Diplomat Hossein Mousavian Optimistic About Joint Future Of Iran And The West
Ambassador Hossein Mousavian has been a key diplomat for Iran for the past quarter century. He represented the Islamic Republic in Germany from 1990 to 1997, and then took a post as the head of the Iranian National Security Council’s Foreign Relations Committee until 2005, where he served as the country’s chief spokesman during nuclear negotiations with the European Union a decade ago.
Although relations between Iran and the United States have been complex since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Mousavian believes that it wasn’t until 2005 that the relationship between Iran and European countries was affected.
“In 2005 when Ahmadinejad was elected as president of Iran, practically, Europeans joined the U.S. for sanctions and pressures,” Mousavian says. “Europeans they now understand they made a big mistake, because before 2005 they had over 50 percent share of Iranian economy. And just during eight years of sanctions they lost almost all their shares to China.”
China now has a 60 percent share of Iranian trade and economy and Mousavian believes that this trend has been a major impetus for the West’s renewed interest in creating a nuclear deal with Iran that will stick. But European powers have never been the stumbling block on the road to lifting sanctions. In 2005, that block was the United States.
“The three Europeans countries - the UK, Germany, and France - they almost reached to a type of solution, but Europeans could not deliver the deal because the U.S. was opposing any enrichment in Iran,” Mousavian says. “The U.S. position was zero enrichment in Iran. That's why the efforts by Iran and Europe to find a peaceful solution fail in 2005.”
The diplomats did succeed in temporarily suspending enrichment activities, but when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in August of that year, he restarted the enrichment. That act combined with his intensely anti-Israel rhetoric pushed members of the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 1696, joining the United States in imposing sanctions.
Since 2005, changes in leadership have been seen in the West as well as in Iran. The Bush and Blair era has been followed by a wave of politicians attempting to deal with the Middle East in a different way. In the case of Obama, Mousavian is encouraged by the president’s willingness to adjust and improve. He thinks that although Obama’s Iran strategy didn’t succeed in his first term, he brought new people in and made the necessary changes to bring about success.
“In the second term with the combination of Obama, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and then Obama, Kerry, and Monies, I think they have been, relatively successful,” Mousavian says. “I believe this a good, big step, but this is the first step.”
Differences between the Obama and Bush presidencies have affected the dialogue and so has the change in leadership within Iran.
“The situation during Ahmadinejad was killer." Mousavian says. “But Rouhani is a moderate personality. His policy was clear when he was the top nuclear negotiator. If the U.S. would have accepted basic enrichment in Iran, the deal could be reached during Rouhani's period leading the nuclear talks in 2005.”
Mousavian sees President Rouhani in a very positive light and believes the leader is doing his very best for his country.
“His strategy is zero tension with the regional countries, with the west, with their neighbors,” Mousavian says. “And I believe relatively he has been successful to calming the situation between Iran and the west.”
Mousavian cites three important elements that allowed this years nuclear deal to be successful. The first is willingness on Iran’s part to comply and commit to the maximum level of obligations defined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
“ We told them we are 100 percent open, and we have only one red line, which is our legitimate right for peaceful nuclear technology under the non-proliferation treaty, like other member states of the NPT,” Mousavian says.
The second was Iran’s agreement to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to perform checks to insure that Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons technology. The third element was the blocking of all pathways to a nuclear bomb.
After 35 years of hostilities, the two countries were able to engage in direct talks and in less than two years of negotiation, find a solution.
Now the only hurdle left is that of public opinion. According to Mousavian, views about the nuclear deal in Iran are a “mirror image” of those in the United States. There are challenges by political opponents, but a shared sentiment that war should be avoided.
“I believe neither Iranians nor Americans want war. And specifically for the U.S., with two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they don't want to experience the third disaster.”
Some on the American right believe that the US should push for a better deal, but Mousavian disagrees.
“I'm sure definitely neither Iran nor Russia nor China nor Europe would come back again to the nuclear negotiation table, “ Mousavian says. “And, I believe, this majority of Republicans in Congress are wrong because the deal is the most comprehensive deal ever reached during the history of non-proliferation.”
In Mousavian’s eyes the nuclear deal, and general improved relations between Iran and the West is essential to promoting stability in the Middles East.
“Whether we like it or not, the U.S. is the key international player in the region and Iran is the key regional power,” says Mousavian. “Without Iran-U.S. cooperation, I really cannot imagine peaceful crisis management in the Middle East.”
Joshua Landis interview with Ambassador Mousavian can be seen here.
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REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Ambassador Mousavian, welcome to World Views.
AMB. HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Thank you.
CRUISE: Well we're going to get into a discussion about the new Iranian nuclear deal with the United States and other allies, but I wanted to take us a step back and talk a little bit about your history with diplomacy from Iran, and particularly with the European Union and our European allies. What was that relationship like, and what successes or difficulties did Iran face in dealing with Europe?
MOUSAVIAN: Traditionally, Europeans they have had normal, good relations with Iran, but in practice after the revolution, specifically during the war, 1980 to 1988, we had troubled relations, because Europeans, they supported Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran.
CRUISE: You're talking about the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.
MOUSAVIAN: Right. 1980 when Saddam invaded Iran, and the Europeans they supported Saddam, especially when Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranians. Europeans and Americans, they provided material and technology for Saddam Hussein. I was engaged directly in Iran-Europe relations from 1986. And relations got relatively normal just after the war under the umbrella of critical dialogue. We had high level dialogue with Europeans discussing the issues of disputes between Iran and Europe. Nevertheless, the relation, specifically the economic relation, was very good. But in 2005 when Ahmadinejad was elected as president of Iran, practically Europeans joined the U.S. for sanctions and pressures. Nevertheless at the end, I think with the nuclear deal, Europeans they now understand they made a big mistake, because before 2005 they had over 50 percent share of Iranian economy. And just during eight years of sanctions they lost almost all their shares to China. And now China has 60 percent share of Iranian trade and economy. That's why they are rushing, and why they're in so much of a hurry after the nuclear deal to recover what they have already lost.
CRUISE: Well, and you said 2005. Prior to that, this mediator role seemed very significant. The United States was kind of disengaged, if you will, and Europe was really communicating and trying to come up with a deal with Iran. What changed? Was it just the election, or was there pressure externally? Or why did we see that change?
MOUSAVIAN: I think in 2003 to 2005 when I was spokesperson of Iranian nuclear team during Khatami. Iran and the EU Three. The three Europeans countries - the UK, Germany, and France - they almost reached to a type of solution, but Europeans could not deliver the deal because the U.S. was opposing any enrichment in Iran. The U.S. position was zero enrichment in Iran. No single centrifuge in Iran. That's why the efforts by Iran and Europe to find a peaceful solution fail in 2005. However, we had suspended, temporarily, the enrichment activities in order to reach a deal. After the election in 2005, Ahmadinejad restarted the enrichment, and starting the enrichment in Iran without a political deal, coupled with some harsh rhetoric against Israel, like denying the Holocaust, created enough reason for Europe to join the U.S.
CRUISE: Two administrations later - an administration on this side of the ocean, and a new administration in Iran - how important do you think new leadership is?
MOUSAVIAN: I think Obama's strategy to engage with Iran, basically it was a correct strategy, but I believe he failed in his first period of his presidency. To my understanding, he didn't have the right people to follow the engagement policy. But in the second term with the combination of Obama, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and then Obama, Kerry, and Monies, I think they have been, up 'til now, relatively successful to follow the engagement policy, because ultimately, and after 35 years of hostilities, the two countries engaged in direct talks since September 2013 at the very high level - the foreign ministers - and in less than two years of negotiation, they could find the solution. Therefore, I believe this a good, big step, but this is the first step.
CRUISE: And the Iranian leadership. We've seen some changes there, or a willingness to engage on a different level?
MOUSAVIAN: Definitely. I mean the situation during Ahmadinejad was killer. The tension at the highest level for eight years of his presidency - not only with the U.S., with Europe, with the western countries, even with the regional countries. But Rouhani is a moderate personality. His policy was clear when he was the top nuclear negotiator. The deal reached in 2013, the principles were exactly the principles we were negotiating, and we proposed to Europeans in 2005. It means if the U.S. would have accepted basic enrichment in Iran, the deal could be reached during Rouhani's period leading the nuclear talks in 2005. He is practically following the same policy. His strategy is zero tension with the regional countries, with the west, with their neighbors. And I believe relatively he has been successful to calming the situation between Iran and the west. And he's doing his best for the region, but perhaps the crisis we have already in the region, like Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, all these crises, it is not what Rouhani was responsible or made during Rouhani's time. It began - the Arab Spring, remember, it began in 2011 - and handling this crisis, specifically with a difficult neighbor. A neighbor like Saudi Arabia is not easy, but I'm confident he will try to do his best.
CRUISE: What's gotten us here in the last two years? We've been in these negotiations for two years, which in some ways seems like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, relatively quick process to come to some sort of consensus. What's happened these last two years?
MOUSAVIAN: The first was Iran's willingness to comply and to be committed with the maximum level of obligations defined in the non-proliferation treaty, the NPT, and in the framework of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. And we told them in 2003, the Europeans, that we have no problem to go for transparency. Open nuclear program. At the highest level of international rules and regulations. We told them we are 100 percent open, and we have only one red line, which is our legitimate right for peaceful nuclear technology under the non-proliferation treaty, like other member states of the NPT. This was the only red line we had. But I said, as I said before, I mean it was not possible because the U.S. was not ready. But when the serious, direct negotiations between Iran and the U.S. began practically September 2013, in the first two or three rounds in New York, the American delegation understood Iran has no problem to accept every commitment, obligation, within the non-proliferation treaty. I think this was the crux of the matter, and why we reached a nuclear deal. Because ultimately for the U.S., for Europeans, for the international community, the non-proliferation treaty, the NPT, was the base, was the criteria. And we don't have anything else as the base. This was one. Second, there was some allegations about possible military dimension issues, which practically was provided by American or American-Israeli intelligence service to the IAEA with no documents. And since 2007, the IAEA had a problem, because the U.S. had nothing as document to deliver to the IAEA to prove its claims. However, it was practically a deadlock. And when the talks began, Iran told the American team, the P5+1, that we are ready for a specific period to give the required access to the IAEA, even though perhaps, for a short period, access would be needed beyond the NPT in order to solve all these possible military dimension issues to make sure that Iran is not after nuclear bombs. This was the second. Third, the limits. If the first one was the maximum level of transparency, the U.S. also was looking to resolve the possible military dimension issues, and third, the U.S. was after, as they said, blocking all pathways to a nuclear bomb. And the Iranians, they never had a problem to agree, because they were not after a nuclear bomb. Iranians were happy because they were claiming they're not after a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is happy because they were thinking Iran perhaps would go after a nuclear bomb. Therefore they could agree on all major elements, measure, which would block any possible diversion toward the weaponization of the Iranian nuclear program. Practically, these three were the major reasons we could get a deal.
CRUISE: And this has indeed been called an historic deal even as we've watched this process unfold throughout the spring, as discussions of an imminent deal, and then moving forward there. In fact, it's been called Obama's, the highlight of career. That, and perhaps opening relations with Cuba. But it hasn't been an easy path in this country, as you know, and I'm curious also how the reaction has been among your common, everyday person in Iran. What's your interpretation of that?
MOUSAVIAN: It is the mirror image of the American domestic situation. The political parties, the political challenge in Washington. And the difference in public opinion is exactly the same as the situation you have here. But the bottom line, I believe, for the majority of American people and Iranian people is no war. I believe neither Iranians nor Americans want war. And specifically for the U.S., with two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they don't want to experience the third disaster. But some believe here in the U.S. that the deal is not good, and the U.S. could get more. This is the difference. The overwhelming majority of Republicans in the Congress opposing the deal, believe the deal is not good enough. Most of them, I believe they don't want war, but they believe or they think more negotiations would be possible, which it's not. I'm sure definitely neither Iran nor Russia nor China nor Europe would come back again to the nuclear negotiation table. Because they have already experienced and invested time for 13 years. And they're not going to continue another ten years because of some thoughts in the U.S. Congress. And second, I believe, this majority of Republicans in Congress are wrong because the deal is the most comprehensive deal ever reached during the history of non-proliferation.
CRUISE: If this is taken off the table, if you will, this issue is dealt with, what role can Iran or should Iran play in the rest of the region? Do they have the ability to serve as a stabilizer for the region?
MOUSAVIAN: Again, here, I think there is a big misunderstanding in the west, specifically in the U.S. about the regional role of Iran. For 35 years, if you were an Iranian, you would have to have a strategy to defend your country. What you see the role of Iran today in the region, everybody's crying. Iran is everywhere. It's practically a response to the role of Arabs trying to disintegrate Iran. Second, look at the region for a moment. Libya - who invaded Libya? NATO? Europe? U.S.? Arabs? Iran had no influence, no interference. What is the Libya situation today? And who is responsible? Is Iran? Which country has the worse situation today in the Middle East and in North Africa? It's Libya first, and Syria second. Then, if Iran has any role in bringing the collapse of Mubarak in Egypt, no one claims. Iran had no role about the situations in Tunisia, the fall of Ben-Ali, the U.S. ally. Mubarak, the U.S. ally. But it happened. Iran has used its influence to Arab countries. One Iraq, one Syria. Iran has prevented regime collapse, Arab regime collapse in Iraq and in Damascus. Without Iran, already Baghdad would have collapsed. Everyone knows ISIS should have captured Baghdad, and the Iraqi government could not resist fighting ISIS without Iran. Still, today, Bashar al-Assad is a legal, legitimate government in Syria. They have a representative in the United Nations. Who began to fight Assad? Who began to interfere? Who began to send money to opposition, to terrorists? Who sent weapons to terrorists in Syria? Joe Biden said, correctly, openly, at his Harvard talk in 2014, the U.S.'s main problem is its own allies in the region giving weapons and money to terrorists. It is known. Therefore, Iran is helping the stability in Syria, supporting the legitimate, legal government. Which is a legal representative of Syria in the United Nations. And the Iraqi government.
CRUISE: And this is a role you can envision Iran can continue to play, to try to...
MOUSAVIAN: I believe more, because whether we like it or not, Iran is the key figure in the region. On major regional issues - Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon.
CRUISE: And it also doesn't seem to have the internal issues that some of these other countries are dealing with. There is a stability in Iran.
MOUSAVIAN: And the reason our neighbors are very much angry is because they see after 35 years of war, military strikes against Iran, economic war, political war, intelligence war, Iran now is the most stable, powerful country in the region. That's why they are very, very angry. And on the other side, the Arab countries which have received the most money, weapons, support from the U.S., they are the most vulnerable countries in the region. That's why they really are worried. However, what I will say is that whether we like it or not, the U.S. is the key international player in the region. And Iran is the key regional power. Without Iran-U.S. cooperation, I really cannot imagine peaceful crisis management in the Middle East.
CRUISE: Thank you so much for joining us today.
MOUSAVIAN: Thank you.
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