Interview with Mohammad Farhad Koleini, Senior Expert on Strategic Issues
The representatives of Iran and the member states of the P5+1 group of countries have agreed following the end of the sixth round of their nuclear talks in the Austrian city of Vienna to extend duration of negotiations for another four months, namely, up to November 24, in a bid to achieve a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s nuclear energy program. To review the process of Vienna 6 nuclear negotiations, Mashregh website has conducted an interview with Mohammad Farhad Koleini, a senior expert of strategic issues. The complete text of the interview follows.
Q: Mr. Koleini! Another round of nuclear negotiations has come to an end in Vienna. The interim Geneva agreement has been already signed by the two sides and interactions between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have entered a new phase. These development were followed by gradual reduction of sanctions against Iran, especially with regard to essential goods, though with some delay. What is the current position of Iran from a strategic viewpoint?
A: Before answering your question, it would be advantageous to make a reference to a recent article published by Mr. Sergei Ivanov, the former secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation. In his article in Russian newspaper, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, he had tried to explain this issue from a Russian viewpoint. He noted that the latest rounds of nuclear talks between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 group had been marked with a high degree of resilience from Iran. Now, is this simply a tactical measure and diplomatic game? He then added that the answer to this question should be negative. This issue does not arise from trickery and deceitfulness of the Iranian leaders, he noted, but is rooted in long-term interests and capabilities of the Iranian government. He then stated that only in a suitable foreign environment Iran can display its potential capability in a real manner.
In my viewpoint, Iran has changed its political approach from a “development-based” approach to another one whose main goal is “all-out development.” As a result, the country has made changes to the way it manages its priorities in the face of various threats and opportunities.
The Islamic Republic still considers the nuclear negotiations as an opportunity to encourage the West to review its ideas about capabilities of Iran. This new policy, which has been described by the Supreme Leader of Iran as “heroic resilience,” along with Leader’s relative support for the moderate policy of the new administration, which aims to protect the Islamic system’s basic principles and reproduce religious democracy within framework of the Islamic Revolution, prove existence of timely supervision by the sole authority that sets the direction of the country’s large-scale policies. Other instances that attest to existence of such supervision include the Leader’s support for government’s measures to protect the rights of majority voters and prevent marginalization of national concerns; the support shown for the principle of national consensus at high decision-making levels; and also the Leader’s admonition to all state officials to consider national interests of the country as their red line.
As for your question, I must first say that Iran’s approach is based on getting the nuclear issued back on the normal track, but not at any price. This is why the nuclear negotiators have been trying to respect the country’s red lines, which are directly related to Iran’s national interests. The political bargaining is going on and Iranian negotiators enjoy the support of the highest ranking authorities. The recent report by the IAEA was also good testimony to Iran’s goodwill, but the measures that Iran takes in line of cooperation should not be considered by the opposite side as being due to the country’s dire need to find a solution to the nuclear issue. Such a mistake in the other side’s political calculation will lead to excessive demands and indicates their error in understanding the reality of the ongoing affairs.
Q: What is your opinion about the new round of talks in Vienna and the degree of realism on both sides?
A: The negotiations in Vienna ended in extension of talks and limitations on certain issues. However, before the Vienna talks got underway and during the period of negotiations, we have been witnessing negative developments in the region with certain political currents trying to create acute inflammatory conditions by changing the balance of power in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. One of the goals pursued by such currents was to influence the course of negotiations in Vienna and to change conditions for bargaining. On the other hand, the International Atomic Energy Agency released its latest report on Iran during the past days. Following the publication of the Agency’s recent report, the Director General of the IAEA Mr. Yukiya Amano took certain positions in an interview with Breaking Defense news website. There, he alleged that the main obstacle on the way of further progress in cooperation between Iran and the IAEA was that Iran does not implement the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would allow the IAEA’s inspectors to inspect other sites apart from the nuclear sites that they have visited so far. He also emphasized that the implementation of the Additional Protocol was very important to make sure that all kinds of nuclear activities conducted by Iran are for peaceful purposes, because the Agency has not reached that conclusion yet. It should be noted that we are still at the beginning of measures that should be taken to bring more transparency to the nuclear case and help to solve the existing problems. I believe that there should be a balance between the rights, obligations and commitments discussed in the interim Geneva agreement, and the speed of negotiations. I mean, both sides should take proportionate measures. Any kind of unrealistic optimism or pessimism will make us commit mistakes. Iran should have accurate tactical assessment of the measures that the Western countries are ready to take in every step of the negotiations in order to proceed with the negotiations in a correct manner within framework of its own rights and needs.
Iran was bargaining about the level of uranium enrichment on its soil, even before the election of the new administration of President Hassan Rouhani. The previous nuclear negotiating team also engaged in bargaining with the P5+1 group over the amount of enriched uranium and its stockpile in Iran. Under both administrations, serious measures were taken to protect Iran’s right to enrich uranium and also to conduct research and development in the field of nuclear energy. Such issues as maintaining Iran’s nuclear facilities and nuclear production capacity are still important, but new measures have been taken to build confidence with the opposite side. The important point here is respect for the principle of balance between concessions that the two sides exchange and this is why Iran has been talking about excessive demands of the P5+1 group. The more the negotiating parties go ahead with nuclear talks, the more important become negotiations between technical and legal experts from the two sides.
Some expert-level analysts at international level believe that the method used by the American team during negotiations with Iran is aimed at disarmament. Some other analysts look upon the negotiations from the standpoint of Iran’s regional and international power while others analyze the nuclear talks in view of Iran’s new relations with world powers. There are various dimensions to these negotiations, but what exists on the ground and is seen in reality is that unilateral sanctions imposed against Iran, especially by the United States, still continue. The amount of optimism seen about reaching a final agreement is not equal in Europe and the United States. Positions taken by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have been different from positions taken by his American counterpart, John Kerry. However, let’s not forget that Kerry’s’ official admission of the importance of the fatwa (religious decree) issued by the Leader of the Islamic Republic that production of nuclear weapons is religiously banned, is very important. Accepting the extension of the interim Geneva agreement for another four months takes us closer to November. Revocation of some sanctions imposed by the United States needs legislation while other sanctions are result of the executive orders issued by the US president. This issue has cast doubt on the possibility of rapid and comprehensive removal of sanctions against Iran.
Q: What is the current position of Russia in view of new conditions that govern the nuclear negotiations?
A: At unofficial level, there is no uniform approach to this issue in Russia. Even some ruling elites in Russia think about complementary conditions and believe in such conditions. Another look at Mr. Ivanov’s aforesaid article will show that some people in Russia believe that the tough stance taken on Iran’s nuclear issue by the West is actually in line with the national interests of Russia because it creates a new basis for development of “special relations” between Moscow and Tehran. They claim that at a time that Iran has been isolated by the West, the country would have to expand cooperation with Russia.
On the whole, I believe that realism should be assessed on the basis of its main criteria. Simple explanation of the existing conditions will not be sufficient for the correct interpretation of those conditions. Interpretation of conditions on the basis of objective weaknesses and abilities, and identifying the relationship that these conditions have with real and future goals and interests of the country can provide us with a relatively suitable and useful model.
Q: Following the interim Geneva agreement, diplomatic traffic remarkably increased among Western, especially European, officials. What influence did this issue have on new interactions between the two sides as well as on the new round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna?
A: Decisions made by European countries are a function of conditions, interests, and special viewpoints of European states. As a result, they have already proved – for example, when the United States decided to impose sanctions on Iran according to D’Amato Act – that they can have their own positions on these issues. Of course, the degree of uniformity that exists among various European countries is not sufficient. At present, the value of positions taken by Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, and to some extent, France and even European countries outside the European Union such as Sweden and Norway has changed. The new British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is facing an important test and he is well aware of the positions taken by the British parliament and its active members with regard to Iran. There have been increasing demands in Europe for the expansion of cooperation with Iran, but as I said before, it is not of sufficient force yet. Iran is a valuable country and the policy of pressure on Iran has been proved to be counterproductive. Perhaps European countries have a better understanding of Iran compared to some Republican politicians in the United States as well as lobbying groups there. At any rate, they analyze global developments in accordance with their own interests.