Two advisory members of the Iran Project — an independent nongovernmental entity that calls for improving the relationship between the United States and Iran and reducing “misunderstandings” between the two countries — were in Pittsburgh last week to garner public support for continued negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program.
Thomas R. Pickering, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1989 to 1992, and Jessica Tuchman Matthews urged reconciliation and trust between Tehran and Washington, concluding that a negotiated agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear efforts was a necessary first step to enable later collaborations on common interests.
Held at Point Park University, the program featuring Pickering, a career ambassador who has served for 40 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, and Matthews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was sponsored by the World Affairs Council.
Pickering and Matthews presented a unified perspective in support of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France — plus Germany, a group of nations known as the P5+1, continuing to negotiate with Iran in anticipation of the approaching Nov. 24 deadline on reaching an agreement.
But, said Matthews, while the P5+1 sit around the negotiating table with Iran, they are joined by “another important player: mistrust.”
“Mistrust is a constant presence in a negotiation like this,” she said. “It comes from 35 years of a frozen relationship between Iran and the U.S. that began with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy. Since then, we have become the Great Satan in Iran, and they have become the ‘axis of evil.’”
But President Barack Obama has made it a priority of his presidency to “try to turn around the relationship to the point where negotiations would be possible,” Matthew averred. “Obama made it clear he wanted serious, construction conversations.”
She said that although Iran is known to be enriching uranium, building reactors and working on designing a bomb, a 2007 U.S. intelligence finding concluded that Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons.
“It’s impossible to tell,” Matthews said. “Except that we know that much of what has concerned us has stopped. Iran’s elected leader [President Hassan Rohani] has said that nuclear weapons do not form part of their security doctrine.”
Acknowledging that the hardest issues of a negotiation are always left to the end, she said there is maybe a 50 to 60 percent chance of coming to an agreement.
“This is a huge mountain to climb,” she said. “These are two parties with an awful lot at stake, especially for Iran.”
Still, Matthews is encouraged, she said, because Rohani made ending Iran’s isolation and reaching an agreement “a centerpiece of his candidacy.” But she noted that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is running the black market during the imposition of economic sanctions, has an interest in seeing the negotiations fail.
Pickering added that the Iranian public would like to be out from under sanctions, as was evidenced by the election of Rohani, who Pickering described as the more liberal candidate in the 2013 Iranian election.
Iranians would like to be free to do what’s necessary to run a civil nuclear program, he said, and to be independent of the international community for its nuclear research on fuel as soon as possible.
Claiming that the agreement for containment, so far, has been “scrupulously adhered to” on the Iranian side, Pickering is optimistic.
“If the parties want this agreement, it’s within reach,” he said, cautioning that the U.S. would have to overcome its perception of Iran as a monstrous threat.
“The interesting question is, ‘How do we in our own thinking segue from a dragon 75 feet tall and swallowing babies to somebody with which we have some common interests?’” he said.
Those common interests include Afghanistan, Iraq and the growth of the Islamic State terror movement in Syria and Iraq, Pickering noted.
“But we’ve put lots of mistrust in the bank between us, and we need to turn it around,” he said, adding that even if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon, it is unlikely that it would use it.
But according to many Middle East experts, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, mistrust of Iran is well earned. Earlier his month, Kissinger told National Public Radio in an interview that Iran “is a bigger problem than” the Islamic State.
Kissinger’s comments came on the heels of Iran failing to meet its Aug. 25 deadline of providing information about alleged experiments on explosives that could be used for an atomic device as well as studies related to calculating nuclear explosive yields, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency report. In addition, the IAEA reported that it has observed via satellite imagery “ongoing construction activity” at Iran’s Parchin military base, presumably in contravention of an interim agreement with the P5+1 nations.
“Kissinger was the godfather of realist diplomacy, and he is clear-thinking enough to realize what a great threat Iran is,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan institute focusing on foreign policy and national security.
The U.S. State Department describes Iran as an “active state sponsor of terrorism,” Dubowitz pointed out, adding that it has engaged in decades of “nuclear mendacity.”
The Iranian regime is one of brutality, charged Dubowitz, “where terrorism is not just state craft, but soul craft. It’s part of the regime’s DNA, a regime with a track record of terrorism and wholesale murder.
“We cannot contain a regime like that with nuclear weapons,” he continued. “They could either use them or hand them off to terrorists. They have had a longstanding relationship with Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and a long relationship with al-Qaeda.”
The idea that Iran can be converted from an enemy into a partner with whom to collaborate is “ridiculous,” said Dubowitz. “That shows a complete lack of understanding of the nature of this regime, its ideology and its leadership.”
During the Iran Project’s presentation at Point Park, in response to a question from an audience member as to the role of pro-Israel lobbies, as well as the State of Israel, in influencing U.S. policy toward Iran, Matthews was critical of AIPAC, opining that because of our “terrible campaign finance system, [Congress] is far too prone to listen to the AIPAC voice and the current government of Israel.”
“I think the administration knows that the government of Israel will not support any negotiated agreement,” she said. “But I think the only rational answer is an agreement.”
Any agreement with Iran ultimately will be influenced by the public, according to Pickering.
“That’s why we came to Pittsburgh,” he said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.