The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article (of course) appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language interview:
Shargh: You are one the rare expert that has seen Irano-amercian relation with an eye on their relations with other countries. In other world your analysis about Iran nuclear crisis always includes the elements of the importance of Russia, China? Visibly according to you Iranian position is subordinate to her relation with Eurasian powers, can we make such parallel with U.S. and Israel?
Katz: I do not think that the Iranian position on the nuclear issue is subordinate to the Eurasian powers—or to anyone else! If Iran’s position was subordinate to anyone, then it would either never have begun work in the nuclear realm or would have halted it long ago. No nation, whether possessing nuclear weapons or not, wants another nation to acquire them. Nations decide on their own whether it is in their interests to do so. I think the same is true of Israel. The U.S. really did not want it to acquire nuclear weapons, but it did so anyway. But just as the possession of nuclear weapons did not prevent the Soviet Union from collapsing, the possession of nuclear weapons has not enabled Israel to resolve its relations with the Palestinians or other Muslims.
Shargh: But after the victory of Hassan Rouhani, the language and the claimed aims are completely different from Ahmadinejad era. It is believed that this government is serious about solving blurred problem in nuclear crisis. What we can wait from the American side vis-à-vis this change?
Katz: The Obama Administration in particular wants to come to an agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, and so I believe that it would be willing to make concessions on the sanctions regime (which the Obama Administration did much to increase), especially with regard to Iranian access to the international banking system, petroleum sales, and trade generally. We have already seen that Washington has acquiesced to Oman buying an enormous quantity of Iranian gas.
Shargh: The victory of Hassan Rouhani showed that Iranian society is seeking peaceful solutions for the crisis. The election mechanism in Iran has convinced many experts in U.S and all over the world that these two countries have much more similarities in common, at least when we compare U.S. and its Arab allies in the region. Can we rely on this institutional similarity as well as the practice of election, elite alternation, some extent of rationality and Descartes mentality for saying that these similarities probably affect American decision-making process on Iran in positive term?
Katz: Thoughtful American observers of the Middle East have long noted the irony in America’s adversary Iran being more democratic than America’s authoritarian Arab allies. We saw a similar irony during the Cold War when America sided with authoritarian Pakistan against democratic India. While there are politically powerful forces both in America and Iran that oppose improving relations with the other, I believe that President Rouhani’s popularity inside Iran provides the opportunity for those who support rapprochement in both countries to pursue it.
Shargh: « Heroic Flexibility » is a rotation in Iranian foreign policy which was declared by supreme leader just before Rouhani’s trip to New York. It is believed that Iran has taken “go first” strategy. I’d like to know and ask you, HOW this new orientation is viewed in U.S. and among different political spectrum?
Katz: The fact that the Supreme Leader himself has called for “heroic flexibility” is extraordinarily important, and is a strong sign that President Rouhani has his approval to seek improved Iranian-American relations. Some in the U.S. recognize this, while others do not. The present moment reminds me very much of the state of Chinese-American relations in the early 1970’s or Soviet-American relations in the mid-1980’s. Just like now, there were those who then claimed that our adversaries’ call for improved relations was “a trick” meant to lull America into complacency while they prepared a surprise attack of some sort. Fortunately, though, cooler heads prevailed in Washington and improved relations came about. Both China and America have benefited from this ever since. The Soviet Union, of course, fell apart, but this was not America’s doing. Indeed, in his July 1991 speech in Kiev, President George HW Bush called for the Soviet Union to hold together and democratize. The internal mess that the Soviet Union had become under communism, however, meant that it couldn’t be reformed. While Russian-American relations have not always been good since then, they are much better than Soviet-American relations before Gorbachev. I believe that improved Iranian-American relations would lead to long-term benefits for the U.S. and Iran as well. Unlike the USSR but like China, Iran is not going to break up.
Shargh: I come back to the region. The probable rapprochement between Tehran and Washington has made real concerns for Israel. Add to Israel, Arab countries across the region and Russia and certainly Saudi Arabia. What does it look like the new political configuration of Middle East after Irano-American reconciliation? Do U.S. allies will lose their geopolitical weight? Russia from her today’s stance will take which position?
Katz: Israel and many Arab governments are fearful of improved Iranian-American relations. They fear that America and Iran will become such good friends that America will not listen to them as much. I believe, though, that improved Iranian-American relations would benefit both Israel and the Arab states. The better Iran’s ties with the West, the more that Iran will have an interest in the peaceful resolution of its ties to the Arab world as well as the peaceful resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Moscow does not welcome improved Iranian-American relations for fear of Iran becoming friendlier with the West at Russia’s expense. I think, though, that Russia too would benefit from the reduced hostility in the region that improved Iranian-American ties could lead to.
Shargh: If we put the regional dissatisfaction created from probable reconciliation alongside the « Shiite Crescent», the Sunnis in the region are not happy. US have what type of strategy for coping with these challenges?
Katz: Much of the Sunni Arab fear of Shi’a Arabs is based on the belief that the latter are Iranian agents. I think that an improved Iranian-American relationship could help defuse this fear through Tehran and Washington working together to resolve Sunni-Shi’a conflicts through both democratic and federal solutions in those countries most afflicted with Sunni-Shi’a tension, including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Shargh: In US to what extent Israeli lobby and the hawks can make obstacle against “thaw” between Tehran and Washington? How much these obstacle could be serious?
Katz: It is true that in America there are strong pro-Israeli as well as other hawkish groups that oppose a thaw between Tehran and Washington. On the other hand, there are many supporters of Israel who see that improving Iranian-American relations would also benefit Israel. The more progress that is made in improving Iranian-American relations, the more difficult it will be to block this process.
Shargh: On nuclear crisis, US visibly was seeking to reinforce the sanctions regime for forcing Iran to change her behavior But the nonstop emphasis on the efficiency of the sanctions has become American strategy; It is not any more tactics. There is something illusion for understanding American foreign policy. According to you to what extent emphasizing on sanctions will jeopardize the opportunity of rapprochement? Lifting sanctions means “leaving with losing”?
Katz: In my view, increasing sanctions on Iran now that both the Supreme Leader and President Rouhani have signaled a serious desire to improve relations would be counter-productive. There are many in Washington, though, who will argue that it is the increased sanctions on Iran that has brought about Tehran’s “heroic flexibility,” and so sanctions should be further increased to bring about even greater Iranian flexibility. In my view, though, this would be a miscalculation. If those on the Iranian side who have taken the risk of calling for improved relations are treated poorly by the U.S., then those who oppose improving relations will become stronger in Tehran and the opportunity will be lost for years and years.
Shargh: Iranian president in a conference insisted that Americans also have changed their accent. Visibly all things go well, according to you what’s the most important and unsolvable problem for passing this difficult period? Long history of hostilities or nuclear issue?
Katz: There is indeed a long history of hostile relations between the U.S. and Iran in addition to their differences over the nuclear issue. I think that making progress on the nuclear issue will actually be easier since this can be done by a relatively small number of people on both sides. Overcoming the legacy of hostile relations, though, will require support from the political class as well as the public on both sides. In my view, progress on the nuclear issue could help accomplish this more difficult task.
Shargh: If the process of “thaw” begins normally in the framework of diplomatic attempts who is the biggest loser and winner of these new arrangements in Middle East?
Katz: There are many who fear that they will lose by it—including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Russia. In my view, though, all of these and more would benefit in the long-run from improved Iranian-American relations—even if they do not recognize this at present.
Shargh: For the last question, Obama in his discourse in General Assembly defending “American Exceptionalism”, what does it mean for future of Middle East, we have to be afraid of emerging a new war?
Katz: When he refers to “American exceptionalism,” President Obama is not claiming that America is better than others, but is referring to America’s role in helping free other nations from conquest by others (such as Imperial Germany in World War I, Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II, and communist expansionism during the Cold War). American generosity after World War II also helped many nations—including our former enemies—revive economically and politically. President Obama also knows that America has committed many mistakes, such as supporting authoritarian regimes (including the Shah’s) during the Cold War because we were so very afraid of communism then. What is exceptional about America, in my view, is that it is a country that both can learn from its mistakes and has the ability to rectify them. But as President Obama would surely agree, other countries can also be exceptional in this way too. If so, it is not war but peace that could emerge when exceptional leaders in exceptional nations work together.
The interview in Farsi is available here: http://sharghdaily.ir/Modules/News/PrintVer.aspx?News_Id=22850&V_News_Id=&Src=Main