide should go for the confirmation of the leader. The leader has the right to veto, but the facts show that during the last 30 years the Iranian Supreme Leader has perhaps vetoed one or two percent of decisions.

HB: Could you give us a couple of examples of where Ayatollah Khamenei has taken a pragmatic approach rather than an ideological approach even the fact that he has indicated his deep distrust about United States?

HM: You remember when we began nuclear talks in 2003 with the EU3, they were asking two measures from Iran: one was on transparency, one was on suspension of enrichment. The leader had no problem with transparency measures -carte blanche. But he had a problem with suspension and he was saying there is no relation between suspension and transparency: if they want to know about the nature of the Iranian nuclear program we’re ready to be transparent. Why should we suspend? He didn't like suspension at all unlike the National Security Council that based on the activities of the foreign ministry, the foreign minister, Rouhani –who at that time was the top nuclear negotiator, the nuclear negotiating team, believed for a period of the confidence-building, non-legally bounding, that would be no problem. When they decided the leader did not veto, although he didn't like it and from the beginning he told everybody that they are after long-term permanent suspension of the Iranian enrichment program, that they really don't mean suspension for a short period and as a confidence-building measure. As another example, when eight Iranian diplomats were assassinated by the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan in 1999 and the majority at the National Security Council were in favor of attacking Afghanistan to wipe al-Qaida and the Taliban out of Afghanistan, the leader vetoed the decision. He didn't want to go to war with a neighbor.

HB: Gary, in Hossein's book he points to repeated instances of miscalculation and miscues over 35 years in terms of the United States' government's reading of the Iranian leadership’s thought process. First, do you agree with that interpretation and if so, why do you think there had been so many missteps and what are the lessons that should be learnt in light of these 35 years?

GS: There are some very egregious points in relationship between United States and Iran. President Rafsanjani in the early 90s basically wanted to make a contract with Conoco to basically open up oil fields and let American companies come and do it. He was clearly doing it as a political gesture and saying "let's open this up" and the US government announced that we were in a process of containing Iran, saying that’s unacceptable. It was silly. We should have grabbed the opportunity. The second thing was in Afghanistan when Iran actually cooperated with the United States to get the Northern Alliance on our side and to put in place the Karzai government. They played a really crucial role in doing that and a few weeks after they succeeded in getting everything we wanted there and working with us hand in glove. It was Javad Zarif by the way, now the foreign minister, who was the point man on that who actually carried out the negotiations. After they succeeded in helping us get what we wanted in Afghanistan, President Bush -for reasons that I have never understood- very shortly thereafter stood up and announced that Iran was a member of the Axis of Evil. It undercut everything that happened and basically gave Iran the impression -not incorrect at that time at least- that we were just not interested in any kind of relationship with Iran.

To me what has been a problem is I have always viewed US-Iran relations as a kind of peter potter where one side is up and the other side is down. The side that's up says we don't need to negotiate with you, and the side that's down says we don't dare negotiate with you. Then they flip actually, and the sides reverse and the same thing happens. There have been only a very few cases in the course of that 35 years when we had some kind of equilibrium and I think we are at that point right now for the first time in 35 years. We actually have a US president and an Iranian president who are openly committed to get some kind of agreement between the two sides that is unique and has never happened before. It's the one thing that gives me some degree of optimism about the way this thing may work out. Both sides have their own reasons to want. That means each side has something to gain but there had been other cases we ran into which we feel we were betrayed by Iran. In Syria, we had real problems with Iran and there were other problems with Iran supporting Hezbollah and Hamas which have raised real questions about Iran. I must say that the last 8 years under Mr. Ahmadinejad were catastrophic and whatever he thought he was doing he wasn't. He was actually tearing down whatever relationships were there. So the United States has made mistakes, I think Iran has made serious mistakes too. I think we can acknowledge that and fighting over that forever is not a useful process. We have a different situation and I think that it has to be exploited, but there are plenty of grievances to go around.

tags: iran US