Analysis & Opinions

The Nuclear Program and Iran-US Mutual Strategic Need

| October 31, 2010


Mosallas (Triangle) Weekly conducted the following interview and originally published it in Farsi. Iran Review subsequently published an English translation.


Mosallas Weekly: What is the main problem dividing Iran and the United States after the lapse of more than three decades?

Dr. Barzegar: The main problem is the simultaneous existence of ideological and strategic discrepancies. The 1979 Islamic Revolution was an ideological phenomenon seeking to make Iran politically independent of the greatest hegemonic power of the time, the United States. Before that Washington had a long history of interference in Iran's internal affairs, including in the August 19, 1953, coup d’état which in many ways provoked the later capture of the American embassy in Tehran. These discrepancies, combined with U.S. support for the Ba'athist regime in the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war and its unilateral sanctions against Iran, subsequently further deepened the sense of enmity between the two sides. The terror attacks of the September 11, 2001, and the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq have also added a new kind of strategic discrepancy to the previous ideological ones. Although Iran helped the United States in Afghanistan, President Bush labeled Iran part of the "Axis of Evil" and pursued a "regime change" policy against Iran. That policy was the worst policy a U.S administration could have taken, and it indeed severely damaged the U.S's image in Iran. The underlying reason behind the adoption of that policy was the U.S. presence in the Middle East and regime change in certain countries in a bid to further entrench Washington's regional clout and ideological dominance. These developments have been basically at odds with Iran's national interests and security. Political and security developments which ensued occupation of Iraq in 2003 bolstered Iran's regional influence, turning it into a major regional player. Now, the two sides have gone beyond ideological and strategic conflicts in their attempt to further institutionalize their regional roles. Although, ideological and strategic discrepancies coexist, strategic conflicts are now more pronounced and in the two sides' relations. Coincidently, the same strategic conflicts also possesses potential for engendering greater proximity between Tehran and Washington. For example, the very nature of Iran's nuclear program faces both sides with a "mutual strategic need." This is why for the first time, more practical emphasis has been put on the necessity of direct talks.

Mosallas Weekly: You pointed to the possibility of strategic talks between Iran and the United States. Why have previous direct contacts for instance in Iraq not been continued?

Dr. Barzegar: Iran and the United States need each other for two sets of issues: First, to tackle regional problems i.e. in Iraq and Afghanistan and second, to settle Iran's nuclear crisis. Although Iran holds the upper hand in both fields, practical policies followed by the two countries produce different results. The two countries can only engage in talks over regional issues if their definition of national and security interests were closely related. At the moment, the two sides have opposing strategies with respect to the various regional crises. For example, their definition of the source of security threats and presence of foreign forces in the region is different. Iran's strategy in Lebanon and Palestine has been to support the resistance forces like Hezbollah and Hamas. Such a strategy is in conflict with the U.S. strategy which totally refuses to accept these forces' legitimacy in the region. Therefore, the two sides should not be expected to take similar stances on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On the other side, U.S. efforts to secure a foothold in Iraq by signing political and security contracts with the Iraqi government are considered by Iran a source of insecurity. The same is true about Afghanistan where the United States seeks to guarantee its interests by sending more troops thereby fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban while Iran considers the U.S's heavy military presence as a direct threat to its national security and a cause for continued crisis. Therefore, the two countries hold different views on regional issues. However, when it comes to Iran's nuclear program, the Americans consider it an issue of national and international security, which forces Washington to engage in direct talks with Tehran. The nature of Iran's nuclear policy and its emphasis on "preserving an independent fuel cycle" is such that Washington has either to interact with Tehran or go to war. The U.S. is not currently in a position to wage another war in the region, which could provoke unpredictable repercussions. So time is not on the West's side with respect to Iran's nuclear program. Therefore, the West has to interact with Iran to see how sanctions will impact Iran's behavior. They put great hope in the current sanctions policy.

Mosallas Weekly: Representatives of Iran and the United States have met on two occasions and relations were not continued. Why?

Dr. Barzegar: Well Iran has proven that it would go for negotiations and has sent positive signals such as signing the Tehran Declaration (Iran-Turkey-Brazil nuclear deal). President Ahmadinejad also spent one week in New York in this September and on several occasions expressed on Iran's interest in direct talks. But, I think that the American side is still confused and not ready to start talks. A reason for this confusion could be Iran's post-presidential elections' events, which somehow changed the Obama administration's policy toward Iran. The administration thought that the existing split between political forces in Iran was a good opportunity to achieve the U.S. goals at a lower cost and gain the upper hand in nuclear negotiations with Iran. This is why maintaining solidarity and national unity is so important to our country. As a result, perhaps the Obama Administration is now willing to initiate the talks, but it has not reached a final decision yet because it is waiting to see the impact of tough sanctions against Iran. I think that this is the wrong policy because sanctions will not change Iran's nuclear policy. On the contrary, by integrating all political forces, it will empower the hand of the Iranian government inside the country. In addition to being a national issue, the nuclear program is a point of consensus among all political trends inside Iran and the nuclear issue in my belief has reached the point of no return in a way that no political group can oppose with it for the sake of removing sanctions.

Mosallas Weekly: President Ahmadinejad argues that a distinction should be made between Iran-U.S. differences and focus on international issues. He proposed to make a debate with President Obama on solving global issues both this year and last year. What is your take on this issue?

Dr. Barzegar: I think that Iran should pay attention to both aspects. It is imperative for a regional player like Iran to follow independent national strategies and play an active part in such international issues as all-out nuclear disarmament, the war against terror, peaceful use of the nuclear energy and so on. Iran must also pay attention to priorities. I think that Iran should focus more on strategic and regional issues where it can be effectively influential and which are of more interest to the international community. During his recent visit to the United Nations, President Ahmadinejad put more emphasis on regional issues like comprehensive regional and global disarmament, Afghanistan and Iraq crises, and the 9/11 attacks which were used as an excuse to launch regional wars. If such issues were discussed in such a way as to highlight Iran's constructive role, it would increase Tehran's bargaining power in future nuclear talks or direct negotiations with the United States. International issues are important, but more attention should be paid to Iran's strategic advantages and potentials in solving regional issues which are of international significance. For example, while crises in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Arab-Israeli peace process are regional concerns, they are also directly related to international security.

Mosallas Weekly: Some analysts maintain that direct talk between Iran and the U.S. is just a threat, not an opportunity. There is also an opposite view which maintains that instead of fixing attention on the colonial aspect of the United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran can enter into direct negotiations in order to pre-empt the Arabs, Chinese, and Russians from playing  the Iran card. What is your view?

Dr. Barzegar: The main concern of those who think direct talks will pose a threat and a loss to Iran is that Iran and the United States should take part in negotiations on equal terms because the Americans will only engage in talks when there are certain concessions on the Iranian side. Considering the U.S's past behavior, this argument seems plausible. But we should note that that Iran has already attained parity with the United States regarding its existing influence on many regional issues. A strategic issue like Iran's nuclear program and emphasis on maintaining an independent fuel cycle will also give Iran the upper hand. So, Iran should not be worried about incurring losses from direct negotiations. Iran is in a good position to manage any possible negotiations in the direction of its own strategic interests. Note that regional developments may easily reverse Iran's current regional advantages. Meanwhile, continued rivalry and conflict with the United States will require Iran's political and economic stamina, something that could in long term weaken Iran's economic sources.

Mosallas Weekly: How do you see the practical outlook of direct talks?

Dr. Barzegar: We must be realistic. I mean, we should not be too optimistic to think that smiles and exchanged letters are all it takes to make negotiations a success. The United States enjoys profound strategic interests in the Middle East region and is reluctant to recognize Iran's role and power. I mean, the power structure in the United States does not allow the White House to do so. However, we must not be too skeptical and believe that the United States will never change its Iran policy in important ways. As I said before, the nature of the current issues between the two countries is of high importance. Iran and the United States are now in a phase of mutual strategic need and despite ideological conflicts and bitter historical memories, they have to interact. Of course, that interaction does not necessarily mean close friendship. Iran and the United States have claims to leadership of regional political-security and ideological blocs and will remain two ideological and strategic rivals.  Yet, Iran's nuclear program is the point where the two countries' strategic needs converge. Some analysts maintain that negotiations should start with less sensitive issues like cooperating in Afghanistan on the war against Al-Qaeda or in Iraq where both countries' interests meet and which can serve as a prelude to negotiations regarding more sensitive and comprehensive issues like the nuclear issue. However, as a result of their conflicting views and as the past experience with three rounds of direct talks in Iraq has proven, the two sides tend to reproach each other on many regional issues. In addition, cooperation in this regard only benefits the United States. We should note that Iran's aim to engage on regional issues is an effort to pave the way for comprehensive talks with the West. This has not happened yet. Therefore, I think that any direct talks should basically revolve around a more important national issue of strategic significance at least to Iran's side.  I think it is Iran's nuclear program which possesses the necessary potential in this regard, because the elites of both countries are in agreement about the necessity of sitting at the negotiating table.

For more information on this publication: Please contact International Security
For Academic Citation: Barzegar, Dr. Kayhan. "The Nuclear Program and Iran-US Mutual Strategic Need." Iran Review, October 31, 2010.

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