Given all that, it is hard to have much optimism that negotiations will be fruitful. To the extent that there is any reason for optimism, there is this: the Iranian people have suffered for a long time at the hands of the Iranian regime and, of late, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the regime’s behavior. Moreover, a civilization as old and great as Iran’s does not need nuclear weapons or international terrorism to enjoy global respect and stature; if Iran gave up the ambition of a nuclear weapons program and abandoned its support of international terrorists, the benefits they would receive from the international community would be extensive and would reap untold benefits for the Iranian people. Thus, there is reason to hope that wise Iranian leaders would emerge who see these points and are willing to move Iran on to a better global trajectory.

Ziabari: The domestic proponents of President Ahmadinejad say that the same policy of tension easing and cooperation which you allude to was pursued during former President Khatami’s administration, and that Iran halted uranium suspension for two years voluntarily, but no major changes took place, the sanctions remained in effect, and President Bush eventually labeled Iran as a part of the “Axis of Evil”. What’s your take on that?

Feaver: If the Iranian regime gave up its nuclear program, submitted to the full IAEA safeguards regime, came clean on its past behavior, and withdrew its support for international terrorism, I am confident that those steps would result in dramatic and long-lasting benefits. I am also confident that the Iranian regime has not taken those steps yet.

Ziabari: But Iran and the U.S. have long disputed a number of issues and the nuclear program is simply the newest of them. Iranians still feel uneasy about the U.S. involvement in the 1953 coup which toppled the democratic government of Dr. Mossadegh. Which steps should both sides take to compensate for the past acrimonies?

Feaver: It would be a mistake to begin with these historical grievances. The wiser course is to begin with the current and most urgent concerns, the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the regime’s support for international terrorism. Once those are addressed adequately, the historical grievances, and we must realize that both sides have historical grievances, can be more fruitfully engaged.

Ziabari: However, the Iranian President has made clear that he would not change his foreign policy over the next four years. What’s the White House’ agenda for this short-term future? Is Washington planning to continue pressuring Tehran through funding the opposition groups and pursuing the clandestine plan of toppling the Islamic system? What’s your prediction about the future of Iran-U.S. relations under Ahmadinejad’s government?

Feaver: As long as Ahmadinejad remains committed to walking further along the destructive path he has already walked, it is hard to see how Iran-U.S. relations can improve much.  However, his path has so alienated Iran from the world, and the regime from the Iranian people. Iran’s leaders need to see this and adjust their trajectory accordingly.

Ziabari: The U.S. has reportedly threatened Iran with a military strike and the idea that “all options are on the table”; meanwhile, the Iranian people whom you believe the U.S. government is trying to support and encourage for their peaceful movements are strongly opposed to another war as they have the bitter experience of the 8-year Iran-Iraq war waged by Saddam. Has the U.S. government come to the conclusion that such an option is contrary to the interests of Iranian people?

Feaver: I know of no influential American voice inside or outside of government who believes the military option is a good one. Everyone would prefer to resolve the nuclear issue and the support for terrorism issue peacefully through diplomacy. However, the military option probably needs to be on the table for diplomacy to have any chance of succeeding. Exercising the military option would be a tragedy for all concerned, including the Iranian people. But if this regime succeeds in its effort to build a nuclear arsenal, that would be a greater tragedy.

Ziabari: Finally, do you see possible common ground for cooperation where Iran and the U.S. can jointly sit at a table to discuss? Now that President Obama has broadcast signals that he recognizes the current political system of Iran, especially in his Nowrouz greeting message, is it possible that the serious direct negotiations take place in the near future?

There are many potential areas of common ground. For one thing, the Iranian regime publicly claims that it is not seeking nuclear weapons and merely wants access to peaceful nuclear energy. There is common ground between those public statements and the position of the rest of the world, if the regime would simply accept the numerous proposals put forward by the P5+1 and others. Both sides also have an interest in seeing Iran fully integrated in the international economic and political system. That full participation is the big reward Iran would earn if it finally and verifiably abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support for international terrorism.