As the world looks toward a possible resumption of talks with Iran regarding its nuclear activities, we are pleased to bring to our readers’ attention this interview with Kayhan Barzegar, an outstanding Iranian scholar and analyst of strategic affairs. We have previously featured Kayhan’s work on www.RaceForIran.com; now this interview, given originally with Mosallas Weekly and published in English in Iran Review, offers provocative insights about the nuclear issue and the overall state of U.S.-Iranian relations.
Among many other interesting points, Kayhan offers important insights into the broader strategic context between the United States and the Islamic Republic in which a prospective new round of nuclear talks would unfold. According to Kayhan, that context is defined by “the simultaneous existence of ideological and strategic discrepancies”. As he elaborates:
“The 1979 Islamic Republic was an ideological phenomenon seeking to make Iran politically independent of the greatest hegemonic power of the time, the United States. Before that, Washington had a long history of interference in Iran’s internal affairs, including in the August 19, 1953, coup d’état which in many ways provoked the later capture of the American embassy in Tehran. These discrepancies, combined with U.S. support for the Ba’athist regime in the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war and its unilateral sanctions against Iran, subsequently further deepened the sense of enmity between the two sides.
“The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have also added a new kind of strategic discrepancy to the previous ideological ones. Although Iran helped the United States in Afghanistan, President Bush labeled Iran part of the ‘Axis of Evil’ and pursued a ‘regime change’ policy against Iran. That policy was the worst policy a U.S administration could have taken, and it indeed severely damaged the U.S’s image in Iran. The underlying reason behind the adoption of that policy was the U.S. presence in the Middle East and regime change in certain countries in a bid to further entrench Washington’s regional clout and ideological dominance. These developments have been basically at odds with Iran’s national interests and security. Political and security developments which ensued from the occupation of Iraq in 2003 bolstered Iran’s regional influence, turning it into a major regional player.
“Now, the two sides have gone beyond ideological and strategic conflicts in their attempt to further institutionalize their regional roles. Although, ideological and strategic discrepancies coexist, strategic conflicts are now more pronounced and in the two sides’ relations. Coincidently, the same strategic conflicts also possess potential for engendering greater proximity between Tehran and Washington. For example, the very nature of Iran’s nuclear program faces both sides with a ‘mutual strategic need.’ This is why for the first time, more practical emphasis has been put on the necessity of direct talks.”
Kayhan suggests that, in this context, it is readily explicable why the United States is focusing on diplomacy with Iran regarding the nuclear issue. As he argues,
“Iran and the United States need each other for two sets of issues: First, to tackle regional problems—i.e., in Iraq and Afghanistan—and second, to settle Iran’s nuclear crisis. Although Iran holds the upper hand in both fields, practical policies followed by the two countries produce different results.
“The two countries can only engage in talks over regional issues if their definition of national and security interests were closely related. At the moment, the two sides have opposing strategies with respect to the various regional crises. For example, their definition of the source of security threats and presence of foreign forces in the region is different. Iran’s strategy in Lebanon and Palestine has been to support the resistance forces like Hezbollah and Hamas. Such a strategy is in conflict with the U.S. strategy which totally refuses to accept these forces’ legitimacy in the region. Therefore, the two sides should not be expected to take similar stances on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“On the other side, U.S. efforts to secure a foothold in Iraq by signing political and security contracts with the Iraqi government are considered by Iran a source of insecurity. The same is true about Afghanistan where the United States seeks to guarantee its interests by sending more troops thereby fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while Iran considers the U.S’s heavy military presence as a direct threat to its national security and a cause for continued crisis. Therefore, the two countries hold different views on regional issues.
“However, when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, the Americans consider it an issue of national and international security, which forces Washington to engage in direct talks with Tehran. The nature of Iran’s nuclear policy and its emphasis on ‘preserving an independent fuel cycle’ is such that Washington has either to interact with Tehran or go to war. The U.S. is not currently in a position to wage another war in the region, which could provoke unpredictable repercussions. So time is not on the West’s side with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. Therefore, the West has to interact with Iran…”
Against this backdrop, though, Kayhan notes that the Obama Administration’s emphasis on sanctions is misplaced, “because sanctions will not change Iran’s nuclear policy”, which is “a point of consensus among all political trends inside Iran” and “has reached the point of no return in a way that no political group can oppose with it for the sake of removing sanctions.” He also suggests that “the American side is still confused and not ready to start talks.” [Editors’ note: Given the Obama Administration’s refusal to develop a realistic policy on the enrichment issue and its reported inability to secure British and French backing for a revised proposal on refueling the Tehran Research Reactor, “confused” seems an apt description.]
Given these realities, Kayhan concludes that,
“We should not be too optimistic to think that smiles and exchanged letters are all it takes to make negotiations a success. The United States enjoys profound strategic interests in the Middle East region and is reluctant to recognize Iran’s role and power. I mean, the power structure in the United States does not allow the White House to do so. However, we must not be too skeptical and believe that the United States will never change its Iran policy in important ways…Iran and the United States have claims to leadership of regional political-security and ideological blocs and will remain two ideological and strategic rivals. Yet, Iran’s nuclear program is the point where the two countries’ strategic needs converge.
“Some analysts maintain that negotiations should start with less sensitive issues like cooperating in Afghanistan on the war against Al-Qaeda or in Iraq where both countries’ interests meet and which can serve as a prelude to negotiations regarding more sensitive and comprehensive issues like the nuclear issue. However, as a result of their conflicting views and as the past experience with three rounds of direct talks in Iraq has proven, the two sides tend to reproach each other on many regional issues. In addition, cooperation in this regard only benefits the United States. We should note that Iran’s aim to engage on regional issues is an effort to pave the way for comprehensive talks with the West. This has not happened yet.
“Therefore, I think that any direct talks should basically revolve around a more important national issue of strategic significance at least to Iran’s side. I think it is Iran’s nuclear program which possesses the necessary potential in this regard, because the elites of both countries are in agreement about the necessity of sitting at the negotiating table.”
Kayhan offers a genuinely insightful analysis of why the United States seems more willing to engage the Islamic Republic on the nuclear issue than on other issues on the U.S.-Iranian strategic agenda. Kayhan’s analysis also suggests why an initial focus on the nuclear issue might “work” for the Iranian side, which, as he rightly notes, ultimately wants “comprehensive talks with the West”. But, for diplomacy on the nuclear issue to work, the Obama Administration will need to be both more strategically serious and more honest in its diplomatic representations than it has been so far.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett