AIC's Emad Kiyaei Moderates Discussion with Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Seyed Hossein Mousavian at Hamilton College

Summary by Marykate McNeil, AIC Research Associate

 Photo courtesy of photographer Nancy L. Ford.

Photo courtesy of photographer Nancy L. Ford.

On Thursday, November 30th, 2017 former ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Seyed Hossein Mousavian discussed US-Iran relations and the JCPOA (otherwise known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal”) at an event at Hamilton College moderated by Emad Kiyaei. Pickering served as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, as well as US Ambassador to the United Nations, Russia, India, Israel, and Jordan. Mousavian served as the Iranian Ambassador to Germany, Head of the Foreign Relations Committee on Iran’s National Security Council, General Director of the Foreign Ministry for West Europe, and as Iran’s spokesman during the P5+1 nuclear negotiations. Kiyaei is the Sol M. Linowitz Visiting Professor at Hamilton College, a principal at the IGD group, and a policy advisor to the AIC.

Kiyaei began the discussion by asking Ambassador Pickering to explain American reservations regarding the Iran Nuclear Deal. The ambassador first noted that Trump’s rhetoric regarding the Iran Nuclear Deal (e.g., that it is a “complete failure”) is an attempt to attract more conservative voters to his base. Additionally, much of his (and others’) opposition to the nuclear deal is centered around the deal’s “sunset” provision, believing that it creates a timeline for Iran to eventually make a nuclear bomb. The ambassador also went on to explain Trump’s options regarding the deal. First, President Trump could put sanctions on Iran in January when it comes time to reevaluate the deal, thereby violating the terms of the JCPOA and destroying the agreement (since Iran has not violated the deal in any way that would cause the re-imposition of sanctions).  He argued that destroying the agreement, however, would be catastrophic for the US. If the deal is destroyed, this would either allow Iran to pursue whatever nuclear policy it would like with no limitations; it would also isolate the US if the other P5+1 countries decide to keep the deal intact without the US (which they have indicated will happen if Trump pulls out). Alternatively, President Trump could stay in the JCPOA and simply weather the political effects of his unfulfilled campaign promise. Ambassador Pickering ended his remarks by noting the catch-22 nature of this issue for President Trump.

Next, Kiyaei asked Ambassador Mousavian to discuss the Iranian opposition’s reservations. Mousavian explained that the Iranian opposition to the deal is rather simple. It believes that if there is to be a nuclear deal between Iran and other world powers, it should be based on international law. Iran is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), under which Iran must already accept limits on its nuclear program, albeit not as strict as the ones demanded by the P5+1. The Iranian opposition sees these further restrictions included in the deal as clear discrimination against Iran. No other country is forced to accept restrictions beyond those in the NPT, so the opposition argues, why should Iran have to? Mousavian noted how the opposition does in fact have a strong legal argument, but it is not realistic. He argued that strained relations between Iran and the West since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 created a deep mistrust between these powers, therefore it is reasonable of the West to want to impose further restrictions on Iran in order to allay their concerns and distrust of the Iranian government.

The discussion next explored the issue of Iran’s use of ballistic missiles. Kiyaei first asked Ambassador Pickering why the US did not negotiate restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles in the JCPOA, and then asked Ambassador Mousavian to explain Iran’s attachment to its missile program. Pickering explained that if the US had wanted to include ballistic missile restrictions in the nuclear deal, the negotiations would have taken much longer, all while Iran was still developing its nuclear program. Also, the US would have had to compromise more on nuclear issues if they wanted ballistic missiles to be restricted as well. These two reasons, combined with the fact that a nuclear warhead can do far more damage than a conventional ballistic, missile pushed the US away from pursuing ballistic missile restrictions in the JCPOA. Pickering also noted that if the United States destroys its position in the nuclear deal, then it will have no standing to separately negotiate on ballistic missiles.

Ambassador Mousavian then explained how Iran’s insistence on maintaining its ballistic missile program stems from a need for national security. Mousavian highlighted how the US and other world powers ship hundreds of billions in military aid to Saudi Arabia, and during the Iran-Iraq War Iran was invaded and hit with ballistic missiles by Iraq. Iran therefore sees these issues as reasonable justifications for pursuing ballistic missiles and protecting itself from future attacks.

Kiyaei then brought the discussion to the topic of hegemonic activities in the Middle East, asking Pickering if he saw justifications for perceptions of Iranian hegemonic activity, and asking Mousavian if he saw Iran as a regional hegemon. Pickering noted that there is fear on both sides of hegemonic activities due to such an embattled past between the US and Iran. He argued the US and Iran ought to keep finding diplomatic solutions to their issues and stop amassing arms. Pickering realized his solution was a tall order, but noted the alternative could result in armed conflict. He concluded his argument by maintaining that war should always be a last resort option, and thus the two countries need to keep pursuing diplomatic solutions to avoid war.

Ambassador Mousavian argued Iran is not a regional hegemon, and that the only hegemon is the US. He argues most of what is perceived as Iranian hegemonic activities is actually Iran reacting to both American mistakes and institutional weakness in the region. He highlights how the US left Iraq and Afghanistan decimated, leaving the Iranian border with these countries porous for drugs, refugees, and terrorism. Therefore, Mousavian argued, border defenses are required to keep Iran safe from problems in Iraq and Afghanistan caused by the US. The ambassador also mentioned how Arab nations keep collapsing, which - combined with US and Saudi invasions in the region - have led to a power vacuum. He maintained Iran is only pursuing what the US perceives to be hegemonic activities in order to protect itself. Mousavian ended his statement by arguing for the need for a regional cooperation system similar to the EU in the Middle East in order to provide greater regional stability.

To end the discussion, Kiyaei asked Pickering what he thought of Mousavian’s idea for a regional cooperation system and the likelihood it could happen. Pickering responded by saying until the current US administration changes, it is unlikely the US will pursue such a goal. He also notes the EU is too focused on Brexit and preserving the state of its own cooperation system to attempt to lead a push for one in the Middle East. He also didn’t see much hope in Russia or China leading the charge due to lack of interest in such a proposal from these countries. Pickering, therefore, didn’t see much promise from any traditional world leaders to pursue a regional cooperation system in the near future, but he did like the idea and agreed changes must be made in the region for any type of progress.