Interview with political scientist and intellectual John Tirman


John-TirmanKourosh Ziabari – Tehran Times: According to the prominent American public intellectual and author, the Israeli regime fears an imminent agreement between Iran and the six world powers over Tehran’s nuclear program because the Tel Aviv leaders think international attention will be diverted toward the occupation of the Palestinian territories once Iran’s nuclear dispute is solved.

“The Israelis have used the issue of Iran’s nuclear program very effectively as a scare tactic, as a way of bracing their position in U.S. politics and diverting attention away from their occupation of Palestinian territory,” said Prof. John Tirman in an exclusive interview with Tehran Times.
Prof. John Tirman is a foreign policy expert and Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies.

Tirman is the author and co-author of 13 books on international affairs. His articles and commentaries have been published by The Washington Post, The Nation, Boston Globe, The New York Times, AlterNet and many other publications. He has been an advocate of the improvement of Iran-U.S. relations and believes that the economic sanctions imposed against Iran harm the ordinary citizens in an inappropriate manner.

What follows is the text of Tehran Times’ interview with Prof. John Tirman on the upcoming talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), the new Iranian administration’s efforts to reach out to the international community and the anti-Iran sanctions.

Q: Dr. Tirman; the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani renewed hopes that controversy over Iran’s nuclear program may come to an end and the international community will be eventually convinced that Iran’s nuclear program is solely aimed at peaceful purposes. What signals does the election of Rouhani as Iran’s president impart? What’s your evaluation of the international reactions to his victory in the June 14 presidential elections?

A: After his appearances in New York, Dr. Rouhani has made a very favorable impression on the world community and the USA. This confidence building is important to any positive outcome. At the same time, Iran has many questions to answer about its nuclear development program. While there is little concern in the near term, the scale of the enrichment program is not consistent with non-military uses. This needs to be clarified, and the enrichment program needs to be limited and brought under strict IAEA inspections. If this can be achieved, sanctions should be lifted.

Q: Several high-ranking diplomats and politicians held meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. He met his European counterparts and talked to them about Iran’s determination for solving the nuclear standoff. What do you think about Mr. Zarif’s mandate as Iran’s new foreign minister? He is said to be widely appreciated by the intellectual circles because of his dexterity in the art of diplomacy. What do you think?

A: I have met Zarif on two occasions, and he is very impressive; smart, tough, knowledgeable, working in the best interests of Iran. His extensive personal and professional contacts in the West will help in any negotiation, because people trust him. He understands the U.S. These are huge advantages.

Q: President Rouhani has publicly said that it is ready to take confidence-building steps and offer more transparency in its nuclear program to allay the concerns of the international community. In return, the West should affirm that it’s ready to respond to Iran’s goodwill gestures by lifting the cruel unilateral sanctions. What’s your take on that?

A: Sanctions will be lifted when Iran complies with UN Security Council resolutions and satisfies the P5+1 that its nuclear development is not moving toward military uses. Confidence building measures are useful, and can be reciprocated, but for the U.S. the real game here is the nuclear issue.

Q: You noted that Iran should provide assurances on its nuclear program and make some compromises and then the sanctions may be lifted. However, I want to ask you a question about the humanitarian impact of the sanctions. The Iranian people describe the sanctions as cruel and unjustified since they’re unable to find vital medicine, foodstuff and other consumer goods in the market as a result of the sanctions. The sanctions are somehow punishing the ordinary citizens. What’s your viewpoint on this unseen and obscured dimension of the sanctions?

A: I have always opposed sanctions precisely for the humanitarian reason and because they breed resentment over the long term. The U.S. does not have a discourse on how its policies affect the populations of countries in which the U.S. is at war, or a “cold war,” as with Iran. I wrote about this extensively in my book, “The Deaths of Others.” Madeleine Albright, when she was secretary of state, told a reporter that the horrendous sanctions on Iraq, which caused 500,000 infant deaths, were “worth it.” I’m sorry to say it’s an aspect of American political culture which is very ugly.

Q: Aren’t these sanctions harming the new atmosphere that the election of President Rouhani has created? Hasn’t the time come when the West should lift the sanctions and lay the groundwork for the commencement of serious, substantive and meaningful dialogue with Iran on equal footing and based on mutual trust and respect?

A: I oppose sanctions, but the reality is that they will not be lifted until Iran complies with UNSC resolutions and limits its enrichment program. None of the conditions set forth by the P5+1 is harmful to Iran if a non-military nuclear program is its sole objective.

Q: Israel has openly talked of its opposition to a possible diplomatic reconciliation and rapprochement between Iran and the United States, flagrantly calling President Rouhani “a wolf in the sheep clothing.” Why is Israel afraid of the improvement of ties between Iran and the United States?

A: Israel has used the putative threat from Iran as a way of uniting its people and diverting attention from the occupation of Palestine. If the Iran nuclear issue is resolved, Israel will be further isolated.

Q: President Rouhani has warned the United States government against the interference of certain political lobbies in its major policy-making processes. He has said that President Obama should not allow the interest lobbies to influence the future of Iran-U.S. relations. Will the influential, powerful think tanks in Washington impede the proposed détente between Iran and the U.S. and prevent the charm offensive taken by President Rouhani to the UN from working?

A: The charm offensive needs to be braced by compromise on the scope of Iran’s nuclear program. The Israel lobby and powerful, well-financed public relations firms hired by the Saudi monarchy are working overtime to upset the new possibilities for détente. Of course, there are “spoilers” in Iran as well. Strong leadership means turning away special interests to do what’s right for your country and world peace.

Q: What’s your viewpoint on the future of Iran-West relations in the wake of President Rouhani’s conciliatory approach toward the nuclear talks with the world powers? Are you hopeful about a possible thaw between Iran and the United States and the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries?

A: If the nuclear issue is resolved—and I think it can be fairly soon—anything is possible. The U.S. and Iran have many overlapping interests, and much respect between peoples. Cooperation on energy, the Arab transition states, Syria particularly, and other concerns could be productive.

Q: The previous round of negotiations between Iran and the six world powers in Geneva was very close to a final agreement, but it was later revealed that France had made objections to the draft of the final statement, and so the six world powers failed to strike a deal with Iran. Do you agree that France was under the pressure of the Israelis and that its disagreement with the final draft was based on Israel’s insistence that the world powers should not get a “bad deal” with Iran?

A: It’s hard to know exactly what France was thinking. The process was fitful and disorderly on the P5+1 side, and I believe Ashton and Wendy Sherman are to blame. Wendy Sherman is not a diplomat and not a nuclear expert, and she should not be anywhere near the negotiations. But France’s balking is only a bump in the road. When one looks at other arms control negotiations, as between the U.S. and USSR, it took years to iron out differences. The two sides are very close in Geneva, and I believe we can expect an interim agreement this week. What U.S. Congress does on sanctions is irrelevant right now, as Obama would veto any ill-considered action. A successful interim agreement will reduce the pressure for sanctions, and may lead to greater sanctions relief.

Q: A senior U.S. official has said that a mutually-agreed compromise is imminent in the upcoming talks between Iran and the six world powers. Iran will agree to make some concessions, and in return, it will receive relief from some of the sanctions imposed in the recent years. However, the Israeli regime and the Arab states in the region are extremely worried and anxious about the possible deal. What is the reason they are issuing warnings and making such frantic statements? Do they fear that Iran will gain more economic and political dominance in the region?

A: Two things seem to be afoot, because the Persian Gulf Arab states will benefit from a nuclear agreement—the region will be more stable, more prosperous, less prone to miscalculation and even war. The Israelis have used the issue of Iran’s nuclear program very effectively as a scare tactic, as a way of bracing their position in U.S. politics and diverting attention away from their occupation of Palestinian territory. The Saudis probably fear losing their status as America’s key ally in the Persian Gulf. A true rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran would be unfavorable for the Persian Gulf monarchies.
This interview was conducted for and published by Tehran Times daily.