Finding a Way Forward With Iran

The White House should seize on Tehran’s diplomatic signals to advance a resolution to the nuclear question and potentially Syria, says expert Mohsen M. Milani.

September 26, 2013

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Iran’s welcoming diplomatic gestures present a rare window of opportunity for the Obama administration to forge progress on the nuclear question and the crisis in Syria, says Iran expert Mohsen Milani. "Today, Iran is more prepared to negotiate with the United States than at any time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979," he says. Still, headway will likely be challenged by forces in both nations that have benefited from the longstanding contretemps, he explains.

Iran President Hassan RouhaniIranian president Hassan Rouhani (Photo: Raheb Homavandi/Courtesy Reuters)

I thought the speeches at the UN General Assembly by Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani were very unusual in that they seemed to be laying the groundwork for possible negotiations. Do you agree with that?

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I do. The most striking feature of the two speeches was their conciliatory tone. The leaders of the United States and Iran talked about the possibility of opening a new chapter in the tortured relationship between their respective countries. That should not be taken lightly, for the two countries have been engaged in more than three decades of mutual demonization of the other. President Obama went out of his way to explicitly declare that the United States is not seeking a regime change in Iran, and that Iran has the right to have access to nuclear energy. At the same time, he emphasized that he will not allow Iran to build the bomb. He did not, I must add, recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil—something the Islamic Republic has consistently demanded.

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President Rouhani explicitly stated that nuclear weapons have no place in Iran’s defense doctrine. He admitted that there are major strategic and ideological differences between the two governments, and the best we can do at this time is establish mechanisms to manage such differences.

Overall, the two speeches didn’t offer any new policy proposals—UN speeches rarely do. But the conciliatory tone of the speeches was remarkable and encouraging.

Iran has said all along it does not want nuclear weapons. Was there some particular element that led you to think that this time was different?

I agree that there were no major policy proposals or policy changes by Rouhani. However, he opened a new window of opportunity for talking and negotiating with the United States. The two countries seemed to have decided to date each other for a limited time and get to know each other. He also emphasized that the differences between the two countries can be resolved peacefully and quickly.

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"Today, Iran is more prepared to negotiate with the United States than at any time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This unprecedented opportunity should not be missed by Washington."

We’ll know fairly soon, when Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif sits down with Secretary of State John Kerry and the other members of the so-called P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) group to talk about specifics, starting on Thursday. Are you optimistic that they’ll actually make progress this time, after not doing so for several years?

I hate to use this cliché, but I am cautiously optimistic. There are powerful signals from Tehran that they want to negotiate. Today, Iran is more prepared to negotiate with the United States than at any time since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. This unprecedented opportunity should not be missed by Washington. Both the United States and Iran are now much more serious than ever before to resolve their nuclear dispute through non-kinetic ways.

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Moreover, the Europeans are now also on board; they, too, are pushing for a peaceful resolution. That said, we should always remember that there are many forces in Iran, in the United States, and in the region that have profited from this stalemate between Tehran and Washington. They will do everything they can to sabotage any rapprochement. I wouldn’t be surprised if a year from now we are exactly where we are today.

The United States, of course, would also like to have Iran’s support in trying to bring about a solution to the crisis in Syria. Was there any indication in Rouhani’s speech on the issue of Syria? We know Rouhani is opposed to the use of chemical weapons.

Not in his speech. The only important point he made about Syria, which is not new, and even Ahmadinejad had made it before, is that there should be elections in Syria. Interestingly, he talked about elections in Syria; he also talked about elections in Bahrain. Is he trying to link the future of Syria to the future of Bahrain?

"Iran’s ultimate strategic objective in Syria after two years of devastating and bloody civil war is not the survival of Assad, but rather the survival of the Syrian state."

If our expectation is that Iran will completely stop its support for Syria, we will be disappointed. However, there are indications in Iran that the Islamic Republic is gradually trying to distance itself from Assad. Iran’s ultimate strategic objective in Syria after two years of devastating and bloody civil war is not the survival of Assad, but rather the survival of the Syrian state. Tehran will do its best to protect its close relationship with the security and military forces of the Syrian regime. I would not be surprised if, for example, Iran agrees to a different kind of government in Syria, as long as the security forces and the armed forces remain intact. Iran is interested in Syria because it is a safe conduit for transferring arms and weapons to Hezbollah.

President Obama was clear yesterday that Iran and Russia are delusional if they think Assad can survive. Right he is. I simply do not see how Assad can survive after the atrocities he has committed. His hands are stained with the blood of thousands of innocent people.

So what’s the way forward, then?

Iran and the United States seem to share two common objectives in Syria. The first is to prevent the total collapse of the Syrian state. The United States has correctly learned from its experience in Iraq that it cannot afford to allow the Syrian state to collapse. The disintegration of the Syrian state will create a security vacuum, accentuate the sectarian war in that country, and empower the terrorists. The second common goal is to defeat the jihadists who are operating in Syria. Somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of the opposition to Assad are organizations that are either jihadist or affiliated with al-Qaeda. Iran, like the United States and even Russia, is very concerned about the spread of these extremist jihadist organizations in Syria.

If Iran is invited to a Geneva II conference on Syria, we will know if Iranian policy under Rouhani has moderated or not.

Obviously, the UN negotiations, the 5+1, will proceed. Parallel to that, there must be bilateral negotiations between Iran and the United States. I believe Iran must be invited to the Geneva II talks, which will open a third channel of communication between the states. All along we have heard that Iran is part of the problem in Syria. Let’s see if Iran is now willing to become part of the solution.

There was a lot of expectation this week that there would be a handshake between Obama and Rouhani. The media seemed most interested in that. And of course, there was none. Were you surprised at that?

There was considerable hype and sensationalization about the two speeches, and the possible handshake. Frankly, I was disappointed but not surprised that there was no handshake between Obama and Rouhani. Actually, I was hoping that they would meet for a few minutes and talk. However, I understand Rouhani’s predicament.

An extremely cautious man, Rouhani did not want to move too fast and take a big chance by shaking Obama’s hand. The forces inside Iran that oppose any rapprochement with the United States are powerful and are carefully watching every move Rouhani makes. He understands that if he moves too quickly on this sensitive issue, he will be undermined.


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