Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog assesses the West’s relations with Iran

A number of events this week are shining a spotlight on Iran’s relations with the West. Foreign Secretary William Hague has announced the reopening of the British Embassy in Tehran, a decision which coincides with the latest round of P5+1 talks with Iran in Vienna and reports that the US is holding a dialogue with Iran about the crisis sweeping Iraq. To discuss this, BICOM Director of Research Dr. Toby Greene spoke with BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow Brig. Gen. (res.) Michael Herzog. You can listen to the interview in full at www.bicom.org.uk/podcasts.

UK officials are keen to stress that reopening the embassy is a bilateral process, not linked directly to the nuclear talks or the developments in Iraq. But does the advance of radical Sunni Jihadists in Iraq have the potential to impact relations between Iran and Western powers?

Yes. What we see now is that in Washington and some European capitals, some people are of the opinion that, given the dramatic events in Iraq – the rise of ISIS, their capture of Mosul and establishing a unified entity between Syria and Iraq – that the only way to stop this is to garner the support of Iran, given the convergence of interests against Sunni Jihadists.

However, I would warn against the thought that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” I do not think Iran offers a better vision for a unified, inclusive Iraq. It offers a vision of Shia Islamism, which is also a challenge to Western values and policies. It is not in Western interests to strengthen Iran’s position in the region.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, bears a heavy responsibility for developments in Iraq given his sectarian policies which alienated almost all the Sunnis in Iraq. His appointment was the result of a convergence of interests between the US and Iran in 2010 and now we see the results. Iran certainly supports Maliki in his sectarian policies, so we need to be very careful about turning to Iran to provide a solution and I would look elsewhere.

Israelis have been fairly quiet about Iraq, being focused on the kidnapping in the West Bank, but how do you think the developments in Iraq are being viewed in Israel?

While the kidnapping captures the headlines and the public’s attention, people are not blind to the developments in Iraq, which certainly have potential consequences for Israel. People are worried about the rise of Salafi Jihadist Islam in our region and in particular there is a lot of concern about Jordan, which neighbours Syria and Iraq. ISIS are saying openly that they want to target Jordan and kill King Abdullah and there are many Jordanians who joined the Jihadists in Syria (they the largest contingent of Arab/foreign volunteers). When these people return it will be bad news for Jordan’s stability, coupled with its economic crisis and the heavy burden of hosting well over 1 million refugees. One of the major imperatives for the international community at this point is to provide much more significant support than they are currently to help stabilise the situation in Jordan.

Turning to the talks in Vienna, we are fast approaching the 20 July deadline and the gaps between Iran and the P5+1, as reported from the previous round, are very considerable. What are the key factors that will determine whether a deal will be reached?

My understanding is that there are significant gaps and the general assumption in Washington and European capitals is that the interim deal will be extended by additional six months since the parties will not conclude a comprehensive deal by 20 July.

The main sticking points have to do with the issue of rolling back Iranian nuclear capabilities. The Iranians are saying they want to maintain and even enhance these capabilities and if the West is concerned about the military dimensions of their programme, it would allow more monitoring and inspections. Of course, this is not good enough because they could still cheat, bypass and kick out inspectors while maintaining their core capabilities.

On the key issue of uranium enrichment, the P5+1 demand a significant reduction in Iran’s arsenal of centrifuges (they currently hold 19,000 of which less than 10,000 are operational, with the West demanding they hold only a few thousand). The Iranians are not only resisting a reduction, but are demanding to be allowed to expand their arsenal. They claim that once the deal with Russia to provide fuel to the Bushehr reactor expires (in 2021), they will need more centrifuges to produce the fuel on their own. Of course that sounds like an excuse, and if they stick to these positions I don’t think the parties can reach a deal.

I think both parties are ready to extend talks by an additional six months, but the question for the West is: How do you build up pressure on Iran for the next six months, so that the interim deal does not turn into a permanent situation and Iran is convinced to conclude a reasonable deal?

At the moment there seems to be some differences of opinion about the extent of the economic pressure on Iran and how keen it is to reach a deal. What is your view on this?

The economic pressure on Iran is still there. People who thought that the sanctions regime would collapse as a result of the interim agreement were proven wrong. That said, I think the pressure eased somewhat and the Iranian economy is better than it was six to nine months ago. Iran has a budgetary surplus. So while the economic situation pressurises them, it is not to the extent where they are on their knees and need a deal urgently.

The big question is whether Iran or the P5+1 is more eager for a deal? I am not sure the Iranians are more eager than the West right now. They are certainly ready to extend the interim situation for six months. Again, this leads me back to the question of how to build up pressure on Iran for the next six months.

Obviously Israel is not a party to these talks, but maintains close dialogue with the P5+1 countries. What do you think Israeli officials will be saying to their P5+1 counterparts at this stage?

The Israelis are concerned that there may be a bad deal given what they think is insufficient Western resolve. In order to have a deal you need both a significant rollback of Iranian capabilities and increased intrusive inspection regime, including in undeclared sites. The Iranians are saying they will allow for more inspections, but are resisting a disruption in their capabilities. Israel will expect the P5+1 to insist on both.

Some in Israel think extending the interim agreement may not be so bad, as it means not caving in to Iranian demands. That said, there is also concern lest the interim agreement turns into a permanent or semi-permanent situation If the interim agreement is extended now, and then again in January. Assuming no one in the West will be ready to declare failure, we will face this ongoing situation of an interim grey area.

That is problematic in Israeli eyes. In such a situation, on the one hand, Iran’s core capabilities are not rolled back significantly, since everything they gave in the interim agreement is reversible. On the other hand, Iran is not under the same pressure as before the interim deal, especially economically.

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