Mohsen Milani Details His Expectations For Future U.S.-Iran Relations In A Trump Administration
Unusual, unpredictable and inescapable in US media coverage, the American presidential election also dominated news outlets across the globe.
For the first time in history, Iran aired U.S. presidential debates, underscoring Iran’s prominence in U.S foreign policy. While contemporary analyses — especially in the wake of President-elect Donald Trump’s rise — often paint Iran as an enemy, the University of South Florida’s Mohsen Milani is quick to point out Iran’s pre-1979 amity with the United States.
“Prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the U.S. and Iran were the closest of allies. More than 50,000 Americans lived in Iran. More than 65,000 Iranians students were studying in American universities. Then the Islamic Revolution came. The unfortunate hostage crisis took place. The two countries became bitter enemies,” Milani told KGOU’s World Views.
Over the past two decades, Iran and the U.S. have had common goals in Afghanistan, even if they didn’t work together directly. Milani also noted a future path for U.S.-Iran cooperation: one of President-elect Trump’s biggest foreign policy goals, the eradication of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“There is not a country in the Middle East that has fought against ISIL as intensely as Iran has. President-elect Trump has said that if the Iranians and the Russians are killing ISIL or fighting against ISIL,” Milani said. “He doesn't see … why we should not work with them to try and stabilize the situation in the Middle East.”
According to Milani, Iranian foreign policy is often influenced by pragmatism, not just cultural commonalities. In the case of Iran’s alliance with Syria, a relationship was forged despite highly differing degrees of religious influence in the two countries’ governments.
“Remember, at the time when the genesis of this relationship was developed, Assad's regime was one of the most secular governments you can find in the Middle East. The Iranian government was a theocratic government. So, yes, there was some element of religious solidarity, because the religion of Assad was a branch of Shia Islam, but I honestly think that was not the key element,” Milani said.
Milani is inclined to believe cooperation between the U.S. and Iran, including economic partnership, is not impossible. According to Milani, Trump’s focus on business and economic alliance could lead to future cooperation and prevent the rejection of the Iranian nuclear agreement.
“President-elect Trump is on record for saying he doesn't understand why we had this nuclear deal, and then we allowed the Europeans to go and take advantage of the Iranian market. That is a fantastic point. He is right,” Milani said. “We should try and push American companies to go to Iran, because right now, according to the British chamber of commerce, the economic opportunities created inside of Iran, right now, is the best we have seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. So the question becomes, what are we going to do with this?”
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On the origins of Syrian-Iranian cooperation
The genesis of Iranian alliance with Syria goes back to the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and to the start of the Iran-Iraq War in September of 1980. At that time, Syria, under Hafez al-Assad's government--the father of the present ruler of Syria—send a letter to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, and suggested that Syria and Iran share a great deal in common, and that they should develop a close relationship. He also sent a copy of the Quran, the holy book of Muslims. Ayatollah Khomeini reciprocated, and sent about 300-400 revolutionary guards to go to Damascus. After some extensive negotiations, the genesis of the cooperation was laid.
On the future of the Iranian nuclear deal
The nuclear agreement, signed about a year and two months ago, was not simply between Iran and the United States. It was between Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, plus the European Union. That agreement went to the UN Security Council, Resolution 2231, and it was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council. Therefore, it has the force of international law. And if the new President-elect decides to abrogate this agreement, I am pretty sure he is going to face incredible resistance from the European Union, as well as China, and Russia.
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Moshen Milani, welcome to World Views.
MOHSEN MILANI: Thank you for having me. It's a great pleasure and an honor to be with you.
GRILLOT: Well, Mohsen, you're a specialist on Iran, of course. We talk a lot about Iran. Iran's in the news, especially now, as Iran is obviously heavily engaged in other relations in the region. They have a certain strategy regarding Syria, relations with Syria-- Obviously, we're a little worried about what's going to happen in the coming days in the US. So let's just start with Syria. What is Iran's objective in Syria? I mean, Syria is also something we talk a lot about on this show, and we're still trying to grapple with what happens there and why. But Iran plays a large role. Tell us about that.
MILANI: The genesis of Iranian alliance with Syria goes back to the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, and to the start of the Iran-Iraq War in September of 1980. At that time, Syria, under Hafez al-Assad's government--the father of the present ruler of Syria—send a letter to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, and suggested that Syria and Iran share a great deal in common, and that they should develop a close relationship. He also sent a copy of the Quran, the holy book of Muslims. Ayatollah Khomeini reciprocated, and sent about 300-400 revolutionary guards to go to Damascus. After some extensive negotiations, the genesis of the cooperation was laid. At that time, the goal for Iran was to use Syria as a safe conduit to train the Shi'ites in the southern part of Lebanon, who were not as organized and well-financed as Iran thought they should be. They wanted to get permission from Assad to send the revolutionary guards to the southern part of Lebanon to create a new organization, that we all recognize today as Hezbollah. Iran also wanted to develop a good relationship with Assad, because Assad was the only notable Arab leader who did not side with Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran. In fact, Iran promised to provide cheap oil to the Syrian regime. Assad decided to cut off the oil pipes--to close the oil pipes from Iraq to Syria. That, for Iran, was sort of a major victory. So Iran wanted to use Syria as the only major Arab country that would not side with its enemy, its nemesis, Saddam Hussein. So Iran achieved that. Now, Iran also wanted to develop retaliatory capability at the heart of the Arab world, not only at hostile Arab governments, but also at the state of Israel. So that was the intent of both Iran and Syria. As long as Hafez al-Assad was alive, however, that relationship remained essentially a political alliance. A sort of convenience of alliance against Israel, as well as against the United States. But the two countries did not have strategic alliance with one another. Furthermore--and that's the key element--Hafez al-Assad was a shrewd politician who understood the dynamic of the Arab world, and, therefore, as he moved closer to Iran, he also moved closer to Saudi Arabia, trying to find balance between Iranian influence in Syria, as well as the Saudi influence there.
GRILLOT: Well, I'd love to follow up on that, and Syria's strategies here. This is a wonderful historical overview of this relationship between Iran and Syria, and if I'm hearing you correctly, I'm hearing that they had a lot in common. Not just-- I'm assuming there're some religious commonalities, and other commonalities, culturally, and that sort of thing, but also politically, clearly. And that the issue of convenience, as you mentioned--this was a very pragmatic relationship. I don't think we often look at relationships in the Middle East as being based in pragmatism--there's usually some other sort of cultural or religious connotation to it, but this is a very pragmatic relationship we see here. Would that explain, perhaps, Iran's relationships with other countries, like Russia, for example?
MILANI: I think you're absolutely right. That was a pragmatic decision, by the Islamic Republic, as well as by Hafaz al-Assad. Remember, at the time when the genesis of this relationship was developed, Assad's regime was one of the most secular governments you can find in the Middle East. The Iranian government was a theocratic government. So, yes, there was some element of religious solidarity, because the religion of Assad was a branch of Shia Islam, but I honestly think that was not the key element. The key element was a practical consideration. Now, going back to Russia, and to other alliances or relationships Iran has developed. From the very beginning of the Islamic Revolution, we see two very different tendencies developing: a tendency toward protecting Iranian national interest--in other words, to protect Iran as a sovereign, Westfalian state--but on the other hand, we had this desire by Iranian revolutionaries to expand Iran, to expand the revolutionary gospel. In some cases, we see that Iranian interests prevailed. In some other cases, we see that the revolutionary sentiment prevailed. We still have this ongoing struggle, and I think that's one of the key ongoing characteristics of Iranian foreign policy for the last four years, and that is sometimes, we see one tendency prevail, and other times we see the other tendency prevail.
GRILLOT: So, on that point then-- I've heard other experts refer to Iranian foreign policy and its relations with others as a very strategic game of chess. In fact, some have even said that Iran invented the game of chess in this respect. They play this game very well. But it sounds like, from what you've said, that over the past four years, they're not necessarily playing a game of chess. There's a bit of back and forth. Maybe they're playing a few hands of poker in there too, in the sense that they're not entirely clear or strategic in what they're doing with Russia, maybe, or others?
MILANI: Just like it is very difficult to characterize the foreign policy of the United States in one or two sentences, at times we see some American administrations focusing on human rights, as was the case with President Jimmy Carter, and as was the case in the second term of George W. Bush, where he talked about spreading democracy, nation-building based on democratic principles. And, at other times, we see American national interest prevailing. We see the same thing in the foreign policy of the Iranian Republic. And in some cases, as I said, I'll give you a concrete example— Azerbaijan, the Republic of Azerbaijan, which split from the Soviet Union. It didn't split when the Soviet Union collapsed. The Republic of Azerbaijan was established-- Azerbaijan is the only country in the world, along with Iran, whose population is over 90 percent Shia Islam. There are different divisions in Shia Islam. Their version of Shia Islam is identical to Iran. In other words, from a religious perspective, there are no other two countries that share as much in common than Iran and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Even more so than Iraq, Lebanon, and other countries. And yet, when there was a dispute between the Republic of Azerbaijan and Armenia, which is a predominantly Christian country, guess whose side Iran was on? It was on the side of Armenia, a Christian country. And there are other cases-- Perfect example of Russia. Russia used to be a communist country. Before its collapse, Iran had developed a good relationship with Russia. When we had the auspicious collapse of the Soviet Union, we had the new Russia, which is essentially a Christian country now. Iran still has a good relationship with them. You cannot explain the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic simply by looking at sectarian divisions. It has to be more than that. Practical consideration, strategic consideration-- And therefore, I would say Iranian foreign policy does have some strategic components of it. For example, the alliance with Syria is without a doubt the most enduring political alliance between two countries in the Middle East. It has survived for almost 40 years.
GRILLOT: If that's the case, then, the United States should clearly understand Iranian foreign policy. I mean, the United States is the exact same way--very practical, I think, or many would argue practical in its approach, pragmatic, focused on national security, its own national interests, sometimes popping between playing chess and playing poker, but nonetheless, very similar to what you're saying about Iran. But yet, these two countries--the United States and Iran--struggle, for those religious and cultural reasons. So what are we to make of this relationship now, as things are about to change in the United States? We have a president-elect. We're going to inaugurate a new administration that isn't as friendly to the warmth that has happened over the last few years under the Obama administration.
MILANI: Well, you've made great observations about the nature of the relationship between Iran and the United States. Prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the US and Iran were closest of allies. More than 50,000 Americans lived in Iran. More than 65,000 Iranians students were studying in American universities. Then the Islamic Revolution came. The unfortunate hostage crisis took place. The two countries became bitter enemies. However, it is true that in certain areas, the two countries today do not share commonalities. We know, for example, that Iran is a hostile country to Israel. And we also know that Israel is the closest American ally in the Middle East. There is that contradiction right there. But there are some areas in which the two countries share common interests. I'll give you two examples. After the tragedy of 9/11, when a few delusional terrorists attacked your homeland, America made the right decision to attack Afghanistan, to invade Afghanistan, and get rid of a despicable regime and Taliban that was providing sanctuary and help to a terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda. In order to do that, Iranian revolutionary guards helped America to invade and get rid of the Taliban regime. Because both Iran and the United States shared a common goal of getting rid of that regime and establishing a new Afghanistan. In the past 15 or 20 years, even if they occasionally are on different sides of the equation in Afghanistan, Iran and the United States have worked pretty close together. Sometimes not directly, but they have had common goals in Afghanistan. But today, President-elect Trump has insisted that the greatest threat--national security threat to the United States, is ISIL. Now, guess what? There is not a country in the Middle East that has fought against ISIL as intensely as Iran has. President-elect Trump has said that if the Iranians and the Russians are killing ISIL or fighting against ISIL, he doesn't see any problem, why we should not work with them to try and stabilize the situation in the Middle East.
[CLIP OF DONALD TRUMP]: I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have lined up, because of our weak foreign policy.
MILANI: Furthermore, there is a fundamental break with being Obama's policy towards Syria, versus President-elect's policy towards Syria, in that Mr. Trump is not interested in regime change. He says that if Assad is helping us destroy ISIL, so be it. He's willing to cooperate with Russia, and he's willing to cooperate with Assad in order to get rid of ISIL.
[CLIP OF DONALD TRUMP]: Wouldn't it be a wonderful thing, frankly, if we actually got along with Russia, and worked out some kind of deal where we went and knocked the hell out of ISIS, along with NATO, and along with countries that are in the area? Wouldn't that be wonderful, as opposed to fighting?
MILANI: Well, Iran is a major player, a major supporter of Assad, and has formed a political--and some people suggest strategic--alliance with Russia and Syria. So there, you have the possibility of improving relations. But then, the question of nuclear deal is one of those major issues that I'm pretty sure you have some though about.
GRILLOT: Well, that is the issue. I think Donald Trump ran very clearly on getting rid of the nuclear deal with Iran, and suggested that this is a horrible deal for the United States and made us less secure.
[CLIP OF DONALD TRUMP]: Never, ever, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran. And I mean never.
GRILLOT: A clear departure from where we had been, and obviously not something I think the Iranians want to hear. So even though they have these commonalities, and these other things-- Similar interest in Syria and regarding ISIL, ISIS, what are we to make of the nuclear issue, and how is that to be reconciled? You can disagree with your partners on some issues and agree on other issues, but those are usually your friends, you know? Your Israels, and your British friends--the people you have special relationships with. You can say okay, on this issue, we don't agree, but on this issue, we will. Partners that aren't our friends-- arguably, Iran and the United States are not friends. How do you reconcile that?
MILANI: During the campaign season, Mr. Trump really wasn't very clear about what he wants to do with the nuclear deal. At times, he said he wanted to completely scrap it all. But at other times, he suggested that he's going to renegotiate it.
[CLIP OF DONALD TRUMP]: That deal will be totally renegotiated or worse. Or worse. For Iran. Not for us. Believe me. For Iran. They have suckered us. They have taken advantage of stupid people. Stupid representatives. People who are incompetent, whether it's Kerry or our president.
MILANI: Well, the word "renegotiate" can have two meanings. One is that we're going to get rid of what we have already, which I don't think is going to be as easy as people think, and I'm going to explain it in a minute. But there is a way out for Mr. Trump. The way out is there is a provision, in a 122, 125-page agreement between Iran and six global powers-- There is a provision in that agreement that says if one of the parties has a grievance, or has a point that power wants to raise, there is a mechanism where you could do that. In other words, it is possible for the new administration to raise specific concerns about specific aspects of this nuclear agreement, without abandoning the agreement. Now, I happen to be one of the 76 or 78 experts who have signed a letter urging the President-elect Trump not to abrogate the agreement. The reason is because--number one--the agreement between-- The nuclear agreement, signed about a year and two months ago, was not simply between Iran and the United States. It was between Iran and five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, plus the European Union. That agreement went to the UN Security Council, Resolution 2231, and it was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council. Therefore, it has the force of international law. And if the new President-elect decides to abrogate this agreement, I am pretty sure he is going to face incredible resistance from the European Union, as well as China, and Russia. And let me also add this important point. Because of this historic nuclear deal, European firms, as well as Boeing, are now engaged in economic and business transaction with Iran. European oil companies, specifically Total of France, have signed a $5 to 6 billion gas deal. Airbus has signed a multi-billion dollar deal with Iran. The Boeing Company has signed a tentative agreement with Iran. So the question becomes, what are we going to do with this? President-elect Trump is on record for saying he doesn't understand why we had this nuclear deal, and then we allowed the Europeans to go and take advantage of the Iranian market. That is a fantastic point. He is right. We should try and push American companies to go to Iran, because right now, according to the British chamber of commerce, the economic opportunities created inside of Iran, right now, is the best we have seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
GRILLOT: Well, we will certainly be watching this issue to see how things are clarified, once the new administration is in place. Thank you, Mohsen, for being with us today and sharing your insight.
MILANI: Thank you for having me. It was a great pleasure and an honor to talk with you.
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