Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Suzanne DiMaggio
By: Kourosh Ziabari
During these years, the climate of Iran’s relations with the international community was more or less gloomy, and tensions marred Iran’s ties with the European Union and aggravated it’s already contentious relations with the United States. Sanctions were being slapped on Iran one after the other and the possibility of a military confrontation, as George W. Bush repeatedly vowed not to take any option “off the table” in dealing with Iran, had worried everybody caring for global peace and the stability of a volatile Middle East.
However, even though few people at that time predicted that the nuclear controversy could be settled diplomatically and peacefully at some point, on July 14, 2015, which should be remembered as a glorious day for global diplomacy and nuclear non-proliferation, Iran and the P5+1 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to settle the nuclear conflict.
The agreement has been publicly described as a milestone and diplomatic victory, and there is widespread debate across the world about its implications, the condition of its enforcement and its contribution to the strengthening of Iran’s economy and diplomatic influence.
Suzanne DiMaggio joined Iran Review in an interview to discuss the different aspects of the deal and how it would contribute to a future reconciliation between Iran and the United States.
Ms. DiMaggio is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Iran Initiative at the New America Foundation. A political scientist by practice, she has recently served as the Vice President of Global Policy Programs at the Asia Society. Previously, she was the Vice President of Policy Studies at the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA). Suzanne DiMaggio specifically studies the U.S. relations with Iran and has written a dozen of essays and articles about Iran’s nuclear program and its impacts on the Tehran-Washington ties.
Suzanne DiMaggio told Iran Review that the Iranian and American negotiators should be given credit for the high degree of respect and professionalism they showed during the nuclear talks. She believes that Iran and the United States must build on the momentum of this landmark agreement and pave the way for bettering their relations and addressing their common concerns in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Q: President Obama has said the comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran is not based on trust, but on verification. He made the remarks only a few minutes following the announcement of the conclusion of nuclear talks in Vienna. Isn’t President Obama weakening the chances of continued diplomacy by maintaining that the United States does not trust Iran?
A: As a result of nearly four decades of hostile relations, a great deal of mistrust exists between the governments of Iran and the United States. Given this deficit of trust, it logically follows that President Obama would emphasize verification as a core basis of the nuclear deal reached in Vienna. To address that deficit, the agreement sets a path for establishing the most extensive inspections regime ever negotiated. This has helped to persuade skeptics in the U.S. because it places the onus directly on Iran’s shoulders to verify every step of the way that it is in compliance with all aspects of the deal. Now, if all of the parties involved implement the deal in good faith, the agreement itself would become a confidence-building measure. It would provide a way to help build trust, particularly between Iran and the United States.
Q: Only a few days following the announcement of the nuclear agreement and the conclusion of the talks, the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that the conclusion of this agreement would not preclude the option of military confrontation with Iran and that the administration will not take any option off the table to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Don’t you think that such statements and war threats would violate the spirit of the agreement and undermine the chances of a future reconciliation with Iran, especially given that they could unquestionably demoralize President Rouhani’s administration who tried to overcome the domestic criticism and seal this agreement?
A: We all know that the atmosphere in Washington is very contentious right now, with some in Congress voicing strong opposition to the deal. And it appears that proponents of the nuclear deal in Iran are facing a similar situation. When President Obama and members of his administration state that “all options remain on the table,” they say it partially to reassure those who are concerned that Iran will not abide by its commitments. In the same way, we hear hostile rhetoric by various people coming out of Tehran, including the continued use of “Death to America.” My personal point of view is it’s unfortunate that the language of force and hostility is used so readily, but we have to keep in mind that the level of mistrust that has been accumulated over 36 years of non-relations is going to take time to overcome. I think those of us who closely follow U.S.-Iran relations recognize that such language is often used as a way to mollify domestic audiences who oppose any improvement in the relationship. I do hope that we seize this moment to temper the use of hostile rhetoric and move beyond the language of force. We now have before us a real opportunity to build on the momentum of the landmark nuclear deal and attempt to pursue a less contentious relationship between the United States and Iran.
Q: It was apparently the aim of the negotiations with Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, although Iranians had always said that they didn’t have any intention or plans for pursuing a military nuclear program. So, this goal would be met through the strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear program as stipulated by the JCPOA and also the intrusive inspection regime. With this major achievement, why are the Congress Republicans and even some Democrats still opposed to the agreement and have warned that they would not endorse or would actually block it? Are there further goals which would not be met through this nuclear agreement, including capping Iran’s regional economic and military influence?
A: Some members of Congress, particularly on the Republican side, believe that a better deal could have been reached. My own view is that the JCPOA is an exceedingly strong non-proliferation agreement — it is our best option and it has received global support. It has achieved exactly what the United States had set out to do and that is to ensure that Iran is not able to obtain a nuclear weapon in exchange for sanctions relief. At the same time, because this key objective was accomplished through principled and pragmatic diplomacy, we have likely averted another military conflict in the Middle East. The Obama administration and others are focused on making a strong case to critics in our Congress and the broader public that the deal advances the interests of the United States and its partners. It is a very difficult environment, and it’s still unclear whether a resolution of disapproval will pass through the House and the Senate.
A key concern we are hearing from opponents to the deal relates to how Iran will use the billions of dollars it stands to receive in unfrozen assets and oil revenues. Will it lead Iran to increase its support to groups in the region whose activities undermine the interests of the U.S. and its allies? Some in Congress and elsewhere have criticized the JCPOA because it doesn’t address any of those issues. But I would maintain that this is a non-proliferation agreement, and it is not a “Let’s Transform Iran” agreement. Now, here is where I think Iran can do things to help persuade those who are skeptical. First and foremost, it would be helpful if the leadership of Iran indicated what steps they are willing to take to help bring about stability in the region. The four-point plan for a political settlement in Syria put forward by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is a constructive starting point. Such concrete proposals can help to send a signal that Iran is serious about engaging in discussions to help resolve issues where we share common concerns. We need to move beyond words to concrete action as a matter of urgency.
Q: Right; just a quick follow-up on the Congressional action. It seems to many observers that the Republicans in the U.S. Congress, both in Senate and in the House of Representatives, were totally opposed to any kind of diplomatic settlement of the nuclear controversy and simply wished to push for a military confrontation with Iran in order to first crush Iran’s nuclear facilities and then to prevent it from rising as a regional power and finding a better position in the community of nations. Everybody can now understand that this nuclear agreement will give Iran a diplomatic leeway and increased economic opportunities and also new openings with the West, further interaction with the European Union and the rest of the world. So, don’t you think that the Republicans in the Congress didn’t want this issue to be settled diplomatically so that Iran could be always kept under pressure and maybe be prevented from rising again as an influential regional actor?
A: There are some in Congress who are opposed to any agreement that falls short of total dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration came to the conclusion, like the Bush administration did before it, that ultimately such a deal was not possible — and I happen to agree with that assessment. Instead, they pursued a realistic deal that places verifiable constraints on Iran’s enrichment capacity. We must give credit to the Iranian and American negotiators who — after decades of non-relations and not having the experience of sitting together at a table — carried out the negotiations with a high degree of respect and professionalism. Both sides achieved their objectives and in that sense it is an absolute “win-win.” Principled and pragmatic diplomacy prevailed to peacefully resolve a very contentious issue, opening up the possibility of extending engagement to other areas where we face common threats. A question on everyone’s mind is whether the deal will result in a more aggressive Iran or a more moderate Iran. I think the answer will depend to a large extent on how Iran reacts to the policies of other powers in the region including the [Persian] Gulf nations as well as the United States. At the same time, Iran’s leadership could help assuage concerns by clarifying their intentions. President Rouhani and his team have indicated an intention to focus on reintegrating Iran into the global economy and increasing interactions with the world and that has been helpful.
Q: What’s your personal prediction for the role the Congress will be playing in the implementation of the comprehensive nuclear agreement? It is going to give the deal a green light eventually or is it going to kill the JCPOA by voting in rejection, which will be surely followed by a veto by President Obama? At the next step, there needs to be a vote by a two-third majority of the Congress members for overriding President Obama’s veto, and if there’s such a vote, we’ll have to mark the demise of this major diplomatic achievement. How is the Congress going to contend with the agreement? Is it going to be convinced by the administration that the deal will protect the United States’ interests and also make the region and the whole world safer and more peaceful, or are they going to insist that this deal is not a good product and should be rejected?
A: Congress is expected to convey approval or disapproval of the deal by September 17th. As things currently stand, the anticipated outcome is still unclear. If a resolution of disapproval is passed, I am fairly confident that President Obama will have enough support to sustain a veto. The administration is working very hard to engage those in Congress who are still unsure which way they will vote. Beyond the efforts of the president and his team, various civil society organizations, leading scientists, former diplomats, university professors, national security experts, religious leaders, Iranian-Americans, and others are voicing their support of the JCPOA. Many are engaged in activities to educate those in Congress and in the broader general public about the benefits of this deal and how it will advance the interests of the United States as well as our friends and partners in the region.
Q: The nuclear controversy with Iran has come to an end after some 12 years and apparently there shouldn’t be much apology for continued tensions and animosity between Iran and the West, although the differences in many areas still exist. However, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has lifted its warning against the British citizens for traveling to Iran, citing “decreased hostility” under the government of President Rouhani. Is there any determination on the side of the U.S. government to perhaps similarly reduce the hostilities and tensions and work for more understanding with Iran?
A: There are reasons for cautious optimism. Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program have finally reached a successful conclusion and if all sides proceed with the full implementation of the deal, it would create an opening to pursue closer relations between our countries. We already are building on an important track record — the interim nuclear agreement, which came into effect in January 2014, has proven to be a success. All of the parties involved have implemented the agreement to the letter and that have helped to build some confidence. We need to maintain the momentum of such steps. There have been some discussions about the re-establishment of direct flights between the U.S. and Iran, as well as the possibility of the United States opening an interests section in Tehran to facilitate the issuance of visas. I think both would convey to the people of Iran and the United States that our governments are ready to begin breaking down the barriers between our countries. Such steps cannot happen immediately, but they represent goals to strive toward. We have witnessed important developments in our government-to-government relations over the past two to three years. We also should find ways to promote people-to-people exchanges, which in my mind are equally important. Now, we have an opportunity to restore these ties, particularly through the promotion of exchanges involving Iranian and American artists, scientists, athletes, religious leaders, entrepreneurs, and students, among others. We have been disconnected for too long, and we should think creatively about how we can rebuild those relationships.
Q: Well, you referred to the intercultural, societal relations and exchanges between Iran and the United States, and you personally have been active in promoting dialog between the two countries and also between the United States and its adversaries including North Korea, Myanmar and Iran as the three countries with which Washington has maintained the lowest level of diplomatic relations. However, I think the U.S. relations with Iran have been way more complicated and worthy of consideration especially given Iran’s geo-political significance and its role in the region. Have you made any achievements in facilitating the Iranian-American dialog and melting the ice of diplomatic relations between the two countries, for example, through your advocacy efforts in the New America Foundation and other initiatives?
A: Some dismiss people-to-people exchanges as being frivolous, but they actually offer an important way to develop and to solidify relationships on an informal level. U.S.-Iran societal ties have been severed over these past decades and they will take some to rebuild, but I don’t think that should stop us from pursuing them as a priority. My work involves what we call “Track II dialogue” – informal and unofficial discussions, and my professional interest has been focused on creating opportunities for dialogue particularly with those countries where the U.S. has limited official relations. When I look back at my experiences over nearly twenty years, one of the great lessons I have learned is that even in the digital age that we live in, nothing can take the place of face-to-face interaction. Unless we sit down with each other at the same table on a sustained basis and engage in dialog, we cannot begin to understand each other’s perspectives or work to resolve the problems that divide us. Even though there have been limited multilateral negotiations on the nuclear issue at an official level over the past 12 years, it was the direct bilateral interaction between the United States and Iran that happened during the past two years or so that brought about a successful outcome. We see the benefits of such face-to-face engagement — we have an agreement that is very strong and will serve both our countries’ interests. With a solid nuclear accord in hand, we now have the basis to move forward and engage in dialog on other carefully selected issues.
Q: Great, and I’ve got a concluding question. You know that there are several instances of conflict and unrest in our region; the rise of the Islamic State, tensions between Turkey and the Kurds, the continued civil war in Syria, Saudis’ military intervention in Yemen, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, etc. All of these problems indicate that the region needs fundamental and workable solutions. What approach could the U.S. government adopt in order to calm down the tensions and play a constructive role instead of contributing to the deterioration of the situation? In particular, we can think of the possible cooperation between the United States and Iran in addressing these problems. What’s your take on that?
A: The raging civil war in Syria and instability in Iraq are major concerns. It’s very clear that we are facing a long haul in the battle against ISIS. In the new atmosphere brought about by the nuclear agreement, Iran and the United States should be thinking very seriously about how to address these issues. One of the overarching objectives that we hold in common is to stand against violent extremism and contain and remove ISIS. In view of the mounting security and governance problems in both Iraq and Syria, Iran and the U.S. should now turn their attention to exploring how they might bring about a more stable environment. There of course are other parties involved and it will take a major diplomatic effort to bring them all together in an attempt to reach long-term, durable solutions. In addition to these priority issues, I also see the situation in Afghanistan as one where the United States and Iran should be pursuing some discussions now. Both Washington and Tehran have a strong common interest in helping to stabilize the unity government in Kabul. Other shared interests in Afghanistan include combating terrorism, countering narco-trafficking, promoting economic development, advancing the rights of women and girls, and so forth. These are areas where our two countries could coordinate, but we also need to be realistic. Given the profound differences that still exist between our governments, we should approach next steps carefully and select issues where the common interests are clear. The nuclear negotiations have demonstrated that the U.S. and Iran can engage in a respectful and constructive manner, and we now have a hard-won opportunity to explore other areas.