Europeans feeding Iran empty promises - president of American-Iranian Council
Tensions between Iran and the US spiral, with Washington pushing its European allies to abandon the nuclear deal and Tehran unwilling to compromise. Can they still pull out of the nose dive? We asked Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, three-time Iranian presidential hopeful and president of the American-Iranian Council.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, president of the American-Iranian Council, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. So speaking about the sanctions against Iran Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recently said that Europeans will have to “get wet” if they want to swim against the tide of the U.S. unilateral anti-Iran moves. Will European countries in your opinion actually go on and risk anything for sake of keeping trade ties with Iran alive?
Hooshang Amirahmadi: Well I don't believe, I never believed that without America Europeans will be any effective and helpful to Iran. In fact the Europeans have been playing a very unfair game. They want to keep Iran in the JCPOA. And, therefore, they keep giving Iran empty promises - promises that they cannot deliver on. The purpose of European empty promises is just to keep Iran in the JCPOA. Iran so far has also been willing to listen to those empty promises because Iran also wants to have a legitimate reason to stay in the JCPOA. Iran doesn't want to leave, it is afraid to leave and, therefore, it is also looking for a pretext to stay. And I believe Europeans are also playing that game, giving Iran that pretext to stay in the JCPOA, otherwise there is no help or hope from Europe for Iran.
SS: European companies (like French oil giant Total or Danish shipping heavyweight Maersk and many others) have already withdrawn from Iran over fears of U.S. sanctions. Does this mean that trying to save the deal is really a losing battle for the Europeans?
HA: It certainly is and I don't believe Europeans believe that they can save the deal. But the problem is this: the one that wants to save the deal is Iran. That's the problem. Iran doesn't want to get out of the deal. Europeans are giving Iran the pretext Iran needs. The bottom line - the one that wants to stay in the deal is Iran because Iran is afraid of exiting the deal and making America even more, you know, aggressive. So in fact Iran also is trying to stay in the deal. By the way we all know that European governments do not control the private sector. So the promises that the European governments are giving are the promises that the governments are giving, not the private sector and the private sector is not listening to their governments and that's why they have left or leaving Iran in large numbers. In the meantime the Europeans have come up with this scheme called INSTEX. It's basically a trade mechanism that supposedly will help certain trade to continue and particularly trade in so-called legitimate commodities - commodities that are not under U.S. sanctions like medicine and food items.
SS: Exactly. Here's my next question because it seems like Turkey is planning to set up a similar framework to the European one. But Turkey and Iran are not exactly the closest of countries. Their relations are somewhat strained over Syria and other issues. So how far can this cooperation go? Is this just a shaky marriage of convenience for both countries?
HA: Again these schemes are really... At the bottom of it are sort of oil for food or oil for medicine or other commodities for food and medicine similar to what existed for Iraq back in 2003, that was before the U.S. invaded Iraq. It’s only unfortunate that Iran will have to come after the JCPOA to such a situation. And I think no country will want to really jeopardise its relationship, I mean, economic relationship with the United States of America.
SS: A group of U.S. senators has recently published an op-ed in the Washington Post, suggesting that the Trump administration has been trying to establish a strong link between Iran and Al-Qaeda based on no hard evidence, and may be using this speculation as a pretext to strike Iran (just like what happened with Iraq in 2003). Does Iran take these kinds of speculations seriously or is it just internal American politics at play?
HA: Yeah that's a very good question. My own view of this is that Iran misread Trump, misunderstood Trump and messed up its relationship with the U.S. under Trump significantly to the point of bringing the relationship into some kind of a danger. Trump is a businessman. Trump is not a politician. Trump is not a diplomat. From day one Trump wanted this nuclear deal to be renegotiated. Remember, Trump had waited for almost a year before he left JCPOA, he did not leave JCPOA immediately after he became president. He gave Iran a long time to think about and he tried his best and Trump did not re-impose sanctions for almost a year. Even after he re-imposed sanctions, he actually gave eight countries a way-out for exporting Iran's oil and they continue to buy Iran's oil. So I think Trump cannot be responsible for everything that has happened between Iran and the U.S. I believe Iran has to take at least a big part of this responsibility and I particularly fault Iran's foreign minister Mr. Zarif and Iran's President Rouhani because both of them were so in love with the JCPOA, they could not see that particular deal renegotiated.
SS: What you're saying is that Iran is interested to stay in the deal... But back in July Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei has ordered the country's atomic energy agency to prepare for an upgrade of Iran's uranium enrichment capacity. Is Iranian leadership bluffing? Or is it serious about restarting the country's nuclear program?
HA: No. Ok, first, even within the JCPOA Iran has a right to do certain things. What Mr. Khamenei ordered was not outside the JCPOA. It is part of the JCPOA. So, therefore, by ordering that particular action Mr. Khamenei was not violating the JCPOA. Iran has not violated the JCPOA even at a millimetre. Absolutely zero. And, therefore, there has been no violation of the JCPOA from the Iran side. The International Energy Atomic Agency has verified that many many times and Iran continues to stay solid within the JCPOA and, therefore, whatever has happened to JCPOA, as far as the JCPOA goes is the U.S. side that is responsible. Iran doesn't dare to leave and go outside the JCPOA. The JCPOA has become a trap for Iran: staying in the JCPOA gives it nothing, it is a one way street, but leaving JCPOA creates even more dangers for Iran because it gives pretext to others to do even the worst.
SS: So, President Rouhani has recently said that U.S.-Iranian tensions are at a maximum. Hostile rhetoric has indeed been mounting from both sides since Trump pulled U.S. out of the nuclear deal. However, like with North Korea, it could be just Trump's way of establishing a negotiations process, and the U.S. president has said he wanted to meet Iran's leader. Would Mr. Rouhani agree to a tete-a-tete with him?
HA: Well, this is not the... The problem is, Mr. Rouhani is nobody, he just can't make that decision. I think it is the Supreme Leader who will make that decision. Unfortunately, Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif, they messed up the nuclear deal, and they have given Mr. Khamenei all kinds of promises, and at the end of the day, they could not deliver any. Mr. Khamenei therefore has become violently against the U.S. and against any new deal because he does not believe that either these people are able to deliver anything, or the U.S. is willing to abide by any new rules. So therefore, it is Mr. Khamenei who is keeping the gate closed between U.S. and Iran.
SS: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has previously invited Iranians to look at U.S. diplomacy to North Korea as an example of Washington's negotiation powers. However, nothing really came out yet of the flashy diplomacy and American pressure. So are negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang really a good example for Tehran to watch?
HA: Not really. I think Iran has to find its own modern. I mean, first, I think Mr. Trump was, when it comes to Iran, an opportunity that turned to become a threat. But I have to also say that Trump administration is the first administration in the last 40 years after Iran's revolution that has offered Iran a comprehensive negotiation toward normalization of relationship. They really offered a comprehensive deal toward normalization of relationship meaning the U.S. will get into the Iranian economy, help the economy, and the rest of it. I think Iran missed a major opportunity, and it has to find its own model. North Korea is not the model that Iran should follow, Iran is a huge country, it is a very important country, and the idea is, U.S. really needs Iran in that part of the world to create the regional stability, regional peace. North Korea is an isolated state, it is really nothing, it is nobody. So I think I would say Iran is way too important for Mr. Trump to consider it as North Korea, or any other state in those terms. It has to see Iran as Iran, a country of 3000 years of civilization, 82 million people, a geography huge, ok, not all of it.
SS: Iran is largely seen as wielding more influence in Iraq than the Americans, especially post-ISIS. Iran is a Shia power, though, and Iraq has lots of restive Sunnis ready to rise again. Can increased Iranian influence in the country trigger a new onset of sectarian violence?
HA: Yeah… Well, again, I don't believe the problem in the region between Iran and the rest of the community out there, the countries, is just Shia-Sunni. The Shia-Sunni divide is one issue, but it has been there for centuries. For 1400 years, so that issue is not really a strategic matter, and they should not make it a key dividing line. The dividing line is still this country's national interest. Whenever it comes to the national interests, for example, Iraqis are in the other side, Iran is on own side, although Iraq is a Shia country, largely. But that's the only country in the Middle East that had an eight-year war with Iran, a lot of Shias on both sides killed each, other over half a million Shias on both sides killed each other. So I don't think that it is just the Sunni-Shia issue, it’s the national interest of these countries, and I think all of them have to come together on that basis. The fact is, that today's world is not the world that one country will maximize its interest against the interest of others. Every nation must benefit from any deal in the region. The biggest, I think, mistake that the JCPOA made was that it did not include, like, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or any of Iran's neighbour.
SS: With the nuclear deal in jeopardy, the positions of anti-deal Iranian conservatives are reinforced inside the country. Could the hostility from the West push Iran into a more hardline political regime?
HA: Well, Iran is going towards radicalism and hardline politics, no question about it. Remember, the Islamic Republic's problems are only 20% sanctions. Eighty percent of Iran's problems is domestic, and it has to do with mismanagement of its economy. The country's economy is going down not just because of the sanctions that American imposed, but because it is being mismanaged. The inflation is over 100%, unemployment over 40%, income is declining, particularly, for the middle classes. So Iran is in very serious problem, and I think the country is moving in the direction of a critical situation towards the end of this summer, and a lot can happen. So I think, if I was Iran, I will make a huge domestic change. Iran really needs to change its domestic... It has to restructure that regime significantly and bring the people back to its side, bring the right people to manage the country, and should not put all its eggs on this side of trying to get help from Europeans and others on sanctions, or anything close to that. The Islamic Republic cannot just blame Trump for all its ills, the problem is that the regime itself says that 80% of its problems are domestic, and they are management issues. They say they addressed that, but the only way to do it is to restructure.
SS: So Iran is also accused of being involved in Yemen. While the Saudis are going for a full-on intervention, will Iran ever get involved directly on the side of the Houthis?
HA: So the problem is this... You know, Yemen is an Arab country, and it is in the Arab world. Syria is an Arab country, it’s in the Arab world. Iraq is an Arab country, it’s in the Arab world. Iran is neither an Arab nor it belongs to the Arab world. So when the Saudis intervene in Yemen, or in Syria and elsewhere, it is legitimate, so-called. But when Iran does it. it’s illegitimate because Iran has moved beyond its territory. It’s unfortunate, this is double standard, of course, but it is also understandable, because Saudis and the Arab world say: why the hell with Iran to intervene in the Arab world, quote unquote, although we don't really have an Arab world, there are so many problems within the Arabs themselves. But nonetheless, Iran, I believe, should stay away from the Arab world. It should go back to its own borders, ok, and create a whole new relationship.
SS: The U.S. Senate just passed a resolution that calls for ending U.S. support to the Saudi campaign in Yemen, and it is expected to make it through the House and be vetoed by Trump. Is this a sign of what's to come if Democrats win in 2020? Can Saudis afford to continue with their rivalry with Iran if they fall out of Washington's favour?
HA: Well, first up, the Yemen and the Saudis intervention in Yemen started under President Obama, it did not just start with Mr. Trump. That's a mistake. In fact, no president of the United States sold as much weaponry to the Middle East than Mr. Obama. Mr. Obama has a record of selling military machinery to Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, ok? But it was very quiet and nice. After all, the question... There is not much of a big difference when it comes to Republicans or Democrats when it comes to foreign policy. They really come together. They have certain, you know, policy differences, but at the end of the day, they really come together. In fact, I believe, and if it is true, Mr. Trump is not a regime-changer, he is not an interventionist. He has always said that I don't want to get into it, I want us to get out of Syria. I could promise you that Hillary would have 100% intervened in Syria militarily. She would never have given up on Assad. But Trump gave up. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of what Trump is doing or who Trump is, and what the American Democrats are. It's only unfortunate that a lot of misinformation is going around. The only reason that's the case is because Mr. Trump has a big mouth.
SS: Alright. Thank you so much for this interview, we were talking to Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, three-time Iranian presidential hopeful and president of the American Iranian Council, discussing the tense relations between the two nations in the context of wider Middle East. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I’ll see you next time.