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John Mearsheimer and Gary Sick on U.S.-Iran Relations

mearsheimer-fsg- Gary Sick

Editor’s Note:

The following interview with Gary Sick and John Mearsheimer was conducted by Arash Azizi. Mr. Azizi is an Iranian-born journalist based in London, U.K. His work has appeared in many publications in Canada and Iran, including the Toronto Star, Macleans, Dominion, Shahrvand, Sharq, Aseman, Merhname and Kargozaran. Mr. Azizi was International Editor for Kargozaran, a reformist newspaper with one of the highest circulations in Iran before it was closed down by Iran’s hardliners. He has also translated eight books by various authors from English into Persian.

by Arash Azizi

Professor Gary Sick has a very hectic schedule these days. This is no surprise. As Iran’s newly-elected President Hassan Rouhani traveled to New York to speak to the United Nations General Assembly, the expectations for a thaw in U.S-Iran relations have been rising once more and he is known as perhaps the leading expert on the long-severed ties between the two countries as well as a vocal advocate for their resumption.

While a possible hallway encounter between Presidents Obama and Rouhani, to the dismay of many, did not materialize today at the U.N., a meeting between Iran’s new Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, and his American counterpart, John Kerry, has been confirmed. Such a dramatic shift would have been all but unthinkable a few months ago when President Ahmadinejad was in office. The ex-president uniquely traveled to the U.N. in every single year of his presidency and led quixotic denunciations there, delivered to largely empty seats belonging to those who had made a habit of leaving as soon as he took to the podium. So are we today on the cusp of something historic between Tehran and Washington?

Professor Sick urges caution. As the principal aide for Persian Gulf Affairs in President Jimmy Carter’s White House during the Iranian revolution in 1979, Prof. Sick has seen many ups and downs and is naturally more recalcitrant than some buoyant commentators who have gone on to suggest where the Iranian embassy should be located in Washington, D.C.

This doesn’t mean he is cynical or pessimistic. Quite to the contrary, Prof. Sick sees the silver linings even in unlikely situations. For instance, he thinks the Syrian situation might actually be an opportunity for realignment of American and Iranian interests.

“In some respects, the two countries are on the same page in regards to Syria,” he tells me in a short phone interview from New York. “Iran is definitely opposed to the use of chemical weapons and even though Iran and Russia continue to hold the position that it was really the opposition who used the chemical weapons, both of them are committed to seeing Assad’s promise of eliminating his chemical weapons go through successfully. That is exactly what the United States wants too.”

On the eventual settlement of the Syrian civil war, Sick says: “I think Iran has also been quite consistent in saying that there should be a negotiated settlement rather than a civil one.”

“That again is quite similar to the U.S. position on Syria,” he adds.

Sick said a formal invitation for Iran to take part in Geneva II conference would be “very much welcomed in Iran” and “would be a demonstration of good faith on the part of the United States which really doesn’t cost U.S. anything.”

Another long-standing proponent of Iran-U.S. relations is Professor John Mearsheimer. One of the deans of International Relations studies in the United States, he has been often controversial with his brand of offensive realism with its emphasis on the inherent anarchy of the international system. In the early 1980s, Mearsheimer was among the early theorists of deterrence. He is known for having advocated a nuclear armament of Ukraine and Germany to keep the balance in the post-Soviet Europe and for having blasted the anti-proliferation stance of U.S. toward India, arguing that the latter needs a nuclear deterrence against China and Pakistan. He doesn’t take the path of defensive realists like the late Kenneth Waltz, who said a nuclear Iran would be a good deterrent for the region and didn’t believe Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

Mearsheimer is quite hopeful for the current situation. “I think there is potential for significant change with the election of President Hassan Rouhani,” he said in a phone interview from his office at the University of Chicago, “I think President Obama would like to cut a deal with Iran and mend relations between the two countries.”

Unlike Sick, Mearsheimer doesn’t see much opportunity in the Syrian situation and thinks the critical new factor is election of Rouhani in Iran. “Independent of events in Syria, Iran is desperate to end the sanctions and to solve the nuclear problem. I think the U.S. is also deeply interested in settling the conflict with Iran over its nuclear enrichment capacity,” Mearsheimer says.

He says a new window of opportunity has been opened after Rouhani’s election: “At this point and time, we are likely to at least come close to getting a settlement and hopefully we will get a settlement.”

While Mearsheimer and Sick are not alone, their voice is certainly not the dominant one in the Washington DC either and they know that. “On the U.S. side there is very, very strong opposition to any kind of deal in the senate and the congress,” Sick says. When trying to identify the elements that form this opposition, both Sick and Mearsheimer mention the Israeli lobby.

“Israeli lobby is pushing very hard for an extremist position on the U.S. side. Basically, they would only accept a situation where Iran has no centrifuges and no enrichment of uranium on their side. This actually goes beyond the rather extreme position that the U.S and allies have taken thus far,” Sick says.

Sick also mentions the neo-conservatives who “feel that nothing has changed in Iran,” a position that he says is “best represented by the likes of William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, the principal paper with a hard-line position on U.S.-Iran relations, similar to Iran’s Keyhan.”

Mearsheimer, who is a co-author of a best-selling book about the influence of the Israeli lobby in the United States, has been long vocal on the issue. “Israeli lobby is probably the most powerful lobby in the U.S.,” he says. “It wields tremendous influence in the U.S. congress.”

Mearsheimer says Netanyahu’s government in Israel will most probably oppose any agreement between Obama and Rouhani. “Then, the question will become whether or not the lobby, which will be isolated on the issue, can prevent a deal from being finalized.”

However, according to Mearsheimer, Israel is not the only player. “Two main groups dominate the discourse in Washington,” he says. “They are liberal imperialists, most of whom are democrats, and neo-conservatives, most of whom are republicans.”

He adds: “Washington is a city filled with people who want the U.S. to run the world. These are people who believe the U.S. is the indispensable nation that has not only a right but a responsibility to run the world. Of course, that ultimately means that the U.S. should intervene in domestic politics of countries all over the globe, especially in the Middle East. ”

Mearsheimer says the U.S. has already played a key role in overthrowing governments in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and would like to do the same in Syria and, even, Iran. But this is not necessarily the direction that President Obama wants to go and here is where hope lies.

“I think Obama himself has powerful realist instincts,” Mearsheimer says. “But he is surrounded by people in Washington who do not.”

The good news, for Mearsheimer, is that the public is more on the side of the President than the Washington cabal. Sick tends to agree: “The American people and a lot of others are saying this is the moment for diplomacy, this is the chance to make things work.”

Sick, however, is worried that “If something doesn’t work, if there is suddenly some bad news or if one side or the other refuses to go with any kind of deal,” then the hard-liners could get the upper hand again.

Among the factors that make him hopeful is the man currently in charge of the Foreign Ministry in Iran. Before asking about him, I mentioned a few quick facts about Zarif but Sick quickly quipped: “I know him.”

And he is not alone. Zarif has spent most of his adult life in the United States including a post as the Iranian Permanent Representative at the United Nations in New York. He has also done his entire post-graduate studies in the U.S., holding a BA from San Francisco State University and a PhD in University of Denver, where Condoleezza Rice is an alma mater, and speaks a colloquial English with American accent. It’s no exaggeration to say Zarif is among the most well-known figures in foreign policy circles in the U.S., where his footpath can be traced in countless policy conferences and academic journals.

His appointment is not accidental, Sick says: “This was probably the single strongest signal that Rouhani has given in regards to U.S.-Iran relations.”

He adds: “Mr. Zarif is well-known in the United States. He is highly respected. He is exactly understood to be a proponent of diplomatic settlement. He is somebody who is a firm supporter of Iran’s interests and rights but at the same time he looks to satisfy not only Iran’s needs but those of his opponents in a way that would lead to a diplomatic solution that is good for both sides.”

Given the enthusiasm with which Sick approaches the subject, there is no doubt where his position lies.

“I have indeed taken positions that are in favor of better U.S-Iran relations and I have taken those because I think it’s in the U.S. national interests,” Sick says. “I think solving the dispute between the two would be a major step forward. If U.S. showed real progress in terms of its relations with Iran that would lower the temperature of almost all of different disputes that it has in the region.”

Mearsheimer agrees. “It’s highly desirable for the U.S.,” he says. “I believe the U.S. has to accept the fact that Iran is allowed to have a significant nuclear enrichment capacity as a signatory to the NPT. It’s, of course, not allowed to have nuclear weapons. But I don’t think Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. I think what Iran is doing is developing significant nuclear enrichment capacity which is its right under the NPT.”

He says the dominance of the Israeli position in the U.S. could be hurtful to American national interests. “We have to be able to cut a deal. This would be in U.S. interest, in Iran’s interest and ultimately in Israel’s interest.”

Both voices are happy to see any developments, but Sick who’s been in this game long enough, is vary of pre-mature jubilation. “I don’t expect we are going to see a quick return to diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Iran,” he says. “I would personally find that as a good thing but I really don’t think it is close.”

If relations were resumed, would Sick ever want to come back to the government, perhaps in a diplomatic position? After all, you would naturally think  of him as a natural choice for the post of ambassador to Iran. He doesn’t seem to care about such speculations.

“I am not here looking for a job. I have plenty to do and I am very happy with my life the way it is,” he said.