Tehran calling

Unlike many colleagues around Washington, I have decided to talk with and answer questions from Iranian media willing to publish them. I think it important for Americans to try to be understood in Iran. Certainly Tehran is making big efforts to be understood in the US. While I find some of what the Iranian media broadcast objectionable and even odious, most of the questions they ask me are straight up, like these from Hamid Bayati, published this morning in the Tehran Times:

Q: As you know Iran and Russia begin new initiative to bring peace to Syria, so how do you evaluate these efforts?

A: There really is nothing to evaluate yet. The Iranian four-point proposal, which has been public for some time, requires a good deal more detail before it can be evaluated. The key question is how the transition will be handled. No political solution will work that keeps Bashar al Assad in power, because the Syrian opposition will continue fighting.

Q: Some experts believe that after nuclear deal reach between Iran and world powers, Western countries especially the US begin to cooperate with Iran in regional issues such as Syria, and a new era begins in Middle East. Do you agree with this view?

A: Not really, even if I would like to see it happen. Iran with the nuclear agreement will have substantial resources. The question is how it will use those resources. Hardliners in Tehran will presumably argue for more support to Iran’s allies in the region: Bashar al Assad and Hizbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, Houthi forces in Yemen and Hamas. The US and Europe will not welcome moves of that sort. There will be enormous pressure on the US administration to push back, especially against Hizbollah.

Q: Turkey launches airstrikes against ISIL and PKK positions in Syria and Iraq, are these acts helpful to peace process in Middle East or not?

A: The Americans think more Turkish help against ISIL is vital. The US and Turkey have different opinions about the Kurds in Syria, though at this point PKK attacks inside Turkey are making that irrelevant.

Q: How do you evaluate the US-led Coalition against ISIS after one year of its creation? Does this Coalition reach its goals?

A: The Coalition has not reached its goals, but it has blocked ISIS advances and has rolled them back in some areas (Tikrit, Kobane, Tal Abayd). Without a better formula for who will govern in ISIL-controlled territory, I don’t see how the Coalition can “win.”

Q: As you know US congress is reviewing the Iran nuclear deal and it is possible US lawmakers will kill this deal. If this event happen what will we have after that?

A: It is possible but not likely that US lawmakers would kill the deal, but in order to do so they would need a 2/3 majority in both houses of Congress. That will be difficult to get. If they do kill the deal, Iran and the P4+1 will have some important decisions to make. Do they abandon the deal completely, or do they implement it without the US? If the deal is abandoned, what will Iran do?

Q: In an interview aired Sunday on CNN’s “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” Obama said the United States’ role in global politics could be affected by the deal, how do you explain this sentence?

A: Defeat of the deal would separate the US from its allies and undermine confidence in American leadership in many countries. It would be like the Senate’s rejection of the League of Nations almost 100 years ago, a move that isolated and weakened the US.

Q: If US congress kills the deal, is it possible United States and EU continue a different strategy toward Iran? I mean is it possible they have different relations with Iran and EU that don’t follow US policy?

A: It is possible, though the US might try to apply “secondary” sanctions by barring European companies from doing business with the US if they do business with Iran. That would create big problems with America’s closest allies.

Q: It seems European countries have been more eager than US to revive their relations with Iran, how do you explain this view?

A: Europe needs Iranian oil and gas much more than the US does. Our companies are far less interested in doing business with Iran than some European countries. Geography is destiny I’m afraid.

As I failed to respond adequately to his question about the PKK, Hamid sent more, which were not published with the rest of the interview:

A: What do you think about Turkey military attacks on PKK positions? Some experts said these attacks are because the AK party lost in elections. Some experts said Turkey attacks the PKK because Turks don’t want Kurds to be strong, what do you think about it?

Q: The PKK made the mistake of ending the ceasefire with the Turkish government, which reacted forcefully. Some think this was the result of a split among the Kurds between those who did well in recent elections and the military component, which feared irrelevance.

It might have been better for the Turks to escalate more slowly; some think Erdogan may be seeking to regain some of the popular support he has lost recently by vigorously responding to every Kurdish provocation. But the PKK is a terrorist organization that attacks the Turkish state and can’t expect safe haven in Iraq or Syria. Iranian support for the PKK is a big concern for Turkey.

The complication of course is that the most effective Syrian fighters against ISIL include Kurds affiliated with the PKK. The Americans prioritize the fight against ISIL, which is an international threat. The Turks prioritize the fight against the PKK, which is a domestic threat. Iran does likewise when it faces a domestic threat of the PKK variety. The US and Turkey will work out their differences in dealing with the Kurds. I’m less sure that Iran and the US, or Iran and Turkey, will do likewise, though it would be desirable.

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