KZ: Some critics of the foreign policy of President Ahmadinejad administration believe that he isolated Iran in the international stage with his radical policies toward the West. They also say that he failed to direct Iran’s nuclear program in the right path and thus lost many opportunities including a cordial and amiable relation with the United States and Europe. Do you agree with them?
AB: I personally do not think some of President Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric in foreign policy is helpful, but I do not attribute the current standoff between Iran and Western powers to that. I have already explained in my answers to your previous questions what I consider to be the root causes of the crisis in Iran-Western relations.
The existing crisis in Iran-Western relations obviously predates the election of President Ahmadinejad. Iran was branded as part of ‘the Axis of Evil’ and further demonized by former U.S. President George Bush at a time when actually a reformist president was in power in Iran, who had promoted dialogue between Islam and the Western civilization and had advocated détente in Iran’s foreign policy with the West. Under former Iranian President Khatami, Iran had also extended practical cooperation to the United States in its fight against terrorism after the September 11, 2001, only to be rewarded with more hostility by the United States.
Having said this, there is no doubt that Iran became subject to more pressure by Western powers since Ahmadinejad came to office. Ahmadinejad’s risk-taking behavior in relation to Iran’s nuclear policy has provoked further hostile reactions by Western powers against Iran. But no gain in foreign policy comes without its due costs. Iran has also gained significant technological achievements in its nuclear program and has considerably developed its domestic capacity in various areas of nuclear activities.
Even if Iran was forthcoming on the nuclear issue, as during President Khatami’s tenure, U.S. antagonistic policies towards Iran would persist in new forms. Given that even Khatami’s reformist government was not willing to extend the temporary suspension of Iran’s nuclear activities, which was adopted as a temporary confidence-building measure, I believe more or less the same level of Western confrontation with Iran would have been inevitable even if a reformist government was still in power in Iran.
KZ: What do you think of the prospect of Iran’s nuclear standoff? Will the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections have a serious impact on the course of events related to Iran’s nuclear program? Some critics of Iran’s foreign policy believe that Iran was lucky that Barack Obama won the 2008 elections because every other candidate would certainly attack Iran if won the elections. What’s your viewpoint?
AB: It does not appear that the United States is genuinely interested in having Iran’s nuclear issue resolved in any reasonable manner as its current strategy is solely geared to inflicting utmost pain on Iran. Western powers’ insistence on unrealistic preconditions for negotiations and not showing due flexibility to recognize Iran’s core legitimate interests has allowed no room for optimism for the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue any time soon. The hard-line position of the United States has already drawn the sharp criticism of top American foreign policy experts and veteran Western diplomats who command close knowledge of the issue.
I don’t see how the upcoming U.S. presidential elections would contribute meaningfully to the resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue. Past experience has shown that changing political circumstances may only effect tactical changes in U.S. policy towards Iran and as long as the root causes of the current stand-off are not addressed no permanent solution to the issue can be perceived.
I also don’t think that Iran was lucky Obama was elected as U.S. president. Because the Obama administration has played down the option of a military attack against Iran it has been more effective than the Bush Administration to bring European countries and, to some extent, China and Russia on board to exert some pressure on Iran. As soon as the threat of a military attack against Iran gains more currency within the U.S. administration, this fragile coalition would start to crumble down.
The record of Bush administration on Iran serves as an example for how far a hawkish Republican administration would achieve on the Iran front, had it won the U.S. elections. Besides, the first priority of every American administration would have been addressing domestic problems in light of the ongoing economic recession. Opening any new war front on top of Iraq and Afghanistan, much less one on the scale of a military confrontation with Iran, would have been a recipe for early retirement for any U.S. president under present circumstances.
KZ: Iran has invested a lot in its relationship with China and Russia and considers them its strategic allies; however, both of these countries gave a green light to anti-Iranian sanctions in the Security Council and facilitated the imposition of resolutions against Iran in an undeniable complicity with the United States. In the other words, Russia and China flagrantly betrayed Iran in time of need. What do you think about Iran’s relations with China and Russia? Why has Iran trusted them several times despite the fact that it was cleared to Tehran that they’re not loyal friends?
AB: I would look at the situation somewhat differently. In international relations, states are loyal only to their own interests. Realism is still the dominant discourse in international relations and states view their relations with each other largely in realist terms. National interests defined broadly in terms of maximizing their own military power and economic well-being vis-à-vis other states is the guiding principle of the foreign policy of states. Seasoned Iranian foreign policy makers also understand the limits of Iran’s bargaining power with regard to China and Russia, when other states, particularly Western powers, are competing with it for their loyalty.
While both China and Russia have important stakes in their relations with Iran, they also maintain by far larger interests in their relations with the United States and other Western powers. China and the United States are economically highly interdependent and the U.S. market serves as the single most important destination for Chinese exports. Russia has similarly important economic and security interests in its relations with the West. Both countries have tried to strike a fine balance between their relations with Iran and the West in order to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. While their actions in betraying Iran’s trust at some points may be morally and legally indefensible, it is not always possible for them to keep both parties to the conflict content and their interests may require that they sometimes lean toward one side at the expense of the other.
Both Russia and China have also significantly softened the language of the Security Council resolutions against Iran and have opposed certain harsh measures against it, a fact which shows that they still maintain important interests in their relations with Iran, which they are not willing to give up unless the West is prepared to pay the necessary price for that. This of course does not mean that Russia and China have no redlines in their foreign policies and are willing to prostitute out their loyalties to the highest bidder, but there are clear limits to the extent to which they can support their allies. The experience of Russian and Chinese inaction towards NATO strikes on Serbia and their no more than verbal opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq were enough to remind even the most optimistic Iranian policy makers that they cannot tie their hope to the support of these two countries under all circumstances.