Interview with AIC Board Member Ambassador Robert Hunter
By Kourosh Ziabari
Will Iran and the group of six world powers be able to reach a final solution on Iran’s nuclear standoff? It will have to wait until June 30, which is the self-imposed deadline for Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) to conclude the marathon talks. The negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program get closer to the critical phases, and now the two sides are wrestling over the most miniature details: when and how the sanctions against Iran will be terminated, whether or not the UN Security Council will endorse the removal of the sanctions, and what parts of Iran’s nuclear activities will be stopped or limited.
The former U.S. Ambassador to NATO believes that until everything is agreed, it cannot be said whether there would be a deal; however, he says he is optimistic that the talks move in such a direction that can end in an understanding. Robert E. Hunter, however, says that there are some parties in the Middle East who disfavor such a deal between Iran and the West, because it would lead to Iran’s economic and political reemergence as a regional power and an Iran-U.S. rapprochement, which is not pleasant to everybody.
“I think it is obvious that there are some parties in the region who would prefer not to have an agreement between Iran and the P5+1, because they would prefer to see the confrontation with Iran continue. That does not happen to be the policy of the United States or the other members of the P5+1,” said Robert Hunter in an interview with Iran Review.
“Certainly, those in the Western countries don’t buy into it. That is the position of some of these Arab countries; it’s not something that’s shared by the U.S. government,” he added.
Robert E. Hunter is a familiar name for the Iranians. He has written extensively about Iran’s nuclear program and the future of Iran-U.S. relations. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Washington, D.C. He was the U.S. Ambassador to NATO under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1998. For two years, he was the National Security Council Director of West European Affairs and also the Director of Middle East Affairs.
Iran Review did an extensive phone interview with Ambassador Hunter last week. We discussed the possibility of the conclusion of the comprehensive nuclear deal prior to the June 30 deadline and the quality of Iran-West relations after that. We also talked about Israel’s anxiety about the ongoing negotiations and the regional and global repercussions of a final accord that can eliminate all concerns regarding the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear activities. Following is the transcript of the interview.
Q: Iran and the six world powers have agreed on the tentative framework for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Tehran’s nuclear program. Well, it was evident in the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s speech and that of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini on the night of April 2 that they consider this deal a diplomatic victory for both sides. Iranians are celebrating the agreement because they think it would put an end to the nuclear controversy and the cruel sanctions. Do you think that the framework that has been announced would be favorable to all the negotiating parties and serve the interests of both Iran and the international community?
A: What will be finally agreed has a target date, which as you know, is June 30, that may or may not hold as the target day. So we will not know for sure whether this is a success for everyone until a final agreement is reached. It is moving in that direction, but we won’t know for sure until we know what the final details are.
Q: But we already know many details about it. Given the fact that the majority of the components of the agreement are outlined in this tentative framework, especially regarding the removal of the sanctions and the suspension of sensitive nuclear activities on behalf of Iran, do you think that these steps, if finalized, are going to be something that both sides can consider as a success?
A: Well, at the end of the day, when an agreement is reached, unless both sides believe it as a success, there will be no agreement.
Q: So, are you concerned that there might be no agreement even after 18 months of intensive negotiations?
A: I hope there will be but until it’s done, it’s not done.
Q: Well, the U.S. government has released a factsheet which says it contains the details of the comprehensive agreement, and it has provided a list of the possible concessions Iran is going to make by virtue of the final deal. But it said that it would not entail the removal of all nuclear-related sanctions at once. Do you think that the U.S. government has the readiness to terminate the sanctions as part of the final agreement and comprehensive deal with Iran? And do you think that the U.S. government is going to renege on its commitments stipulated in the Geneva interim accord?
A: One of the key elements of any negotiation like this is that both sides have to have confidence in one another and that whatever was agreed will be followed through. I was not in Lausanne and I assume you weren’t either; so I don’t know exactly what was said by Minister Zarif and Secretary Kerry and the others in the P5+1, but one of the critical factors in the negotiation is whether whatever was agreed will be honored by both sides. And unless that happens, there can’t be the kind of trust on which an agreement like this has to rest. So, I don’t expect the United States to renege on anything that it agrees to, and I hope and trust that Iran will not renege on anything it agrees to. Now, it is not entirely clear that everything that has to be agreed was agreed; there are some discussions in the media and by government officials, it does appear that there are still some items that have to be negotiated.
Q: In the framework declaration read out by Foreign Minister Zarif and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, it was made clear that all the nuclear-related sanctions, including the UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran’s financial and banking sector and the oil embargo will be terminated immediately. So, this is something which seems to have been agreed by both sides.
A: You know, I have not seen anybody on the non-Iranian side who has said that it is clearly as you just put it. Again, I was not there. So, as to the process whereby sanctions will be removed, I cannot comment directly on that, but my understanding by what I hear in the media and what I hear from various people is that this issue is one that still has to be worked out in its details and it has not been finally agreed.
Q: Right. Do you think that if Iran and the six world powers come to a comprehensive deal, the U.S. Congress that is now dominated by the Republicans will try to ruin the agreement or try to put an impediment on the way of the removal of the sanctions? Do you think that the Congress will try to throw a spanner in the works of Iran and the United States in finalizing a deal?
A: You and I can both read what various members of the United States Congress have said. We can also read the legislation that has been prepared in regard to many things which include the manner in which sanctions would be lifted. Let us assume that, by June 30, there is a final agreement with all the details worked out; that is the point at which one needs to consider what various parties of the Congress will attempt to do after that. What is being said right now does not guarantee what would be happening later on as far as Congressional action is concerned. It is my hope that the President of the United States will have as much flexibility as he believes he needs in carrying the negotiations forward to completion.
Q: Do you think that the future U.S. president, who is believed to be a Republican – at least as asserted in the media, will continue honoring the terms of the possible final comprehensive agreement?
A: I do.
Q: Well, the next question I would like to pose is regarding the conflict between the United States and Israel over Iran. It seems that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is opposed to any kind of nuclear agreement as it has been clear in his speech to the U.S. Congress on March 3. He said that Israel would resist and will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. With this mind, is it realistic to conclude that Iran is a subject matter on which the U.S.-Israeli interests no longer intersect? And do you think that President Obama has decided to defy Mr. Netanyahu and the Israeli lobby in the Congress?
A: I think it is clear that some of the things that Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, including in his speech before the Congress, are not in agreement with what the President of the United States is saying about the content of the negotiations. The president, however, has also said that he is concerned to gain an agreement which will protect the security of all countries, including the security of Israel. At the end of the day, Mr. Netanyahu may disagree with the president but the president, I am confident, is going to do what’s best for the United States and, in his judgment, what will also be best for Israel. Mr. Netanyahu may not agree with that, but I expect the president to persevere in what he believes to be right.
Q: And personally, what do you think about the speech Netanyahu made to the Congress about one month ago, having in mind that the statement said that Iran is the most imminent threat to world peace and security?
A: There were a number of things in Netanyahu’s speech that I think were exaggerated and I think there were a lot of them. There are many threats to world peace; I do not list Iran at the top.
Q: Some people say that striking a nuclear deal with Iran is simply part of a containment strategy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, it’s clear that such a deal would have a bigger implication: Iran’s reinstatement in the international community with the lifting of the sanctions, and the returning of the Western firms to Iran’s lucrative oil and gas sector and a profitable trade with Iran as an emerging economic power in the Middle East. What’s your analysis about this viewpoint?
A: The basic objective, from the Western perspective and the U.S. perspective, is to try to advance the interests of security in the region, in the Middle East, as much as possible. I believe that will be aided by the reemergence of Iran in the outside world, and with its accepting both the rights and responsibilities of a normal country within the region. If that proceeds in a good way, then everybody ultimately is going to be safer than they are today. Now, not everybody would agree with what I just said but that is my belief.
Q: And you know that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have been underway for more than ten years. It seems that they are going to bear fruit and lead to a conclusion in the near future. Do you think that after the settlement of the dispute regarding Iran’s nuclear program, other issues such as Israel’s nuclear arsenal can be addressed by the international community?
A: At some point, I expect that broader issues of non-proliferation throughout the region will be addressed and, at some point, a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East can be discussed; whether it will reach a conclusion, I cannot foretell. What I do hope to see is that, assuming the nuclear issue with Iran can be resolved satisfactorily, there will be opportunity for engagement with Iran on a wide range of issues. I would not put the issue of the Israeli nuclear capabilities high on that list. I would put high on that list the continued guarantee of the freedom of movement of cargo and oil through the Straits of Hormuz. I put high on the list efforts to counter the role of the so-called Islamic State. I put high on the list efforts to see if cooperation is possible with regard to the future of Afghanistan, the future of Iraq, the future of Syria and also efforts to prevent, forestall or mitigate conflict among different countries in the region, including the relationship between Iran and its immediate neighbors in the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia. The conclusion of the talks, let us hope, on the nuclear issue ought to open up possibilities for progress in a number of other areas. Not everybody agrees with me on that. There are some countries in the region that do not want to see that happen, but I do believe that this is in the interest of the United States and of the other parties to the P5+1.
Q: Yeah, this is exactly what I was going to touch upon. Many analysts and observers have maintained that a number of Arab states in the Persian Gulf region disfavor a nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States. Why do you think they are so anxious about such an agreement? And what can be the possible reasons for their dissatisfaction with the nuclear deal?
A: Let’s start with the other members of the P5+1 that have a clear interest in preventing any possibility of Iran or other countries getting nuclear weapons. As for some of the Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait, there is a concern about the reemergence of Iran into active participation in the politics and economics of the region. They say that because they’re worried about threats from Iran, I think that a major element is concern over new competition for power in the region. I do not think that that is something which we should permit to interfere with our efforts to bring the nuclear talks to a successful conclusion and, afterward, if that works, to stop us from trying to work with Iran and with everyone else to advance common interests, common security, common stability, and the economic and human development of all the peoples through the region.
Q: So, do you think that these Arab states prefer Iran to remain a nuclear threat for the foreseeable future so that it cannot reemerge, as you say?
A: I think it is obvious that there are some parties in the region who would prefer not to have an agreement between Iran and the P5+1, because they would prefer to see the confrontation with Iran continue. That does not happen to be the policy of the United States or the other members of the P5+1. Certainly, those in the Western countries don’t buy into it. That is the position of some of these Arab countries; it’s not something that’s shared by the U.S. government.
Q: I have one question regarding the arrangement of political forces within the P5+1 group. There have been some reports that France has made many objections to Iran’s proposals during the negotiations, and at some junctures impeded the progress of the talks by voicing its opposition to the ideas put forward even by its P5+1 partners. Is it that Israel has turned to France for keeping the chances of failed negotiations alive when realizing that Washington is not listening to it and is intent on getting the deal?
A: Mr. Netanyahu has made clear that he believes that no deal is better than a bad deal, but his definition of a bad deal and his definition of a good deal are different from that as used by President of the United States. There is a disagreement there. The President of the United States believes that what was worked out in Lausanne, provisionally, not yet completed, makes sense. Mr. Netanyahu does not believe that and he’s continuing to do what he can to keep what was agreed at Lausanne from being completed. That’s his choice; it doesn’t happen to be the choice of the U.S. government. And I expect President Obama to persevere in what he is doing and that he would speak more for the P5+1 than anyone else.
Q: In one of your articles you mentioned that President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba after nearly half a century of hostility was very bold and very determining and a historic decision. Do you think that a nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran could serve as a starting point for similar rapprochement between the two countries, between Iran and the United Sates?
A: I would like to see that.
Q: So, are you optimistic that it can happen?
A: Yes, indeed, if there is a nuclear agreement. I believe with goodwill on the part of the Iranian government and with goodwill on the part of the P5+1, that there will be a very good chance of moving in that direction. Iran is a country with a lot of talented people; it is a country that is essentially pro-Western; the Iranian people are essentially pro-American and there will be tremendous opportunity for interchange – commercial, economic, cultural, and educational. The opportunities for a basic transformation of Iran’s relationship with the outside world are profound. I hope that the people in Iran who would not like to see that happen, and of course here, and people in the outside world, especially in the Middle East, who do not want to see that happen will not prevail. If the people who see the interests of their peoples in each of these governments prevail, then I think developments will be moving in the right direction.
Q: Both Iran and the United States, during these 18 months of negotiations, have tried to focus the talks merely on the nuclear case. They tried to keep aside from talking about other issues, although there have been some exchanges between Foreign Minister Zarif and Secretary John Kerry on some regional issues. Do you think that after inking a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, there would be other areas in which the foreign policy of Iran and the United States can converge on similar interests, especially after the Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khamenei said that there might be some talks on other areas if the United States shows goodwill? What’s your take on that?
A: One of the most important functions of talks like this is for people to have a chance to get to know one another better, to talk about possibilities and to talk about things they agree upon and things they disagree upon in order to clarify the situation. We found, for example, that arms control talks with the Soviet Union during the Cold War helped produce conditions that eventually led to the end of the Cold War. As a result, I believe that the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 have inherently had a positive impact in terms of making possible advancement in other areas. After all, there are other areas in which there is similarity of interests, if not congruent interests. There is a similarity of interests between the Western members of the P5+1 and Iran in regards to Afghanistan; and there is a similar interest in not having so much instability in Iraq that it would threaten Iran and the Western countries. There is a similar interest in preventing the so-called Islamic State from prevailing; there is a similar interest, I believe, in ensuring the freedom of navigation through the Straits of Hormuz. There is similarity of interest in countering piracy; there is a similar interest in seeing the advancement of the wellbeing of the people of Iran and the people of other neighboring states. There are a number of areas, therefore, in which there is a lot to talk about and a lot that can be accomplished in the years ahead. Quite frankly, we have all waited far too long or a chance for that to begin.