Ice is Breaking Rapidly Between Iran and US: Interview with Gary Sick

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“We are moving very rapidly from a situation in which American diplomats had to leave the room when Iranians came in because they were afraid that they might be forced into contact, to a point where in fact they look forward to seeing each other and comparing notes…And it actually changes everything,” said Professor Gary Sick, an Iran scholar at Columbia University and a former staff member of the US National Security Council focusing on Iranian affairs. 

Professor Sick said Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has the political capital at home to move his agenda forward, and showed no signs of being nervous or hiding anything. On Friday, Rouhani’s Twitter feed described his historic phone call with US President Barack Obama.

“He [Rouhani] has broken every single one of the limits that have existed in the past. We had direct contacts between senior American officials and Iranian officials, not just the secretary of state, but actually a number of his subordinates talked to a number of Iranian subordinates. There were serious negotiations. The Iranians sat in on a meeting of the P5+1 at the ministerial level, which is unprecedented. The position that they took in that meeting was also unprecedented in terms of proposing a negotiated settlement that was, at least for Secretary Kerry, enough to believe that it was worth pursuing.”

“[Rouhani] has been the personal representative of the Supreme Leader in their National Security Council for twenty-five years, and he has participated in every major strategic and security decision that Iran has made in the last quarter century. He is obviously trusted and respected by the Supreme Leader.”

Professor Sick said that the US and Iran have strong points of agreement over Syria, and that could help forge their relationship. However, allies of the US and members of the US Congress may not react positively.

“There’s going to be a huge amount of diplomatic fallout from this,” said Professor Sick. “I will be very interested to see how the Saudis, for instance, react to this. The Israelis obviously are going to find this really difficult to deal with. And there are many other players; there are going to be constituencies in this country, the Congress is probably going to be very reluctant to go along with this.”

Nonetheless, the conversation between the two presidents last week and their indications that a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue is possible is “about as good as anybody could have hoped for,” according to Professor Sick. It’s clear that the Iranians want a negotiated settlement within a year, Sick said. “They would like to get it done within six months, or even three months if possible. Nobody that I know believes that it can be done that quickly. On the other hand, when the ice starts breaking, it sometimes surprises you how fast things can [go], if in fact the political will exists on both sides.”

“He’s a very serious fellow,” Professor Sick said of Rouhani. “He is not a grandstander, he isn’t like Ahmadinejad was: simply looking for publicity at all costs without really caring what damage he did.”

The interview was conducted by Marie O’Reilly, associate editor at the International Peace Institute.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Transcript

Marie O’Reilly: I’m here today with Professor Gary Sick, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Thank you so much for speaking with us today, Professor Sick. 

Gary Sick: My pleasure. 

MOR: President Obama and President Rouhani spoke on the phone Friday, the first direct talks between US and Iranian presidents since 1979. What is the significance of this for the relationship between the two countries?

GS: Well, I think for one thing, it puts the lack of handshake [during the UN General Assembly] in a different kind of perspective. That basically the two sides had an opportunity yesterday to have a serious discussion between foreign ministers who spoke without note takers, privately between the two of them, for thirty minutes. 

Both of them sounded very upbeat at the end of those conversations. It was very clear that the conversation had been productive, and it is now clear that President Obama, who took the initiative to call President Rouhani on his way to the airport, also saw it as a positive sign. And he says unequivocally in his report on the conversation that both leaders believe that it is possible to arrive at a negotiated settlement to the nuclear issue. 

That seems to me is about as good as anybody could have hoped for a four-day meeting, five-day visit by the new president of Iran to the United States. He has broken every single one of the limits that have existed in the past. We had direct contacts between senior American officials and Iranian officials, not just the secretary of state, but actually a number of his subordinates talked to a number of Iranian subordinates. There were serious negotiations. The Iranians sat in on a meeting of the P5+1 at the ministerial level, which is unprecedented. The position that they took in that meeting was also unprecedented in terms of proposing a negotiated settlement that was, at least for Secretary Kerry, enough to believe that it was worth pursuing. 

And Rouhani made a number of public addresses, not only to the UN but to the Non-Aligned Movement, and to private groups as well as television and other media. So, it was a whirlwind of a week, and I think any questions about sincerity on the two sides should have been put to rest. Curiously enough, right after the phone conversation, President Rouhani sent out a set of tweets directly to the president Obama, thanking him for his hospitality and wishing him a good day. I don’t think that’s happened before.

MOR:  It certainly seems unprecedented. And I’m curious what you think—if Rouhani really does seem so sincere. But does he have the political capital to move the country forward in this direction to the extent that he seems to want to?

GS: Well, he says he does. And he’s probably the best judge of that. He’s a very serious fellow. He is not a grandstander, he isn’t like Ahmadinejad was: simply looking for publicity at all costs without really caring what damage he did.  I saw [Rouhani] twice in the course of this week and spent one hour in a group talking to him. And he really knows what he’s talking about. He’s quite confident in his views. He has been the personal representative of the Supreme Leader in their National Security Council for twenty-five years, and he has participated in every major strategic and security decision that Iran has made in the last quarter century. He is obviously trusted and respected by the Supreme Leader. Nobody can make a judgment about what his relationship is with the Supreme Leader better than he can, and he seems to think that he had plenty of authorization to make the statements that he made and do what he’s doing. 

So, he showed no signs of being nervous or concerned, or hiding behind anything. He was quite straightforward. Some of his words didn’t please everybody that he talked to. There were people who wished he would go further, but he clearly was in command of his brief, and he clearly felt that what he was doing was well within the authorization that he had from the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guard. 

There are going to be hardliners in Iran who will criticize him. They are really apoplectic about all of this because it removes their favorite enemy, and I must say that we’re going to see much the same kind of reaction in the United States, where it’s been wonderful to have Mr. Ahmadinejad to kick around—and that has served the hardliners’ interests very well. He’s not there anymore, and this is not Ahmadinejad. It’s a very different person. And I think it’s going to take a little while, but I think the American public and the American administration—the American elite—is quickly coming to that conclusion.

MOR: Obama has said that the test now will be meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions, which could ultimately lead to a reduction, maybe even an end in sanctions. What steps do you think the US administration would like to see next?

GS: From what I understand—and this has all been put out in very general terms. Mr. Zarif, the new foreign minister of Iran, proposed to the P5+1 a broad framework outlining where we want to go, how to get to an end state. [He] has also specified that they’ve given various time frames, but it’s clear that they at least want to get this done within a year. They would like to get it done within six months or even three months if possible. Nobody that I know believes that it can be done that quickly. On the other hand, when the ice starts breaking, it sometimes surprises you how fast things can [go], if in fact the political will exists on both sides. 

The broad outlines of an agreement which would cap Iranian enrichment at some level, would put all of their enriched material, say, under the control of the IAEA, get rid of their 20 percent enriched uranium and replace it with fuel plates from the outside that would supply their Tehran Nuclear reactor, and so forth.  These points have been discussed ad infinitum, and are well known to the parties, are well known even to people like me who have not been involved in the negotiations. 

So, figuring out where to go from here is not that hard if people are willing to do it. And Iran has said over and over again that it is quite willing, in fact, to provide concrete assurances—that would involve access, that would involve inspections, that would involve monitoring by the IAEA of their system—transparency, verifiable. And in return, they would expect to see the lifting of sanctions and other coercive pressures by the United States. That’s the deal. And whether the two parties can agree on the fine points remains to be seen. We’re going to have the first meeting on October 15th and 16 th: there will be the first meeting of the P5+1 with Iran, with foreign minister Zarif present. And at that point we will find out if people are ready to put on concrete proposals on the table. If they are, I think things can move very quickly. 

MOR: What could this mean for progress on political talks on Syria?

GE: I think the talks on Syria can be used as an opportunity. Iran wants to see all chemical weapons in Syria destroyed. They are basically on our side with regard to that. We can quibble about who used them, and that sort of thing. I don’t care if there’s a diplomatic fiction that Iran and Russia want to maintain. The reality is that Iran wants to get rid of those chemical weapons, and it will back us on that. So, I think we have something to work with there. 

They also want to participate in the Geneva II conference, which would in fact try to find a political solution. They prefer a political solution to a civil war which ends in a total collapse and basically the takeover of the country by really radical Sunni Islamists. Actually, that is our position as well. So, in a peculiar way, we and Iran are sort of on the same page with regard to Syria—if we can find the political will to deal with each other. And I would say that the president’s phone call, his initiative in this, suggest that the political will is there, and it only needs to be used. 

So, we are moving very rapidly from a situation in which American diplomats had to leave the room when Iranians came in because they were afraid that they might be forced into contact, to a point where in fact they look forward to seeing each other and comparing notes. That is very new. And it actually changes everything. 

There’s going to be a huge amount of diplomatic fallout from this. There are problems… I will be very interested to see how the Saudis, for instance, react to this. The Israelis obviously are going to find this really difficult to deal with. And there are many other players; there are going to be constituencies in this country, the Congress is probably going to be very reluctant to go along with this. So we’ll see. But the ice really is breaking very rapidly, and when that happens, it is hard to sort of sit back and pretend that nothing’s going on. And there is something going on. 

MOR: Very interesting, indeed. Thank you so much for your time, Professor Sick.

About the photo: President Hassan Rouhani addresses the UN General Assembly, September 23, 2013. (UN Photo/Sarah Fretwell)