Session 5: Iran and the US, the impact of a changing relationship
Part 1: Intervention of David Pollock (The Washington Institute)
Part 2: Intervention of Hiwa Osman (Mediawan)
Part 3: Questions & Answers Session
Transcription of David Pollock (Kaufman Fellow, The Washington Institute)
I want to start with a couple of personal remarks to set the stage and will then talk about a few general topics. But first the personal remarks: I have to say that although as Jane just mentioned, I was once in the US government, the State Department a few years ago, but today I am expressing my own personal opinion only. This is in no way an expression of official American policy on this very sensitive subject.
This subject engenders a very intense debate in the United States and I think also, probably, in Iran. There are people who feel very strongly and very sincerely on opposite sides of this debate in each country. There are people in the United States who want a rapprochement with Iran and there are those who are really nervous about it, or opposed to it for various reasons. And I think that although I can’t know for sure from this distance I think that something similar is probably happening inside Iran. I think there are probably people in Iran and people in the Iranian government who would like to make a deal on the nuclear issue and would like to make deals with the United States on other regional crises and may be also business deals with the United States. Also, I think there are people in Iran right now who actually view this whole process with great suspicion and apprehension and may be will try to spoil it, if they can and find ways to short circuit the possibility of dialogue or deals with the United States.
And that leads me to three quick personal points: I find myself skeptical personally about the prospects for Iranian-US rapprochement. Things have changed. The United States and Iran are talking to each other and I think that’s a good thing. I think it would also be a good thing if the two sides could agree on an acceptable nuclear deal and, on other issues, including the fate of Kurdistan, the fate of Syria, the fate of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the entire fate of Sunni-Shia conflict across the region. It would be a good thing if the United States and Iran could reach an acceptable compromise or an agreement on all of those issues.
But sadly and honestly I don’t think it’s very likely. I think the problems are too serious, the disagreements are too deep and the internal opposition on both sides is too strong to allow a full rapprochement between the United States and Iran to happen in the foreseeable future. And I think that the election that just happened in the United States, whose results we just heard about in the morning, in which the Republican Party took control of the Senate, which although it might not have to officially approve a deal with Iran, will certainly make its voice heard about it. And this will be reflected in the United States media adding another layer of difficulty to the prospects for major progress in US-Iranian relations.
And finally, I run a blog, the Fikra Forum and encourage dialogue on this issue and, on other important regional issues. I hope that some of you will take the time just to click on this blog where you will see ideas and opinions and analysis from people in this region reaching out to an American audience and American experts and, in some cases, academics reacting to your suggestions and your ideas. So please check out Fikra Forum and write a post for us about Iran or anything else if you like.
Now let me turn to the main subject. There are three issues that I want to talk about: one is the nuclear issue; two is the collection of all the other regional issues that divide Tehran from Washington right up until today and a few issues where they seem to be working together, against Daesh, against ISIS, for example; and three, I would like to say something about the people in the region, not just the government, not just the official policy but what ordinary people on the street think about the US, about Iran and about US-Iranian rapprochement.
Let me start with the nuclear issue. I think the recent signals coming from both capitals in the last week are very positive about the possibility of reaching an agreement on the nuclear file before the November 24th deadline, less than three weeks away.
One signal coming from Washington last Friday was the announcement that Secretary Kerry will be meeting in Oman next week with his Iranian counterpart along with ex- EU chief negotiator on foreign policy, Katherine Ashton. I believe, although I do not have any inside information, that Secretary Kerry would not have made this announcement unless there was a reasonable chance of making further progress towards a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue.
And then there was another signal in just the last few days, this one coming from Russia of all places but apparently no one denied it. And that was that the Iranians have agreed to ship out some of their uranium stockpile to Russia for safe-keeping in case a deal is reached. This was an idea that started a while ago and the Iranians at some point seem to come close to accepting it and then rejected it, which is actually typical of their behavior. But now this idea is back on the table and it seems to be another positive signal that a deal on the nuclear issue is a real possibility.
And the third signal; a leak by an Iranian semi-government website that the United States would be willing to allow Iran 6000 centrifuges as part of a comprehensive deal on this issue. 6000 is more than what the United States leaked, a few weeks ago, but much less than the 19000 Iranian centrifuges that are operating today to enrich uranium. So this is a kind of a magic number that may be another positive signal that a deal is possible.
It’s not clear, it’s not certain and I think it’s not even the negotiators themselves who are sure but I think the possibility exists. So what does that mean?
Two points very quickly about this issue before I move on to other regional issues.
Even if a deal is reached on the nuclear issue, according to the best, most optimistic expert assessments, and according to Secretary Kerry’s own public statements, at best it will leave Iran a year away from a break-out capability, that is, from the possibility of tearing out the agreement and manufacturing a nuclear bomb after all; after sanctions have been lifted presumably. And that means, in my mind that a deal in itself does not mean an end to this issue. Even if there is a deal the question will remain: what does the United States do, what does the rest of the world do, if Iran decides to end the agreement, after they sign it? If Iran decides that it does want a bomb after all, what are we going to do? And so the question is not just a piece of paper, an agreement but how to enforce that agreement? Will sanctions be re-imposed after they have been lifted? I doubt it. And they probably won’t be quick enough to make Iran stop. So even after there is a deal on the nuclear issue, I still feel people, at least, feeling that they have to consider military action in case Iran breaks the deal. That’s point number one.
Point two: if there is an American-Iranian deal on the nuclear issue, it will make other countries in the region, not just Israel, but also Gulf Arab countries and probably Turkey, and probably even Egypt; it will make them quite nervous about whether Iran has succeeded in getting a break-out nuclear capability by agreement with the United States. And I think even a pretty good nuclear deal with Iran will make these other countries more interested in obtaining their own nuclear weapons capability, if they don’t already have it. And that means that it will be up to the United States and Iran if they want to prevent a nuclear arms race in the whole region, to find some way, to reassure all of these other countries that a nuclear deal doesn’t mean a new threat to their security from Iran. This is just not about the US and Iran, it’s about every other country in the region.
Iran’s policy in the region, as viewed from Washington, is a problem in many places. In Syria, where Iran still supports the Assad regime. In the Gulf, where Iran supports opposition movements, mostly Shia forces in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain. In Lebanon, where Iran supports Hezbollah, which the US officially considers a terrorist organisation. And in all of those areas, it’s very hard for me to see how the United States and Iran can find common ground. There are even some people in Erbil that I talked to, not officials, who say that the US and Iran can trade the nuclear issue for other issues. May be Iran will compromise on the nuclear issue, if the United States can agree to Assad staying in power. The Americans can let Iran win Iran and Syria if the Iranians give them what they need on the nuclear issue. Is that a realistic possibility? Theoretically, perhaps. But in practice I don’t think it’s possible for the US and Iran to find much common ground on any of these issues, any time soon.
The one issue where there is common ground and where Iran and the US are quietly coordinating, at least in the negative sense of not getting in each other’s way, is the common enemy, Daesh or ISIS. And here Iran and United States are supporting the same sides, which are, the Iraqi government, the Kurdistan government and other forces in the region, and the Gulf Arab countries who are all on the same side against Daesh. I think this is a good thing because ISIS is probably the worst extremist threat that the region has faced ever. And so anyone who is willing to sign on officially or quietly to fight against ISIS deserves to be included in this informal coalition.
It’s just that I don’t think that this common interest translates into other areas. Into Syria or Lebanon or Yemen or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or other areas where Iran’s ambitions run exactly counter to the interests of the United States and its allies. You might say that if there is such an opposition between Iran and the United States in all those areas, wouldn’t it be better if they reached a compromise deal? Yes, again theoretically, but in practice may be you can tell me what that compromise would be? I can’t see it. I can’t figure it out.
Finally, I want to talk about the people. Iran and the United States share one other thing in this region, besides there common enmity to ISIS. And that is, generally based on public opinion polls that I do here in the Middle East, Iran and the US are both disliked by most people here in the region.
Here in Iraq, by Kurds, by Arabs, even by Shia Arabs; most of them don’t like Iran and they don’t like the United States either. And that’s true all over the region, in every country where there are public opinion polls; whether it’s an ally of the United States like Egypt or Saudi Arabia or a country that is basically an enemy of the United States. Most people in the region either don’t like Iran or the United States.
And what that means, I think, is unlike what most people talk about when they talk about US-Iranian relations or rivalry or rapprochement, that means the people of this region (Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Sunni, Shia whatever they are); the people of this region are the ones who will have to decide their own fate whether the US or Iran reach an agreement with each other or they do not. This region is not a toy of Iran or the United States. If the United States and Iran reach an agreement, even if they do, that will not solve the problems of the people of the region that they have to solve themselves. They don’t want Iran and the US to tell them what to do. And so Iran and the United States will not be able to tell them what to do with their own future.
And finally just a word about people inside Iran. In all of this talk, not too many people have reminded us that Iranians continue to suffer from the oppression of their own government inside Iran. Whether Kurds, or Persians or Arabs, Sunni or Shia, whoever they are, they are living under a regime as some Iranian refugees here in Erbil reminded me that they are living under a regime that denies them the most basic human rights of free expression, of freedom of religion, of real democracy, of the opportunity to express political opposition without being tortured or thrown in jail. And unfortunately, there is very little that anyone in the world, not the United States not the UN, not anyone is able to do about this problem.
And even if the US and Iran mend their own differences with each other, the people of Iran will not be satisfied, I believe in the long run. That is an issue which only the people of Iran will be able to fix for themselves in the long run. Thank you very much!