(Persia Digest) – Former member of the US intelligence community, Paul Pillar, believes that Iran’s call to lift sanctions prior to talks is perfectly logical.
Speaking at the UNGA, US president Donald Trump made more accusations against Iran. In turn, President of the IR of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, gave his answers and said all sanctions must be lifted before any talks. Despite the efforts of a number of countries to mediate, Trump and Rouhani did not meet.
Persia Digest (PD) has conducted an interview on this topic with Paul Pillar, 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), serving from 1977 to 2005, including as Executive Assistant to the Director.
How do you assess the speech by the Iranian President at the UNGA? Is Iran’s reasoning that talks will be held if all sanctions are lifted, leaving the photo op till the end of negotiations logical?
Iran has logic on its side in insisting that the nuclear-related sanctions that the Trump administration re-imposed be lifted first. After all, it was the United States that violated its commitments under the JCPOA, while Iran was abiding by its own commitments. It also is understandable that no Iranian leader would want an early photo op with Trump, which would only be a negative, with no offsetting positives, as far as politics back in Tehran are concerned. One needs to be careful in talking about lifting “all” sanctions, however, because the JCPOA never precluded sanctions based on human rights, support to terrorism, or other non-nuclear concerns. Moreover, if some kind of negotiations are ever to get under way, the Iranian leadership will have to display more flexibility than merely sticking to what is right as a matter of logic.
Does it seem that Trump's opposition to lifting the sanctions and starting negotiations with Iran actually distracts him from his main goal of reaching a better deal with Iran?
The whole approach of the Trump administration has been detrimental to any chance of achieving a “better deal,” given that the Iranian leadership unsurprisingly has little faith in the likelihood of this administration abiding by its commitments. And the “maximum pressure” campaign has come to be regarded almost as if it were an end in itself, rather than a means to achieving a new agreement. The administration speaks of economic pain inflicted on Iran as if that were itself an accomplishment, even with no new agreements resulting from it. Donald Trump was always determined to destroy the JCPOA because it was an accomplishment of Barack Obama; it is unlikely that Trump ever really thought through carefully the best way of achieving a supposedly “better deal”.
Do you think that continued sanctions and maximum pressure on Iran will lead to the surrender of this country and acceptance of the 12 conditions set by the US? What factors prevent Iran from surrendering?
Iran is not going to do anything that could be construed as surrender. The dozen demands that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo earlier laid out are so extreme that probably not even Pompeo had any delusion that they would ever be accepted. The main reason for Iran resisting U.S. insistence on capitulation was voiced by the Supreme Leader in a recent speech: that any such capitulation would likely only encourage the United States to place additional demands on Iran and insist again that it capitulate.
What are Iran’s winning cards to accomplish its goal of lifting sanctions before negotiating?
Iran does not have sufficient leverage that any cards that it holds could be described accurately as “winning”. Any way out of the current impasse will have to involve compromise and will not accurately be described as a win for one side or the other. Iran is relying on a strategy of countering pressure with pressure. This has taken the form of its incremental exceeding of the nuclear limits in the JCPOA as well as demonstrating its willingness and ability to impede the oil exports of other Gulf producers if it cannot export its own oil. Iran also is looking to relations with China to ease its economic isolation.
The European Union has so far failed to take action to persuade Iran to abide by its JCPOA commitments after the US pulled out of the accord. It has been reported now that even the EU may leave the JCPOA. What would be the political, security, and credibility consequences of such a move for the EU?
The Europeans already have lost much credibility in the eyes of Iran because of their failure to implement effective measures to counteract unilateral sanctions that the Trump administration imposed in violation of the JCPOA. If the Europeans follow the lead of the United States in re-imposing sanctions, that could spell the death of the JCPOA. And that would bring back the same security concerns, involving the direction of Iran’s nuclear program, that were the reason for negotiating the JCPOA in the first place.
Paul R Pillar is an academic and 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), serving from 1977 to 2005, including as Executive Assistant to the Director. He is now a non-resident senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, as well as a nonresident senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. He was a visiting professor at Georgetown University from 2005 to 2012. He is a contributor to The National Interest.
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