British political scientist and university professor believes that the United States made a mistake in 2001 by pursuing an agenda of isolating Iran, and should have adopted a policy of diplomacy and dialog with Iran instead.
“A major opportunity was missed after 2001 and it is imperative that the U.S. does not make the same mistakes it made then by isolating and threatening Iran,” said Prof. Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen in an interview with the Tehran Times.
Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy at Rice University and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House. His research focuses on political and security developments in the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq and the changing position of the Persian Gulf States in international relations. He is the author of “Insecure Gulf: The End of Certainty and the Transition to the Post-Oil Era.”
What follows is the text of Tehran Times’ interview with Prof. Coates-Ulrichsen on the new diplomatic efforts made by the Iranian government to reach out to the international community and solve the nuclear standoff and also the future of Iran-U.S. relations.
Q: What do you think about President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s diplomatic offensive at the UN? They met tens of world leaders and top diplomats and talked of Iran’s decisiveness and resolve to find a solution for the nuclear standoff in a limited time-frame. Will they succeed in realizing this goal and solve the nuclear controversy in a timely manner?
A: The new Iranian government’s outreach has created a momentum that now needs to be carried forward by confidence-building measures on all sides. By showing that they are willing to work with the international community, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif signaled an end to the confrontational era of the past. Much will depend now on whether the climate of goodwill can translate into meaningful policy compromises on all sides, and whether both the Iranian and American governments can overcome domestic critics that may try to mobilize to prevent any negotiated settlement.
Q: Both during the campaign season and after his victory in the June 14 elections, President Rouhani pledged to try his best to end the sanctions regime against Iran. The sanctions are so extensive that it takes a lot of time to lift all of them. What approach should President Rouhani adopt to convince the West to annul the sanctions and resume a normal trade with Iran?
A: The sanctions regime is very comprehensive and consists of many different layers. Perhaps the best approach would be an incremental one whereby layer after layer the sanctions are removed. This would give both President Rouhani and the international community time to rebuild the relationship between Iran and major international powers.
Q: President Rouhani’s speech to the UN General Assembly dazzled the international community and attracted widespread attention. He conveyed the message of peace and friendship by the Iranian people to the world, and as he had promised, presented Iran’s true image to the world. What impacts can his speech and his conciliatory, moderate tone have on the future of Iran’s foreign relations?
A: I don’t think the speech necessarily dazzled the international community. It certainly caught the attention of many because it contrasted so sharply with the tone of his predecessor. It is now necessary to go beyond words and to translate the goodwill the speech generated into action. Iran can begin to diversify its relationships with other world powers both in and beyond the United Nations Security Council, and reassure regional and international partners of its commitment to stabilizing areas of crisis, such as Syria.
Q: As he was leaving New York, President Rouhani received a phone call from the U.S. President Barack Obama. The phone conversation was the first direct talk between the leaders of the two countries in more than three decades. Can we consider the phone talk a sign that the ice of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States is melting?
A: The phone call was definitely historic and it broke many of the taboos that have built up around U.S.-Iranian relations over more than three decades. It is significant that the phone call has been followed by high-level meetings between senior Iranian and U.S. officials. If these exchanges can become normal and routine, then a cycle of trust and familiarity can be built up which will, over time, produce an atmosphere beneficial to mutual understanding.
Q: The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was immensely angry at President Rouhani’s speech to the UN and asked the United States to abandon diplomacy with Iran and be cautious about President Rouhani’s efforts to reach out to the West. Some political analysts believe that Israel will suffer a lot and be a great loser if Iran and the United States find a solution to the nuclear standoff. What do you think about that?
A: Israel and the Persian Gulf States are wary of any rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran and may attempt to pressure the U.S. to water down the process of engagement at the UN. This would be a major missed opportunity if it occurs.
Q: Iran has announced that it’s ready to adopt confidence-building measures and show more transparency in its nuclear activities. This is the first step that Iran has willingly taken. What should the United States and its European allies do to reciprocate Iran’s goodwill gesture? Do you think that they are ready to lift the sanctions, or at least part of them?
A: I think that European states are more ready than the U.S. to lift sanctions, as are some of the major Asian powers. If cracks begin to develop in the international community, it will be difficult for the U.S. to maintain widespread support for the punitive sanctions regime.
Q: Will a possible nuclear deal between Iran and the United States contribute to the resolution of other problems and crises in the region, including the three-year-long unrest in Syria? Once they find an answer to the nuclear standoff, Iran and the United States can work together to address the question of Syria, and then try to make peace and stability return to Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s your take on that?
A: Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are all areas where the international community and Iran can work together to try to stabilize the situation. A major opportunity was missed after 2001 and it is imperative that the U.S. does not make the same mistakes it made then by isolating and threatening Iran. In Iraq and Syria, Iran must be on board if a negotiated settlement to the crises is to be found. But for this to happen, the U.S. will need to take hard decisions that will be very unpopular with its Arab allies and also with domestic opinion in America, and it is not yet clear whether the administration is willing to contemplate these decisions.
Q: Will the neo-cons and the fanatic elements of the Zionist lobby in the United States allow the rapprochement between Tehran and Washington to work? Recent statements by President Obama that all options are still on the table with regards to Iran’s nuclear program, including a military option, were apparently made under the Israeli pressure. Will Israel finally succeed in hampering the Iran-U.S. talks?
A: The major question mark that hangs over the potential for an Iran-U.S. rapprochement is precisely the ability of domestic and regional critics to exert sufficient pressure on the Obama administration such that the balance of political gain shifts away from engagement and back toward isolation. Judging from recent statements both from Israel and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. can expect a backlash from its regional allies, and this may only intensify if negotiations get more serious.