Q&A with Gary Sick on Iran-US Relations

This is the English language transcript of the November 28 interview the host of VOA Persian’s Ofogh Siamak Dehghanpour did with Gary Sick, who served on the US National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. The Persian language transcript can be found here.

Siamak Dehghanpour: You recently wrote that if President Obama attempts to address every development in the Middle East at once it is a recipe for failure. You suggested that one of the most pressing issues was Iran. How urgent is this issue for President Obama, and how does a new cabinet affect how he approaches it?

Gary Sick: I’m not sure how urgent it is. Obviously President Obama came into office originally on the idea that he wanted to have some kind of engagement or opening to Iran. That’s been four years and nothing has happened. I believe that in his second term he is going to want to deal with a number of issues in the Middle East. The argument that I made was that by starting with the Iranian issue we might be able to simplify some of the other issues that are involved. If he has some success with an Iranian negotiation he then would be in a better position to deal with some of the issues that I think he cares about also.

SD: What impact will Iran’s elections in June of 2013 have on the negotiations given that Khamenei will have the final say?

GS: My own view is that the Iranian elections are not a very serious problem. Frankly I do not expect the next election in Iran to be a very contested election. I fully expect it to be an election that resembles Mubarak’s election in Egypt for instance where everyone from the beginning knew what the outcome was going to be. So basically, the other thing is that the president of Iran over the years has gradually seen his authority decline as one thing after another has been taken away. And so who the president is at any moment has only a minor effect on the actual possibility of the negotiations. From my perspective the elections coming up in Iran are not likely to be an impediment to going ahead. If I were in the White House right now I would suggest lets ago ahead immediately and see if we could get something done rather than wait for the Iranian election.

SD: You’ve presented a deal in which the US agrees to some enrichment and removes sanctions and Iran agrees to limits and full monitoring of its nuclear program. Do you see any readiness from either side toward this final deal?

GS: I think as with most long running problems the outlines of the solutions are pretty well known. It is not a mystery what would need to be done by either side. The question is really one of political will. Is Iran willing in fact to have private negotiations with the United States, creating an agenda that would then be used for public negotiations? Would the United States officially accept the reality that Iran is enriching and will probably continue to enrich? Again, it’s not so much that these are difficult things to imagine, it’s that they carry very heavy political consequences. For Iran the United States is the Great Satan. It is the enemy. And so by dealing with the United States you undercut that position and that has political consequences in Iran. In the United States Iran is a very unpopular country, there is no constituency for Iran;  so taking a step that is contrary, for example, to  what Israel would like to do is going to have real consequences for the United States politically. So it takes political sacrifice or political courage on each side and over the last 30 some years it has been very unusual to have a time when both parties were actually prepared to exercise that kind of courage. So the solution is there but getting to the solution is much, much harder than just describing it.

SD: How do you believe the Iranian people will perceive US officials negotiating with the Iranian officials? On one hand, they might be relieved if sanctions are lifted, on the other hand, the US could be seen as compromising with a dictatorship that is suppressing them.

GS: In my view the problem is true both in the case of the American people and the Iranian people. And that is if you ask them the question, “Which would you rather have? War or negotiations? Would you rather have a good faith negotiating effort or face the prospect of actual military conflict? It seems to me that probably both Iranians and Americans would agree that negotiations are the way to go. It is a problem in the sense that both countries have never really held that out as a very realistic prospect. And their people, the people of both countries, are not really prepared to think about it very seriously. So some political effort has to be exerted by both parties to prepare their people for the fact that this is something that is valuable to both countries and both countries could benefit from them.

SD: You have written that while negotiating with Iran, the US must reassure its allies both in Israel and Arab countries in the Persian Gulf. How worried are Israel and Arab countries about US-Iran relations?

GS: There is a long history between America and Iran, as everyone will recall. The United States had a very close relationship with Iran during the days of the Shah. It was a very close relationship of mutual dependency actually. Then after the Iranian revolution that came to an end. But then a few years later in the course of the Iran-Iraq war the United States had a covert relationship with Iran, where it attempted to sell arms to Iran, right in the middle of the war when the United States was actually supporting Iraq. That was a shocking event for the Arabs. Then the Arabs in particular have watched the United States invade Iraq and install a Shia government for the first time in a long, long time. So they look at all of that and say perhaps the United States really wants to do a deal with Iran. Viewed from the United States, that sounds absolutely absurd. But for the Arabs of the Persian Gulf it’s not hard to imagine and I think we will have to deal with that. I think our diplomats will have to make an effort to explain that this is something that is to the benefit of everybody involved and Israel falls in the same category. The kind of agreement that might be reached in real negotiations is probably not going to satisfy the real hardliners in Israel. And they will make their voices heard in the United States as well. That will be have to dealt with as well. So I think both the Israelis and the Arabs will be skeptical about any kind of deal between the United States and Iran. That however is no excuse for not doing it.

SD: What does Russia and China have to lose in negotiations between the US and Iran?

GS: I think actually China in particular has been the beneficiary of the United States presence in the Persian Gulf, protecting sea lanes. Those sea lanes are actually delivering goods from Iran and other countries to China. So I can’t believe that the Chinese have any opposition whatsoever to a negotiated agreement between the United States and Iran. And the Russians are actually encouraging the United States to undertake private negotiations that would possibly lead to some kind of outcome. So my perspective, from everything I know, is that both Russia and China are quite prepared for the idea of an American negotiation with Iran leading to some kind of settlement.

SD: Where do the US and Iran have the most pressing mutual interest? Is it an end to the conflict in Syria?

GS: Actually I think Syria is more like the end of the process not the beginning. The United States and Iran have a number of things in common. We would both like to see the drug trade end, that is coming in and out of Afghanistan. I think both countries would like to see a stable situation both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are things that we share. We would like to see a calm and stable Persian Gulf. And normal oil trade going on in the gulf.  Those are all things that I think we could agree on. The question is how do you get there? If the United States and Iran are able to find a common ground to settle the nuclear issue that then removes a lot of problems for other areas including Syria. The situation in Syria will require Iran to be involved at some stage. And up until now the United States has resisted the idea of engaging Iran over Syria. If we should have at least moderately successful nuclear negotiations, I think it would break the ice and permit the United States and other countries in the region to deal with Iran more directly on the issue of Syria, among many other things.

Courtesy: http://garysick.tumblr.com/