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Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

Iran’s Mehr News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Mehr:  After the coup, President Erdogan announced Turkey would change its foreign policy.  Do you believe that Turkey’s foreign policy will change?

Katz:  President Erdogan seemed to be in the process of changing Turkish foreign policy before the coup attempt anyway, but he has accelerated this change since then.  The main outlines of this policy seem to be a move away from America and Europe and toward Russia and, to a certain extent, Iran.  Although Erdogan is still calling for the departure of Bashar Assad from Damascus, he is clearly de-emphasizing this goal and prioritizing the weakening of the Syrian Kurds instead.  Still, a Turkish “move toward Russia” does not mean an alliance with Russia—with which Turkey has long had many differences, including over the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute.  These differences will not disappear.

Mehr:  Ben Ali Yildirim , the Turkish Prime Minister  said, Russia can if necessary, have the use of Incirlik base. Will these statements damage Turkey’s relations with NATO?

Katz:  Such statements will indeed damage Turkey’s relations with NATO.  I think that it would be very difficult for NATO and Russian forces to share the same air base.  This statement may be more intended to motivate America and Europe to adopt policies that please Ankara rather than to signal an actual invitation to Russia. Even if there is a wider breakdown in Turkey’s relations with the West and U.S. forces end up leaving Incirlik, it is not clear that Turkey would really want forces from Russia to replace them.

Mehr:  Now that relations between Tehran and Turkey have improved after the military coup [attempt], can it be helpful in solving the Syrian crisis?

Katz:  Turkish-Iranian relations have generally been good, except with regard to Syria.  To the extent that Erdogan is no longer actively seeking the departure of Assad from Syria, the prospects for Iranian-Turkish cooperation will increase.  They appear to have common interests with regard to the Kurds also.  And to the extent that Erdogan now realizes that Sunni jihadists such as ISIS are actually a threat to Turkey, this may provide an additional common interest for Turkey to cooperate with Iran as well as Russia on.  Yet even if Turkish policy on Syria is moving closer to Iran’s and Russia’s, it is not clear that this will help resolve the Syrian crisis.  There are, after all, real differences between the Assad regime and its domestic opponents.  Further, these opponents seem quite likely to continue fighting—especially since there are other countries that continue to support them.

Mehr:  Fethullah Gülen’s extradition—would the US now give him over to Turkey?  And if not, what will be the consequences for relations between Turkey and the US?

Katz:  It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will ever extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey.  Ankara does not seem to have the sort of hard evidence needed to convince the American courts that Gulen was behind the coup attempt.  I, for one, do not think he was, and that Ankara is merely using the coup attempt (which appears to have been based within the Turkish security services) to label all Erdogan’s opponents (real and imagined) as “Gulenists” in order to get rid of them.

And this could have serious consequences for U.S.-Turkish relations.  Erdogan has made clear that he really wants Gulen extradited.  The U.S. will not accede to this.  Erdogan may then decide to take drastic action, such as withdraw Turkey from NATO.  Perhaps Erdogan wants to do this anyway, and is merely using the Gulen case as a pretext for arousing popular indignation within Turkey against the U.S. (where there is widespread belief that America and Europe actually supported the coup attempt). 

The U.S. does not want to see Turkey leave NATO, but would be unable to stop it.  Russia, of course, would be quite happy to see any country withdraw from NATO.  Still, a Turkey led by Erdogan that is outside of NATO may not pursue a quiet foreign policy, but attempt to assert itself as a regional great power instead.  Turkey’s neighbors (including Iran) may find Ankara much more difficult to deal with if its policies are not constrained by being a member of NATO.

 

 

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The reformist Iranian newspaper, “Shargh”, published an article by me on Thursday, August 13, 2015.  I wrote the article in English, and “Shargh” translated it into Farsi.  I am posting here the English text that I sent to them:

There is general agreement that the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) will have momentous implications.  There is general disagreement, however, on just what those implications are.  Several see it as having very positive implications.  These include the Obama and Rouhani administrations, China, as well as most Western and other governments.  Others see it as having very negative implications.  These include conservative politicians in both America and Iran as well as the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf Cooperation Council states (except Oman, which favors the agreement).

And then there is Russia.  Russia supports the agreement and worked toward its achievement.  But Moscow is nervous about what it means for Russia.  Moscow foresees that as economic sanctions against Iran are lifted, much more Iranian oil and gas will come onto the world market.  This will have the effect of lowering petroleum prices—something petroleum importers welcome, but other petroleum exporters like Russia do not.  Moscow is also nervous about the prospects of Iranian relations with the West improving at a time when Russian relations with it are poor and may well grow worse.

At the same time, Moscow sees that Saudi Arabia and the GCC states (except Oman) are also nervous about the prospect of improved Iranian-American relations.  Riyadh sees the hand of Iran opposing the Kingdom in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen.  Riyadh fears that the Obama Administration’s agreeing to the nuclear accord will lead to such improved Iranian-American ties that Washington will leave Saudi Arabia and the GCC to face Iran all alone.

This fear, of course, is unrealistic.  Neither Washington nor Tehran sees the nuclear accord as leading to a full-fledged Iranian-American alliance.  But the reaction of both Moscow and Riyadh to the prospect of improved Iranian-American ties has been to improve Saudi-Russian ties.  And so we have recently seen more contact between Saudi and Russian officials to talk about joint cooperation in various fields.  Moscow especially hopes that Saudi annoyance with America will lead to Riyadh buying weapons, nuclear reactors, and more from Russia.

By itself, increased Saudi-Russian cooperation is not necessarily a bad thing.  Increased trade between them really does not threaten anyone else.  Further, not just Saudi Arabia and Russia, but also Iran and America have a common interest in preventing ISIS from seizing power in Syria and anywhere else.  Indeed, it may take cooperation on the part of all four countries—and others still—to prevent this.  Improved Saudi-Russian ties may be as important as improved Iranian-American ties for bringing this about.

The idea, though, that even somewhat improved Iranian-American relations is going to lead to significantly improved Saudi-Russian relations is far-fetched.  For no matter how unhappy Riyadh is about the prospect (whether realistic or not) of improved Iranian-American relations, the Saudis are hardly likely to expect much support against Iran from a country, such as Russia, that has much closer ties to Tehran than America has or is likely to have any time soon.  For Riyadh, then, the primary utility of being seen to move closer to Russia may be to awaken fears in Washington that it had better “do something for Riyadh” so as not to “lose Saudi Arabia” to Moscow.

Moscow, of course, does want improved relations with Riyadh, and will gladly sell to Riyadh arms or whatever else it is willing to buy from Russia.  On the other hand, Russia does not want to give up anything it now has or hopes to acquire in terms of relations with Iran in order to improve ties with Saudi Arabia.  Moscow wants to have good relations with both Saudi Arabia and the GCC on the one hand and Iran on the other, even if they do not get along with each other.  Moscow does not want to have to choose between the two sides, and will go to great lengths to avoid doing so.

What all of this means is that the Iranian nuclear accord is not likely to lead to any dramatic changes in alliance patterns.  Iranian-American relations will hopefully improve, but the U.S. will remain allied to Saudi Arabia and the GCC (as well as Israel).  Moscow’s ties to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states (and also to Israel) may improve, but Russia is likely to remain more closely linked to Tehran as well as Damascus (as long as Assad remains in power there).

Yet despite whatever benefits might result from the Iranian nuclear accord, the Gulf region will remain tense so long as Saudi-Iranian relations remain confrontational.  And they will remain confrontational so long as they are on opposite sides in the region’s ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere.  Indeed, if these conflicts persist or grow worse, the region could see an all-consuming Shi’a-Sunni war—similar, perhaps, to the Catholic-Protestant wars that plagued Europe a few centuries ago.

Progress on the nuclear issue alone will not prevent this tragedy from occurring.  What is needed for doing this are regional conflict resolution efforts involving Iran, the P5 + 1, Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and all other governments and opposition movements involved.  The common threat from ISIS should be sufficient motive for everyone else to work together against it.  Just like the nuclear negotiations, these regional conflict talks will not be easy.  But if Iran and the P5 + 1 could succeed at something as complicated as the nuclear accord, I feel confident that they along with others could also succeed at regional conflict resolution too.

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Putin’s lifting of the Russian ban on transferring S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran raises important questions about Moscow’s expectations and even motivations concerning the achievement of a nuclear accord between Tehran and the P5 +1 (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia).

In 2007, Moscow and Tehran signed a contract whereby Iran would buy these air defense missiles from Russia.  Israel and the U.S. in particular objected to this sale for fear that Iranian possession of these missiles would enable Tehran to protect any nuclear weapons and delivery systems that it might be building against an Israeli or even an American attack.  Whether rightly or wrongly, they feared that if Iranian leaders thought that Russian air defense missiles could enable them to protect a nuclear weapons program (which Tehran vehemently denied it had), then Tehran would be more likely to embark on one.  Those in the West hoping to achieve a nuclear accord with Iran argued—just as the U.S. did when it was negotiating with Moscow in the initial strategic arms control negotiations in the early 1970’s—that Tehran’s foregoing defensive weapons that could protect a nuclear program would boost confidence in the West that Iran was serious about reaching a verifiable accord that would ensure it would not try to break out of such an agreement.

In September 2010, then President Medvedev canceled the sale of S-300s to Iran—even though Tehran had paid for them.  He may have been motivated to do so by the desire to encourage U.S. Senate ratification of the New START accord signed in April 2010.  He may also have seen denying Iran these weapons as a way to encourage Tehran to reach a nuclear accord with the P5 + 1.  Tehran, not surprisingly, was furious, and has sought the reinstatement of the contract ever since.

Just recently, important progress has been made toward the achievement of an Iranian nuclear accord.  While formally an agreement between Iran and all the P5 + 1 governments, the bulk of the negotiations have taken place between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.  A final agreement, though, has yet to be reached.  Grave doubts about Iranian intentions have been expressed both by Obama’s Republican opponents and by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.  They fear that Tehran does not intend to abide by a nuclear agreement, but to use it to lull the West into complacency while it builds the bomb.  Similarly, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and other Iranian conservatives have expressed fear that the agreement would demand too many concessions from Tehran while giving it too little in return.

Why, then, has Putin now decided to end the ban on the transfer of Russian S-300s to Iran?  If a final agreement had already been reached, this move might have made sense as part of the incentive package to Iran for agreeing to rigorous inspections and other restrictions ensuring its compliance with the accord.  But by lifting the ban when the achievement a final accord is still uncertain, Putin casts doubt not just on whether he thinks a final accord can be achieved, but also whether he actually wants it to be.

Why would Putin not want to see an Iranian nuclear accord achieved?  With the serious tensions that have arisen between Russia and the West over Ukraine and European security as a whole, Moscow may not want to see a rapprochement between Iran on the one hand and America and the West that a nuclear accord would lead to.  Even a reduction of the economic sanctions against Iran could lead to a swift rise in Iranian trade with the West as well as Western investment in Iran.  Iran could not only export petroleum to the West, but could serve as a conduit for Caspian Basin oil and gas to reach the world market without having to go through Russia.  Further, Tehran is not likely to forego any opportunity to earn money from the West out of deference to Russia.

Moscow, then, has reason to doubt whether the achievement of an Iranian nuclear accord would actually benefit Russia.  Moscow may not be in a position to halt an agreement if Iran on the one hand and the other P5 + 1 governments on the other were willing to sign one, since they might simply ignore Moscow’s objections and go forward with an agreement anyway.  Putin, though, may be positioning Moscow to benefit if such an agreement is not reached.  And by lifting the ban on S-300 exports to Iran, he may be increasing the likelihood that an Iranian nuclear accord is not reached.  This is because Iranian possession of S-300s will increase fears among those in the West who are skeptical anyway that Tehran intends to break out of a nuclear accord.

In making this move, Putin can be reasonably sure that Tehran will not suddenly forego receiving the S-300s after having demanded that Moscow deliver them for years now in order to reassure the West, much less Israel, about its intentions.  And if Iran does receive Russian S-300s, opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran on the part of Congressional Republicans, Israel, France, and perhaps others may grow so strong that the Obama Administration may no longer be able to continue pursuing one.

Perhaps Western governments can either persuade Moscow not to ship the S-300s to Iran or persuade Tehran not to accept them in the interests of achieving a nuclear accord.  Or failing both of these, perhaps the Obama Administration (along with France, Germany, and the UK in particular) can persuade Tehran to agree to measures offering reassurance about its nuclear intentions despite receiving Russian missiles.

But if indeed Putin is seeking to prevent the achievement of a nuclear accord between the P5 + 1 and Iran and the rapprochement between Tehran and the West that this would lead to, ending the Russian embargo on selling S-300s to Tehran may prove to be a highly effective means of doing so.

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Iran’s Tasnim News Agency published an interview with me today. The interview was conducted by e-mail in English, but the article appeared in Farsi. I am posting here the English-language e-mail interview:

Tasnim: On ISIS/IS, how do you assess their recent ups and downs in the battlefields on Syrian and Iraqi soil?

Katz: The ability of ISIS to gain a footing in Syria allowed it to gain a footing in Iraq. ISIS was helped in Iraq by the fact that Sunni Arab communities view the Shi’a-led government in Baghdad as more of a threat to them than ISIS. What is especially remarkable about the spread of ISIS in Iraq is not so much that ISIS is strong but that Iraqi government forces initially proved so weak.

Tasnim: How successful are the Syrian and Iraqi government in defeating or countering ISIS/IS fighters?

Katz: Clearly, neither government has defeated ISIS, but they appear now to at least be more successful in preventing its further spread and even rolling back some of its gains.

Tasnim: As we know, ISIS/IS simultaneously has severe confrontations with two national armies, some governmental affiliated militia and almost all of other rebellious groups in Syria. How could ISIS/IS handle this situation?

Katz: ISIS doesn’t seem to care how many enemies that it has, and seems ready to fight against everyone. While it hasn’t so far, this will eventually prove to be a problem for it.

Tasnim: What set of goals are followed by ISIS/IS? Do they have any practical roadmap to gain their goals?

Katz: ISIS seems to want to take over as much territory it can to establish its “caliphate” in Syria, Iraq, and beyond.

Tasnim: The US State Department Spokesperson has said that the US continues its support to the “moderate opposition” of the Syrian government, while recently it speaks about countering ISIS/IS. In this situation the former leads to weakening of Assad’s government while the latter one results in Assad’s strength. How can this contradiction can be figured out, especially when it seems that ISIS has the upper hand and defeated the “moderate opposition,” in this regard this stance can benefit Assad more.

Katz: American policy is indeed highly confused. It is debatable whether a “moderate opposition” could have been supported successfully in 2011-12, but actions on the part of Assad and ISIS appear to have eliminated this possibility at present.

Tasnim: Might the US, for balancing of power, attack some Syrian government targets?

Katz: I don’t think that this is likely. Although Washington has announced that it will not coordinate with Damascus any attacks America might launch against ISIS on Syrian soil, Washington will not want to push Damascus into undertaking actions that limit America’s freedom of action.

Tasnim: In western countries, what’s their policy to counter these extremist groups? Have they really determined to eliminate these groups? How?

Katz: As previous experience with Marxists, extreme nationalists (such as the IRA and ETA), as well as jihadists has shown, it is very difficult to eliminate these groups, especially in the short-term. In the long-term, however, these groups’ bad behavior serves to undermine their appeal.

Tasnim: Obviously, ISIS/IS poses a huge threat against Iran and the US. What hinders these two old rivals to coordinate and cooperate with each other to cope with this group? At least in the case of Iraq?

Katz: It has long been my view that Iranian-American relations will improve when a common threat to both emerges. ISIS is that common threat. As long as it remains so–and especially if that threat grows worse–then Tehran and Washington will have to cooperate in order to combat it. Both, however, have to recognize this. When they will both do so is unclear.

Tasnim: In the case of Syria and Iraq (and even though Ukraine), it seems that Russia takes a more active position and gets involved in the crisis to defend its interests and allies, but in all of them there is not any major/determinant activity from American side. How do you analyze this situation? Is this a sign of a New world Order which the US no longer has global hegemony in?

Katz: There is a line of reasoning that has emerged in Washington that believes that because of the “shale revolution” in North America, the US no longer needs petroleum from the Middle East, and that America may be able to supply some of its Western allies with petroleum. This being the case, then what happens in the Middle East simply is no longer as important as it used to be. America, then, can simply let those for whom events in the Middle East are important deal with problems there.

Tasnim: As mentioned earlier, for how many and which countries (like Russia), is it feasible to take a decisive stance and enforce their desired policy to fulfill their interests?

Katz: If America cannot enforce its will in the Middle East, then it is unlikely that less powerful nations will be able to do so. The more that Russia gets bogged down in Ukraine, the less able will it in particular be to influence events in the Middle East.

Tasnim: How do you estimate/predict Iran and 5+1 talks’ results? What sort of compromise is possible?

Katz: It seems to me that the more of a threat that ISIS is seen to be to everyone, then the more willing everyone should be to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue.

Tasnim: Is it possible any deal will be achieved by current deadline or is more time needed?

Katz: More time will probably be needed.

Tasnim: Might the recent updates of US sanctions against Iran harm nuclear negotiations?

Katz: The recent tightening of US sanctions on Iran certainly does not help achieve an agreement.

Tasnim: If the final comprehensive deal get signed, does the US keep its other sanctions against Iran or impose new ones based on other issues?

Katz: If a final comprehensive deal does get signed, I do not believe that the US will impose any new sanctions. Congress, though, may not let the Obama Administration reduce the existing US sanctions quickly. This is not so much because Congress distrusts Iran (though it does), as because Republicans in Congress distrust Obama.

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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

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I am posting here my contribution to a collection of articles just published by the Foreign Policy Research Centre (New Delhi) entitled, “Studies on Iran.” 

Ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran came into being in 1979, there has been much that Tehran and Washington have disagreed on.  Arguably the most important—and the most intense—disagreement between them has been with regard to the Iranian nuclear program.  Tehran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, and that it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.  Washington fears that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, and points to Tehran’s lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection program—as well as the “international community” more broadly—as justification for its concerns.  The U.S.—especially under the Obama Administration—has sought to increase economic sanctions against Iran not just to induce Tehran to verifiably reassure the international community that it will not acquire nuclear weapons, but also to raise the costs of Iran’s not doing so to the point that Tehran is eventually forced to capitulate on the nuclear issue.  Tehran has responded sometimes through openly defying American pressure and sometimes through indicating a willingness to cooperate with the international community on this issue but then not doing so.  Both responses only fuel American concerns, and so the cycle continues.

The Iranian-American disagreement over the Iranian nuclear issue, of course, is not simply a bilateral issue between Washington and Tehran.  Many other governments are also affected by and concerned about the Iranian nuclear issue, the American-led sanctions campaign against Iran, and their own relations with Iran more generally.  As a result, the international relations of the Iranian nuclear issue are complicated.

With the possible exceptions of Syria and North Korea, there are no other governments that want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.  But while some of them state this strongly (such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and the UK), others do so more quietly (Russia and China), while others still do not say much of anything even though they would very much prefer Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons (Pakistan in particular comes to mind).  Still, on the question of whether Iran should or should not acquire nuclear weapons, the overwhelming majority of governments agree (publicly or privately) with the U.S. that it should not.

As noted earlier, the Obama Administration in particular has sought to intensify international economic sanctions on Iran in order to force it to submit to international supervision over its nuclear activity.  Yet while most other governments do not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, not all of them are as enthusiastic about this approach as Washington is. The U.S. began imposing economic sanctions in 1979 and has been steadily tightening them ever since.  For the U.S. to impose additional economic sanctions on Iran, then, has little or no negative impact on the American economy since Iranian-American economic ties are already extremely limited.

Many other countries, though, have substantial trade ties with Iran.  Some governments—such as the U.K., France, and Germany—have been or may be willing to sacrifice them in the attempt to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  But while many other governments do not want Iran to obtain them either, they are not so happy about being asked to sacrifice their own trade interests for this cause.  Some have gone along with the increased sanctions that the U.S. and some European governments have called for more because they do not want their relations with the West to suffer—especially when the U.S. and EU threaten to impose penalties on those who do not comply with the sanctions regime.  By contrast, some of Iran’s neighbors—most notably the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Authority, and Turkey—have sought to profit from serving as conduits for Iranian trade even while claiming to adhere to the sanctions regime against it.  Others still—especially China and Russia—support some increased UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran as a means of currying favor with America and the West on the one hand, while on the other increasing their trade with Iran (a strategy which China has been far more successful at than Russia).

For many governments, the problem with complying with the increased sanctions against Iran that Washington in particular calls for is that doing so involves real economic sacrifices for their countries but will not necessarily succeed in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  For those governments most concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, their anticipation that even a severe economic sanctions regime against Iran will not prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons has led them to contemplate the use of military means.  Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel in particular sees the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as so threatening as to require the use of force to prevent it.  Various Saudi officials have indicated that they would not oppose—indeed, would actually facilitate—the use of force to halt the Iranian nuclear program.  President Obama has indicated that he has not ruled out anything (i.e., military means) to achieve this aim.

It is doubtful, though, that there are any other governments that would support the use of force to halt the Iranian nuclear program.  Their opposition, though, is likely to be highly differentiated.  Some oppose the use of force in general.  Others oppose its use without authorization from the UN Security Council (which would definitely not be forthcoming in this case).  Others—such as Russia—oppose any American or Western use of force which they see as aimed at expanding the Western sphere of influence at Moscow’s expense.  Still others fear being negatively affected by any ensuing Iranian-American conflict that might result.  There are some, though, that might publicly condemn the use of force against Iran while privately welcoming it—either because it damages the Iranian nuclear program, provides them with a pretext for ending their cooperation with the American-sponsored economic sanctions regime, or both.  There are even some (possibly China and Pakistan) which might welcome the prospect of a prolonged Iranian-American conflict as an opportunity for them to pursue aggressive aims of their own with less fear of being opposed by the U.S.

In their face-off over the Iranian nuclear issue, an important problem that both Washington and Tehran face is that each tends to overestimate the isolation of the other from the rest of the international community.  Washington should not mistake most governments’ opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as implying that they would support (even privately) military action to prevent this or will agree to indefinitely ratchet up sanctions at America’s behest which increasingly harm their own economic interests.  Similarly, Tehran should not mistake much of the world’s opposition to American military action that is not authorized by the UN Security Council as implying a willingness to do anything meaningful to defend Iran should it be attacked by the U.S. and/or Israel.  Tehran should also keep in mind that if it does actually acquire nuclear weapons, it is not just the U.S. and Israel that will react negatively.  Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is likely to be followed quickly by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt seeking to do so, and by these countries and several others turning more toward the U.S. to deter and contain Iran—even as many of them continue to actively trade with it.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons, then, will not necessarily increase Iranian security as Tehran might hope and expect.  On the other hand, American policy toward the Iranian nuclear issue is more likely to receive broader support if Washington aligns itself with the interests and concerns of others instead of attempting to force them into supporting a policy formulated by the U.S. and a just a few of its close allies that is insensitive to their interests.

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I recently addressed four questions about the upcoming visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Iran sent to me by Greek journalist Ειρήνη Μητροπούλου (Irini Mitropoulou) from the newspaper Το Βήμα (To Vima).  My answer to her second and part of my answer to her third question appear in Greek in her article for the 4 August 2013 issue of her paper.  Here are my responses to all of her questions in English:

 

IM:  What is the major focus of Russia’s Iran strategy at this moment?

 

MNK:  Russia and Iran have important common interests.  Both support the Assad regime in Syria.  Both are concerned about preventing the Taliban seizing power once again throughout Afghanistan after the American withdrawal and posing a threat to both their interests (as it did before 9/11).  Both are concerned about the rise of radical Sunni Islamism, which is anti-Russian and anti-Shi’a as well as being anti-Western.  And, of course, both have adversarial relations with the United States and many of its Western and Middle Eastern allies.  Moscow has no interest in joining Western-sponsored efforts to sanction or isolate (much less attack) Iran over the nuclear issue.  Weakening Iran would also weaken its willingness and ability to cooperate with Russia on these other issues that are more important to Moscow.

 

IM:  Will Putin be able, or willing, to reverse the dead end in discussions about Iran’s nuclear program, or will he just pursue bilateral interests (energy, missile sales etc)?

 

MNK:  While Moscow does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, this issue simply is not as important for Russia as it is for Western and Middle Eastern governments.  In other words:  Russia can live with a nuclear Iran.  It expects that others will have no choice but to do so as well if and when Iran acquires such weaponry.

 

IM:  And why does Russia stay loyal to Iran despite tensions? 

 

MNK:  For Russia, there is no point in pressuring Iran on the nuclear issue on the West’s behalf since 1) this could jeopardize the achievement of Russian bilateral ambitions in the trade realm; 2) Russia does not have as much leverage over Iran on the nuclear issue as some in the West (especially Washington) seem to believe; and 3) Putin in particular does not want to be seen as bowing to American pressure on any issue, including Iran. 

 

IM:  Is this a blow to the US strategy of sanctions and diplomacy?

 

MNK:  Yes it is.  But the Obama Administration’s hope that Russia would “help us” on the Iranian nuclear issue was unrealistic from the start.  It is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Moscow’s views its interests with regard both to Iran and to America.

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