© 2022 KGOU
KGOU_Header_72dpi-01_0.jpg
News and Music for Oklahoma
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
World

Nuclear Talks May Be Sign Of Thawing Relations Between Iran, U.S.

Anti-American street art in Tehran
toomuchtrotsky
/
Flickr
Anti-American street art in Tehran

The June 30 deadline on Iranian nuclear talks is fast approaching, but disagreement over nuclear inspections continues to stall negotiations. Although a deal has not been reached, Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, says the fact that negotiations are occurring is important for easing the relationship between the U.S. and Iran.

“We now have nearly daily contacts between the U.S. and Iran on a very high diplomatic level," Slavin says.  "This would have been taboo just a few years ago, particularly from the Iranian side.”  

Slavin's book
Slavin's book

Slavin authored a book in 2009 about the history of U.S.-Iran relations, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies.

While the majority of Americans support negotiations with Iran, some are still wary. “People who are wedded to the old status quo [are] very, very nervous [about increased diplomacy],” Slavin says.

There is also resistance to a deal from key U.S. allies in the region, notably Israel, but Slavin says diplomacy is the only option that would serve the interests of both the U.S. and its allies. “The United States needs options in the region … [and] I think that a better U.S.-Iran relationship would actually help Israeli interests,” Slavin says. “I don’t think it’s a question of giving up our old alliances at all.”

According to Slavin, despite official Iranian government rhetoric – which refers to the U.S. as “The Great Satan” – the Iranian people also generally recognize that increased cooperation would benefit Iran.

“The desire for a better relationship is there … and [Iranians] understand that isolating themselves from the United States has not served their interests very well and that Iran wants to be back in the thick of things," Slavin says. "They want to be out from under this pariah status.”

Although it has been since 35 years since the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with Iran, Slavin believes the a deal would benefit all parties and says negotiations are an important step toward normalization.

“There is a win-win solution to this,” Slavin says. “I see a kind of détente emerging. There are a lot of countries that we have relationships with but it’s not always sweetness and light.”

----------------------------------------------

KGOU and World Views rely on voluntary contributions from readers and listeners to further its mission of public service with internationally focused reporting for Oklahoma and beyond. To contribute to our efforts, make your donation online, or contact our Membership department.
 

Interview Highlights

On Pro-American Sentiment Of Iranian People

I have to say that in my trips there, by and large, I've met with a very positive reception as an American. We are still a little bit "forbidden fruit," because there have been no diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran since 1980. So not very many Americans go, and the ones who do go, as I say, usually are received very well. Not all the time; there are certain elements in Iran that don't particularly like the United States, but ordinary people tend to be extremely welcoming. There's a line that I like that was actually used by a former CIA director, Mike Hayden. He said that the Iranians are the most pro-American Muslim population from Marrakech, in Morocco, to Bangladesh. And I think that is absolutely true. In my trips there, the most positive reception I got was actually after the attacks of 9/11. I went in December 2001, and Iranians really sympathized with the United States in a way that Muslim populations in other parts of the world did not. So that was quite striking.

On Diplomatic Mistakes During The Clinton And Bush Jr. Administrations

In 1995, 96, when Clinton was the president and Rafsanjani was the president in Iran, the Iranians made a lot of efforts to improve the relationship. They awarded a big oil contract to a company called Conoco, and Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Republican-led Congress – does this sound familiar? – not only rejected the contract but put a total embargo on U.S. trade and investment with Iran and signed into law something called the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which sought to penalize foreign companies that invested in Iran's petroleum sector. I think it was a big mistake, but it was done under pressure from Israel at the time. If you fast-forward to 2001, again, it was confluence of interests. The Iranians were on the same side with the United States and actually helped to get rid of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, but President Bush decided to put Iran on the “Axis of Evil” in a speech that he gave in 2002. Again, some pressure from Israel: there had been the discovery of a ship that had weapons for the Palestinians, allegedly from Iran, and Bush decided that he was going to go after “all terrorism of global reach” – that was the phrase that he used at the time – not distinguishing between Sunni fundamentalists, who had been responsible for the attack on the United States during 9/11,  and Iran, which had nothing to due with 9/11 and, as I mentioned, was actually opposed to these groups. Remember, the high jackers were primarily from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates. Not from Iran. I think most Americans don't realize that. So he put Iran on the Axis of Evil. He rejected a variety of overtures from the then-government of President Khatami, who was a relative moderate and reformer in the Iranian political scheme. And as a result we got Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – mister "denial-of-the-Holocaust,” mister "wipe-Israel-off-the-map,” someone far worse – and the Iranians accelerated their nuclear program. If Bush had not done what he'd done it's possible Iran would never have gotten to the point that it's gotten with 20,000 centrifuges installed. It could have been perhaps contained at a much lower number. So mistakes on both sides, obviously. Then in Iraq, the United States went in, got rid of Saddam Hussein, essentially delivered Iraq to Iranian influence but wouldn't cooperate with Iran during this period, so Iran became an adversary of the United States in Iraq. These are things that we have to remember when we look at the picture now.

On The Future Of U.S.-Iran Relations

I don't think we're going to fall back into each other's arms and have the kind of relationship we had when the Shah of Iran was in power. But I see a kind of détente, which includes an ability to talk to each other on a more regular basis, hopefully at some point American diplomats going back into Iran. That's a big, big step and I wouldn't expect that to happen that quickly, but I think ultimately it could. There are generational changes going on in Iran. The Supreme Leader of the country, Ayatollah Khamenei, will not be there forever, and certainly the vast majority of Iranians, particularly the younger generation, would like to see this relationship improve. Iranians who are thoughtful, strategic thinkers in that country want options also, just like the United States does, and they understand that isolating themselves from the United States has not served their interests very well and that Iran wants to be back in the thick of things. They want to be out from under this pariah status, U.N. Security Counsel resolutions, and so on. So there is a mutual benefit here. There is a win-win – as the Iranians like to say – solution to this.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Barbara Slavin, welcome to World Views.

BARBARA SLAVIN: Thank you very much.

GRILLOT: So, Barbara, I'm going to get into some details about the U.S.-Iranian relationship, but I've noticed that in your career as a journalist you have travelled to Iran many times. And this is something that many of us cannot do – or won't do, some might say – wouldn't travel to Iran. But you've been many times, nine times, and most recently you went to cover the inauguration of President Rouhani. So can you just give us a sense as an American citizen – most of us who don't travel there, we only know what we know about Iran from the media and things that we read and see on TV -- what's it like in Iran?

SLAVIN: Well obviously it's hard to generalize about a country of almost 80 million people and so on, but I have to say that in my trips there, by and large, I've met with a very positive reception as an American. We are still a little bit "forbidden fruit," because there have been no diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran since 1980. So not very many Americans go, and the ones who do go, as I say, usually are received very well. Not all the time; there are certain elements in Iran that don't particularly like the United States, but ordinary people tend to be extremely welcoming. There's a line that I like that was actually used by a former CIA director, Mike Hayden. He said that the Iranians are the most pro-American Muslim population from Marrakech, in Morocco, to Bangladesh. And I think that is absolutely true. In my trips there, the most positive reception I got was actually after the attacks of 9/11. I went in December 2001,  and Iranians really sympathized with the United States in a way that Muslim populations in other parts of the world did not. So that was quite striking.

GRILLOT: Well this is really interesting to hear that they are very pro-American, the population is very pro-American, positive reception. You hear this sometimes, that the U.S. and Iran are really actually on the same side of many issues, they actually have a lot in common, but it seems like there is still a very difficult relationship between the two. And in fact you've written a book in the past about this issue, about this very convoluted relationship and contradictory, in fact, policies that the United States has toward Iran. So how do we make sense of that: your experience on the ground versus what we see from a distance?

SLAVIN: Well, look, there are the people and then there's the government. The government has an official ideology, which is hostile to the United States. They call the United States "The Great Satan." They chant "death to America" at various official celebrations, shall we say. Right now we're in a period where Iran is marking the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution, and they will have a big rally on February 11th where people will chant "death to America." But don't take it personally, right? In my book, actually, I write in the first chapter, which is called "Death to America and Can I Have Your Autograph?", about an experience that I think really captures the kind of schism between ordinary Iranians and the official rhetoric. I was there in 2006 to cover this big rally on February 11th, the culmination of the revolution when the last prime minister of the former Shah of Iran resigned in 1979. And I was there, and I was on a sort of platform with all the other foreign journalists, and even though sometimes I can pass for Iranian, it was pretty clear, I guess, from the way I was wearing my headscarf or something about my clothing that I wasn't Iranian. And there were a bunch of schoolgirls there who were chanting "death to America" and wearing these placards saying, "Nuclear energy is our national right." But one of them came over to me and she said, "Where are you from?" And I said, "I'm from amreeka” – I'm from America. And she got so excited, and this huge group of girls – maybe 13-, 14-year-old girls – started ripping little pieces of paper out of their notebooks and passing them to me and asking for my autograph, which I thought was hysterical since I'm not exactly famous. But they were just so thrilled that somebody from the United States was there in Tehran on this day and that they had a chance to meet an American and exchange names with an American. So the desire for a better relationship is there. In terms of the government, I think one of the things that's held us back is that there's been a competition between political factions in Iran as to which faction would get the credit for finally having a breakthrough with the United States and easing this hostility.

GRILLOT: Well I do think it's remarkable what you've described here. In my own experience as well, when you go certain places of the world where people love Americans but they don't necessarily love the U.S. government or certainly U.S. foreign policy. And so that's where this disconnect comes from, and in the case of your work, where you talk about contradictions in particular, I think that's the thing that's awfully hard for our partners around the world to swallow – or potential enemies or friends – is that we are contradictory in our relationship. I imagine we're not the only ones. Other countries do the same thing, but what specifically in U.S. foreign policy is contradictory toward Iran that would create or at least contribute to this type of relationship?

SLAVIN: Well I think a lot of it is that there have been mistakes certainly made on both sides and grievous harm that has been done to both sides. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s against Iran in the Iran-Iraq War. This is something that most Iranians will never forget. The CIA helped overthrow Prime Minister Mosaddegh back in 1953. There are a lot of grievances. On the other side, Iran has supported groups that have killed Americans in Lebanon and in Iraq – things that, of course, we won't forget. But the mistakes that have been made, I look at a couple of points, certainly, in my book. In 1995, 96, when Clinton was the president and Rafsanjani was the president in Iran, the Iranians made a lot of efforts to improve the relationship. They awarded a big oil contract to a company called Conoco, and Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Republican-led Congress – does this sound familiar? – not only rejected the contract but put a total embargo on U.S. trade and investment with Iran and signed into law something called the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which sought to penalize foreign companies that invested in Iran's petroleum sector. I think it was a big mistake, but it was done under pressure from Israel at the time. If you fast-forward to 2001, again, it was confluence of interests. The Iranians were on the same side with the United States and actually helped to get rid of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, but President Bush decided to put Iran on the “Axis of Evil” in a speech that he gave in 2002. Again, some pressure from Israel: there had been the discovery of a ship that had weapons for the Palestinians, allegedly from Iran, and Bush decided that he was going to go after “all terrorism of global reach” – that was the phrase that he used at the time – not distinguishing between Sunni fundamentalists, who had been responsible for the attack on the United States during 9/11,  and Iran, which had nothing to due with 9/11 and, as I mentioned, was actually opposed to these groups. Remember, the high jackers were primarily from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and United Arab Emirates. Not from Iran. I think most Americans don't realize that. So he put Iran on the Axis of Evil. He rejected a variety of overtures from the then-government of President Khatami, who was a relative moderate and reformer in the Iranian political scheme. And as a result we got Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – mister "denial-of-the-Holocaust,” mister "wipe-Israel-off-the-map,” someone far worse – and the Iranians accelerated their nuclear program. If Bush had not done what he'd done it's possible Iran would never have gotten to the point that it's gotten with 20,000 centrifuges installed. It could have been perhaps contained at a much lower number. So mistakes on both sides, obviously. Then in Iraq, the United States went in, got rid of Saddam Hussein, essentially delivered Iraq to Iranian influence but wouldn't cooperate with Iran during this period, so Iran became an adversary of the United States in Iraq. These are things that we have to remember when we look at the picture now.

GRILLOT: You've mentioned Israel a couple of times here, and I think it's worth asking this question. Obviously the United States and Israel are very close friends and allies. The title of you book about U.S.-Iran relations is Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies. This kind of reminds me of that whole concept of "frenemies” – that you're part friends but part enemies. Is it ever going to be possible, you think, to move that from that frenemy to the more friend stage with Iran given our very close relationship with Israel? I mean, Iran and Israel are not always opposed to everything, but they don't, at least on the surface, want to show that. So how does this, for lack of a better word, love triangle or lack-of-love triangle, this relationship between the three hinder the relationships between the two: the United States and Iran?

SLAVIN: I don't think it's a question of giving up our old alliances at all. I think that a better U.S.-Iran relationship would actually help Israeli interests, and there are a number of very thoughtful Israelis who admit this. Not so many in Saudi Arabia but even some in Saudi Arabia. The United States needs options in the region. We have been dealing with the Middle East with a hand tied behind our back because of the lack of relationship with the Iranians and the need to rely on Israeli and Saudi and other points of view. Already I think we've seen – and I'm giving talk about a truce, not a breakthrough with Iran – already we've seen that, thanks to these nuclear negations, the United States and Iran have reached a point where they can discuss not only those issues but also Iraq, to some extent, Syria, other issues, the Islamic State, because we've had under President Rouhani a kind of paradigm shift in terms of the contacts. We now have nearly daily contacts between the U.S. and Iran on a very high diplomatic level. Their foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and our secretary of state, John Kerry, meet regularly, are on a first name basis. And this is unheard of. This would have been taboo just a few years ago, particularly from the Iranian side. So we've already made some important changes here. You can sort of feel the tectonic plates of the region shifting, and that makes people who are wedded to the old status quo very, very nervous. They are worried that the United States and Iran will find that they have some things in common and perhaps begin to move in certain directions that will disappoint or upset some of our traditional allies. We see that Benjamin Netanyahu, who's preparing to come to the United States to address a joint session of Congress, is vehemently opposed to the nuclear agreement that appears to be taking shape between the U.S. and Iran. And he has his reasons for being concerned, but I personally do not see an alternative to a diplomatic deal that will serve American interests or really the interests of Israel in the end. I think a diplomatic deal is the only way to reliably prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for another decade or so. There are no other ways to do that. So it's difficult for people to adjust, and it's certainly appropriate for them to have concerns and express those concerns, but as an American, I want my government to have more options in the region.

GRILLOT: So, moving forward, then, into the future, what would you expect, given what you're seeing? You're talking about these tectonic plates shifting and what already appears to be, at least in some way, warmer relations. Do we expect to continue? Do you expect that we'll normalize our relationship in some way over the next generation, maybe? I'm asking you to be a fortuneteller here. Is that the expectation, that we would go in that direction as opposed to down that path of more difficult and perhaps even violent relations with Iran?

SLAVIN: Well you know, I was a Soviet specialist. Tat's how I got my start in this business, and what I see is a kind of détente emerging. I don't think we're going to fall back into each other's arms and have the kind of relationship we had when the Shah of Iran was in power. But I see a kind of détente, which includes an ability to talk to each other on a more regular basis, hopefully at some point American diplomats going back into Iran. That's a big, big step and I wouldn't expect that to happen that quickly, but I think ultimately it could. There are generational changes going on in Iran. The Supreme Leader of the country, Ayatollah Khamenei, will not be there forever, and certainly the vast majority of Iranians, particularly the younger generation, would like to see this relationship improve. Iranians who are thoughtful, strategic thinkers in that country want options also, just like the United States does, and they understand that isolating themselves from the United States has not served their interests very well and that Iran wants to be back in the thick of things. They want to be out from under this pariah status, U.N. Security Counsel resolutions, and so on. So there is a mutual benefit here. There is a win-win – as the Iranians like to say – solution to this. But of course we will continue to have disagreements with them, as we do – unfortunately even more than we did in the past – with Russia these days over Ukraine, as we do with China. There are a lot of countries that we have relationships with but it's not always sweetness and light.

GRILLOT: Well, Barbara, thank you so much for joining us today and shedding some light on this very complicated relationship. It's very helpful for us. Thank you.

SLAVIN: My pleasure.

Copyright © 2015 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.  

More News
Support nonprofit, public service journalism you trust. Give now.