I was rather surprised these weeks that media were flooded with coverage of Rouhani’s announcement that “Iran renounces the development of nuclear weapons” because there’s nothing new in this recent announcement, as a look at Russian, English or Farsi websites shows. He simply reiterated that the creation of nuclear weapons would contradict the fatwah (decree) by Ayatollah Khamenei that forbids the production, storage and use of any of WMD. This was not a formal, first-time declaration but has been repeatedly voiced by Iran. If you want to know my opinion, however contradictory this may sound, Iran will adhere to this this fatwah while striving to achieve breakout capability. Iran will not deny itself the right to enrichment uranium for this reason and because its population of approximately 80 million needs cheaper energy. But again, Iran is tired of sanctions. It is ready to make concessions. Rouhani, known as the “Sheikh of Diplomacy” for his successful negotiations in October 2009, is holding the presidential reigns now, so we are seeing more flexibility.

Just a quick reminder that he was the head of the High Council of National Security in 2003-2005 and the Iranian delegation in talks on the Iranian nuclear program with three European powers (Great Britain, France and Germany). Rouhani’s skillful diplomatic moves, his knowledge of foreign languages and readiness for sensible compromise contributed to an agreement with the trio and the avoidance of military escalation on the nuclear issue. Rouhani received his PhD and Masters in Scotland and during the past 8 years has been engaged research, having written over 13 books on Persian, English and Arab. His book “National Diplomacy in the Security Issues and Nuclear Domain” gives such a frank and detailed description of his negotiations with the West that he was even accused in Iran of revealing state secrets.
Published in Commentaries

How would you evaluate the past decade for the Middle East? (Traditional question for our first round of interviews)

This question demands a very broad answer, but briefly: living conditions and societal relations are deteriorating despite a number of political transformations in several Arab countries as a result of social protests, coups and revolutions. In my view, in addition to numerous internal factors, the geopolitical games of the “great powers,” often acting on the principle of divide and conquer, have continued to exert a strong influence. Under Obama’s administration, however, US foreign policy has undergone some changes: if previously, the Americans pursued a unilateral policy of protecting the interests of allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, then during the past few years an awareness seems to have appeared in Washington that this support has been too one-sided. US policy towards Iran has also clearly changed. In my opinion, the significance of the “Arab Spring” for Arab societies is very debatable. Despite the blood spilt and numerous victims, the expected benefits have largely failed to materialize. But again, it is impossible to answer this difficult question briefly and succinctly.


Ahmadinejad’s Iran and Rouhani’s Iran? Two different Irans? Or the same Iran, but with a new face?

Yes, this is a very good question. More likely a new Iran. The electoral campaign and the voting results in the 2013 presidential elections have changed the distribution of power in the internal political arena. After the 2009 campaign, reformers were practically considered rebels, forces aligned with foreign countries seeking to overthrow the regime and change the political system in the country. During the previous eight years, the conservative-radical line dominated domestic and foreign policy while the liberal-leaning end of the spectrum was kept from all three branches of power; but Rouhani’s electoral victory created divisions within the conservative camp, changing the playing field. We should remember that Rouhani campaigned as an independent, but shifted toward reformist policies after his win. It is impossible to liken the current president with the former. Ahmadinejad did Iran a disservice in terms of foreign policy. In both word and deed, he set the international community against Iran. But now the country is undergoing serious changes, even if the results in terms of domestic policy have not yet come to fruition. A new cabinet has been formed which, in contrast to the previous one, can be called a cabinet of national reconciliation. New governors have been appointed who will support the president’s line. Crucially, a civil rights code has been published. Rouhani campaigned with the slogan: “We must implement and guarantee civil rights and do this in all spheres: freedom of speech and the press… for men and for women, for ethnic minorities.” Seventy political prisoners have been granted amnesty. I just returned from Iran, and people there were talking about how the situation within the country has improved. Many people I spoke with said that the former sense of tension has given way to a more relaxed atmosphere, meaning freer. The constant pressure on the people has been eased, and one can feel more leeway in media and websites. This new atmosphere has entered the universities, where I gave a series of lectures. Rouhani’s speech at Teheran University in the beginning of the academic year ushered in a process of reestablishing student unions. “We must remove the security forces and pressure from the universities and relax the atmosphere there,” he said. There is an ongoing process of reinstatement of students and professors expelled after the events of 2009 and of those prematurely pensioned due to their political convictions. This year, dozens of majors, such as sociology and Western literature, formerly prohibited by the Islamization of the humanities, have been returned to the university curricula. Students now have more opportunity freely to express their opinions on different political issues, and they are seizing these opportunities. Great attention is being paid to culture. Within the Supreme Security Council, a special office has been established to manage cultural and economic programs on the reasoning that security involves not only military defense but protecting the country’s cultural values and, of course, its economy. There are certain changes occurring in the cultural sphere, above all, changes and limitations in the way the government interacts with culture. The new Minister of Culture is meeting with cultural figures, theater personalities, and musicians. Other special programs are in development: for example, just after Rouhani’s election he prepared a nine point national program in order to draft legislation to realize fully the potential of the Iranian Constitution, mainly articles 3, 12, 15, 19 and 22. The main goal is to promote a government by meritocracy (regardless of language and religion, e.g. government functionaries selected according to their talents and skills, instead of connections and family clans) and the appointment of competent local officers all over the country.


How does the exclusion of Iran from Geneva-2 negotiations affect the international initiative on the Syrian crisis?

The exclusion of Iran from Geneva-2 negotiations seriously reduces the effectiveness of these meetings. Why? Because both Iran and Saudi Arabia play a powerful role in the internal situation in Syria. These are two of the most active foreign participants in the civil war in Syria. Saudi Arabia not only sponsors different opposition groups in Syria but employs special units in direct combat there. On the other hand, Iran supports Bashar Assad’s regime economically, financially and militarily as well as preparing Lebanese “Hezbollah” combat units in Syria, which have become a crucial player in the civil war and provide great support for the government. It’s worth mentioning that Syria is the only country Iran has signed a treaty of mutual defense with in case of aggression. So it is virtually impossible to resolve the Syrian issue without Iran and Saudi Arabia. The proposal by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hold negotiations between Russia, the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran would have very good prospects, though be rather difficult to implement. The Syrian parties – both Bashar Assad’s regime and the opposition – are unable to come to any substantial agreement. It is the external powers engaged in Syria, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, who must provide the foundation for any agreement. US representatives previously supported the Russian proposal as well, so maybe it has a future. A breakthrough would be difficult even with the presence of all the interested parties: Bashar Assad’s regime, the opposition, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US and the UN; but without Iran, impossible. I fear the situation may be here to stay for the long term, because a certain balance of power has emerged in Syria. Neither can Assad crush opposition, nor can the opposition can overthrow Assad.


What is the future of Russo-Iranian relations? What is Iran for Russia? And Russia for Iran?

Major changes in relations with Russia are unlikely, and for the most part Iran continues to see our country as an ally. That is not to say that there are not reservations. The failure to deliver the S-300 defense system under Western pressure played into the hands of Iranian skeptics about Russia as a partner. With the West now discussing possible sanctions against Russia, some analysts have gone so far as to suggest that sanctions on Iran might be lifted to allow Europe to go without Russian natural resource exports. This of course, would test the Russian-Iranian relationship, but is a very extreme case scenario. More likely is that Rouhani’s tentative rapprochement with the West will not detrimentally affect Iranian relations with Russia. In many spheres, Russia and Iran have similar geopolitical interests, such as security in Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East, which require the maintenance of good ties.


What are the chances, if any, that Iran can be recognized as a fully fledged member of the international community while at the same time maintaining its doggedly independent course?

Much depends on the international situation, political developments around Iran: events in Syria, for example, or the outcome of the presidential elections in the US (Who will take office after Obama and what policies will he or she promote?). It will also depend on the internal situation in Iran. Just before the elections to the previous Majlis of 2011, right-leaning radicals formed a coalition called “The Front of Fidelity to the Islamic Revolution,” or “Paydari,” with Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi as their spiritual leader. The radicals and their candidate Jalili lost the elections and accepted the results but have been asserting their will to regain power ever since. Now they have a rather powerful fraction in Majlis and are challenging Rouhani’s government on international and, to some extent, domestic policy. They will continue to oppose the current government on many things. Radicals are trying to join forces and creating pressure groups against the new administration, and their representatives still have offices in governmental structures, namely in several ministries. It is worth mentioning that the radicals are launching preparations for the new elections to the Majlis (though they will take place only in two-and-a-half years). But Iran has great chances now.


Is the Majlis supporting the new President?

Just after the elections, it seemed the Majlis (the Iranian parliament) would vigorously support Rouhani, and speaker Ali Larijani voiced as much. Despite the apparent readiness to cooperate, however, the Majlis then dragged its feet in confirming newly appointed ministers when the new administration was being formed. And three ministers had to win a Majlis vote of confidence twice, and the last confirmation, the Minister of Education and Sports, was not even appointed until several days before the end of the first 100 days of Rouhani’s administration (moreover, they confirmed only the third candidate). Clearly, the Majlis does not unconditionally support Rouhani’s government. Differences between the Majlis and the administration are manifesting themselves in debates over a new bill called in Persian: “Eslahe modiriyat dar bakhshe omumiye keshvar” (Bill on Changing the Mode of General Governance of the Country), one of whose articles is devoted to regulating cooperation between the Majlis and government. It should be pointed out, however, that one does not see major opposition to Rouhani personally in the Majlis. And though moderate conservatives control the Majlis, Iranian political analysts currently estimate Rouhani’s support there as 50/50.


How do you see future negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program developing?

Let’s hope positively. Iran is tired of sanctions. It is ready for the concessions needed to drop the sanctions, from which ordinary people are suffering most. Unfortunately, there are interests and politicians who want to keep Iran in the “axis of evil.” If the ongoing negotiations in Vienna that began in Geneva fail, Iran will face more severe sanctions. Any broad-based agreement between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany would be a solid success, as both Iran and the US have many internal opponents to fruitful negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. Still, there is a more palpable willingness to resolve this issue now. Iran has made several concessions on the nuclear program: the joint action plan of November 24 (in effect from January 20 until June 20) is a serious breakthrough. They are trying to hammer out a final agreement, but it goes without saying that much difficult negotiating remains to be done.


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Published in Interviews
Sunday, 26 January 2014 18:41

Russia a winner in improved US-Iran ties

The recent rapprochement between Iran and the United States, regardless of how fragile it is, has driven a number of analysts and politicians in Russia and abroad to speculate about the possible negative consequences for Russia’s relations with Iran of Tehran’s “pivot to America.” I find such speculation and fear of the possible decline of Iran-Russia ties baseless. Russia is interested in the normalization of the Iran-US relationship, and can clearly benefit from it.

First from the Russian perspective, Moscow is no less interested than the West in clearing up suspicions about the Iranian nuclear program, which is the main condition for normalization, and excluding the possibility of Iran's nuclear weaponization. Second, the lifting of sanctions would allow Russian companies access to the Iranian market. The Russian companies believe that they can compete with others successfully, particularly in the spheres where they have already acquired expertise and where they are able to offer better projects on better conditions. The geographical proximity of Russia and Iran can also ease the development of new projects, including the possible construction of new nuclear plants.

There was a leak from well-informed circles to the Russian media that the Iranians were negotiating with the Russian company Atomstroyexport on the construction of two new units in the Bushehr plant that would produce 1,000 megawatts each. Third, it will remove all barriers to Russian-Iranian military and technical cooperation (let us remember in this regard the failed delivery of the C-300 missile systems, met with outrage by Tehran). Fourth, as Moscow sees it, even in the case of full normalization with the West, Tehran will need diversification and counterbalances. Constructive diplomatic cooperation between Russia and Iran on the Syrian crisis and Russia’s recognition of Tehran’s regional role would support this.

During my visit to Tehran, just before Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s visit to Russia, almost all my interlocutors, including several high-level officials, asserted that President Hassan Rouhani is determined to foster ties with Russia exactly now, when he is feeling an urgent need for that. During Zarif’s visit, a lot of issues were discussed, including a trade deal between Russia and Iran for the purchase of up to 500 barrels per day of crude Iranian oil in exchange of Russian goods worth of $18 billion annually.

The idea of this oil-for-goods deal was proposed for the first time to President Vladimir Putin by Rouhani in Bishkek, during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in September 2013. This was, the Iranian diplomats said, followed up by them in the course of two telephone conversations, as well as during Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Tehran Dec. 13, 2013. By the way, the Iranian side sees in Putin’s two calls to Rouhani a sign of a real breakthrough in Moscow’s approach toward cooperation with Iran at a time when the level of trade and economic exchanges dropped last year to an extremely low level of less that $2 billion. Iranians remember that during his visit to Tehran, Lavrov said that the volume of trade between the two states should be at the level of $30 billion.

The US administration expressed its serious concern about the Russia-Iran trade deal, and even considers it “inconsistent with the terms of the P5+1 agreement with Iran,” as Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, told Reuters. She warned that it “could potentially trigger US sanctions.” But Putin insisted in response that it was Russia’s right to buy oil from Iran, because it had never subscribed to any unilateral sanctions on Iran either by the United States or the European Union, and did not have any obligations related to them.

I don’t share the view of some analysts who think that the main incentive for accepting the Iranian proposal for Russia was of a political nature, though a political message can be also found in it. My guess is that in reality, the Russian leadership believes that the determination of Rouhani to solve the nuclear crisis by the means of concessions is genuine, and Iranians can be trusted. Projecting such a scenario, one can easily assume that pretty soon, lots of companies will rush to make deals with Iran. So far, even in the worst-case scenario, in which the sides are not able to immediately start working on the oil-for-food scheme, it is still practical to reserve a place to Russia for the future. Such a project is economically feasible and profitable for both sides. The experience of the Russian LUKOIL company's deal with Iraq under sanctions was also considered impractical by many experts, and after the fall of the regime it looked like Russia was going to lose Iraq, given its disapproval of the invasion. Now, I don’t know who exactly is losing Iraq — the worst thing that can happen is that all of us together lose it — and anyway, LUKOIL is already working there. The recently signed Russian contract with the Syrians on a Mediterranean shelf gas field stands in the same group of projects.

As of now, we don’t exactly know what goods will be delivered to Iran, or how. Russian experts say that it needs black metals, machinery and other equipment, vegetable oil and wheat. Anyway, this is not a purely barter deal, and there definitely should be financial transactions. We can presume that the purchased oil will be forwarded not to Russia but to its customers, probably in Asia. There is some speculation that the Syrian interests might have been somehow involved here, but that’s just a guess.

We’ll see how the events around this deal are going to unfold and to what extent it can really boost Russian-Iranian economic cooperation, which has always faced obstacles. Those are, for instance, a feeling of mistrust toward Russia deeply embedded in the Iranian mentality based on historic grievances and the feelings of vulnerability, fear, isolation and suspicion. I often hear from my Iranian colleagues complaints about not only the non-delivery of the C-300s, but even the conquest of the southern Caucasus in the 19th century (already three independent states) and the failure to submit to Tehran the original copies of the treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmanchai (1828). There is also very strong pro-Western sentiment in the Iranian public.

As I was told some time ago, Iranian negotiators with the United States and other Western partners have been instructed by the supreme leader of Iran, given the priority of lifting sanctions, to concentrate entirely on the nuclear issue and to avoid negotiating all other topics. I can mention in this regard to one of the questions I recently got from an audience in the United States, about the possibility of striking a deal with Tehran on changing its position toward the Syrian crisis, Israel or the situation in Lebanon. One of the Iranian analysts I talked with suggested that new issues can be brought onto the negotiating table if the Americans demonstrate a “real desire” to make a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue. According to a senior diplomat, their complaints can be summarized into two issues: that the Americans begin bargaining after they have already signed documents, and that they are delaying the process. But the Iranians themselves will surely be interested in discussing the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are important for the Americans. By the way, I heard from the same source that Tehran is not very afraid of the scenario of the Taliban coming to power in Kabul because “They have learned lessons from the past and are not the same Taliban as they used to be before 2001.”

Moscow is also interested in expanding security cooperation with Tehran on Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US forces on two main tracks: deterring the threat coming from international terrorist groups, especially with a significant Central Asian component, and confronting the flow of narcotics into their territory. Last year, areas under the cultivation of poppy in Afghanistan grew by more than 30% because many Afghans started losing their jobs with American withdrawal and turned back to their old business.

Yet earlier this week, when I met former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, now the head of the Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research and an advisor the the supreme leader, he highlighted above all Iran-Russia cooperation toward the Syrian conflict, expressing his confidence in a political solution and “conditional” optimism about the future of Syria.

Original publication is available here

Published in Tribune
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