Hamidreza Asefi, 61, is a retired Iranian diplomat who served as Foreign Ministry spokesman under both Mohammad Khatami and his successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In an interview with Mehr News Agency he has weighed in on nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1, ties between Tehran and Washington, and regional developments. The following is the translation of an excerpt of the interview by Samira Amir-Chakhmaghi:
How have nuclear talks between Iran and world powers progressed since the government of President Rouhani took office in 2013?
Foreign relations are not like local affairs. In foreign relations there is more than one player involved. In local matters when a problem arises, there is a person who has the final say, for instance, in Iran the Supreme Leader and in other countries the president or prime minister get involved and work out a solution to the problem at hand.
In foreign relations there are several players involved. Coming to terms with the fact that not everything is under the control of a single country helps you avoid rash judgments about foreign relations.
Naturally nuclear talks between Iran and P5+1 have been tough since day one. What makes the negotiations even tougher is the fact that one party to the talks is acquisitive and lacks goodwill, and the other seeks to restore its obvious rights.
Another thing that makes the talks all the more difficult is that the two sides are working on a solution to a problem which has been in the making for 12 years. Besides, the two negotiating parties are not alone in this. Foreign players such as the Zionist regime and some Persian Gulf countries do not want the talks to succeed.
In Iran those who favored the talks and viewed them as the right thing to do made a rather hasty assessment and raised public expectations. That was a grave mistake.
On the other hand, some tried since day one to imply that the talks were doomed to failure citing the selfishness and acquisitiveness of the other side. I believe these people decided too soon that the talks would fail.
In a tough situation as such talks have made relatively good progress. Although major problems have yet to be addressed, a new attitude has been formed in the world toward Iran and our standing on the international stage has improved.
You said those who supported the talks made a hasty assessment. Are you suggesting that setting a deadline for the talks to conclude has been wrong?
The assumption that any negotiations should one day produce results is right. Talks should not be held merely for the sake of talks. […] Familiarity with the prevailing atmosphere helps those who sit at the negotiating table guess how long it will take for the talks to produce results.
That some suggested that the atmosphere was totally positive and a final solution was imminent was wrong. As I said one cannot hold talks just for the sake of holding talks.
Personally I believe a good deal that comes on the back of marathon talks is much better than a bad deal which is struck quickly. For sure, simply striking a deal is not our ultimate goal. We seek to hold on to our inalienable nuclear rights.
Do you think a deal can be reached by November?
It is difficult to predict. The negotiating team is optimistic, so is the spokesman of Catherine Ashton. Some other Europeans like the Italians are optimistic too. But experience has taught me that optimism should not serve as the basis of assessment.
I believe September is a very important month in nuclear talks. The hurdles will either be cleared or they will grow even bigger. If we manage to reach a deal in principle on some general concepts before the next round of talks in New York on September 17, one can be optimistic.
Are you saying the talks in New York are crucial?
I believe the talks with the Americans and the Europeans that are held before the gathering in New York are even more important than the New York negotiations. The stance of the Russians is almost the same as that of the Chinese.
Personally, I think it will take more than four months to reach an accord and agree on its final wording. The drafting may need longer time to complete.
You think there may be another extension of the deadline beyond November 24th to draft the agreement?
They may strike a deal in stages. The good point is that neither side wants the talks to fail. The Americans are more willing to strike a deal. They need us.
America’s global position is not good. They are grappling with economic problems and face challenges in Ukraine and Russia. The so-called Islamic State is the biggest of their problems, one which is of their own making. If they fail to take on IS in Iraq and Syria now, they will have to fight them on home turf shortly.
[…] A round of talks between Iran and the US has failed to narrow down differences between the two. Do you think there is a way for the two sides to get closer [on issues of mutual interest]?
What I just mentioned focused on the positive. As you know the Zionist lobby and the right in the United States Congress are bent on erecting hurdles in the way of the talks.
Besides, the American acquisitiveness is also a problem. Some might think that one political party in the US is better than the other. But the Gaza war proved that they are only different in their approaches not in their strategies. […]
I believe if we manage to cut a good deal on the lifting of sanctions, the number of centrifuges and the extent of peaceful nuclear activities, the other problems would be solved. Of course, the gap on those issues is still very wide.
[…] In light of recent comments by the Supreme Leader that negotiations with the Americans have showed that they won’t change, how you see the future of ties between Tehran and Washington?
Contacts between Iran and the US will remain focused on the nuclear issue. They have their own strategy and determine their approach based on that strategy. It is true that contacts and face-to-face talks could create a different atmosphere, but the nature of our relations will remain the same. […]
When Hafez al-Assad was in power in Syria, the US secretary of state visited Damascus 17 times in the space of one year. That did not thing to change the American approach to Syria – rather, the visits were designed to change the Syrian policies.
At present the Americans are talking to us to change our attitude. From their perspective, the talks are not meant to hear our logic. As the Supreme Leader has said at times we need to display heroic flexibility. Sometimes the Americans show flexibility in their policies; that does not mean they have forgotten their ultimate goal.
We have to appreciate the fact that if the American side makes compromises on one front, it seeks to notch up a win on another. Foreign relations are like a chess game. You need to guess what the next 10 moves of your opponent might be in order not to make a hasty move.
The American moves are in line with their strategy which is clear to us. If we keep that in mind, neither will a smile on their part fill us with excitement, nor their bad temper will make us angry. After all, we know what the other party is up to.
The Iranian negotiators have performed very well. They have insisted on our stance and have not agreed to sign a bad deal. They have acted honestly and I believe that is a definite plus.
In the past we had direct talks with the US on Afghanistan and Iraq, but their attitude would not change. After the talks on Afghanistan, US President George W. Bush went on to describe Iran as part of an axis of evil.
Some analysts believe that if Iran and the US focused on other issues like Iraq, the deadlock might be broken. What’s your take on that?
Regardless of what has led to the emergence of ISIL, there is unwritten convergence between Iran and the US on the terrorist group. We both denounce the Islamic State, from two different perspectives, though.
I don’t think cooperation between the US and Iran, or any other country for that matter, is needed to defeat ISIL. Division among Iraqi officials was to blame for ISIL overrunning as much as 30 percent of Iraqi territory. […]
One should not forget the fact that Iraq had one of the mightiest armies in the Middle East, treason and failure of the Kurds and Sunnis to contribute to military efforts to quell ISIL were to blame for the defeat the army suffered. […]
In establishing ties with the US, resumption of diplomatic relations should not and could not be the ultimate goal. If such relations were meant to settle some regional problems, we’d take account of the expediency of the country and move toward that goal. We have done that before.
You think normalization of ties between the two countries is logical?
On the diplomatic front nothing is impossible. Of course, there are some exceptions to that rule. For instance, one can definitively say that establishment of relations between Iran and the Zionist regime is impossible. However, I believe resumption of ties between Iran and the US is unlikely in the short run.
What happens if an agreement is not reached by the November deadline?
Failure to strike a deal won’t bring in the end of the world. Even in case of such failure, the atmosphere won’t be as tense as it used to be. […] Politicians are good at working out new solutions. They will definitely come up with a new formula to sustain the talks. Even if they fail, they won’t publicly announce their failure and the talks will carry on, one way or another.
Recently Iranian deputy foreign minister paid a visit to Saudi Arabia. How do you see ties between the two countries?
Relations between these two countries have always been peculiar. There are rivalries between the two that date back to before Iran’s revolution. Those rivalries grew after the revolution.
Saudis are very conservative in their foreign policy and very traditionalist at the same time. They don’t update their policies. On regional issues such as Syria, Bahrain and Yemen they have performed poorly. Their failure to see the realities on the ground and act accordingly is to blame for their behavior.
The Saudis should come to terms with the fact that they no longer are the sole player in the region and that they cannot tribally solve the issues of the world of Islam in consultation with a few Arab countries. […]
And finally, tell us about developments in Iraq and your assessment of Iran’s support for the new Iraqi prime minister.
Iran’s support for Haider al-Abadi amounted to respect for what the Iraqi people wanted. Iran would have supported any other person who had been chosen in a democratic process.
The two countries need each other. We are both members of OPEC and the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC). We can help each other on various fronts.
Iraq is currently grappling with the problem of ISIL. We need to help Baghdad solve that problem. I believe Tehran can contribute to efforts to maintain unity among Iraqi factions which will guarantee the emergence of a powerful, independent and influential Iraq.