Abbas Milani is the Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University, a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author, most recently, of The Shah. On October eighth, I sat down with him for an interview about the upcoming nuclear talks and the future of U.S.-Iran relations. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
SS: Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union negotiator Catherine Ashton, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet in Vienna next Wednesday to continue the nuclear talks, and subsequent negotiations are expected to include Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia. What do you think will come from these talks? What is the significance of these talks given the past decade of U.S.-Iranian relations?
AM: Well, the significance is clearly the possibility that there might be an agreement. That there might be — and underline might — the beginning of a rapprochement for the United States and Iran, particularly. The more immediate question is whether they can reach an agreement before the deadline in November; a more permanent agreement. Everyone feels, on both sides — the Rouhani government and I think the Obama administration — like they need to get an agreement before November, because in Iran, the radicals are sniping at the deal. They don’t want a deal. In the United States, there is the possibility that the Senate will change and a new Congress controlled by the Republicans would render U.S. foreign policy incapable of arriving at any consensus.
SS: There is a concern among some conservative politicians in the U.S. and Israel that too many concessions are being offered in these talks. Hardliners in Iran have also expressed their concern over the nuclear negotiations. If a deal is made, do you think that Obama and Rouhani will be able to secure the approval of hardliners in their respective countries?
AM: That is really one of the key difficulties. My sense has been that both Rouhani and to a lesser extent, even Khamenei, who heads the hardliners — and certainly Obama — want to try to make a deal. Both want to make some concessions, but they both need to be able to sell it to their home base as a victory for themselves. So finding a set of agreed upon principles that will allow both sides to declare victory — and that will allow both sides to at least camouflage the concessions they’re making as victories or hard-won bargains or agreements — is crucial.
SS: How do you think Rouhani will be able to persuade the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has in the past remained ambiguous on the nuclear issue, to support any deal?
AM: I think Rouhani can sell an agreement because Khamenei is trying to use Rouhani to get an agreement with minimal concessions and that frees Iran from the sanctions regime, but allows the government to keep political control as oppressive, as unequal, as corrupt, as nepotistic as it has been for the last decade or so. More than a decade, the last twenty years! Meanwhile, what the Iranian people seem to want is to use the break up of the sanctions regime to change the status quo to a more transparent, more egalitarian, to a less corrupt, less incompetent regime. And whether they will be able to do that or whether Khamenei will win the day remains to be seen. In a sense, Rouhani is caught between two interests: the interests of the Iranian people to use Rouhani to break the status quo, in some ways, and the interest of Khamenei to use Rouhani to break the sanctions regime but keep the status quo. That is really what makes the situation complicated.
SS: These negotiations have been years in the making. What happens if they fall apart? What if we pass the November 24th deadline?
AM: Obama desperately needs a foreign policy success because he has had so many unsuccessful forays and he is in such a vulnerable position right now that achieving something that he can declare as a major victory — and a rapprochement with Iran would be a major victory if it is done right — would be critical. What I mean by right is if it is done without making too many compromises on human rights and democracy in Iran. He needs it desperately. The Iranians also need it desperately, so my sense is that unless they arrive at something permanent, they will find a way to continue the talks, and it looks like the Iranians are drooling so far to make sure that a continuation is possible. Every indication so far is that they have stopped growing the program. The argument that used to be made, and I think that it was a right argument, that the Iranians prolonged the negotiations to create reality on the ground. But they realized that they can’t do that anymore. So it seems like there are no centrifuges coming behind, no more centrifuges being churned. They have decreased the quantity of 20 percent enriched uranium they have. In a sense, they have made a concession.
SS: Iran considers its nuclear energy program to be its inherent right. Do you believe that they are pursuing their program for peaceful energy purposes?
AM: I have always believed that both the Shah, who began the nuclear program, and this regime, have primarily attempted to bring Iran to have a breakout capacity — to put all the pieces together. That is, if they make the political decision to weaponize, they can do that in short order. For a short while, clearly they realized there was too much political price to play, so they dropped it. My sense is that they have been moving to a breakout capacity, and I think they clearly can now enrich uranium. No one knows how far they have moved in the technology to weaponize and deliver the uranium. How do we keep Iran from turning that breakout capacity to a military weapon? How far does the West feel secure to prolong their time to weaponize? To me, that has been the sticking point.
SS: What do you see as the future of U.S.-Iranian relations in the next decade?
AM: If I was to guess, I would say that there would be much less contention. I would not be at all surprised if some level of diplomatic opening, at some level, maybe not full diplomatic recognition, but some level emerged. The way the U.S. has a consular presence in Cuba, they might have a consular presence in Iran. I think that some of the sanctions will be lifted. I think that we might see the beginning of some U.S. businesses trying to get into the Iranian oil companies. So, I would be very surprised if in five years from now, they were in the same type of intransigent, adversarial relationship because again, despite all the rhetoric, Iran is a potential ally for the United States in some areas. Iran is de facto on the same side as U.S., Turkey, Jordan, even to some extent Saudi Arabia. And ISIS, if it gets its way, is not going to spare the royals of the Arab world. It is a genie that will consume everyone who has brought it out of the bottle.
Sarah Sadlier, a junior studying history, American studies, Iberian and Latin American cultures, and political science, is the interviews editor of Stanford Political Journal.