The State of U.S.-Iran Relations: A Conversation with Barbara Slavin
Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What is your approach to educating policymakers and stakeholders on U.S.-Iran relations through the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative?
Barbara Slavin (Barbara): The Future of Iran Initiative grew out of a bipartisan task force on Iran that I managed for the Atlantic Council during 2012-13. After the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was reached, we dissolved the task force and optimistically thought that there was going to be a change in U.S.-Iran relations. We believed that Iran would integrate with the international community. There were plenty of ambitious ideas. We even had an Iranian environmentalist come present a movie at the Atlantic Council and speak to environmental cooperation.
Needless to say, things changed when President Trump was elected and he announced that he was going to leave the JCPOA in 2018. Recently, we have been working much more on preserving what’s left of the nuclear agreement and trying to educate policymakers on why engagement with Iran still matters. Iran is too important of a country to be ignored or discounted, which has been the Trump Administration’s approach. We’ve also worked very closely with our European partners who have made efforts to preserve the deal and to salvage something that could be resurrected if there is a change in U.S. policy. The Future of Iran Initiative looks at all aspects of Iran, from internal, regional activities, and nuclear programs, to its involvement in support of proxy groups and other partners. You name it, we do it.
JIA: In December 2020, U.S. officials formally accused Iran of murdering retired FBI agent Robert Levinson who disappeared 14 years ago. Do you think this will lead to further escalation between the U.S and Iran?
Barbara: Well, I hope you’re wrong. The moves by the U.S. to send B-52s and its aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz were mostly to deter Iran from retaliating against recent Israeli and U.S. action. These actions include various sabotages carried out on Iranian nuclear installations over the last few months. As well as, of course, the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian nuclear scientist, which has been blamed on Israel. There is presumption that the U.S. knew about the assassination in advance, though the U.S. did not specifically give a green light for the action. As mentioned, I see these steps more as the U.S. trying to signal Iran not to retaliate at this point. But frankly, I do not think the Iranians are going to retaliate at this point and are likely waiting for the Biden Administration with the hope that the U.S. will return to compliance with the nuclear deal and lift sanctions.
JIA: Does this tie into Iran’s recent execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam, the founder of Amad News, which regularly covered the 2017-18 Iranian protests?
Barbara: The connection to broader geopolitical issues remains to be seen. I’m hearing rumors that the execution has to do with political infighting in Iran. Let’s face it, there are hardliners on all sides that do not want to see any change for the better in U.S.-Iran relations. I see this act, executing this journalist who was kidnapped in Iraq, as something that seeks to derail relations with Europeans because the journalist was given refuge in France. Of course, executions so quickly after convictions are abhorrent. There is more we are going to discover around the circumstances of Ruhollah Zam’s execution––it may have had something to do with the assassination of the nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. But in my mind, it is not connected. Alternatively, this journalist’s death, amid U.S. and presumed Israeli action, could be seen as Iran signaling strength and telling the world that it cannot be taken advantage of.
JIA: Going back to the subject of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, his assassination provoked a robust nationalist response in Iran. Reformists who themselves have faced government repression under Rouhani have been outraged. In response you stated: “It’s important that Iranian reformists, including those in exile, are consistent in their opposition to extrajudicial killings.” This is of course in response to the U.S. and presumed Israeli actions that have not been legitimized by the international community. Can you elaborate on this stance?
Barbara: The extrajudicial killing is pretty obvious. I did not support the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, by the Trump administration last year. Yes, we may have put the Quds Force on the terrorism list but he was a senior official of a sovereign government. We do not have a declaration of war against Iran and I think it was illegal. Just because President Trump says it is legal does not mean it is legal––I think it was a mistake. I think the Iranians will exact revenge for it and I also believe it was an attempt to poison any chances for U.S.-Iran relations in the near future. President Trump went on and on about wanting a better deal in Iran. What country in its right mind is going to negotiate when you just assassinated a figure who to them is a war hero. We killed him with a drone, how cowardly.
Fakhrizadeh was very involved in a program that at one point seemed likely they were trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability. But Iran suspended that program nearly 20 years ago. Why kill him now? The Israelis have not admitted that they did it. These killings look more like revenge than they look like preemption and I think the basis for them, particularly the Fakhrizadeh basis, is very, very questionable.
Iran may not do anything immediately, although the execution of Ruhollah Zam may be linked somehow. The Israelis put out warnings to travelers over the December holidays, particularly those in the UAE, which Israel has just normalized relations with, as well as in Bahrain, Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. These are places where Iran has intelligence assets and these Israelis could be targets.
JIA: Do you see Ruhollah Zam’s execution worsening the relationship between the E.U. and Iran? How does it complicate nuclear deal negotiations?
Barbara: Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor and Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State under the Biden Administration, have condemned the execution of Ruhollah Zam. These are of course some of the most important people who will be determining and implementing policy under the Biden administration. The nature of the Iranian regime is unavoidable and carries a certain attitude. It is important to explain that the JCPOA was not an award to Iran; rather, it was a compromise in which Iran accepted stringent restrictions on its nuclear activities in return for sanctions being lifted. The deal was very transactional. Javad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister, and John Kerry, the Secretary of State, both testified that the deal was not based on trust; it was based on mistrust. And that is why the deal included stringent verification measures.
The last thing we want is a country like Iran to have nuclear weapons. If you can take that off the table, it actually frees us up to take a harder line on issues like human rights, which I think some of the regime-change crowd in Washington doesn’t understand. They think that sanctions are a great idea because they will weaken Iran, in fact they weaken us.
JIA: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has recently said that Iran’s ballistic missiles program and its regional influence were non-negotiable. What is the Biden administration’s best course of action? Are there any new elements of the JCPOA that the U.S. will consider in negotiations?
Barbara: The JCPOA itself cannot be renegotiated. The best course is the return to compliance with the original terms of the deal. But that does not preclude broader talks to further the U.S.-Iran relationship. I think it is very important that the Biden administration seeks wider talks, particularly on regional issues in the Middle East. The Trump administration has fanned the flames of conflict in the region by taking a one-sided approach to various disputes in the region. That is not a helpful way to achieve any sort of compromise.
If the U.S. and Iran do come to terms on the JCPOA, we can reconstitute a channel to talk about all these other regional issues. When the Trump administration quit the JCPOA, it also ended its ability to have regular diplomatic conversations with Iran. Under a Biden administration, we definitely want more dialogue. But if we want more dialogue then we will also have to give more, which is in contrast to the Trump Administration’s policy which focused on pressure and giving nothing. This approach has been unrealistic and results in counterproductive policy.
JIA: Foreign Affairs published an article in December suggesting that the U.S. should begin to accept the Iranian presence in countries like Syria. Do these proxy conflicts, Syria for example, influence any progress in re-establishing the JCPOA?
Barbara: I think that the two are separate, and unfortunately for the Syrian people, the situation is pretty much a done deal. Neither the Obama administration and the Trump administration, nor the Biden administration are certainly going to do anything and go up to bat for the Syrian people. The best we can do is try to incentivize the Syrian government to treat its own people better and at some point offer reconstruction assistance––but we’re a long way from that. There is plenty of blame to go around, frankly, in terms of how Syria was handled. A lot of the fault frankly is with the Obama administration. I don’t see the issue directly connected to the future of the JCPOA.
The last thing we want is the Iranian regime to have nuclear weapons. We need to deal with that problem in a timely manner. We also need to support conflict resolution in the region. We need to speak out for human rights and there is a lot more that we can do, but first we need to stabilize adherence to the nuclear deal again.
JIA: Conflict resolution and humans rights are absolutely a priority in the region.
Barbara: Yes, we need to put pressure on the Saudis to get out of Yemen. What have they accomplished in the years they have been battering this poor country? The Houthis are more entrenched than ever and Iran is more entrenched than ever. At some point they have to realize that the strategy isn’t working.
JIA: Does the recent wave of official recognition of Israeli in the Middle East complicate the geopolitical dynamics of the future of U.S.-Iran relations?
Barbara: I do not think it complicates it. I think it is good to recognize reality after decades and decades of Israel existing in the region. I hope that at some point these moves will convince Iran that their rejection and current stance on Israel is harmful to U.S.-Iran relations. It is also outdated and counterproductive from an Iranian point of view. Of course, it would definitely be helpful if Israel didn’t go around killing Iranians in terms of resolving this conflict. But it remains that the regional recognition of Israel is a positive development. I would like to see it happen not at the expense of the Palestinians, which I unfortunately think it is. Israel is a fact, a fact of life. Economic ties between these countries in the Middle East with Israel would be positive for all.
I do hope that Israel’s recognition is not confined to helping the security establishments of these authoritarian states go after more of their internal enemies. We’ve seen this type of cooperation go on before the normalization of relations. I’m glad to see Sudan come off the terrorism list. I’m less excited with what happens with Morocco’s recognition, because that is a real sell-out of the indigenous people of the Western Sahara. In reality, all of these countries have had relations with Israel under the table for years––bringing it out is healthy.
JIA: Is this important to bring about regional peace?
Barbara: This is not to form blocks to contain Iran. This is to resolve conflicts and make the region more prosperous and more stable. The frame for it that the Trump administration has used is wrong, but the fact is that it is not.
JIA: What is the Trump administration’s legacy going to be for U.S.-Iran relations?
Barbara: It is certainly negative for many reasons. Let us see if we can reconstitute the Iran Deal and whether we’ve missed the boat on this. It is clearly not easy on the Iranian side after what they have been put through. Remember, they were essentially punished for reaching an agreement with the Obama administration. They were in full compliance with this agreement when President Trump scrapped it. The situation sends a very bad message that is certainly helping anti-U.S. elements in the country who may very well take the Presidency in the elections this year. So, there may still be unforeseen consequences that will play out this year.
President Trump has emboldened Prime Minister Netanyahu in some of his worst actions, foreclosing the chances of a two-state solution for Palestinians. President Trump has also emboldened Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who committed horrific acts including crimes against humanity in Yemen and the hideous slaughter of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He also jailed female activists for the crime of advocating for the right to drive. Yes, we may like some of the reforms the Crown Prince is espousing, but the costs have been high and he is not an admirable figure.
JIA: Is there anything else our readers should understand about the U.S.-Iran relationship?
Barbara: I’ve written at lengths about missed opportunities with Iran. There have been many actions that Iranians have taken that have soured the atmosphere for reconciliation. But if you look back in history, you’ll find that there have been many instances in which Iran has made gestures toward the U.S. and that Iran has been punished in return. This goes back to being put on the axis of evil by President George W. Bush after Iran helped the U.S. target the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. There was also the so-called “grand bargain” offer in 2003 that never even got a response from the Bush administration. There are many grievances to go around. At some point, for the sake of the region as well as our own interests, we all have to deal with our old grievances and stop creating new ones.
The Trump administration has just added to the mountain of bitterness for these two countries and has not made life better for the long-suffering Iranian people. The Trump administration has not aided the causes of reform in Iran. It has just been a cruel and counterproductive policy that has led us to another dead end. It is hard to be hopeful given how events have played out. But at some point, this has to end. Maybe President Biden, with all his experience and experienced people, may have a shot at toning things down. We’ll have to wait and see what the future brings.