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Candid Discussions: Reza Marashi on U.S.-Iran Relations and Regional Dynamics



Reza Marashi NIACReza Marashi is Research Director at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).  Prior to NIAC, Mr. Marashi worked in the Office of Iranian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.  He was also a political analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), covering China-Middle East issues, and previously a consultant at a Tehran-based private strategic consultancy firm focused on Iranian political and economic risks. Mr. Marashi is frequently consulted by Western governments on Iran-related matters. He makes regular appearances on leading TV news networks in the U.S. and Europe and his articles appear in leading Western electronic and print media outlets. Mr. Marashi sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss U.S.-Iran relations and some of the key developments in the Middle East.


Do you concur with the assertion that the United States is disengaging from the Middle East and its leadership role in the region is in disarray?

I think the idea of U.S. disengagement is overblown. We are (wisely) ending wars and reconfiguring (not ending) our military footprint in the Middle East. That’s far from disengagement. The war in Iraq was the strategic mistake of a generation with a long tail of consequence – and one such consequence has been a lingering belief among some that anything less than war in the Middle East is tantamount to retreat. That’s a dangerously foolish metric for success. Broadly speaking, vital U.S. security interests in the Middle East have been the same for decades: a level of political stability that ensures secure access to energy resources for the world. That won’t change anytime soon, and neither will American efforts to safeguard those vital interests.

The problem is less about disengagement and more about the lack of a discernable strategy. If you don’t have a strategy, how can you lead effectively? Ask senior U.S. officials what America’s strategy is, and they might list off a set of admirable goals: non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, democracy and human rights, free and fair elections, etc. But a consistent strategy to achieve those goals is lacking. Iran will not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, but Israel is allowed to have hundreds? Thirteen years after America’s “war on terror” was coined by the Bush administration, why are there more terrorists today than there were in 2001? Why are democracy, human rights, and free and fair elections scrutinized in Iran, but not in Egypt or Saudi Arabia? The point here is that without a strategy that is evenly applied, it cheapens the concept of American leadership in the Middle East, weakens the cause, and makes it harder to sustain. I believe that America is capable of doing better.

What is your assessment of the latest extension of nuclear talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers (P5 +1) for another four months? Did political forces weigh more heavily in the extension of the talks, or technicalities played the key part?

There’s nothing wrong with taking a little extra time to make sure you’re doing things right. The amount of progress made by Iran and the P5+1 over the past year is unprecedented, and it has created the momentum that will be necessary to get a deal done. Both sides acknowledge that very real gaps remain between their respective positions, but they also acknowledge that the gaps aren’t insurmountable. There are technical solutions to all of the remaining issues of contention. The real question is whether or not the two sides can take ‘yes’ for an answer and foster the political solution that is necessary for a deal. Leaders must be willing to take risks for peace. And they’re almost there. It would be extremely dangerous for both sides to get this close to a deal and have it fall through. The consequences – political, economic, and military – are likely devastating.

How is Iran projecting power in the region today under President Rouhani? Are Rouhani’s efforts to knit Iran back into the mainstream body of international community based on Iran’s key geopolitical imperatives or are they merely of economic nature?

From monarchist to mullah, Iranian officials have long been focused on consolidating their country as a regional power, undeterred by the objections of great powers. The key cornerstones of this strategy have not changed under Rouhani. As with the Rafsanjani, Khatami and Ahmadinejad presidencies, Iran is seeking to improve ties with its immediate neighbors, as well as prominent Islamic countries. To that end, relations with regional powers Saudi Arabia and Turkey are Rouhani’s top priority. He has also continued Iran’s prioritization of improving its indigenous technological capabilities. The very existence of Iran’s nuclear program, missile development, satellite launches and arms procurement are key examples of issues deemed contentious by Washington and some of Iran’s regional neighbors – and non-negotiable by Tehran. However, the contours of these activities are negotiable, and Iran is willing to place limitations on them – for the right price.

Rouhani’s election unexpectedly catapulted centrist leaders into power that have sought an opening to the West on numerous occasions. Such efforts include the 2001 collaboration with the U.S. in Afghanistan, the 2003 Grand Bargain offer, and the 2005 offer to limit Iran’s enrichment program to 3,000 centrifuges (Iran currently has 19,000). These offers were all made prior to the West imposing crippling sanctions. Rouhani’s team is again pursuing the notion that Iran’s national security goals require peace and accommodation with regional powers – and by extension, the West. To that end, they see western countries as potential partners in helping Iran achieve its declared goals – not just in nuclear technology, but also in other technological, regional and security issues.

Perhaps more importantly, their policies reveal a larger point: for Iran’s national interest, the nuclear issue is more means than goal, in the sense that it is instrumental to the real goal of recognition and reintegration in the international system as an equal player. It is critical to seize this opportunity precisely because it has taken years to materialize – and nobody knows if and when it will come again.

Many analysts and regional observers suggest that the rise of ISIS and the threat it poses to Iranian interests have to do with Iran’s foreign policy. They contend that Iran’s post-Saddam foreign policy conduct eventually blew up in its face. What is your assessment of this view?

Compared to other countries, Iran still appears to have the most cards to play in Iraq. But it is also clear that Iran has badly overreached. By seeking to advance its interests in concert with Iraqi allies at the expense of other foreign and domestic players, the Maliki government helped give rise to ISIS; lost control of more than a quarter of the country with continued threats to territorial integrity; deeply alienated Sunnis and Kurds; and now runs the risk of falling from power altogether. As a result, Iran now faces new threats: an independent Kurdistan on its border that could destabilize Iran’s own restive Kurdish population; an influx of Iraqi refugees; greater resource expenditure and heightened threat perception vis-à-vis a militant Sunni extremist statelet; and redrawn borders that opens a Pandora’s Box of grievances held by ethnic and religious minorities.

That being said, Iran’s post-Saddam foreign policy in Iraq has been a multi-tiered process – and the priority is reconstructing Iraq’s identity to reflect its long-standing demographic realities. Many Iraqi Sunnis and their patrons in the Arab world have refused to acknowledge these new realities brought about by America’s invasion 11 years ago. And from Iran’s vantage point, there will continue to be security problems in Iraq–and the region–until this fundamental issue is resolved. Between an exclusivist Shia government that neglects and marginalizes Sunnis, and a political order that preserves the privileges and patronage Sunnis enjoyed under Saddam, there remains a middle ground that has yet to be truly pursued.

You’ve recently asserted that Iraq’s security crisis, compounded by the rise of ISIS (also known as the Islamic State), is an area where U.S. and Iranian interests intersect and become aligned, so the two countries can take series of shared actions toward improving the security situation in Iraq. First, do you think Maliki is a liability for U.S. interests in Iraq and the wider Arab world? Also, what could be those shared actions by the U.S. and Iran aimed at improving the situation in Iraq, and could those actions be taken without repercussions for U.S. ties with the Arab world?

The problem is less about Maliki and more about sectarianism across the political, religious and ethnic spectrum. Maliki is certainly guilty of this counterproductive approach – but so too are leaders of Iraq’s other religious and ethnic groups. The U.S. (and Iran) have been critical of Maliki on both a tactical and strategic level – both of which center on his overly sectarian governance. This highlights an important aspect of America’s strategy that overlaps with Iran’s: They are less concerned with Maliki or any specific individual in Iraqi politics, and more concerned with protecting their geostrategic position. Neither the U.S. nor Iran is wedded to Maliki, but rather to the current Shia-led power structure in place that ensures its interests in Iraq are achieved. If Maliki proves to be a liability, Washington and Tehran are willing to cut off the head of the snake in order to save the body. Working to unite Iraq’s Shia factions – with our without Maliki at the helm – and then uniting those Shia factions with Sunnis, Kurds and others best ensures that the U.S. and Iran maximize the levers of power at their disposal to secure their interests.

Shared actions in Iraq could take various forms. Some examples include: intelligence sharing, cooperation on the capture of ISIS fighters, utilizing one another’s deep contacts with key political players, and channeling their influence within Iraq’s complex tribal and religious networks towards the same goals. America’s Arab allies will likely worry about U.S.-Iran collaboration in Iraq, but they shouldn’t. American and Iranian soldiers won’t be fighting side by side anytime soon. If anything, they should follow America’s lead and deepen their own discussions with Iran – because durable political solutions require the buy-in of those with the capacity to spoil them. Now more than ever, the U.S., Iran, and the Arab world at large must find common cause in stability.

What does it take for Saudi-Iranian relations to show tangible signs of improvement? What are the key factors impacting the dynamics of their relations? 

For nearly a decade, Iran and Saudi Arabia have viewed their relations as a zero-sum game: If one side is “winning,” the other must be “losing.” This is dangerous because true security cannot be achieved when it is predicated on harming the security of others. Instead, it incentivizes a vicious cycle of mutual escalation that deepens an unnecessary conflict. Fortunately, there is nothing inherently adversarial about Saudi-Iranian relations. While their ideological differences are real, it is geopolitical differences that are the root of the problem. Assertions to the contrary are a self-fulfilling prophecy. We don’t have to look very far into the recent past to see an example of how relations can be improved despite ideological differences.

In 2004, the current secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, demonstrated his ability to improve ties with Saudi-Iran relations: as Iran’s defense minister during the Khatami years, he brokered and implemented a security agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and was awarded the Order of Abdul-Aziz al Saud by the late Saudi King Fahd – the only Iranian minister to ever receive such an award. In line with this objective, Shamkhani – along with President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif – promotes a narrative that Iran’s own national security goals require peace and cooperation with regional powers like Saudi Arabia. Today, the differences between Tehran and Riyadh run much deeper, but the pathway to a more peaceful future remains the same. To that end, secret discussions on bilateral relations and regional security issues are the most important first step. After a clear understanding of their respective positions is reached, the two sides can then decide which issues to address now, soon, and later.

Can the security crisis in Iraq improve without addressing the situation in Syria and making a decision on the fate of Bashar Assad?

Yes, but the U.S. will have to make some tough choices. The status quo clearly isn’t sustainable, and our efforts to date aren’t helping. We’re supporting the “moderate” Syrian opposition, but that helped arm some of the Islamic Extremists. We’re also simultaneously supporting the current Iraqi government – which is backing Assad. If the Maliki government and Assad are empowered, this benefits Iran. In other words, we’re essentially intervening on both sides of the same conflict – in both countries. Not exactly a recipe for success. As we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria, we cannot realistically address the various problems through diplomacy if key players are excluded from the dialogue. Durable diplomatic solutions in both countries need buy-in from every country with the capacity to ruin them. To that end, Iran and Saudi Arabia will have to make tough choices as well.

Rouhani and his presidency appear to face formidable challenges from Iran’s entrenched hardline conservatives both in foreign policy and social-economic spheres. Can you explain why conservatives insist on the preservation of a de-facto alliance with Russia and China and seek the continuation of frosty relations with the West that keep Iran an outlier in the global economy?

Some conservatives believe the only way to compel the U.S. to deal with Iran is not by sending peace offers, but rather by resisting American power. These conservatives portray the West as a brutal, immoral entity out to “get” Iran, deprive it of scientific and technological advances, and keep it dependent on foreign powers. And as we saw during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, these conservatives thrive in isolation.

But the country as a whole has not thrived in isolation, and that is a key reason why Rouhani has been able to build such an inclusive political coalition that supports his outreach to the world. Improving relations with Russia and China at the expense of relations with Western countries proved to be a fool’s errand. The more dependent Tehran became on Moscow and Beijing, the more these new “friends” took advantage of Iran’s isolation through overcharging, unfulfilled contracts, delays in implementation, etc. And the more disconnected from the global economy Iran became, the more dependent it became on Russia and China. A vicious cycle – and one that Rouhani is trying to break.

NIAC recently released a report entitled “Losing Billions” that looked into the cost of U.S. sanctions on potential opportunities for American businesses and the American economy. What was NIAC’s objective for producing this report, and since its release what kind of response has it received from public and private sectors in the U.S.?

There are very few studies that measure the cost of sanctions to the sanctioning countries. In the case of Iran – where unprecedented U.S. and international sanctions may soon be lifted as part of a deal over Iran’s disputed nuclear program – understanding the cost of the policy is particularly important. This is because any debate over whether to exchange sanctions relief for limitations to Iran’s nuclear program would be incomplete at best and misleading at worst if it did not address the cost of sanctions. Our report aims to provide just that.

The response has been positive. Western government officials have described the numbers in our report as striking. Officials in the private sector knew the costs of Iran sanctions to the U.S. and EU were high, but they didn’t realize just how high the numbers were. And the media coverage of our report has been telling: Time Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, CNN, and Huffington Post all ran stories that talked about the cost of sanctions to the sanctioning countries. All things considered, I’d say mission accomplished.