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Crisis-Managing U.S.-Iran Relations

Interviewee: Gary G. Sick, Senior Research Scholar, Columbia University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 6, 2012

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The results of Iran's March 2 parliamentary elections have bolstered the position of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with a majority of seats going to his allies (NYT). Khamenei will now likely move to end the presidential system to further consolidate "his power as the ultimate leader in Iran," says Iran expert Gary Sick. Sick, who was the principal White House aide for Iran during the hostage crisis of 1979-1981--when Iranians seized the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran--says he favors a process similar to the one that ended that crisis to resolve today's tensions over Iran's controversial nuclear program. Just as the United States and Iran negotiated then through a mediator, Algeria, Sick recommends that they use a go-between to discuss the nuclear issue. "Doing it through somebody else actually is a much more effective way of making progress with the Iranians," he says, "and the Iranians feel much more comfortable with it that way also." Sick proposes the Turkish government could be well-suited to play the mediator's role.

How do you read the results of the Iranian elections?

[T]here is a very real possibility that Iran will do away with the presidential system.

The real measure of a free election is one in which there's a possibility of surprise. And in this case, there was no possibility of surprise. The regime controlled who was permitted to run, and basically it hand-picked the people that they thought were acceptable to the ruling elite led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Council of Guardians, and not supporting President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.

The regime controlled the media totally, so no stories appeared that in any way challenged the underlying premise, which was that you should vote and express your views against the foreigners that are trying to undercut the regime, and display your loyalty to the supreme leader.

And thirdly, the regime controlled the counting of the ballots. Earlier, Khamenei and others had confidently predicted that 65 percent of the people would vote, and the number of voters who turned out, according the media, was 64.6 percent of the population.

Do we know if the number of votes is inflated?

That doesn't mean that it's not true, but it certainly raises questions. Khamenei suggested last year that Iran really didn't need a presidential system. If you look at the outcome of the vote, you have Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, who was the top vote-getter in the Tehran district, which is the most prestigious of all the districts in Iran. And he would become the next speaker of the Majlis very likely, because of his vote total and because of his close association with Khamenei. His daughter is married to Khamenei's son. If the figures are right and the outcome is as it appears, with a significant majority of the people committed to the direct support of Khamenei, it means that [Khamenei] will have a Majlis that is completely his own.

Will Khamenei seek the end of the presidential system?

[In the 1997] presidential elections, Mohammad Khatami [was] elected, who was a surprise and really tried to reform the system. It took the hardliners a long time to squash that movement. It was put down for good, at least for the time being, in June 2009, with the suppression of the Green Movement after the contested elections. There's every reason to think it would be a lot easier to run that country, from Khamenei's point of view, if he didn't have the problem of presidential elections, which actually can lead to that kind of uprising and furor.

[T]here is very good evidence that somebody from the outside is supporting dissident movements within Iran.

So, if the Majlis, which he has handpicked, in fact vote on a prime minister of his choice, somebody who can be kicked out again by the Majlis if he doesn't work out too well, [it] would seem to be a great solution from his point of view. So there is a very real possibility that Iran will do away with the presidential system. There really is no surprise about any of this. I would like to regard this as one further step in Khamenei's consolidation of his power as the ultimate leader in Iran, and I only qualify that to say that he's there only by the grace of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

The main issue on the table regarding Iran right now is the controversy brewing over its nuclear program. What is Iran's position vis-ŕ-vis negotiations with the West?

Iran has sent a letter to Catherine Ashton, vice president of the European Commission, who represents the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) that have been the negotiating entity with Iran. Iran said it was prepared to meet for negotiations, and they made it very clear that they want this to be without preconditions, i.e., they will not accept a negotiation agenda in which it is determined in advance that the result is going to be Iran giving up all of its uranium enrichment capabilities. They're not going to do that.

But if the P5+1 accepts no precondition with regards to negotiations, then Iran is prepared to meet with the P5+1 to discuss all issues, and that would include the nuclear issue. The P5+1 have agreed to that, in principle, and there's a possibility that there could be a negotiating session by the end of March. It's not certain that that will happen, but it could.

Is this a sign of flexibility by Iran?

It is a real change, and it is partly brought on by the most crippling sanctions they have faced thus far. It's obviously having an impact on their economy. The reverse side is if the European oil embargo sanctions go into effect, as they are supposed to by the middle of this year, there is a very real chance that Iran will retaliate in some form. I don't think Iran is going to retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz or launching a military strike. They will launch their own "weapon of mass destruction," which is the price of oil.

For instance, since the first exchange of rhetoric about closing the Strait of Hormuz at the beginning of this year, oil prices have gone up almost 15 percent. That is not all due to the nuclear crisis, but a lot of it is. And uncertainty about what's going to happen keeps the prices up. If, in fact, Iran loses half of its national revenue, which is what the current sanctions would do if they actually worked, that would be in effect economic warfare, and Iran would regard it as such.

My favorite negotiating process is not necessarily the P5+1, but the United States representing itself and its allies through a mediator.

Together with the Stuxnet virus, which was used to interfere with Iran's centrifuges, not to mention the assassination of nuclear scientists in Tehran, there is very good evidence that somebody from the outside is supporting dissident movements within Iran. Most countries would regard that as "unfriendly," if not actual warfare. Iran is going to see it the same [way], and they have something to be gained by keeping the price of oil as high as possible. If it is that way over a long period of time, [it] is going to kick the world back into, if not a recession [or] depression, at least another economic decline. President Obama suggested as much in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee when he said that the costs of a war with Iran far outweigh any benefits that might come from such a war.

Is there any possibility of a direct negotiation between the United States and Iran, or does the United States have to go through the P5+1 format?

The presence of the United States across the negotiating table from Iran is crucial. It doesn't have to be bilateral, but basically the United States has to be fully on board in any decision that is taken, in any position that is negotiated. The Iranians know that, and so does everybody else.

My favorite negotiating process is not necessarily the P5+1, but the United States representing itself and its allies through a mediator. We have done this in the past with great success. People forget that this is the way the hostage crisis in 1979-81 was actually resolved, quite successfully.

In that case, the Iranians actually proposed the Algerians [as mediators]. The Algerians did a brilliant job, acting as go-betweens between the United States and Iran, because we simply couldn't talk to each other. Even if we were sitting across the table from each other, we couldn't talk to each other. Everything was done through the Algerians; all the communications, all the proposals, the counterproposals, the drafts.

We have Turkey now, which is a member of NATO, which is clearly interested in conducting a negotiation with Iran. They even have a successful track record. The Turks negotiated with Iran last year, got a deal to do a [fuel] swap that [the United States] had proposed. We turned [Iran] down because we were busy getting sanctions and we were afraid it would interfere with our sanctions process. There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the U.S. administration to use anybody else [as mediator in negotiations with Iran]. Doing it through somebody else actually is a much more effective way of making progress with the Iranians. And the Iranians feel much more comfortable with it that way also. This is an aspect of a problem that has gotten no public attention at all, and I really think it should.

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