Omid Memarian

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Q&A:"Iran Won't Wait for Obama to Talk to U.S."
Interview with Hooshang Amirahmadi, President of the American Iranian Council

My interview with Dr. Amirahmadi published in IPS News Agency, also, is reprinted in Asia Times and CASMII.

NEW YORK, Jul 16 (IPS) - Despite opposition from some hardline factions in Iran, the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has responded positively to a proposal by the United States that it open a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran -- its first formal diplomatic presence since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Hooshang Amirahmadi, who is currently visiting Iran and meeting with high-ranking officials in Ahmadinejad's administration to discuss bilateral relations, told IPS correspondent Omid Memarian by telephone from Tehran that he has sensed a new willingness to seek a thaw between the two countries.

"It is not true that they will not negotiate with [George W.] Bush and are waiting for [Barack] Obama," said Amirahmadi, president of the American Iranian Council, a research and policy think-tank devoted to improving dialogue and understanding between the peoples of Iran and the United States. "This is not how Tehran is thinking and if they receive a proposal from the Bush government tomorrow, they are willing to consider it."

Amirahmadi also heads the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, and is well known for his work to normalise U.S.-Iran relations during the period of Iran's pragmatic president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) and reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1998-2005).

Because Amirahmadi is highly unpopular among radical conservatives, the government has provided high security during his stay in Tehran that will end later this month.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: Why should the Iranian authorities agree to the proposal for a U.S. Interests Sections?

HA: It is no longer fashionable in Iran to say we don't talk or negotiate with the U.S. or that the U.S. is our enemy. Such an attitude does not exist in the country anymore. Ever since the topic of a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran has emerged, I notice a lot of excitement among people. They feel like something is happening. They become happy when they hear positive news about any improvement in Iran-U.S. relations. They become deeply sad when they hear about a war or alienation.

IPS: Is there a will among Iranian conservatives to extensively discuss the concerns existing between the two countries?

HA: Ahmadinejad is not the most radical Iranian conservative. There are others more radical and more conservative than him. Those groups may not be interested in dialogue, but they are not in power at this time. They can only complain, grumble, insult others, and accuse them. They can't, however, stop this movement. In fact, the only group capable of pushing this idea forward is in power.

IPS: You tried very hard to improve the relations between the U.S. and Iran during the Rafsanjani and Khatami presidencies. Considering the animosity the Ahmadinejad cabinet seems to harbour toward both former presidents, how is it that when you go to Tehran, you are well received and asked to provide counsel?

HA: Times have changed. The Islamic Republic is turning 30, and has gained experience over the past three decades: the pragmatic management style of Hashemi Rafsanjani after the Iran-Iraq War, the reformist movement, and now the conservatives in power. The regime has reached a point now where the best thing for it to do is to return to the pragmatic style of governance. They can see it is no longer possible to chant slogans and argue and struggle with the rest of the world and the U.S.

IPS: How do you interpret the Iranians' political rhetoric and their missile tests, Israel's military manoeuvres, and U.S. threats alongside talks about a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran?

HA: Normally, when two countries that have been in disputes and disagreements for years are preparing to sit at a table to negotiate, they take steps to show their strengths and power to each other. Neither of the two sides would be willing to sit at the table when they feel weaker than the other. The Iranian missile tests should only be evaluated in this light, not because Iran wishes to act in a militarily offensive way or to threaten anyone.

IPS: Is the president personally aware of your trip?

HA: Definitely. He was questioned yesterday about what I am doing in Tehran and he responded that he supports my presence in Tehran. They do their thing and I do mine.

IPS: Considering the negotiations you had, what do you think the next steps should be for Iranian conservatives?

AH: Two parallel movements might take shape. One is within the framework of 5+1 [China, Russia, France, Britain, the United States and Germany] where Iran has shown its willingness to negotiate. The U.S. will also join these negotiations. We hope these negotiations would start as soon as possible, deciding the fate of uranium enrichment within a mutually acceptable framework. The other movement is the U.S. Interests Section that is also a mutual activity. If they can reach an agreement with Iran to establish an American Interests Section in Tehran, they will definitely reach an agreement over the nuclear negotiations as well. If I were in the U.S.'s shoes, I would make a formal, balanced, and realistic proposal to Iranian authorities. Such a move can create a better atmosphere for the 5+1 negotiations.

IPS: What do you think about Mr. Ahmadinejad?

HA: Most people, especially the ones outside Iran, always see the empty half of the glass. We might say that most of Mr. Ahmadinejad's glass is empty -- this might be true, but the glass is not entirely empty. The innovative approach Mr. Ahmadinejad has adopted vis-a-vis Iran's relationship with the U.S. is a lot more serious than any actions others may have suggested.

IPS: Considering the contacts you have had with him and the knowledge you are gaining through your recent trips, where do you think the root of this problem lies?

HA: Mr. Ahmadinejad has no knowledge about the economy and has a very weak way of thinking about it. His staff couldn't convince him or they couldn't take the right actions. In the end, the economy is Mr. Ahmadinejad's Achilles' heel and he hasn't performed well there. But he has done well with respect to relations with the U.S. and Iranians abroad.

IPS: What kind of politician is he?

HA: Despite what is being said about him, Mr. Ahmadinejad is a very intelligent man. He comprehends things very quickly, but his knowledge of world affairs is somewhat limited. He has not performed on a national level. Though he knows Iran very well, he doesn't have a good grasp of Iran's strategic issues. On a macro level, he has advisors who are not very strong. On a small township and village level, street smarts might work, but on a strategic level, street smarts don't work. This is an area where a leader needs knowledge and science and strategy but he didn't have good advisors in this area.

IPS: Does it make any difference to Iranian authorities who the next U.S. president will be?

HA: The issue with relations with Iran is not about the Republican or Democratic parties. I believe they are even ready to reach agreement with Mr. Bush's outgoing cabinet over the next few months. [Although] usually the incoming governments are more willing to negotiate than outgoing governments.

IPS: Do you believe that a military attack on Iran would eliminate this opportunity?

HA: Iran regards the possibility of a military attack very seriously, but Iran is not living in fear. I am in Tehran right now. People say there is a probability -- but it is more probable there won't be a war. They are worried but their daily lives haven't been disrupted. Nobody is hoarding rice and eggs. The city is colourful and no signs of preparedness for an attack are apparent. However, on the other side, I know that the army, Sepaah, the Basij and the police are on call. Iran opposes a war and will do its best for this not to happen, saying that if it does happen, we will defend ourselves.


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