Posch_Walter_SWP_7667_2364Kourosh Ziabari – Iran Review: In the recent years, the history of Iran’s relations with the Western powers, and especially the United States, has been full of ups and downs, points of confrontation, dispute and also sporadic breakthroughs. Different issues have contributed to the deterioration of bilateral and multilateral relations, and indubitably the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program was the most important issue. The United States and its European allies have been accusing Iran of trying to use its nuclear program as a cover for producing atomic bombs, while Iran has persistently denied the claims, citing the numerous IAEA reports showing that its nuclear activities have never deviated toward weaponization but were simply aimed at peaceful purposes.

Now that the talks between Iran and the six world powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany) are underway to find a comprehensive solution for Iran’s nuclear standoff, the world is awaiting the outcome to see whether this decade-long dispute can be settled in a peaceful, diplomatic manner and the Iranians also optimistically look forward to see whether Iran can enter a new phase of constructive relations with the international community.

To discuss the future of Iran’s relations with the United States and the prospects of the nuclear talks, and also in order to explore the reasons why some important opportunity for engagement and reconciliation between Iran and the West were missed in the past, Iran Review conducted an interview with Dr. Walter Posch.

Dr. Walter Posch, was born in 1966 in Hall/Tyrol Austria. He is an expert on Turkish and Islamic Studies in Vienna, and has a Ph.D. in Iranian Studies. Walter Posch was a Middle East expert at the National Defense Academy in Vienna (2000-2004), and worked in the same function at the EU Institute for Security Studies in Paris (2004-2009). Since 2010 when he started to work at German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin, he focuses on Iranian domestic, foreign and security policy.

What follows is the text of Iran Review’s interview with Dr. Walter Posch.

Q: In one of your recent articles, you noted that Iran and the United States have some common interests in Afghanistan. Both of them want to see a stable and secure Afghanistan, both desire the Taliban to be eradicated from the country and both favor an end to the massive opium cultivation, production and trafficking. However, the United States has so far failed to bring Iran to the negotiation table for a series of comprehensive talks over the future of Afghanistan through exploring the venues for joint cooperation. Why is it so?

A: Afghanistan was a good opportunity for cooperation, but an unimportant speech of the U.S. president (“Axis of Evil”) was enough to derail the process. In the end I think the domestic pressure in both countries, but more so in Iran which has an ideology based on Anti-Americanism – will prevent any cooperation from materializing. Can anyone imagine the Vezarat-e Ettelaat (Ministry of Intelligence) to cooperate with the CIA to share intelligence on Al-Qaida and to conduct common operations? Although I think both, the U.S. and Iran, belatedly start to grasp what the rise of al-Qaida as a globally active Islamic Force means to their interests, this will not be enough to overcome three decades of U.S.-Iranian distrust.

There is a difference though, the Americans are basically pragmatic and business-oriented, the Iranians are ideological and have to put everything into a spiritual context (system of velayat-e faqih, role of religious and revolutionary values in politics etc) in short, there is a mismatch on many levels. Finally continuing the confrontation is intellectually, ideologically and politically easier to do than changing course, neither Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei nor President Barack H. Obama have until now shown resolve to overcome distrust by sending out the right gestures at the right moment.

Q: Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West could have been solved a long time ago, if the United States and its allies had accepted Iran’s different proposals for nuclear cooperation, such as the Tehran Declaration that was put forward by Iran, Turkey and Brazil in May 2010. However, the confrontation was protracted unduly and now in the new Iranian administration, some chances have emerged for the settlement of the disputes. Why do you think the nuclear controversy lasted for so long? Are you hopeful that the final agreement between Iran and the six world powers can be forged and years of mistrust and conflict will come to an end? Does the P5+1 have the resolve and determination to come up with an agreement that can end the nuclear crisis?

A: Actually I have expected this question, tellingly – and irresponsibly – you ignore the previous offers from the international community, these include the 2008 offer with a cover letter on behalf of the UNSC signed by the P5 plus Germany handed over by the EU-foreign policy chief Javier Solana to Mr. Mottaki, the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran. No other country ever received such a preferential treatment. So the Europeans managed to shift U.S. Foreign policy from irresponsible jingoism as represented by those like John Bolton back to American statecraft as represented by Condoleeza Rice. Iran’s reaction under Ahmadinejad was disappointing in many regards. If the Iranian side had prioritized Iran’s national interest over revolutionary rhetoric, then the Iranian government would have seized the possibility to strike a deal with the outgoing government of George W. Bush, even more, because he was relatively weakened ready for a deal. But the Iranian side waited until 2010 and put its hope on the stillborn attempt of Brazil and Turkey – none of these countries is a real global player and definitely not in any nuclear agenda – and by the way Iran lost Brazil as a partner too. You also are mistaken in framing the confrontation as a Western- Iranian one. This is not true, the E3+3 include China and Russia, both countries who seriously compete with the West, whether Iran likes it or not, it is common responsibility which makes Russia and China cooperate with the West, even in spite of the recent crisis in Crimea.

The nuclear controversy lasted so long because of the complexity of the problem, the fact that this issue is all the way debated within the greater public both in Iran and in the west and because the Ahmadinejad government saw negotiations as a form of succumbing to imperialism – this point was convincingly brought to my attention by Dr. Ali Bigdeli in a very insightful article at Hamshahri Mah Magazine’s January 2014 edition, No. 115.

To conclude: yes I think both sides are willing now to conclude a good and substantial agreement, provided domestic pressure in Iran against Mr. Zarif will not spiral out of control.

Q: In one of your writings, you talked about the ideological differences between Iran and the United States. The Islamic Republic government is oriented on political Islam, as you say, which inherently opposes American imperialism, and the United States finds itself a global gendarme with a responsibility to militarily intervene wherever and whenever it deems necessary. How can these two worldviews come to terms with each other and turn into friends rather than adversaries?

A: I disagree; to read U.S. foreign policy in terms of “global gendarme” is a bit facile. Did you see the U.S. intervene recently? Ukraine? Syria? To the best of my knowledge they leave Afghanistan and Iraq, by the way as seen from an Iranian perspective, U.S. intervention can be highly beneficial, there would be no Iranian presence of this strong kind as today in Iraq without U.S. intervention. Like it or not, Iranian pilgrims can go to Najaf and Karbala thanks to the U.S. intervention.

But to answer your question: no, I do not know any answer to the ideological problem. But I am also the wrong person to ask, ask Hossein Shariat Madari or anyone else from Kayhan.

Q: Do you think that the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his American counterpart Barack Hussein Obama can finally strike a comprehensive deal over Iran’s nuclear program? There are hawkish American Senators and House members who are astringently opposed to any kind of diplomatic opening with Iran and still insist on sanctions and the military option. Similarly, President Rouhani has his own domestic critics who don’t favor talks with the United States. So, with these difficulties ahead, do you think that they can successfully hammer out a final agreement?

A: Yes, because like with all radicals it is enough to tell them to shut up. As soon as Obama sees substantial progress on the technical side of the agreement (implementation, procedures etc.) then he will use all his power and charisma to bring the deal through. I am still surprised that Iranian analysts ignore the changes under the Obama, how powerful almost almighty has AIPAC been a few years ago, today however they are reduced to what they are: an ordinary albeit highly efficient lobby. Rouhani has opposition too but as far as I see Grand Ayatollah Supreme Leader Khamenei supports him, and I do not think this will change. Rouhani has faced down opposition from the radicals already in 2005 and with Mr. Mostafa Purmohammadi he has a strong political ally. I am not sure this will be enough – unless the Supreme Leader officially makes a stand in favor for a nuclear deal, groups who you know better than anyone in Europe, will still continue their radical agenda and try to derail the process.

Q: You are familiar with the Iranian culture and surely know that Iranians don’t trade their pride and dignity with anything. Many of the misunderstandings between Iran and the United States in the recent years have emanated from the lack of understanding about each other’s culture and sensitivities. Have the United States and the European powers come to realize that using the language of force, threat and sanctions isn’t workable for Iran and they should use a different language in dealing with the Iranians in order to get what they want?

A: Who does [trade their pride and dignity with other things]? Don’t underestimate the pride of Europe!

This question ignores Iran’s responsibility and the fact that the international community always preferred negotiations over confrontation. In international relations, the responsibility of a nation should trump its sensibilities and emotions. The language of force doesn’t work because no one wants to live up to it. The sanctions of course did work, because Iran never believed that the Europeans and the Chinese and Russian would sacrifice their own economic interests, as they did by prioritizing the nuclear issue. Finally, on many occasions Iran used a less than diplomatic language. The fact that Europeans in spite of all their pride and domestic sensibilities don’t make too much a deal about it is due to their sense of responsibility.

This interview was originally published on Iran Review website.