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Broader U.S. Policy Needed on Iran

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 11, 2009

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CFR's top Iran expert Ray Takeyh says Iran's foreign policy stems "almost entirely from domestic political considerations, which are evolving in unpredictable ways." "I don't believe at this point that the Islamic Republic has a foreign policy if you classify foreign policy as when a country identifies its interests abroad and tries to achieve them," he says. Takeyh, who earlier this year was an adviser on Iran in the State Department, says therefore, it may be a mistake for the major powers, including the United States, to concentrate so much on the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. "I always felt that the canvas should be broadened and the nuclear issue should be situated in its proper place among the set of concerns. But it has been elevated to the point of impracticality," he says.

Iran agreed to a deal struck  in Vienna within the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany, for Iran to transfer most of its enriched uranium to Russia to be processed for medical research in Tehran. But now Iran is trying to negotiate for new terms. Iran's domestic situation remains in a boil. And most recently, Iran is threatening to prosecute the three American hikers who crossed into Iran during the summer for espionage. What's going on?

I would say that on the Vienna agreement President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad probably got a little bit ahead of the political system in Iran, and in this particular foray he did not have full support within the body politic. He might have done it for his own reasons; he seems to feel that the way to deal with his domestic deficiencies is to have high profile negotiations abroad. But the rest of the political system might not have been ready for that kind of an agreement. But it may be revived again. Iran is not a land of permanents.

Do you think this agreement is not going to be approved now?

I don't think Iranians ever reject an offer. They always come back with a counteroffer, and then you negotiate endlessly over that particular counteroffer--but who knows where things end up. On the issue of hikers, my suspicion is that there will be the usual song and dance and they'll be released at some point, but this is Iran's registering its opposition to some of the Western accusations of their welching on the Vienna agreement. This is a sideshow. My suspicion is that after some sort of a process they'll be released. This issue has some sort of time limit to it.

And on the domestic situation?

"You may be able to arrive at a better nuclear agreement if you can identify areas of common interest while working on issues where the two parties tend to be more intractable. But we have chosen the one issue on which Iranians are the most intractable as the opening and closing line of our negotiation song book."

The domestic situation at this particular point operates at two levels. Number one, there's domestic fervency that hasn't died down as a result of the June election. There's a state-society division. Within the governing elite, you began to see divisions about how to approach the issue as well: whether you go for a full-scale, systematic purge of the political system or whether you engage in a haphazard crisis management approach. The foreign policy of the country derives from those domestic considerations.

In other words, the domestic situation is priority?

I don't believe at this point that the Islamic Republic has a foreign policy if you classify foreign policy as when a country identifies its interests abroad and tries to achieve them, or as when a country seeks to export its revolution, or as when a country seeks to project its power. The Iranian foreign policy is currently derived almost entirely from domestic political considerations, which are evolving in unpredictable ways.

You suggested in an op-ed in the Washington Post that you think the United States is putting too much emphasis on the nuclear negotiations right now.

I have always thought that the Western powers had too narrow a focus in the sense that they privileged the nuclear issue over other sets of considerations. It was always impractical. A nuclear agreement with Iran will be very difficult to sustain if the Iran-Hezbollah relationship remains unaltered. I always felt that the canvas should be broadened and the nuclear issue should be situated in its proper place among the set of concerns. But it has been elevated to the point of impracticality.

If you were still in government, would you suggest the United States start focusing more on the domestic problems in Iran?

No, I would have a broader base of diplomatic negotiations. I would say to the Iranians that the negotiations will have to be more comprehensive, and they would include Iranian concerns that Western powers and others are subsidizing cross-border raids into their country or their concern over the future of Iraq, or the Gulf security architecture. In that particular sense, the nuclear issue will be among the baskets. You may be able to arrive at a better nuclear agreement if you can identify areas of common interest while working on issues where the two parties tend to be more intractable. But we have chosen the one issue on which Iranians are the most intractable as the opening and closing line of our negotiation song book.

Have the Iranians indicated that they're interested in a broader negotiation with the United States?

"I think [the Obama administration] could focus more on some of the domestic deficiencies, and I suspect that this will happen over time as those domestic deficiencies become more profound."

I don't know what the private dialogue between the two countries is. But at this particular point this issue is deliberated in the context of the P5+1,[the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany] which as a framework has structural limitations, because it really is designed to deal almost exclusively with the nuclear issue. There are no other channels of discussion as far as I know. The P5+1 could be turned into more of a comprehensive framework, as was done with the Six-Party Talks with North Korea, but it'll take a long time. It is possible that at this particular point no negotiations can succeed. Iranians may not be susceptible to a diplomatic settlement of issues because they have a set of domestic preoccupations or they simply don't have an interest in arriving at a nuclear agreement.

It was interesting that when news of the tentative agreement became public  it was criticized not only by the hardliners in Iran, but by the leading opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.

Their criticism was a bit cleverer. On the one side, they said that this is an agreement where a national resource--enriched fuel--is being given away while the leadership has always said it [is of] great significance. Yet at the same time, if you don't do this then you'll face a greater degree of sanctions that will [further] debilitate the economy. In essence, they were criticizing not necessarily the deal itself but the deal as a symptom of a maladroit, incompetent, and unnecessarily belligerent foreign policy. So it was a larger narrative.

And the hardliners' criticism is simply that they don't want to make a deal with the West?

They don't want to export enriched uranium that they possess. If you're interested in having a nuclear weapons capability, you require as much enriched uranium as you can accumulate.

How do you think this is going to be resolved?

I suspect that there will be lots of negotiations and counterproposals, with more negotiations and counterproposals, etc. I still wouldn't rule out that at some point, some portion of low-enriched uranium will come out. But with the Iranians, you just never know.

The Obama administration has been careful to proceed very gingerly in its criticism of Iran's political system. During the Cold War, the United States would not have hesitated to criticize Iran's human rights record. Is the Obama administration too soft?

I think it could focus more on some of the domestic deficiencies, and I suspect that this will happen over time as those domestic deficiencies become more profound. My suspicion is that they don't want to scuttle the prospective agreement on the low-enriched uranium, which may still be tenable. But I do think that at some point you need to start talking about whether criticism of Iran's domestic difficulties--domestic repression, actually--will scuttle a potential diplomatic agreement. Maybe the Cold War formula is applicable at this time.

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