Interview with Iranian political scientist Sasan Fayazmanesh


Kourosh Ziabari – Fars News Agency: Prominent Iranian academician believes that even if Iran gets access to nuclear weapons, it will not spark an arms race in the Middle East, because the Arab states of the region have long lived with the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East that is a reactionary, expansionistic and occupying regime.

“The usual argument presented by the Israeli and US officials, including many times by President Obama himself, that the Arab States fear an arms race in the Middle East if Iran acquires nuclear weapons has never made any sense. The Middle East has lived for many decades with a nuclear armed power in its midst, Israel, a power that is most belligerent, expansionist, and warmongering. Yet, despite this fact, there has been no nuclear arms race in the region,” said Prof. Sasan Fayazmanesh in an interview with the Fars News Agency.

Elsewhere in his remarks, Prof. Fayazmanesh said that it was not the policy of sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiation table and led to the Geneva Accord, but a failure of the U.S. policy of “tough diplomacy” with Iran and its aggressive stance with regards to Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

Sasan Fayazmanesh is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Director of the Middle East Studies Program at California State University, Fresno. His current areas of research include the political economy of the Middle East and monetary history and theory.

His writings have appeared in such journals and magazines as the Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Encyclopedia of Political Economy, the Review of Radical Political Economics, History of Economic Ideas, UCLA Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, South Asia Bulletin, CounterPunch and Z-Magazine.

Prof. Fayazmanesh has been interviewed on numerous national and international radio and television programs. He has edited and authored a number of books, including ‘The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment”, published in 2008 and “Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of Tough Diplomacy,” published in December 2013.

Sasan Fayazmanesh gave an interview to FNA on the recent interim nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers and the future of Iran-West relations in the light of the efforts made by Iranian government to find a final solution for the controversy over its nuclear program.

Q: The interim accord between Iran and the six world powers in Geneva opened up new horizons for ending the stalemate over Iran’s nuclear program, and the international community is now more hopeful for finding a comprehensive solution to the whole dispute. What do you think of the importance of this agreement? How can it contribute to the final resolution of the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program?

A: The recent accord between Iran and the P5+1, that is, the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, can be correctly evaluated if it is put in its historical context. I have provided such a context in a newly published book titled Containing Iran: Obama’s Policy of “Tough Diplomacy.” Given the limited time and space here, I cannot go over what is covered in the book or even provide a short summary of it, as I did recently elsewhere. Suffice it to say that in his first four years in office, President Obama followed a policy that was originally devised by the Israeli lobby groups, such as the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), an affiliate of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).Dennis Ross, the former director of WINEP, who became Obama’s closest advisor on Iran, was among those who were instrumental in formulating and implementing the policy of “tough diplomacy.” The policy was intended to break the back of the Iranian economy by means of severe sanctions, bring the masses into the street, and then for the US to start military actions against Iran. All this was supposed to be under the guise of “tough diplomacy,” that is, pretending to engage Iran in some face to face meetings, telling Iran to either accept the US-Israeli demands or face aggression. The meetings were also intended to create the illusion of engaging Iran in negotiations and, in so doing, gain international support for subsequent aggressive actions.

The policy was implemented, brought about draconian multilateral and unilateral sanctions against Iran, and severely impacted the Iranian economy. However, it did not achieve its final goal of collapsing the economy, bringing about uprisings, and preparing the ground for military actions. Thus, in the end, the policy of “tough diplomacy” failed. On December 7, 2013, President Obama himself nearly admitted the failure of his policy when he stated at the Saban Forum: “The idea that Iran, given everything we know about their history, would just continue to get more and more nervous about more sanctions and military threats, and ultimately just say, okay, we give in—I think does not reflect an honest understanding of the Iranian people or the Iranian regime.”

The failure of “tough diplomacy,” the departure of many individuals responsible for the policy in Obama’s first term in office, including Dennis Ross, and the arrival of a new crew in Obama’s second term, appear to have ended the policy. The result seems to have been a softening of the US position in the meetings between Iran and the P5+1, beginning in February 2013. As I wrote at the time, the US had blinked.

It is in this context that the 2013 Geneva accord must be viewed. The accord represents the failure of the policy of “tough diplomacy.” It also represents, at least for the time being, a retreat by the US. Whether this retreat results in a long term accord remains to be seen. There are many obstacles ahead.

Q: Despite the fact that the Geneva agreement stipulated that no further sanctions will be imposed on Iran in the six-month period of the deal, voices are being heard from the Republicans of the U.S. Congress that some new sanctions are forthcoming. If approved, won’t the new sanctions violate the terms of the agreement and disrupt the mutual confidence of the two sides?

A: The new set of sanctions that is being considered in the US Senate has been in the pipeline since at least February 2013. It is a different version of a sanctions bill that the House of Representative passed on July 31, 2013—after the election of President Rouhani—titled “Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013,” or H.R.850. The House bill was underwritten by Israeli lobby groups, particularly AIPAC.  The same groups have been trying to push the Senate to pass the bill as well. Many of the Senators who are at the forefront of opposing the Geneva accord, such a Mark Kirk, are the biggest recipients of pro-Israel PAC contributions and have been pushing for passage of the bill in the Senate. It is hard to tell at this time if they will succeed.

The Geneva accord states: “the U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.” The statement is, of course, not as crystal clear as it should be. However, passing a revised version of H.R. 850 in the Senate will surely contradict the spirit of the statement. If the US is looking for an excuse, it could potentially argue that this bill has been in the making for a long time, has already passed the House and, therefore, is not new.

Q: You noted in one of your articles that the United States government withstood pressures from the Israeli lobby and finally inked the nuclear agreement with Iran. Isn’t it threatening that the Israeli leaders will continue their efforts to throw a spanner in the works of Iran and disturb the future nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 and decrease the chances of the two sides reaching a final solution?

A: During the first term of President Obama, Israel, its lobby groups and its surrogates in the US government exerted immense influence over the US policy toward Iran. The extent of this influence can only be understood by a detailed, and nearly daily analysis of comments made by Israeli officials, their travels to the US and meetings with American officials, their meetings with their various lobby groups in the US, the activities of these lobby groups, their relations with various members of the US Congress, their contacts in the White House, their attempts to underwrite numerous sanctions bills against Iran, etc.

Obviously I cannot provide such an analysis here, and I refer you, once again, to my book.  Let me say, however, that as I wrote in an essay in June 2013, through proxies, Israel has always been present in the meetings between Iran and the P5+1.  Actually, Israel is such a powerful force that before and after every meeting between Iran and the P5+1, the US representatives to the meetings, or for that matter French and British representatives, brief Israeli officials. Therefore, Iran is actually dealing with the P5+2. The recent meetings between world powers and Iran have been no exception. However, as I stated earlier—and also in an essay that you are referring to—after four years of following the policy of “tough diplomacy,” the new Obama Administration seems to have reached the conclusion that this policy is a failure and that it will ultimately end in a war that the US can neither afford nor win. They are therefore trying to end the policy and reach, through negotiations, some sort of deal with Iran. Whether Israel will be able to derail the negotiations remains to be seen.

Q: What’s your viewpoint on the role of the interest groups and neo-conservative think tanks, such as the United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), in the large-scale policy-making of the U.S. administration toward Iran? Can they hinder the path of cautious diplomacy President Obama has taken on Iran? Do you agree that such groups also undermine Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s new conciliatory approach toward the West and the United States and his efforts for constructive engagement with the international community?

A: I believe I have already answered this question in my responses above. The Israeli lobby groups are varied and consist of numerous organizations, such as AIPAC, WINEP, United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), the Israel Project, Anti-Defamation League, J Street, etc. The most powerful of these groups is, of course, AIPAC and its offshoot WINEP.  I have written on how WINEP was formed and what its role has been in shaping the US foreign policy toward Iran in my 2008 book and will not go into details here.

I will only say that WINEP used to embrace both “neoconservatives,” close to Israel’s Likud party, and “liberals,”close to Israel’s Labor party. Individuals such as Richard Pearle and Paul Wolfowitz in the Bush Administration used to represent the neoconservative wing of WINEP and those such as Dennis Ross in the Obama Administration represented the liberal wing. But over the years, as the distinction between the Likud and Labor disappeared in Israel, so did the difference between neoconservatives and liberals in WINEP.

Dennis Ross, who I have identified as the main architect of Obama’s “tough diplomacy” was hardly distinguishable from Richard Pearle and Paul Wolfowitz. However, while the latter in the Bush Administration implemented the “carrot and stick policy” in a brutish way, the former in the Obama Administration carried out the “two-track policy” in a more refined way.

Almost all Iran policy-makers in the George W. Bush Administration and in the first Administration of Barack Obama, as well as all Israeli lobby groups—with a few exceptions, such as J Street—have come out against the Geneva accord. Again, whether these forces will succeed to turn the tide against the accord is hard to say.

Q: Some of the incentives offered to Iran in the Geneva agreement, including a freeze on the petrochemical products sanctions or the automobile industry sanctions and also the releasing of some of Iran’s frozen assets in the foreign banks are signs that the structure of the anti-Iran sanctions has begun to shake and enfeeble. What’s your viewpoint on this first step for removing the sanctions, their impact on Iran’s economy and foreign relations?

A: The so-called sanctions relief offered to Iran is quite modest. As I wrote recently, some of the offers to Iran are similar to those presented during the Ahmadinejad’s government, which, at that time, were deemed by Iran not to be proportional to the concessions demanded. They basically consists of 1) a “pause” on “efforts to further reduce Iran’s crude oil sales”; 2) suspension of US and EU sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical exports, gold and other precious metals, auto industry, spare parts for safety of flight for Iranian civil aviation; 3) no “new nuclear-related UN Security Council sanctions” or “EU nuclear-related sanctions,” and a US “refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions”; 4) establishment of “a financial channel to facilitate humanitarian trade for Iran’s domestic needs using Iranian oil revenues held abroad”; and 5) an increase in “the EU authorization thresholds for transactions for non-sanctioned trade to an agreed amount.”

These measures, in themselves, will not remove the economic shackle that Iran has been under. However, they might improve Iran’s economy in several ways. Human psychology seems to play a great role in economic wellbeing. When people feel better about the state of economy, economic crises often subside. The fact that there has been some “sanctions relief” would make Iranians a bit more confident about Iran’s economy and would reduce the financial panics that we saw in the last few years. Thus, the rate of inflation might slow down, or even fall, and devaluation of rial might be halted, as we are already witnessing.  Also, some firms around the world have been afraid to deal with Iran even when there is no specific law prohibiting them from doing so.

They will now have less fear and that might boost the Iranian economy. Moreover, when sanctions momentum is broken, it is harder to impose new sanctions on Iran and easier to start removing some of the old ones. But as I explained in my June 2013 essay, Iranians should not expect to see removal of major sanctions imposed by the US Congress anytime soon, even if the Congressional objections to the Geneva accord subside.

Q: We regularly hear inconsistent and incoherent voices from Washington. Some high-ranking government officials continue calling for diplomacy and commitment to the terms of the Geneva agreement with Iran, while some in the Congress call for sanctions and renewed threats. Why is it so? Who really determines the U.S. policy on Iran?

A: I believe, once again, that my responses above answer this question. There are numerous centers of power in the US, such as the White House and the Congress, and numerous constituencies, such as Israel and its various lobby groups, that I alluded to earlier. On the issue of Iran, unlike the Congress, the White House seems to have somewhat moved away from the desires and demands of Israel and its lobby groups. But even the statements emanating from the White House are not consistent. One reason is that some of the old guards from the first Obama Administration are still in office. This includes various individuals in the US Department of the Treasury, such as David S. Cohen, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, and Adam Szubin, Director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Another reason is that even though some individuals in the new administration, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, seem to want to reach some sort of deal with Iran, they cannot antagonize Israel, its powerful lobby groups and its proxies in the Congress. Thus you hear some contradictory remarks even from those who seem to be in favor of the Geneva accord.

Q: American officials claim what brought Iran to the negotiation table was the destructive impact of the economic sanctions against the Iranian people, however, it seems that, as you note in your recent article, what brought Iran to the negotiation table was the failure of the draconian sanctions regime and the enthusiasm of the Iranian nation for bringing to an end the nuclear standoff with the election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani. What’s your take on that?

A: Yes, as you have mentioned, I wrote in my late November 2013 essay that the Geneva accord was not due to the success of the policy of “tough diplomacy.” It was actually due to the failure of the policy. The policy of intensively sanctioning Iran was intended to collapse the Iranian economy, bring the masses into the street and prepare the ground for military actions. But nothing of the sort happened.  As I mentioned in my answer to your first question, President Obama admitted in his recent Saban Forum interview that “more sanctions and military threats” will not work. He should have gone a bit further and stated the whole policy of sanctions and threats was a mistake. A deal with Iran could have been reached much earlier, for example in 2010, following the “tripartite agreement.” As I also pointed out, paradoxically, an earlier agreement would have been more favorable to the West, since Iran’s nuclear program would not have been as advanced as it is today.

Q: And finally, what’s your viewpoint on the apprehension and concern of the Arab states of Persian Gulf about the recent developments in the path of Iran-West relations and the reconciliation which has begun to take place? Why are some of them, especially Saudi Arabia, so worried about an Iran-U.S. deal on the nuclear standoff?

A: I am afraid the space provided here does not allow me to answer this question satisfactorily. I believe a full answer requires looking at the nature of the Arab regimes—particularly the House of Saud—their dependence on the US government, their fear of change from below, their historically uneasy, and often tense relations with Iran, their evolving, and increasingly closer, relations with Israel, etc. One thing, however, can be said: Their “apprehension,” if any, does not stem from the fear that the Geneva accord might allow Iran a free hand in developing nuclear weapons. As I pointed out in a March 2012 essay, the usual argument presented by the Israeli and US officials, including many times by President Obama himself, that the Arab States fear an arms race in the Middle East if Iran acquires nuclear weapons has never made any sense. The Middle East, I argued, has lived for many decades with a nuclear armed power in its midst, Israel, a power that is most belligerent, expansionist, and warmongering. Yet, despite this fact, there has been no nuclear arms race in the region.

This interview was originally published on Fars News Agency.