The United States and Iran made diplomatic history on the sidelines of the 68th session of the U.N. General Assembly. The two sides agreed to restart negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program on October 15, when Iran will meet with the P5+1 group in Geneva. I recently sat down with Gary Sick, an Iran specialist who served on the National Security Council staffs of US Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan to talk about the challenges and opportunities in future Iran-US negotiations. Below is my Q&A with Professor Sick.
Gary Sick is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and an adjunct professor at the School of International and Public Affairs. Sick served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the US embassy take-over in Iran. Sick is a captain (ret.) in the U.S. Navy, with service in the Persian Gulf, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. From 1982 to 1987, Sick served as deputy director for international affairs at the Ford Foundation, where he was responsible for programs relating to U.S. foreign policy. He is a member (emeritus) of the board of Human Rights Watch in New York and founding chair of its advisory committee on the Middle East and North Africa. He is the executive director of Gulf/2000, an international online research project on political, economic and security developments in the Persian Gulf, being conducted at Columbia University since 1993 with support from a number of major foundations. Sick was voted one of the top five teachers in 2009 at the School of International and Public Affairs. He is the author of All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter With Iran (Random House 1985) and October Surprise: America’s Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (Random House 1991).
SM: Professor sick thank you for your time, it’s a pleasure to sit down with you.
GS: It’s a real pleasure to be here.
SM: Well, It was a pretty eventful week in terms of US-Iran negotiations. What would the United States, in your opinion, have to do, what steps would the United States have to take from here on out to continue this presumable path to better ties?
GS: Well, they started that process very much. I mean, first of all, letting Mr Zarif sit down with the P5 +1 in New York, that was a major breakthrough that had never happened before. The Iranian Foreign Minister sitting down with the people who negotiate the nuclear thing. In the past American diplomats tended to run when they saw an Iranian diplomat. So now the fact that they would not only sit down but then Secretary of State apparently said, do you mind if we have a few words in private, and they spent 30 minutes in really serious conversation. That’s unheard of. This has not really happened since certainly before the revolution. So this is a real breakthrough. Then of course, in addition to all the speeches and everything else, the telephone call, because it was…whoever came up with the idea, it was President Obama who initiated the phone call. And again, the picture of the President of the United States sitting in the Oval Office picking up the phone to talk to the President of Iran, and signing off with “Khodahafez”, that was amazing. And so I would say that the United States did everything that it could be expected to do at the beginning. They showed a willingness. When Mr. Netanyahu [Israeli PM] showed up and they had a meeting, the language, the rhetoric in that meeting, began to shift back toward where it had been before. He referred to Iranian regime; he began talking again about no option is off the table and all of this kind of thing, all of which grates on the Iranians. And I think they were really disappointed that he went back to use those old words. Basically a lot of this, is sort of show and tell at this point. It broke the ice. It showed that in fact some kind of a relationship between the two sides is feasible, but the test is in the eating and the first real test is going to be when they meet in Geneva on 15th October to really begin serious negotiation of the nuclear issue, and both sides will come, I think, with a proposal. And that’s when we’ll find out just how far each side is prepared to go. And so that…right now there’s reason to be more optimistic perhaps than we have been for, say, 34 years, but that isn’t saying very much because there wasn’t much to be optimistic about before.
SM: The United States and Iran almost reached a deal back in 2003, however it fell through, how would you say things might be different, this time around?
GS : Well, two things have happened. Time has gone by. The cost of any kind of an agreement has gone up very substantially on both sides. The cost to Iran, the cost to the United States has gone up dramatically. But the other thing that has changed is that there’s a very different President in the United States. And that is…it’s stating the obvious, but President Obama is not either Bill Clinton or particularly George Bush because it was really the Bush Administration that they were trying to deal with starting in the 2001 period when things began to warm up. Iran at that point worked very closely with the United States in trying to set up a new government in Afghanistan. That was hugely important, which we know – Bush had his famous speech and identified Iran as the axis of evil. Basically undercutting everything that had just taken place. And then later on the Iranians came up and it was in fact Mr. Zarif and Mr. Rouhani who together came up with a proposal on the nuclear side, which is not very different from what they’re saying now, actually. I mean, the terms I think are going to be quite similar. In fact there was a memo circulated by the Iranians to the Americans in 2003 and then a proposal that was made in 2005 and in both cases the first one the United States never even read the memo, or never answered it, and the second case the American side showed not only no interest but they actually refused to accept the deal that had been worked out with the Europeans. We weren’t talking directly to Iran at that time. I don’t think that will happen again. We’re paying attention. The United States is listening to Iran. That doesn’t mean we’ll agree with Iran on everything and it certainly doesn’t mean that suddenly there’s going to be an explosion of love and kindness and all. I don’t see that. I do think, however, that if this meeting goes well in first Geneva and then perhaps Vienna with the IAEA, we will have something then to actually say there’s something concrete to show for this. And that’s where we are right now.
SM: What was your opinion about Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the General Assembly. calling the Iranian President “A wolf in a sheep’s clothing” and etc.?
GS : Well, there’s an old story from the Cold War. People disagree about this and it may not even be true, but supposedly the Foreign Minister of, or the Ambassador of the Soviet Union at that time – this was at the time just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union is reputed to have said to either Henry Kissinger or to his successor that we’re going to do to you the worst thing that one country can do to another. Based on the Cold War, that was a scary thing to say. He said, “What’s that?” And he said, “We’re going to deprive you of an enemy”. And so the Soviet Union was saying, okay, your days of basically basing all of your strategy, all of your actions, everything that you do, on us, the Soviet Union as the enemy of all enemies, is going to end. And you’re going to have to think about what your purpose is, how you present yourself, what your objectives are without that organizing feature of having a nice, clear enemy. Potentially, based on the week that we’ve just had where I think Rouhani was far more successful than most- anybody expected. We have the situation from the Israeli point of view. They face the prospect of perhaps losing their best enemy, that the enemy of Iran which has been useful for fundraising, for identifying what their greater interests were, for mobilizing world opinion around their position, and all of these things. And also, to be fair, shoving aside the Palestinian issue. That whole business of having Iran to focus on is, in fact is at risk, it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s at risk of actually disappearing. And it seems to me that’s what Mr. Netanyahu was really talking about in his speech at the UN which basically was don’t believe it, don’t believe it, don’t believe it. Iran is still the enemy. It is the number one enemy. That was his message. And don’t believe anything else that you hear. That’s certainly what he would like to believe and a lot of people would and not just in Israel but in this country as well. The reception that he got on Capitol Hill was very warm. Perhaps not as forthcoming as he had hoped it to be but nevertheless warm. We shall see, because if in fact Iran and the United States find a way of bridging the gap and moving to a different situation, then that momentum will continue. If not, that will stop and we’ll be right back where we were before. So we’re at a very, very important turning point.
SM: What the Iranian nation wants to see come out of these talks is the lifting of sanctions, for them that’s one of the most important issues…
A: Well it is, but I think the reality is that this is a two-sided game and so each side is going to say, okay, you go first and then I will come along and do my thing. And the other side will say, nope, that’s not acceptable. You go first and I will come along afterwards. So the initial stages of this, basically I would say that Iran, by Rouhani coming here and making the kind of speeches that he made, seeing the people that he saw, appointing Mr Zarif as his Foreign Minister and letting him meet with literally everybody who is anybody, in New York and Washington. Having done that, they are in effect – Iran was signaling we are ready. So we’re not saying you have to do everything first and we’ll come along. They’re saying we’re going to take the first step. We’re going to break the ice. And that was hard to do in terms of Iranian politics, but it’s not everything. To get concrete reactions, both sides are each going to have to do something themselves. And then in response the other two. And they can do it at the same time. So if Iran, for instance, I have suspect that in two weeks in the Geneva meeting Iran will propose, for instance, that they will stop all of their 20% enriched Uranium proposal understanding that the United States or the West will in fact provide them with the fuel plates that they need for the Teheran research reactor, which makes medical isotopes. That is a deal that has actually been proposed and- by the United States, in one case agreed to by Iran later, and I think is still very much on the table. So that’s the kind of thing that they could agree. So there could be that. The sanctions I think until additional steps are taken, that is a sort of sanction – that’s a sanction against Iran’s research reactor and medical isotopes. So there are people with cancer in Iran that would like to have that operating. So it seems to me that’s do-able and it could happen at roughly the same time. Iran would offer this, United States or the West would say, okay, we will make sure that you get the fuel plates that you need quickly. Other things are also possible. I mean, if Iran at the IAEA meeting for instance says to the organization, alright, you are free to visit the medical- the military facility at Parchin, that would be a huge statement of confidence building, and what the IAEA could do then is go and visit the place and if they give them a clean bill of health after their visit, that will remove a whole range of questions and issues which would then open up the possibility of revisiting the UN Security Council resolutions which are in existence. The sanctions themselves, maybe there would be some relief that was done. The President does have the capacity to basically- the executive orders that exist, he can sign his name and do away with some, not nearly all of them. So he might do that. But he’s got to be very careful because there are people in Washington, especially in the Congress, that are looking over his shoulder and saying, don’t give away anything until you get something really concrete in return. So- but at some stage he’s going to have to bite the bullet and say okay, I’m prepared to do this. When and how he will do that I don’t know but I think even a minor- I think the Europeans are more willing to do away…but the problem is the European sanctions don’t amount to anything. I mean, they sound big but in reality they’re not. I mean, there are a lot of European companies that would like to do more business with Iran but this is small potatoes in comparison to what Iran needs. It’s the banking system. I say that is America’s weapon of mass destruction against Iran, and it is having an enormous impact and I think they might be able to lift some aspects of it, sort of incrementally, but basically I think we’re going to have to get a little further down the line before the President will feel that he has enough in his hand to go in. And of course, as you know very well, President Obama is fighting a lot of other battles at the same time. I mean, this whole business of a government shutdown and the sequester that is going on where everybody’s budget is being cut, and then we’ve got a debt relief ceiling that is coming up just very shortly, you know, within weeks after this. So he’s going to be in outright warfare with the Congress during a good part of this time. So how much will he be willing to give Iran which is not popular on Capitol Hill? How much will he be willing to give up, knowing that he is in fact in this kind of a battle?
SM: As you well know, there have been sanctions imposed on Iran prior to the nuclear issue for example on the country’s airline and aviation industry. Are there any indications on revisiting those cases?
GS: Yes. Absolutely. And you can be sure that they won’t publicize it, but one of the first people through the door after the Rouhani speech and the sort of breaking of the ice was the Boeing Company who wants to sell aircraft engines to Iran. And they have some very good people in Washington who are making that case and that has been revisited in the past, and it is one of the things that can be done. The other thing of course which President Rouhani has started when he got back and that is to let airplanes fly back and forth, scheduled aircraft, airlines, back and forth between New York or Washington, the United States or Los Angeles more likely, and Iran. Basically because you’ve got this huge American community of Iranians, many of whom actually met with Rouhani during his visit. I don’t know if you were present but I was told that it was quite a remarkable success. And since these are in many cases people who fled Iran because of the revolution, the fact that they would come out and give him ovations and all is a pretty good sign that something really has changed. So if you basically get the American-Iranian community behind this – the problem is the Iranian community in this country which I’m sure you know better than I do, is hugely fractured. I mean, you have people who say that even being in the same room with these guys is like associating with evil. There are other people who are saying we need to forget the past and go on. There are other people who have economic interests, and they say forget all the politics, let’s just do business with each other. But they don’t agree with each other at all, and that has really gotten in the way because unlike Israel which has a very powerful lobby in this country, Iran doesn’t. And they need one. They badly need somebody to stand up and tell the American people who they are, who Iran is, and basically come out and make their voice heard.
SM: I’d like to wrap up with Syria. Do you think that Syria could be an opportunity for collaboration between Iran and the US?
GS : You know, I think that President Obama sort of answered that question in his UN speech. He said that all nations are going to have to work together to make any kind of a political settlement with Syria, in Syria. And all nations includes Iran. He didn’t say that specifically but that was certainly the way I heard it. Iran, to my knowledge, has not received a formal invitation to Geneva 2. On the other hand, nobody else has either because it doesn’t exist yet. I mean, people are still talking about when to have it, whether to have it and then who gets to- who comes is another matter. I would bet that given what Obama said and the realities on the ground, that Iran will be at Geneva, too. Iran actually, in a peculiar way, because of its experience with Saddam Hussein and chemical weapons, is one of the most active countries that want to see chemical weapons ended, and that includes Assad’s chemical weapons and now that he has in fact embraced the Chemical Weapons Convention I think that’s something that the United States understands, that Iran can in fact be very useful in making sure that he keeps his promises. The same time, Iran’s concept of what they want in Syria from a political point of view is not necessarily with Assad staying there forever but to have a political settlement that in fact will protect all the different parties to the conflict and won’t end up in a civil war where everything collapses suddenly and you have really a crazy, radical Islamists coming in and taking over the government, which in many ways would be even worse than what we’ve got now. So that is basically as I understand it, that’s the US position, too. So basically we are sort of on the same page on both of these issues and those are the two crucial parts of- in my reading, Iran has the potential of playing a really constructive role. And there again, I think Iran is going to need to prove that they can play that constructive role. I think if they’re invited to Geneva 2 that they come and behave in a very constructive way that would in fact contribute to the outcome, the way they did in Afghanistan. And on the chemical weapons side, I think if they intervene with Assad and with the Syrians to make sure that the chemical weapons are located, destroyed, taken out of the country or whatever, if they co-operate actively in that process, people will see that, and that will- this, unlike the Bush Administration which basically just ignored all of these actions that Iran took, I think this administration will in fact look at them for their own value, and I think it will work. So yes, I think in fact Syria is an opportunity for collaboration, not a danger.
SM: Professor Sick, thank you so much for your time and company.
GS: Been a pleasure to talk to you.
This interview was conducted on Oct. 2, 2013 in New York City. ©susanmodaress