Foreign Policy Blogs

A Candid Discussion with Peter Jones

Peter Jones

Dr. Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is also an Annenberg Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He has held various positions related to international affairs and security at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, the Privy Council Office, and the Department of Defense in Canada. An expert on security in the Middle East and track-two diplomacy, Dr. Jones led the Middle East Security and Arms Control Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Sweden. He is presently leading several Track Two initiatives in South Asia and the Middle East, and is also widely published on Iranian security matters. He holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from Kings’ College, London, and an MA in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. 
Dr. Jones sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of Foreign Policy Association to discuss security challenges in Afghanistan and Iran. 


Since the Taliban’s ouster in the NATO-led invasion of Afghanistan, the key strategic objective for that nation has been the creation of a strong central government presiding over a secure state. That objective is still unfulfilled and appears to remain in a distant future. If the path toward greater stability in Afghanistan includes distribution of power between the central government and its opponents outside of the capital, what possible solutions could be found for a distribution of power that would save the NATO project from unraveling? 

I am not certain this was ever a realistic objective.  Afghanistan has been a decentralized state for most of its existence, and there are reasons for this.  Oddly enough, the only people who believe in a strong central government in Afghanistan today are Karzai and the Taliban (backed, to some extent, by Pakistan).  They believe in this for different reasons and objectives, of course.  The rest of the Afghan political elite (largely the local warlords) still adhere to a notion of an Afghanistan where the central government is quite weak and they are largely free to run their own regions as they see fit. 

I think the West made a fundamental mistake when it began to talk of its objectives in Afghanistan as being things like “a strong and democratic Afghan central government”; and “equal opportunities for all.”  Don’t get me wrong, these are all noble and worthy things.  But even the most cursory reading of Afghan history should tell you that the kind of massive social and political engineering of Afghan society and politics that would be required to accomplish them is unlikely to be achieved by a foreign military intervention – many have tried in various ways to change Afghanistan from outside over the centuries and all have failed.

It seems to me that our objectives should have remained pretty basic – an Afghan state which would not allow itself to become a breeding ground for terrorists and other movements which might threaten us.  That’s a fairly self-interested objective, and a pretty narrow one.  But it was achievable.  By expanding the objective to include all kinds of social and political development objectives we turned this intervention into something much bigger, and I am afraid we will not succeed. 

I expect that, when NATO leaves in 2014 (though some US forces will remain) Afghan politics will take over and we will see the historic patterns re-emerge.  What we might most usefully do is to stay as much out of the way as we can.  Where we do remain active, it should be to use what influence and power we have to prevent the re-assertion of forces inimical to our rather narrowly defined interests.  This will require us to work with groups of the warlords (which effectively means buying them off on a limited but ongoing basis), with Pakistan (which will require both a cooperative and a competitive set of policies at the same time) and with whatever emerges as the central Afghan government.  The purpose of all this would be to try to ensure that Afghanistan can at least defend itself from domination by a resurgent Taliban, or some such group – even if such groups may also have a seat at the table.  In other words, a complex, frustrating game of balancing and buying people off on an ongoing basis and not appearing to favor any one grouping or coalition to the extent that we help it dominate Afghanistan – the way things have worked in Afghanistan for many years.  Not pretty, but there it is.

One of the key hindrances toward building democracy in a place like Afghanistan seems largely to be its highly patriarchal society that is opposed to women’s presence in public life. Is it possible to adopt policies in Afghanistan that take into consideration the country’s cultural sensitivities and deeply-rooted traditions and yet contribute to the establishment of democratic values and institutions which respect and adhere to the Rule of Law?

Here we come up against the key issue of the interplay between our interests, as expressed in a pretty realist way, versus our values – which are also interests, of course.  As noted above, our realist interests suggest that we not intervene too much in Afghan society, so long as no threats to our safety come from that country.  Our values suggest that we try to reform the place – but that hasn’t worked too well, for the most part.

The place of women in Afghan society before the Taliban, though far from ideal, was somewhat better than after they came to power.  I also have the sense that most ordinary Afghans – or at least a sizeable minority of them – want to see their daughters get an education, access to health-care and have a better chance at life.  Wherever NATO forces have created safe areas for girls to go to school, large numbers of them have done so with the blessing of their families.  The problem is sustaining that after NATO leaves.

So it’s not necessarily so much a problem of all of Afghan society not wanting to see women have more access to education and such things; it’s a problem of certain religious and other elites not wanting it for their own ideological and other reasons and imposing those views on society as a whole.  And, of course, grinding poverty makes it impossible for many to realize these goals, even if the ideological conditions were more favorable.

What we’ve learned from the last decade of our intervention is that we cannot force this reality to change at the barrel of a gun – or, perhaps more correctly, we can, but not at a price we are prepared to pay.  So we will have to work with the people who will take over Afghanistan when we leave to try to make progress where and when we can, but also realize that we cannot dictate if we are not prepared to continue to pay the price of occupying the country for many years to come.  We aren’t prepared to do that anymore, and the Afghans know it.

Iranian presidential elections are due in June. Given the delay in announcing the final contenders in the elections, do you believe there is a link between the absence of declared candidates, the situation in Syria, and Iran’s military, economic, and social imperatives?

If you look at previous Iranian Presidential elections the final candidates were not announced until a few weeks before the first ballot, so things aren’t that much different this time, in that respect at least.  For those thinking of running, there are social and political customs which argue against formally declaring a candidacy too early.  Most of the campaigning for president in the months leading up to the final frenetic few weeks is done behind the scenes – the recent statements by President Ahmadinejad about alleged corruption in the powerful Larajani family are a small window into what is probably some pretty brutal positioning that is now going on.  The situation in Syria and other things will impact the election, but not so much in terms of when the candidates are formally announced.

I think most Iranians will vote on bread and butter issues, to the extent that they are able to – life is very hard in Iran for most people (but still very good for a privileged elite).  The sanctions have contributed to the growing hardship for most, and they are getting tougher, but the regime’s corruption and economic mismanagement over many years may be even more a factor in the hardship being faced by ordinary Iranians right now.

The key question about this presidential election is whether it will approach something that fairly represents the views of the people, or whether it will be snatched by the Supreme Leader and his advisors as it probably was in 2009.  While I would not call Iran a perfect democracy, it was more democratic than most Middle Eastern countries up to shortly before 2009.  It also had a much better record on women’s rights than most other regional countries.  That has changed as the Supreme Leader, who is the real power in Iran, has intervened through various organs under his control to affect the course of politics in the country towards a more conservative rule.

This will probably continue in the coming election.  Indeed, the key issue may not be so much who ultimately wins, as who is allowed to run in the first place.  I expect the field of serious candidates will be a grouping of Conservatives – some ideological and some technocratic, but mostly from the Conservative camp. 

But there is also a desire that the system overall receive the imprimatur of democratic respectability; it is important to the regime’s self-image that they be able to say that the people have decided what kind of government they will have (though this is manifestly not true in the case of the Supreme Leader and the rest of the elite who run the country).  So it will be difficult for elite to steal this election without doing yet more damage to its cherished notion that it governs by the consent of the people.

Ultimately, I think that the Supreme Leader and those around him will not hesitate to continue to concentrate power around themselves – but they will find it harder to do so if they also want to continue to pay lip-service to the democratic ideal established by the 1979 Revolution.  And if the elite running the country does kill off what vestiges are left of the democratic ideal, will that begin to re-energize the moderate opposition, which has been badly mauled in the aftermath of the 2009 election?  Hard to see it happening today, but things can sometimes change quickly.

In your opinion, what are the three most important steps that might be taken to de-escalate tensions between Iran and the West?

I am not sure that trying to think of things like “the three most important steps” is a useful way to approach this.  It suggests that the key is to find the right set of specific steps and then implement them properly.  This is a very transactional view.  I think we’ve managed, on both sides, to get ourselves to a place in terms of Iran-Western relations where things are so bad, and so lacking in fundamental trust, that it’s no longer about finding the right set of ‘magic-bullet’ policies.  If they were out there, and if people really wanted relations to improve, the means to do so would have been found already.

For me, there are key things that both sides need to begin to do.  I think the key on our side is to drop, once and for all, any dreams of regime-change in Iran as a goal of Western policy.  I think the regime there will change eventually.  But every time we pursue policies which are overtly aimed at regime-change we reinforce their determination to take steps to ‘defend the Revolution.’ 

What do I mean by steps to encourage regime-change?  Well, it seems to me that de-listing various groups which we had until very recently rightly labeled as terror organizations hasn’t helped.  These groups are quite obviously aimed at regime-change in Iran; they make no bones about it.  What kind of a signal have we sent to Iran by de-listing them, even though they resort to terror tactics for which we ban other organizations?  I am fully aware of all the ‘the enemy of my enemy’ stuff – but we reject the idea that the ends justify the means in other cases, so why should we accept it here?  It just tells the regime in Tehran that we have not taken regime-change off the table as a goal of Western policy.

Similarly, the drum-beat towards war which is being sounded by the neo-cons and others over the nuclear issue is, in my view, a thinly veiled attempt to launch a war of regime-change under the nuclear banner.   Iran’s nuclear program is serious, make no mistake.  But it is a longer-term problem.  The somewhat hysterical fears of their attacking Israel, or inciting a rapid and inevitable “proliferation cascade” across the Middle East, or “giving” a nuclear weapon to terrorists are all far too hyped; they are being used by some to justify a war whose real goal is regime-change.

On the Iranian side, the regime needs, to put it very bluntly, to grow up and realize that the whole world is not about Iran or its interests.  All regimes are self-interested and self-centered, but mature governments are able to understand that ways must be found to interact with the international community which feature an ongoing adjustment between national interests and international norms; that international norms are a part of a country’s national interests.  The Iranian regime has never done this since its Revolution and needs to start.  Above all, it needs to see that international norms around things like proliferation, respecting the sovereignty of neighbors, and human rights are not a global conspiracy directed against Iran, but a set of bargains that members of the international community make to allow the world to function.  People who try to ‘game the system’ as an act of policy are outliers and are treated as such for good reason.  If the Iranians have got themselves into this position, they have largely themselves to blame.

There are people in Iran who have, in varying degrees, recognized this over the years, if not perfectly.  Former Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani, and various groups of technocratic experts have long recognized that fighting the international system at every turn is not necessarily in Iran’s interests.  This does not make them Jeffersonian democrats in disguise, and some unsavory things went on during their watches, but they are people with whom deals might be made on the basis of mutual self-interest.  But the Supreme Leader and those around him have thwarted and stymied them over the years.  He has cloaked this attitude in a veil of revolutionary rhetoric, which is at once aggressive and self-pitying, and which may have had some validity in the early years but is now threadbare.  In fact, it is simply rhetorical cover for a regime which is increasingly corrupt and venal.

How does the closure of the Iranian embassy in Ottawa fit in the greater scheme of Canadian national security and what impact might it have on Iranian interests?

I think the closure of the Iranian Embassy in Ottawa and the Canadian Embassy in Tehran was a mistake.  The purpose of diplomacy is to talk to both your friends and your enemies.  I don’t think it will affect Iran all that much, but it deprives Canada of an insight into where that country is going and increases the paranoia of some in Iran that the West is out to get Iran.  That said, the Iranians never made it easy to maintain the contacts, either.

With the wide-ranging sanctions on Iran making their impact increasingly felt, how would these sanctions affect Iran’s preparedness to negotiate with U.S. directly or by means of Track II diplomacy?

There is a debate in Iran right now – largely under the surface – about whether, when and how to engage the West, primarily the US.  The Supreme Leader and those around him are deeply skeptical and fear that floodgates would be opened to change in Iran if Western influences were allowed in – a sign of how unpopular they know they really are.  Others argue that it is in Iran’s interest to talk and that the risks are worth taking because the system cannot survive indefinitely as it is.

I am not sure that the means whereby this will happen (Track 1, Track 2, etc.) matter so much.  Opening up contacts on the Track 2 level may be a little easier, but there has been a fair amount of this over the years.  Ultimately, whether discussion takes place on a Track 1 or a Track 2 level (or both) the key is that both sides need to show that they are prepared to make some changes. 

The West, and specifically the US, needs to show that externally-driven or supported attempts at regime-change are off the table.  This is not the same thing as saying that we love the regime and want it to continue.  Many people make the mistake of believing that it is an either/or proposition.  It is, however, saying that we believe that change will come to Iran, but will do so from within.

The Iranians need to accept that the international system is not a massive conspiracy aimed at undermining Iran.  This will entail the elites having to accept that their ability to ‘game’ the international system and hide behind a tired Revolutionary ideal is something that they cannot get away with anymore.

The frustrating thing about the whole situation is that most people who follow it closely know what the deal is on the nuclear issue.  It involves Iran coming clean about its clandestine programs; allowing the IAEA to properly inspect all suspicious facilities on an ongoing basis and without impediments; and stopping activities which are manifestly not congruent with a civilian power program.  For the West it involves being prepared to accept that Iran has a right to a civilian nuclear power program, including a modest and carefully monitored enrichment program (even if we don’t like it or think it is necessary); being prepared to remove the sanctions as the Iranians make the steps outlined above; and taking regime-change off the table as a policy goal.

There are powerful elites on both sides who will not be ready to accept this deal – either because, in the Iranian case, they actually want nuclear weapons capabilities, or, in the Western case, because they are not willing to take regime-change off the table as their ultimate goal.

Some sort of dialogue is necessary if the levels of trust are ever to be built which will allow those on both sides who do want to pursue this deal to take on those interests who don’t.  At this moment, while there is much negative history on both sides that has helped get us to this impasse, it must be said that the ball is more in the Iranian court than the Western one in terms of allowing a serious dialogue to get started.