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Parsi: Iran Unlikely to Halt Nuclear Enrichment Unless the United States Agrees to Direct Talks

Interviewee: Trita Parsi
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 31, 2006

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Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, and a specialist on Iranian foreign affairs at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says that there is little likelihood of ending the crisis with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program "unless there are some direct negotiations between the United States and Iran." He claims that the Iranian nuclear program is "primarily driven by the Iranian threat perception of the United States."

Asked about the surprise public letter sent by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President George W. Bush, he says the fact that Bush declined to answer the document resulted in a public relations victory for the Iranians. "After about a week, what people remembered is not that it was a letter that really did not contain much. What they remembered is that the Iranian president sent the American president a letter and the American president did not reply."

Parsi says that "if the United States agrees to talk and there is less of a threat perception on the Iranian side—threatening language on both sides obviously has to be reduced—then I think it is definitely doable to get a time-specific period in which the Iranians will agree to suspend nuclear enrichment."

The Security Council is expected to come up with a resolution of some sort this week dealing with Iran's nuclear program. What do you think it is going to come up with?

I think at the end of the day, whatever type of resolution the Council comes up with, I doubt it will be a Chapter Seven resolution that references force. I think that most analysts have come to the conclusion that at the end of the day this issue cannot be resolved unless there are some direct negotiations between the United States and Iran. This diplomatic dance can continue, and it can look bad and look better, but at the end, resolution is very unlikely unless there is American participation in the talks. And the reason why this is so important is because the Iranian program at this stage is primarily driven by the Iranian threat perception of the United States.

On that question of direct talks between Washington and Tehran, what do you think the state of play is?

I think it is interesting to see that it has changed in a direction that people had not necessarily expected. Increasingly, people in Washington, people in Congress, and [people] elsewhere are coming to the conclusion that unless there is direct American participation in the talks, it is likely that this process will lead to a conflict.

And as a result, more and more pressure has been put on the White House to take up these negotiations with the Iranians, mindful of the fact that the United States itself already okayed talks with Iran over the issue of Iraq. A lot of people are arguing and saying, "Well, that means that the door has already been open." We cannot argue that we would legitimize the government in Iran or anything along those lines because we have already agreed to talk to them on the issue of Iraq. Now, even though the Iraq talks ended up not taking place, the decision was made by the president to have those talks, and that means the door is open.

How did you interpret the letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush on May 8? Was that an offer to talk? What was the reason for that letter?

I think the letter from the Iranian perspective was a win/win situation. Ahmadinejad showed that you can talk to the United States without necessarily coming across as weak and without putting yourself in a morally inferior position. He showed his audience in the Muslim streets that you can talk to the United States and lecture it instead of constantly being lectured. From the Iranian perspective, had the United States decided to reply to the letter, the Iranians would have been well-placed because they truly do want to have talks with the United States because they know without those talks they cannot get anywhere. If the United States decided not to respond to the letter, which is what happened, the Iranians would be all right because it gave them the opportunity to portray themselves as reasonable and willing to talk, whereas the United States came across as the unwilling partner reluctant to give diplomacy a fair chance. After about a week, what people remembered is not that it was a letter that really did not contain much. What they remembered is that the Iranian president sent the American president a letter and the American president did not reply.

Do you have any information that would support the articles that have appeared in the press suggesting that in addition to that letter the Iranians have been sending diplomatic messages to the United States, proposing direct talks on a nuclear issue?

I think there was a lot of talk about Mohammad Nahavandian's strange visit to Washington at the end of March.

He is an adviser to Ali Larijani, the national security advisor in Iran, who has been conducting the nuclear negotiations.

Why was he in Washington?

Well, I think he had many different reasons. I think he did have private reasons, but I am personally convinced—after having met with him—that he did have on his agenda seeking talks with the United States in order to salvage the Iraq talks that were being held up by the United States, and at the same time convinc[ing] the Americans to expand those talks to also include the nuclear issue.

To the best of my knowledge, he did not end up meeting anyone from the U.S. administration.

There are voices from many different quarters in the United States, urging that the administration answer the Iranians or at least have direct talks with the Iranians, but so far there is no indication that the administration has made that decision yet. Do you think the administration will agree to a dialogue?

I think right now more and more people in the White House are understanding that they have to seriously look at this issue. But I don't think thus far there has been any decision made. I think what they fear is that they are going to enter negotiations from a position that is relatively weaker than what it would have been had they made the decision to talk back in January after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Undersecretary of State [R.] Nicholas Burns basically managed to get the issue referred to the Security Council, much to the surprise of the Iranians.

That could have been a perfect opportunity to enter negotiations and do so from a position of strength because the United States had just shown its diplomatic finesse, but they didn't choose that opportunity and instead the issue stalled. The Iranians went ahead with their enrichment, and I think people in the administration may have felt at that stage the United States would enter negotiations from a relatively weak position. The problem with that reasoning, however, is that enrichment is not the only issue that we have to discuss with the Iranians. We also have to talk to the Iranians about drugs, about Iraq, about terror, about peace in the Middle East, about a whole range of different issues. We should not focus so much on enrichment and forget about all these other issues that need to be talked about, including human rights in Iran. On all those issues the United States is still in a very strong position.

When the Security Council finally issues some statement, then another opportunity will present itself because there will probably be talks with the Iranians again.

Well, if the resolution is such that the United States can portray it as a step that is strengthening its position, then yes definitely. That would be a situation in which one could argue [it] would be good timing for the United States to enter talks. The problem in the process though is that hardliners in Washington, when [the United States was] in a position of strength, argue[d] that precisely because of America's strength there was no reason for talks with Iran. And ending up in the situation in which they have lost some of that strength, then they have argued, "well, we can't talk now because we would enter it from a relatively weaker position." But if we can't talk when we are strong and we can't talk when we are not strong, then when on earth can we talk?

I am going to go back in history three years. Let's talk about that apparent letter to the United States from the Iranian government in 2003, proposing a wide ranging set of discussions, which obviously was never accepted by the United States. It has been commented on by Flynt Leverett, among others, that this refusal was a mistake. Does this current government in Iran stand by that letter, or is that simply a letter sent by the previous administration?

We have to keep one thing in mind. The only thing that has changed between now and then is that the President [Khatami] that didn't have that much power has been replaced with another president that still does not have much power. The key leadership in Iran that [was] in power is still in power and that person is obviously Ayatollah Khamenei. Now, the situation has changed in another way though: the fact that the United States did not respond to that proposal left the Iranians with the impression that the United States might not have any problems with Iranian policies, because Iran was willing to discuss and change all of those policies, but rather the United States may have a problem with Iran's rise in power—in that there is really nothing Iran could do policy-wise to appease the Bush administration. This is probably the reason why the hands have been strengthened in Iran of those who have argued the only way Iran can deal with the United States is by developing deterrence capabilities against it. I've spoken to Iranian diplomats who say that if confidence-building measures are taken and talks are started, in a mutually respectful manner, then much of what was in those proposals will be on the agenda again from the Iranian perspective.

Let's get to the essence of the problem. Do you think that if the United States had discussions with Iran it is conceivable that Iran would suspend its nuclear enrichment program?

The Iranians already offered the Europeans on January 30th of this year to suspend their enrichment program. That proposal was dismissed by the Europeans.

For what reason?

Because at the time, the Europeans had already made an agreement for the United States to refer the issue to the Security Council. From their perspective it was too little too late, but it did show that the Iranians are willing to suspend if they can get something in return. The ultimate Iranian goal would be if the United States agrees to talk and the United States agrees to resolve some of these issues diplomatically with Iran in a way that reduces the Iranian threat perception from United States. I think if that happens there are strong reasons to believe that Iran will agree to suspend enrichment.

But they would offer to do so within a specific time frame. I do not think they would do it the same way they did it with the Europeans back in 2003, when they said, "we'll suspend enrichment as long as negotiations take place." From the Iranian perspective, that was a mistake because then the Europeans could drag on the negotiations without reaching any solution and Iran would not be able to enrich. What they suggested to the Europeans on January 30th of this year was to suspend enrichment for two years and within those two years find a solution, a solution that both sides can accept. So, I would say that if the United States agrees to talk and there is less of a threat perception on the Iranian side—threatening language on both sides obviously has to be reduced—then I think it is definitely doable to get a time-specific period in which the Iranians will agree to suspend nuclear enrichment.

One last question. I would like your view on this whole discussion that Ahmadinejad has started about the Holocaust because I noticed he had a long interview the other day with Der Spiegel magazine in Germany. And he kept raising doubts about whether the Holocaust ever happened. What is his point in all of this?

I think there are several factors involved in it: on the one hand, this is something that is strengthening him internally, not because the Iranian people necessarily care about this issue—I frankly think they are not terribly excited about this issue at all. It puts Ahmadinejad's domestic rivals in an ideological bind. He is putting people like [former President] Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in a tough position because he is going back to the roots of the revolution and is somewhat forcing them to try and soften what he is saying. And every time that Rafsanjani is trying to soften the rhetoric coming from Ahmadinejad's mouth, he comes across as being soft on Israel within Iran's domestic political context, which is not a position that Rafsanjani wants to be in obviously. On the other hand, what Ahmadinejad is doing is trying to portray this conflict increasingly as between the Islamic world and Israel and the West. This has a great appeal on the Arab and Muslim streets, and it's making it much more difficult for Arab governments—including the Arab governments of the Persian Gulf—to take the American side against Iran, even though they are very concerned about Iran's nuclear program, because if they do so, they come across as siding with Israel against an Islamic neighbor.

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