New York, Asharq Al-Awsat—Gary Sick is one of America’s most respected experts on US–Iranian relations. He observed Iran’s 1979 revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis from the White House while serving on President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council as principal aide for Gulf affairs, an experience which informed his classic book All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran.
A former naval officer, he completed his PhD in Political Science at Columbia University, where he now oversees its Gulf 2000 project and serves as an adjunct professor. His experience in both policymaking and academia has given him a unique insight into the relationship between the two countries, having seen it transition from a close alliance to a bitter rivalry.
He spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the progress of the talks between Iran and the US and its allies on the former’s controversial nuclear program, and his views on future of US–Iranian ties.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your opinion of the Iranian government’s response to Obama’s State of the Union speech and his emphasis on the need to give diplomacy a chance?
Gary Sick: Actually, I’ve seen no formal response. But I think they were probably concerned that he would talk about “dismantling,” which is a key word. He didn’t use that word, which clearly was something they were upset about, as evidenced by President Hassan Rouhani’s statement.
Q: He said the program has been “rolled back,” not dismantled.
Yes, but it is “rolled back”? I mean, Iran has stopped making 20 percent enriched uranium, started melting down their stockpile to a certain agreed level, and stopped putting in any new centrifuges except for the broken ones. The program has been reduced and is not going ahead at the same speed it was. So, I think Obama chose his words carefully. That doesn’t mean we’re going to have this every day from now on. The Americans say the Iranians have not given up anything because they are really taking their rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and so forth, and we [Americans] got a really good deal out of this. Iranians say that we gave up almost everything for nothing. It is the real negotiation that is going on between the P5+1, particularly the US and Iran. But everybody involved in the negotiations has a different negotiation in their domestic constituency. So, after the agreement is worked out for the interim plan of action, the US has to come back and face the US Congress, which regards the concessions gained from Iran as unsatisfactory.
In Iran, hardliners say the US is the “Great Satan” and can’t be trusted and making any kind of deal with them is bad. So you’re going to hear Iran being upset by words that are used by the American president trying to defend his negotiations to his constituency, and you’re going to have Iran using words which would upset the opponents of the negotiations in the US. This is the play back and forth. Each side is addressing its domestic audience, but being overheard by the other side—and then having to work that out. This is called international diplomacy, and is just the way the game is: each side must deal with multiple constituencies. Iran prides itself on being subtle and very competent in negotiations. The US is negotiating with Iran, and with its allies in the P5+1. They’re negotiating with the US Congress and also with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
So, for the US side, they’re playing a four-level game, which would mean dealing with four different constituencies all at the same time. That’s complicated. There are going to be some disagreements from time to time. This is almost inevitable, and I think both sides really have to take it into account. And I think they do. So, Obama’s State of Union speech was a factual statement of exactly where we are in the negotiations. It may not be worded in a way that pleases all of Iran, but that is something we will have to accept, and the same applies to the American people.
Q: Actually, you answered some of the points of my second question. The Geneva deal seems to be controversial, both in the US Congress and the Iranian parliament, particularly in conservative circles. Why is there such a strong resistance, given that both governments’ objectives seem to be achieved by this interim deal?
Well, you’re asking the wrong person, because I feel the exactly same way. There is no justification for the kind of dissatisfaction that there is.
Q: But you mentioned the different constituencies. Why do these constituencies have different worldviews and perspectives?
The Congress is trying to insert itself into the negotiations, to make the administration take their interest into consideration. That interest is that Iran should get rid of its entire nuclear capability. They try to put a set of objectives on the table that are basically zero enrichment. Their view is that we can’t trust Iran at all, and if we don’t demand zero enrichment, then Iran could always possess the capability of developing a nuclear weapon at some point later on. So, they are basically saying it’s all or nothing.
The administration is going to fight them on that, and Obama’s address [the State of the Union] pretty clear: If you are going to send me this bill, I will veto it. So, he is not being pushed around. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to offend everybody on the other side, because he needs help in addressing other matters. He needs them for a lot of other issues like immigration reform, the economic issues, and so forth. So, he has got to take them seriously. But he is saying very clearly that ‘this bill is dangerous, and I am going to oppose it.’
Q: Is Congress’s desire for involvement in this foreign policy issue normal?
Yes, it’s quite common—well, I think this is somehow beyond the normal. Regarding any controversial foreign policy issue, Congress is quite eager to give its advice. That is one way to do it, though, I think it to be a very clumsy and ineffective way.
Q: Why do you think the US president used the word “nations” when talking about distrust, not “governments”?
I don’t know. I think he’s right in the fact that our two governments may disagree and our two states may be in a very particular technical position, but the two nations have a great deal in common. That “nation” includes the culture, the people and everything else.
Q: Over the last 35 years, the main factor in determining US foreign policy towards Iran has been Israel. Now the security of Arab countries is becoming an even bigger factor. Given this, could you please define the new US foreign policy on Iran?
First of all, I disagree with you. The role of Israel has certainly become important over the past 10 years or so, when Israel decided to regard Iran as its principal enemy in the region, and so that was their position. Then Mr. Ahmadinejad and all his verbiage made Israel’s position easy to defend, hence increasing Israel’s effect on American foreign policy towards Iran.
However, the principal factor in the first 15 years of American foreign policy dealing with Iran was not Israel. The revolution and the hostage crisis had nothing to do with Israel. But later on, Israel succeeded in becoming a principal factor. In the last 10 years Israel’s position has become important, but I wouldn’t overestimate its overall importance in the long run. As I just pointed out, Obama was willing to dismiss Israel’s view entirely, because the senators who proposed this bill were reflecting on Israel’s position, and Obama said he would not agree with that. Regarding the Arabs’ part of the equation, I’m not sure that it makes a significant difference. It is an additional factor, as I mentioned earlier, but not a huge one. The same explanation that Obama would give to Israel about why a good negotiation with Iran is good for Israel’s security would also be applicable for the Arabs.
I mean, everybody was hysterical about Iran’s nuclear capability and the danger of a nuclear weapon from Iran. So, Obama says: ‘Okay, we are going to negotiate a deal where Iran limits its nuclear program so that they can’t build a nuclear weapon.’ And they all say, ‘That’s terrible, you have given in to Iran, and you are not being tough on them anymore.’ This suggests that nuclear weapon issue was never that important. What Israel and the Arabs are really concerned about is Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and its growing political influence in the region . Once Obama starts to settle the nuclear issue, they said that you cannot settle the nuclear issue until you do something about human rights. But Obama has made it clear that he is prioritizing the nuclear question. His policy is very clear and unmistakable.
Q: This is similar to the view of many conservatives in Iran. They assume that the nuclear issue is only one among many other sources of discord. So, if and when a final nuclear settlement is achieved, what would be the next topic of significant disagreement between Iran and the US?
We have disagreements with all our allies. So, being allies, friends, or even being enemies or rivals, it would be expected that disagreements would occur. So, if the nuclear issue is taken off the table, then there is a whole range of other things to talk about. Some are good, like the US and Iran’s shared interests in Afghanistan, stability in Syria, and so on, in which we share interests. But there would be differences, too, like Iran’s support for Hezbollah, its role in Syria—which could be positive or negative—and the human rights issue. So, there will be differences even if the worst—the nuclear issue—is settled. Then Iran–US relations can become more of a normal relationship.
Q: Don’t you think that normalization would be an inevitable disadvantage for the Arab countries, since it would increase Iran’s influence? How could the security of the region be guaranteed in such a scenario?
I have a perhaps longer memory than many other people, and I remember that in the middle of the Iran–Iraq War, in the mid-1980s, the US had no military presence in the region at all. In 1986–1987 we began to introduce military forces, which were occasional ship deployments in and out. No permanent presence, no ground forces, and no air forces deployed there regularly. That changed because of Saddam Hussein’s invading Iran, and the conflict in the Gulf drew us in, and then he invaded Kuwait and for the first time ever we came in with the largest presence in that region. That led to the established bases, and resulted in us invading Afghanistan and Iraq. So, the US’s mammoth military presence in the region is really very new.
The fact that somehow we think the Arab countries and Iran cannot possibly coexist with each other is completely false. They could do in the past, and still can. They may not like each other, but that’s not anything new. It’s like dealing with the nuclear issue. You don’t have to love each other and trust each other. You make an agreement and then stick to the terms of that agreement. That solves the problem. My own view is that the Arabs and the Persians can and will find a way to coexist in the Gulf quite adequately, and probably better without the Americans having such a heavy footprint in the region.
Q: Has the US learned any lessons about its military and political involvement in the region? What will be the main changes to this in the future?
Well, Obama really spelled out American foreign policy as clearly as possible in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September. It was a very succinct, unmistakable thing. He says that the US is willing to use military force if the US or one of its allies is attacked or is really at risk, not just that they would like us to go in and do something. Therefore, if Iran attacks Saudi Arabia, we will intervene militarily.
Q: So, is the idea of pre-emptive action totally off the table?
It’s completely gone. The second thing is that in any place where we are not being directly attacked, diplomacy is what we are prepared for. Third, our objective is to stop the production of Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD], in addition to the threats from terrorists. We are actually out trying to stop the proliferation of WMD in the region. Hence the nuclear deal with Iran; hence the chemical weapons deal with Syria.
Obama states very explicitly that he has two key objectives in the Middle East in his remaining years of presidency. One is a deal with Iran over the nuclear issue and to take the weapons threat off the table; two is to do something about the Arab–Israel dispute. That is the [basic] US foreign policy.
Q: One final point. You mentioned the US’s commitment to prevent Iran from developing the capability for WMD proliferation. Regarding Iran’s advancement in its ballistic missile program, do you think that it will become an issue after settling the nuclear program?
There are going to be people who would push for that. But ballistic missiles, especially long-range ballistic missiles without a nuclear warhead, aren’t a big threat. They just don’t accomplish anything. So, if Iran builds missiles and they do not have a nuclear warhead to put on them, then that does not accomplish very much. People forget that Saudi Arabia has a whole battery of long-range ballistic missiles. They have the longest-range missiles in the Middle East, which they bought from China and are sitting in the middle of the desert in an unknown location. They do not have nuclear weapon warheads, and the theory has always been that they would find a way to get nuclear warheads for those missiles.
So, Iran has basically got a space program. You can use short-range ballistic missiles, which is effective with large numbers of them with conventional weapons. But international-range ballistic missiles make no sense whatsoever. If you can stop the nuclear weapons development, it’s hard to believe that Iran will continue with a very advanced long range missile program because they do not have anything to put on them, unless they are going to buy them from somebody.
This is an abridged version of the original interview.