In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to former American diplomat Mark Lijek.
Iran and the US have been at odds since the 1979 revolution. They have had no diplomatic relations since April 7, 1980.
One event that marked the revolution was the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran. On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students attacked the compound and took 99 people hostage, including 66 Americans. The episode came to be known as the Iran hostage crisis and lasted 444 days.
As tensions soared between the two governments, US President Jimmy Carter said he would “not yield to blackmail” and resorted to different options to rescue the hostages. Although diplomacy failed to solve the crisis in a timely fashion, the victims were released in 1981 as Ronald Reagan was being inaugurated as president.
Mark Lijek is a retired American diplomat. His career started in Iran shortly before the hostage crisis. Along with five others, he was lucky to escape the US compound and found refuge with the Canadian government in Iran. The 2013 Best Picture-winning film Argo — directed by and starring Hollywood actor Ben Affleck — depicts the story of their rescue operation. Led by CIA operative Tony Mendez and the Canadian government, the mission was to secure the exfiltration of Lijek and his colleagues in what came to be known as the “Canadian Caper.” American actor Christopher Denham played the role of Mark Lijek in Argo.
After Iran, Lijek continued working with the foreign service and had assignments in Hong Kong, Nepal, Poland and Germany, as well as Washington, DC. He provided minor consultation to the producers of Argo, and he is the author of the 2014 book Escaping Iran: A True Account of the Best Bad Idea.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Lijek about the ups and downs of Iran-US relations, the withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and the chances of regime change in Tehran. The interview was conducted via email.
Kourosh Ziabari: Let’s start with what happened in 1979: the hostage crisis. Today, many of those Iranian students who stormed the US Embassy regret their “revolutionary” action and admit that it was diplomatically and morally indefensible to attack the compound. What do you think about the US response? Was Jimmy Carter’s severing of diplomatic relations the right decision?
Mark Lijek: It is important to understand the atmosphere at the time. The American public did not see the action as revolutionary. They saw it as an egregious violation of American sovereignty, an assault on American diplomats on American “soil.” From the beginning, Carter was walking a tightrope, needing to placate public opinion but wanting to avoid a military response, the consequences of which were unknowable.
In that context, severing relations was rightly seen at the time as a minimal response, the practical consequences of which were minor. Following the resignation of the Bazargan government, there was effectively no counterpart on the Iranian side with whom we might negotiate. Over time, other channels were established, but I am not aware of anyone who believes that the severing of relations in any way prolonged the crisis or made it worse. It was, in the overall context, a minimalist response.
Ziabari: Since 1979, Iranian and American officials have had a history of verbal attacks against each other. Will they ever engage in constructive dialogue to solve their issues through diplomacy?
Lijek: This strikes me as a bit of a “cart-before-horse” question. The reason that we engage in verbal attacks is that we have fundamentally different interests. While the residue of the hostage crisis is certainly a factor, at least on the part of the US as the wronged party in that specific case, all would be forgiven and forgotten if Iran were to end the behavior that is perceived by the US as contrary to its interests.
It seems to me that [Barack] Obama went about as far as any US administration could to signal to the Iranian side that we were open to constructive dialog. The JCPOA was widely considered within the US as a giveaway to Iran. I am not privy to internal Iranian government deliberations so cannot judge how the treaty was perceived on the other side, but assuming that Iran has analytical and intelligence assets focused on the US, they almost certainly informed their side that the administration pushed the envelope in terms of accommodating to Iranian concerns. If one compares the actual agreement with the parameters that the Obama administration laid out at the start of negotiations, one will find considerable movement toward the Iranian positions on key issues such as verification or a requirement for Iran to document its prior efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Take a look at the public record of IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] statements at the time.
Indeed, it seems likely that Obama believed that reaching an agreement so favorable to Iranian interests would in fact usher in a period of constructive dialog, which would then have been continued by his presumed successor, Hillary Clinton. Had the Iranians indicated any willingness to discuss relations more broadly, there is every reason to believe that Obama would have responded eagerly. Even the C-130 stuffed with cash and the recently disclosed attempt to help Iran launder money through the US banking system, both of questionable legality under US law, triggered no known reciprocity from Iran.
As a footnote, the Department of State continues to train officers in Farsi language and area studies, and has “Iran watchers” posted around the region and in Washington. If and when circumstances allow, a cadre exists to reopen diplomatic relations.
Ziabari: Many analysts consider the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, to be the foreign policy breakthrough of Barack Obama. It was secured to ensure that Iran would not build nuclear weapons. What do you think about President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement?
Lijek: There are also many who believe that the JCPOA did not restrain Iran’s nuclear program in any meaningful way. Even its strongest backers acknowledged that its 10-year-time horizon didn’t preclude a quick breakthrough following expiration.
From the wording of your questions, it seems likely that you and I would disagree regarding the effectiveness of the agreement. That is a separate discussion from the issues raised by your questions, and a lengthy one. Rather than get into that subject, I will note only that any effective foreign policy must be based on realism. President Trump’s view of the agreement is shared by many, including a majority of the US Senate, which is, of course, the reason that Obama chose to make it an executive agreement rather than a treaty requiring Senate ratification.
Given Trump’s evaluation of the agreement, it was effectively impossible for him to not withdraw. The Iran Nuclear Agreement Act, part of the compromise between Obama and the Congress, requires that the president periodically confirm that Iran is in compliance. Trump could not at one and the same time assess the agreement as meaningless and certify to Congress that Iran was in compliance.
Ziabari: Has the future of Iran-US relations become more uncertain with Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and reinstatement of sanctions? Will it make it difficult for the Rouhani administration to pursue dialogue with the United States on such issues as human rights, Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen, and Tehran’s ballistic missiles program?
Lijek: It is true that the future of relations between the US and Iran has become more uncertain, at least in the short term.
As I noted in response to [your earlier question], there is no evidence that the Rouhani administration sought to pursue dialog with the US on any of the issues you listed. To the contrary, the Iranians have steadfastly insisted that their policies in these areas are separate from the JCPOA and have resisted any US effort at linkage. The Obama administration accepted the Iranian position, although at the same time trying to persuade a reluctant American public that the agreement would result in better Iranian behavior even as the Iranians insisted otherwise.
If you and I were having a conversation, I would at this point ask you why you think that Iran would want to discuss human rights with the US, let alone Iran’s ballistic missile program or its regional aggression. There is no conceivable agreement on these issues that would be acceptable to both sides.
To return to the uncertainty issue, the question going forward is what the Trump administration policy toward Iran will be. Rejection of the JCPOA is but one element in a new policy.
Ziabari: For Iranian officials, Washington is after regime change and doesn’t recognize the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic and, as a result, is not a reliable partner. What’s your take on that? Is the US after regime change in Iran?
Lijek: There is no doubt that the US would welcome regime change in North Korea, but that doesn’t preclude dialog. In the case of Iran, meaningful dialog might have been possible at the point when sanctions were imposing high costs on the regime. In the eyes of many, the Obama administration squandered this opportunity by accepting an agreement that did little to make Iran less of a threat to the region or the world.
I would give the Iranians credit for having a sufficient understanding of US politics and governance that they realized they were negotiating with an administration that didn’t have popular support for the JCPOA. They understood that it would not be submitted for Senate ratification and, therefore, would not be binding on subsequent administrations. They can certainly be forgiven for assuming that Hillary Clinton would follow Obama and would continue the agreement, but the more fundamental point is that an agreement can work only if: a) it benefits both sides or b) one side has the power to compel compliance from the other.
I would guess the Iranians understood that they were the beneficiaries of Obama’s search for a foreign policy legacy. That desire, combined with a certain naiveté in foreign relations, allowed Iran to strike a hugely advantageous deal. Presumably they realized that it might not last because it wasn’t in the US interest, although two terms of Clinton would have taken them to its expiration.
As a student of Iranian history, you are presumably aware that Iran over the centuries has resisted Islamic fundamentalism, that periods of intense religious fervor have always been followed by a reassertion of traditional Iranian culture that, while not hostile to Islam, is more relaxed in its approach to the good life. Indeed, in many respects one would have thought Iran to be an unlikely place for the region’s first official Islamic republic. While no one can know when the pendulum will swing back, there is some evidence that the regime is losing its grip even now. While I would not suggest that US policy should be based on the assumption that the collapse of the Islamic Republic is imminent, there is no reason that the US should help extend its longevity.
Ziabari: Has Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal undermined the position of the European Union, which insists on sticking to the agreement as long as Tehran is in compliance with its nuclear commitments? Will this create rifts between the United States and Europe?
Lijek: US withdrawal does create difficulties for the EU. It took years of concentrated effort to create an effective sanctions regime. US participation was of course fundamental to the functioning of the sanctions, and US pressure on EU nations to participate in sanctions was essential to their establishment. Therefore, EU nations, whatever their individual misgivings might have been, had no alternative except to follow the US lead on the JCPOA. Clearly, the Europeans have every right to be angry that the US has changed its mind. Nevertheless, in the conduct of foreign relations, there is little room for emotion. The EU will have no choice but to accommodate in some manner to whatever policy is ultimately implemented by the Trump administration.
There is a range of differences between the US and the EU. The decision to withdraw will be added to the list.
Ziabari: President Trump is engaged in close dialogue with North Korea with the aim of disarming the Asian country and convincing it to abandon its nuclear arsenal. At the same time, he scrapped an agreement that was working and ensuring that a more influential country in the Middle East would not be able to build nuclear weapons. How do you interpret this paradoxical approach to nonproliferation?
Lijek: If one assumes, as Trump does, that the JCPOA was not a meaningful impediment to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, then withdrawal from the agreement and an effort to negotiate a better one is more consistent with the goal of nonproliferation.
While the situation vis-à-vis North Korea is hugely different, I would suggest that withdrawal from the JCPOA, to the extent it has any effect on US-North Korea talks, might be beneficial. It would at a minimum suggest to the North Koreans that the US will not accept a bad deal.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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