Nazenin Ansari, managing editor of Kayhan London, recently interviewed Amir Taheri, a veteran journalist and international political analyst, on a wide range of issues, including recent efforts by Washington to open channels of communication with the Iranian military.
Mr. Taheri also discussed the blockade of Qatar, the ongoing power struggle in Iraq, the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and the diminishing presence of the European military in the Middle East, which has coincided with greater U.S. military involvement in the region.
The following is the text of Ms. Ansari’s interview with Mr. Taheri.
Nazenin Ansari: Welcome to our program Mr. Taheri.
Amir Taheri: Thank you.
Q: What is your understanding of President Donald Trump’s new policy towards Iran?
A: I believe that the U.S. is reverting to what is known as the “Nixon Doctrine.” Following the Vietnam War [1955-75], the U.S. forged alliances with various countries around the world in order to protect and further its interests. The policy was abandoned during the presidency of George W. Bush [2001-2009], leading the U.S. to redouble efforts to safeguard its interests around the globe.
President Barack Obama’s administration, on the other hand, opted for a lower-profile policy of “leading from behind” which, in effect, was a form of retreat. The current U.S. administration is making a concerted effort to form a coalition in the Middle East in order to further its goals in the region. I must point out that this is neither a new policy nor one created by Mr. Trump.
Q: Obama’s government focused on Iran’s nuclear program. That has now changed. The current U.S. policy encompasses a number of issues.
A: Mr. Obama planned to gradually bring Iran into the international fold. He thought that after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) [better known as the Iran nuclear deal], he could move to phase two, three and four of the nuclear agreement and human-rights issues and so on and so forth. He believed that all of these issues could be resolved in due time. The problem was that he left office and couldn’t oversee the implementation of this long-term plan. The JCPOA has benefited neither Iran nor the West, and that includes the U.S.
The current U.S. administration has identified a number of problem areas regarding its relationship with Iran. They insist that all of these issues must be resolved as a matter of urgency. “Everything or nothing” is the current U.S. motto when it comes to dealing with Iran.
Q: How do you assess EU’s negative response to this policy?
A: Although the Europeans have spoken against the Washington’s confrontational approach towards Iran, in practice, they cooperate with the U.S. Let’s not forget that none of the European countries have released Iranian assets so far. Iran still doesn’t have access to its oil revenues. Since its assets are still frozen, Iran has to buy all goods from Europe.
While Iran cannot access its frozen assets in European banks, it can use the funds to buy goods from Europe. In many cases, it doesn’t even need some of the items it purchases. That’s why we’ve seen a significant increase in the country’s imports.
Also, many European countries do not insure goods exported to Iran. For instance, France’s trade and export guarantee system Coface [Compagnie Française d’Assurance pour le Commerce Extérieur] does not apply to Iran. This means that a French exporting company is not able to insure the goods it sends to Iran. The same holds true for the German Hermes system [of export credit guarantees by the federal government].
Meanwhlie, European banks are not allowed to open accounts in the Islamic Republic. The President of the European Central Bank, Mr. Mario Draghi, has yet to sign the letter that would lift sanctions on Iran. Even the conciliatory gestures of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini towards Iran have not helped to ease the sanctions.
Q: It would appear that Europe and the U.S. are on the same page regarding Iran’s ballistic missile tests, regional activities, involvement in Syria and support for Hezbollah. Would this impact the fate of the nuclear deal? Many people in the U.S. and in Europe support the JCPOA.
A: As you know, the JCPOA is not an agreement in the strictest sense of the word. It is a voluntary commitment, and lacks a defined exit mechanism. The action plan has benefited the P5+1 countries [United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and the U.S. plus Germany] because it allows them to halt the process while deciding their next move. It has also worked to Iran’s advantage, because it has improved the country’s image on the international stage.
But the nuclear deal has not yielded any tangible economic gains for Iran. There have been close to $17 billion worth of contracts signed between Iran and European entities of which not a single one has been executed to date. Even the French energy giant Total has postponed the [$5 billion] contract [signed in July 2017 to develop South Pars Gas Field.] Also, the French bank BNP Paribas has suspended its plans to open a letter of credit for Iran.
As the head of Iran’s Atomic Organization, Mr. Ali Akbar Salehi, has said, the country can resume its nuclear activities in the space of four days. Iran’s plan to rebuild the plutonium plant in Arak has not started. They are reportedly waiting for the the Chinese to start the project. Obama administration was supposed to arrange for the U.S. to buy Iran’s heavy water. This clearly hasn’t happened yet.
Meanwhile, Russia doesn’t want to take delivery of all the enriched uranium as it had originally agreed to. Both sides have cheated each other. Not all problems have been caused by deliberate efforts to undermine the deal. For instance, Iran actually needs a company to rebuild Arak facilities. It is not Iran’s fault that no one has been willing to take on the project.
Q: The U.S. Senate and congress are also responsible for this pause in the process. They are to review the JCPOA soon. They may decide to implement some changes to the deal. Europeans are seriously concerned about this.
A: Certainly. Many European companies are fearful of the new U.S. sanctions. At the end of the day, European businesses would choose the U.S. because of its massive economy. The main problem stems from a deep-seated distrust on both sides. Iran is justified in its distrust of the U.S. and of the Europeans. The U.S. and the Europeans expect Iran to prove a negative, which is impossible to to do. How could Iran prove that it is not doing something they suspect it does?
Q: Those who argue against the JCPOA maintain that inspectors are not allowed on military sites and nuclear facilities, and therefore are unable to verify if Iran has halted its nuclear activities altogether.
A: The JCPOA doesn’t include inspections of military sites. That is, however, listed in the seven resolutions passed by the UN Security Council, which Iran does not recognize.
The JCPOA lists 32 specific nuclear sites of which 22 are being monitored by the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] inspectors. I’m not sure why the Islamic Republic hasn’t given inspectors access to the other 10 sites.
Q: It is a question of pride.
A: It is distrust. The Islamic Republic believes that the other side would continue to make more demands even if Iran were to comply with their every request. The U.S. and the Europeans are convinced that Iran cheats. That is why the the U.S. believes that all of its concerns regarding Iran must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The Trump administration argues that trust can only be built after all problems have been satisfactorily resolved.
Mr. Trump is outraged, for instance, by the fact that the Iranian president has to walk over an American flag before stepping inside his office everyday. The U.S. wants Iran to release all dual citizens who are currently being held in the country, and stop supporting terrorist groups that have killed American troops in Lebanon and Iraq. The U.S. cannot ignore these facts. They want Iran to change its behavior.
Q: Do you think Iran could stop supporting Hezbollah?
A: Yes it can, because Hezbollah relies solely on Iran for its existence. Nearly 40 percent of the population of Lebanon is Shia. In the last election, Hezbollah only secured 11 percent of the votes. The group doesn’t even represent the majority of the Lebanese Shia. Hezbollah would cease to exist if Iran were to cut its financial and political support for the group.
For instance, Iran ordered the Hezbollah to stop firing missiles at Israel in 2002. Iran has recently renewed the same order. The group has not fired on Israel at all. Also, following directives from Tehran, Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria. Hezbollah is an Iranian creation. Tehran can dismantle Hezbollah should it choose to.
Q: It doesn’t appear that Mr. Khamenei and the Islamic Republic want to or even can tear up the JCPOA.
A: That’s absolutely correct. Mr. Khamenei recently said that Iran continues to be committed to the JCPOA as long other parties continue to keep up their end of the bargain. I believe that Mr. Khamenei and his advisers are convinced that the U.S. is trying to push them to withdraw from the JCPOA. In that case, Iran would lose European, Russian, Chinese and even Turkish support.
As you know Turkey has been a great help to Iran in this regard. Cyprus, Austria and a number of other countries help Iran to to launder its money. But Iran would lose all support if it were to exit the JCPOA.
Q: Iran has seen some economic benefits following the JCPOA, meaning from the sale of its oil.
A: I’m not sure. Its assets are still frozen. Close to $22 billion of Iranian money is frozen in China. The Chinese are trying to force Iran to buy goods from them. India is holding $18 billion of Iranian money. They are also trying to force Iran to buy Indian goods. This is a medieval barter economy.
The JCPOA has improved Iran’s image in the world. Iran has managed to shed its image as a bloodthirsty regional monster that was created by the former [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. This would help its public relations. There have been some economic improvements in the past two years. It is, however, not as significant as President [Hassan] Rouhani claims it to be. Economic prosperity is more of a hope rather than a reality at this point.
Q: During his recent visits to the Middle East and Europe, the U.S. Secretary of Treasury, Steven Mnuchin didn’t highlight sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC.] Is this going to help the Europeans to give greater support to the U.S. policy.
A: This is a positive step. As you know, the U.S. had planned to designate the IRGC as a terrorist group. But the move was halted by Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. They know that Mr. Khamenei’s rule will end at one point, and that the IRGC will play a key role during the transition period in post-Khamenei Iran.
The U.S. believes that it needs to establish a channel of communication with the IRGC. They have already reached out to the IRGC during a visit by [Major-General Mohammad] Baqeri [the Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces] to Turkey. Turkish Army Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar and a delegation of 40 senior military officers also visited Iran for high-level talks. This was the first time a senior NATO commander had traveled to Tehran.
Commander Baqeri had even proposed a regional defense triangle comprised of Iran, Iraq and Turkey, which is what the U.S. wants. It would resemble the Baghdad Pact  and CENTO [Central Treaty Organization.] The U.S. is hoping to reach an understanding with the IRGC. They have done the same in Pakistan and Egypt. There are no political parties in Iran which they can negotiate with.
The IRGC represents the only true power in the country, and that is why the U.S. didn’t include it in its list of terrorist groups. That would have prevented the U.S. government from opening a line of communication with the IRGC. This is the second phase of the President Trump’s policy towards Iran, namely establishing relationship with the group or coalition of factions that will oversee the post-Khamenei transition period in the country.
Q: To what extent, in your opinion, could the U.S. Congress help or hinder this process?
A: It can do both. However, I believe that U.S. policy on Iran is currently shaped by the Trump administration. It is not Trump himself, of course. He, however, has a strong team of advisers consisting of highly experienced politicians and knowledgeable former and current senior military officers. They aim to restore U.S.-Iran relations to the period before Obama and even before George W. Bush. They have strong ties to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. I’m sure Congress would support them if they were to come up with a viable policy on Iran.
Q: Who are the U.S. allies in the region?
A: The main U.S. ally in the region is Israel. There are a number of Gulf states and Arab countries that are siding with the U.S., including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates [UAE], Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. And also Turkey, which is a member of NATO. Despite the tensions between the two countries, Turkey and the U.S. have managed to cooperate behind the scenes.
We shouldn’t forget Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, which are also U.S. allies. The current government in Iraq is supported by the U.S. A large number of Shia forces have distanced themselves from Iran and are now siding with Saudi Arabia, including groups led by Muqtada al-Sadr and Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim.
Kurdish groups in Syria fought alongside the American-backed forces [to oust the Islamic Sate of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) forces from] Raqqa. Jordan is also a strong ally of the U.S. These countries and various forces form a major coalition.
Q: How does the Qatari crisis impact this coalition?
A: They’ve brought the crisis under control. It will gradually dissipate. The U.S. has asked Saudi Arabia and Qatar to diffuse the situation. There is a much bigger game to play.
Q: Will the U.S. be able to curb Iran’s influence in Iraq?
A: This is a complex issue. Interestingly enough, Iran and the U.S. cooperate with each other in Iraq. The U.S. led the military operation to libertae the Sunni triangle of Mosul, Haditha and Anah with the help of Iraqi army and Iranian-backed Shia Iraqi Hezbollah and Popular Mobilization Forces [PMF].
Also, the ceasefire between the Peshmerga [military forces of the federal region of Iraqi Kurdistan], PMF and Iranian-backed Shia Turkmen forces in northern Kirkuk and on the Iraq-Syria border was brokered by the U.S. and monitored by Iran.
We must also understand that no Iraqi government can be hostile to Iran. Nearly 90 percent of the Iraqi population lives within 100 kilometers of the Iranian border. The Kurdish and Shia population live on both sides of the Iran-Iraq border. I don’t think the U.S. aims to drive Iran out of Iraq, but rather to curb its influence. It also allows Iranian military to crush other hostile forces.
Q: How successful were Iran, Iraq and the U.S. in coordinating their response to the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum?
A: It was very successful. We must also add Turkey to the equation. This was the first time that Iran had coordinated its efforts with two NATO members, namely the U.S. and Turkey. These three countries released almost identical statements on the issue. It’s as if the same person had written all three statements. It was rather interesting to see Iran, Turkey and the U.S. working together to prevent Iraqi Kurdistan from gaining its independence.
It is in the interest of all three countries for Iraq to remain undivided. They are also trying to maintain their influence in Iraq. This may mark the beginnings of the process of bringing Iran into the fold. This plays into the overall policy of the U.S. towards Iran. Although the two countries have been hostile towards each other for the past four decades, they were the closest of allies prior to the Islamic Revolution. There is no reason they couldn’t be friends again.
Q: Are we to understand that as European influence diminishes in the Middle East, the American role increases in the region?
A: The U.S. didn’t want to be a world leader during President Obama’s administration, a role that America had played since the end of World War II. Someone is always going to fill a vacuum. That’s why Russia became involved in the Middle East. As the U.S. starts to reasserts its leadership in the Middle East, it would be very difficult for Europeans to maintain their influence in the region.
Europeans are currently struggling with a number of important issues, including Brexit, Catalonia’s push for independence, and the economic crisis. They don’t have the means to play a leadership role in the Middle East. For the time being, the EU will help the U.S. in the Middle East until such time as it can reclaim its leadership role in the region.