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US-Iran talks: Does Green Movement benefit?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

14 Oct 2009 09:306 Comments

[ analysis ] Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- began on Thursday, October 1. Iran's negotiating team was led by Saeed Jalili, the hard-line secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council, who is an ally of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The U.S. team was led by William J. Burns, a career diplomat and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

There is great ongoing debate among Iranians, both in Iran and the Diaspora, about whether these negotiations (1) are helpful to Iran's Green Movement for democracy; (2) should be taking place now, or whether the timing is highly inappropriate; (3) bestow legitimacy upon the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is facing a domestic crisis of legitimacy; (4) will help sustain gross and systematic violations of human rights in Iran.

Many Iranians continue to be angry that President Barack Obama and his administration failed to properly condemn in a timely manner the violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath of the rigged June 12 presidential election. Thousands have been arrested, beaten, tortured, even raped and murdered in detention (at least 72 people have been confirmed dead).

We must first remember that negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the United States are nothing new. In the past 30 years, the two countries have conducted public and secret negotiations, and there have been plenty of contacts between the two sides. Examples include negotiations from 1980-1981 for the release of the American hostages; the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s; Iran's cooperation with the U.S. during the first Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, and the fall 2001 war in Afghanistan that overthrew the Taliban; and negotiations over the situation in Iraq. So, if the negotiations with the Islamic Republic give it any legitimacy, it is already a fait accompli.

In addition, diplomatic isolation of a terrible government does not improve its behavior. To the contrary, isolation backs the government into a corner and often prompts it to commit even more horrible crimes against its citizens. A good example is Zimbabwe. Isolating the government of Robert Mugabe has only worsened the plight of the vast majority of its people.

At the same time, the fact is that the hardliners are afraid of the existence of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, not because they believe that the embassy would become another "nest of spies" -- the name given to the embassy by the leftist students who took it over in Tehran in November 1979 -- but because it would lead to much better people-to-people relations that is ultimately not in the hardliners' interests.

In the author's opinion, negotiations with the Islamic Republic neither give it, nor take away, any legitimacy from it. The reason is simple. The legitimacy of a government is bestowed upon it by the people who are ruled over by that government, not by any foreign power. That is the true meaning of a sovereign nation. Therefore, if the Ahmadinejad government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of a great majority of the Iranian -- and, indeed, it does -- then, no degree of negotiations with any foreign power, regardless of how powerful the foreign power may be, will give it any degree of legitimacy.

It must, of course, be made clear to the Ahmadinejad administration that the world is well aware of the lack of legitimacy of his government at home, and that the world also respects the principle by which a government earns its legitimacy through the votes of its people.

Regardless of how any Iranian feels about it, any international organization or foreign power that needs or wants to deal with Iran, must do so through the only government that it has, namely, the Ahmadinejad government. Given Iran's importance, both regionally and globally, and the urgency that the West attaches to negotiations with Iran because of its rapid progress in setting up the complete nuclear fuel cycle, it would be naïve to think or expect that the West would simply put the negotiations on hold until a government that is acceptable to a majority of the Iranians will emerge in Iran.

Most importantly, negotiations between Iran and the United States are in the true national interests of both nations. We must recall that the true national interests of any country are those that are independent of the type of political system that rules that nation. This has been recognized by the Iranians. The best evidence for it is that an overwhelming majority of the Iranians would like to see improvements in relations between Iran and the United States.

The question then is which group in Iran can best negotiate a long-lasting agreement with the United States, one that would address most, if not all, of the major issues between the two countries? This is the question that the author was asked in an interview on a Voice of America television show last year.

My response was that it is the hardliners that can best negotiate with the United States. To see why, consider the following, which was also my argument then as well. In my view, hardliners are best positioned to negotiate with the United States.

To see why, consider the case of China. The United States vehemently opposed the communist revolution in China, which resulted in the overthrow the pro-West government of Gen. Chiang Kai Shek and brought Mao Zedong and his communist comrades to power in 1949. The U.S. cut off its diplomatic relations with mainland China, and recognized instead the renegade government set up by Gen. Chiang in Taiwan, and looked to it as the sole representative of all of China.

Richard Nixon, Vice President to President Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1953 - 1961, and the 37th president of the United States from 1969 - 1974, was one of the most virulently anti-communist figures in America in the 20th century. In 1946 he ran on an anti-communism platform to get elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from California's 12th District (in southern California). Once in Congress, he became a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which mounted a witch hunt of alleged communist sympathizers in the U.S. government. A well known case before HUAC concerned Alger Hiss (1904-1996), a high-ranking State Department official who had been accused of being a communist spy.

Nixon showed that Hiss committed perjury in his testimony, and HUAC helped convict him (Hiss served 44 months in jail). In 1950, Nixon ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas, a leftist actress, for a seat on the U.S. Senate, again on an anti-communist, anti-leftist platform, and defeated her. President Eisenhower selected Nixon as his running mate for the 1952 presidential election.

Still, once Nixon himself was elected President in 1968, he and his National Security Adviser, Henry M. Kissinger, recognized that re-establishing diplomatic relations with China was in the U.S. national interest. Mao was at odds with the Soviet Union, and hence, China and its long border with the Soviet Union could be used as a counter-weight to the Soviets.

Re-establishing relations with a major communist power, especially at the height of the Vietnam War -- a war with another communist regime supported by both China and the Soviet Union no less -- was simply too big a taboo for any Democrat to break. Cuba had fallen to the communists in 1959 and Latin America was in the midst of many communist insurgencies. Only President Nixon, with his long and "impeccable" track record of anti-communism, had the credibility and authority to reestablish ties with China.

In 1972, from February 21-28, he went to China and met with Mao, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, and other communist leaders. He toasted Mao in the official State dinner in his honor, the same Mao whom Nixon had accused many times of killing millions of Chinese people! No one could really attack Nixon for being "soft" on communists.

Likewise, for the past 30 years, Iran's hardliners have vehemently opposed the U.S. Anyone who has advocated better relations with the U.S. has been savagely attacked by the hardliners and labeled "soft," or worse, "a U.S. agent." Given these circumstances, only the hardliners have the "credibility" to negotiate with the United States. If the negotiations lead to improvements in bilateral relations, it would be in the true national interests of both nations, and indeed the entire Middle East.

Even if Iran's reformist-democratic groups came to power today, they would not be able to carry out negotiations with the U.S., simply because they would be blocked by the hardliners. At the same time, the leaders of the Green Movement -- Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mohammad Khatami, and Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri -- have made it clear that they support negotiations with the United States.

On the other hand, if the U.S.-Iran conflict is resolved or lessened, then the hardliners will no longer be able to label the democratic groups as the lackeys of the U.S., nor can U.S. sanctions and threats be used as excuses for repressing and oppressing the Iranian people. That will benefit Iran's democratic movement.

Has the time for negotiations really arrived? Aside from the fact that the U.S. and its allies urgently want to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program (and, thus, the negotiations cannot be postponed any longer), the current state of affairs between the two nations, namely, neither war nor peace, is no longer sustainable. One way or another, all the issues between the two nations must be put on the table and negotiated. Negotiations will have a chance for success only if all the issues are on the table.

Both the Iranian and American people should demand that negotiations be completely transparent. There should be no secret agreements between the two governments that would hurt the long-term interests of the people of Iran, as well as the American people. Chief among the interests of the Iranian people is respect for human rights, a universal value.

Libya is a good example to steer away from. For years, the United States accused the Libyan government of grossly violating the human rights of the Libyan people. But as soon as Libya's dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi, agreed on Dec. 19, 2003, to give up Libya's ambitions for a nuclear program and nuclear weapons, the United States and its allies stopped raising Qaddafi's gross violations of human rights of the Libyan people. Qaddafi's sins have been forgiven!

Iran has signed many international agreements on human rights, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The agreements are binding and the government of the hardliners must be held accountable for their obligations under this and all relevant international laws. The Ahmadinejad government must be reminded that it cannot argue that the relevant international agreements have given Iran rights to a complete nuclear fuel cycle, while neglecting its obligations under another international agreement that it has signed, namely, the ICCPR.

Some Iranians in the Diaspora, particularly among the monarchists, have advocated imposing economic sanctions on Iran. Not only are sanctions against international law (unless approved by the United Nations Security Council), but they would only hurt ordinary Iranians.

The best examples of ineffectiveness of sanctions are illustrated by the plight of the people of Iraq, Libya, and Cuba. Sanctions did not overthrow the regimes of Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi, and Fidel Castro, but only worsened the lives of ordinary people who lived in these countries. In addition, at least 500,000 Iraqi children died as a result of these sanctions in the 1990s.

The United States has already imposed some of the toughest sanctions on Iran. Due to its importance and oil wealth, Iran has proven to be very resilient against the sanctions. But, at the same time, U.S. sanctions have been used as an excuse by the hardliners to justify their mismanagement of the economy. This is one reason, in addition to hurting the lives of ordinary Iranians, as to why leaders of Iran's Green Movement are vehemently opposed to the imposition of any sanctions.

Imposition of sanctions on Iran will, in fact, benefit the hardliners. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) already controls a very significant portion of Iran's economy. Imposing sanctions will only tighten the IRGC's grip on Iran's economy by enabling them to control the import of needed materials and products by going around sanctions. Needless to say, more economic power means more political power for the IRGC.

The progressives must also recognize that the resolution of the problems between Iran and the United States is not separate from the resolution of several other conflicts in the Middle East, including the Israel-Palestinian issue, Israel's repeated attacks on southern Lebanon, Israel's refusal to give up the Golan Heights and return it to their rightful owners, Syria (Iran's strategic ally in the region), and the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

So unless the Obama administration takes meaningful steps toward the just settlement of these conflicts, the resolution of the problems between Iran and the United States will remain out of reach. One would hope that now that President Obama has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Peace based on the promise of his presidency (rather than actual concrete achievements), the Prize will induce him and his administration to take the fateful and courageous steps necessary to move the Middle East toward a true, just, and honorable peace for all the people and nations of that region, including Iran and Iranians.

The author remains skeptical. These lofty goals will not be achieved unless the United States changes its views about the Middle East and stops acting as an imperial power that must control everything, energy resources in particular. How likely is that to happen? Not likely at all!

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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Dr. Sahimi, you seem to be the only voice of reason here at Tehran Bureau. What would this place be without you? Thanks again.

Pirouz / October 14, 2009 7:28 AM

Your best article yet, Dr. Sahimi!

You present a lucid argument that clarified many doubts I had about US-Iran talks.

Alas, your ending is also quite right - how can anyone hope that the US will take its sights off the goal of control over energy in the ME, even with a 'president of hope' in the White House?

Mani / October 14, 2009 10:30 AM

Good article. But could you please tell me what 'popular' legitimacy does Gordon Brown have as PM of Great Britain. The British electorate have not had the chance to cast a vote for or against him in a popular ballot. At least Ahmedinejad did offer himself for re-election through the ballot box and given various pre-election polls it is not unreasonable to believe that he actually won it albeit by a lesser margin than claimed. In any case, on the face of it, an inquiry on the ballot rigging was carried out from which both Karroubi and Mussawi abstained and Rezaie withdrew. The election was then confirmed by the Supreme Leader in line with Iran's constitution. I can't see how the reformists can fault this as the constitutional law was actually followed in this case. Perhaps the Iranian negotiators should question the popular legitimacy of some of the western governments. Khamanei is correct to point out that Iranians should celebrate the fact that they had an 85% turnout, no Western democracy has ever managed that and even Obama with all his talk of change could not effect that kind of turnout. The reformists need to be balanced and just as they want to be treated as such by their protagonists otherwise it undermines their moral case.

rezvan / October 14, 2009 11:38 PM


1. The comparison between Gordon Brown and Ahmadinejad is improper. Brown's Party, the Labor Party, won the election under Tony Blair. Then Blair stepped down. Labor controls a big majority in the British parliament. Therefore, anyone they select as their leader is the next PM. This is democracy in play. Brown will be up for re-election (or election) in 6 months.

2. Ahmadinejad has very little legitimacy, because he did not win the election. It was fraudulant. If he received 24 million votes, why does the military need to use violence, rape, torture, detention, and even murder against the protestors? If Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami have violated the laws, why are the hardliners afraid of putting them on trial, and let the chips fall where they may?

Muhammad Sahimi / October 15, 2009 6:52 AM

It has never been proven that the June 12 election was fraudulent. It would have been nice (?), but it simply wasn't proven. I would agree that this mere fact doesn't make things easier. One should better argue that the whole system of pre-selecting candidates by what is called the Guardian Council is in no way democratic.

That Mousavi (probably not even known by the majority of first-time voters) got some 30% was already a surprise. It is also not easy to assess whether "violence, rape torture, even murder against the protesters" did take place to that extent it was reported in western media. Sad to say, but we simply don't know.

I totally agree with you that negotiations between, say, Mousavi and the West would have been a nightmare, given the fact that Mousavi would have been powerless. But we have now to face a situation after a sort of coup in Iran with less influence of Khamenei and certain clerics. You correctly point to the gain in power of the pasdaran.


Fahad / October 15, 2009 6:39 PM

I entirely agree with your argument. Your article is vivid, focused, coherent, and sound. Thanks a ton!

It's obvious that Fahad has never lived in Iran...or perhaps he has! Who knows!? It simply hasn't been proven!

Iman / October 19, 2009 10:48 AM