Tag Archives: US-Iran Relations

Dear Tehran, Washington, and P5+1: I Know You’re Reading My Blog, So Please Pay Attention


January 9, 2011

It’s flattering to see that the parties to the Iran nuclear talks are reading my blog.

In one of my recent posts, I had argued that the most important problem between Iran and the international community was the mutual lack of trust. I had suggested that, in order to overcome the troubled state of relations between Iran and the outside world – especially the United States – the two sides had to understand the historical and psychological underpinnings of their suspicions. As such, in order to build trust between the two, I had advised the Iranians to open all their nuclear installations and had urged the P5+1 group to lift the sanctions and streamline Iran’s application to become a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) once its nuclear program was in the clear.

Last week, reports came in that Tehran has invited diplomats from the P5+1 group (except the United States), as well as Turkey, to visit certain sites in Iran and see for themselves whether they are building The Bomb. Unfortunately, the EU countries of the P5+1 group – France, Britain, and Germany – rejected Iran’s offer because it did not include all nuclear facilities and because only diplomats were invited. Both points were quite valid.

Now, as much as I appreciate the two sides reading what I say, they ought to do more.

As per my original proposal, Iran should state its willingness to open all of its nuclear installations – power plants, research reactors, and enrichment centers – if the P5+1 group pledges to lift all sanctions on Iran once IAEA experts (that is, nuclear physicists, chemical experts, engineers, and not diplomats) can confirm that the Iranians are not producing nuclear weapons. The revelation of undeclared nuclear facilities – a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz in 2003 and another one at a military base near Qom in 2009 – has cast significant doubts in diplomatic circles over Iran’s true intentions. Visits to such sites can be meaningful only if carried out by scientists, who know what to look for, rather than diplomats, who don’t.

Another fact that we need to recognize is how a majority of Iran’s current problems spring from its troubled relations with the United States. Most of Washington’s Middle East headaches have a lot to do with its problematic relations with Tehran as well. For 32 years, the two sides have tried to undermine each other through groups such as HAMAS, Hezbollah, the Shia militia in Iraq, PJAK, and the MKO. In the end, the United States and Iran have gained very little by saber-rattling through these proxies.

Thus, in parallel with the Iran-P5+1 negotiations, Americans and Iranians need to start meeting directly and regularly in order to resolve their differences and re-establish diplomatic ties – perhaps preceded by confidence-building measures in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. At any rate, America and Iran can only address problems borne out of the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran’s support for HAMAS and Hezbollah, Iran’s vicious rhetoric against Israel, and a host of other problems if they’re in the same room and if they have functioning embassies in their capitals. The Bush administration had snubbed such an Iranian overture in 2003. It would be foolish for the administrations in the U.S. and Iran to repeat that mistake.

And if the two governments are uncertain about how they can go about doing that, they can just ask me. I’d be glad to help.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Beyond Nukes: Building Trust Between Iran and the World


December 13, 2010

Last week’s talks in Geneva between the Iranian government and the P5+1 group produced little more than an agreement to meet in Istanbul next month.

The negotiations between Iran and P5+1 (United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany) is pacing this slowly because Iran’s nuclear program is not the real problem; at least, it is not the biggest problem between Iran and the rest of the world.

The Iranian nuclear program is not the problem, because, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated last week, her country recognizes Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy. The Iranians, for their part, have explained repeatedly that their nuclear program has peaceful purposes only. But that is not easing the international community’s concerns that Iran may be producing something other than electricity.

The Iranian nuclear standoff cannot be resolved without understanding this plain and simple fact: the mutual distrust between Iran and the outside world – especially the United States – is the major cause of the deadlock.

Problems between Iran and the rest include (but are not limited to): Iranian support for HAMAS and Hezbollah; U.S. support for MKO and PJAK (groups designated by the State Department as “terrorist organizations”); Iran’s harsh rhetoric against Israel and the United States; U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan; U.S. influence over the Persian Gulf monarchies; and the recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in Tehran.

There’s a fairly long history to the lack of trust: Iranians have not forgotten the joint British-Russian occupation of their country in the two world wars. The CIA and MI6-sponsored coup against Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953 is remembered more vividly. Iranians also recall the dictatorial rule of the Shah and believe – mistakenly – that his reign lasted until the Revolution in 1979 only because the West supported him.

Of course, Americans and other foreigners have their share of bad memories. The storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and the traumatic captivity of American diplomats at the hands of militant Iranian students for 444 days has not receded into memory.

For their part, Iranians believe, with some justification, that the United States had encouraged Saddam Hussein to start the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980 to punish Tehran for the hostage crisis. Add to that how Western countries had lavished the Iraqi dictator with advanced weaponry during the 8-year war and you get a better sense of Iranian worries.

So what can be done about the deep distrust between Iran and the world? For a start, the U.S. should stop discussing military action against Iran as if it is inevitable. Even uttering the phrase “all options are on the table” is against the logic of talking. It would only convince the Iranian leadership that speedy development of nuclear weapons – the outcome that the nuclear talks are supposed to avert – is the only way to defend themselves. In order to build trust, Western governments – especially the Obama administration – should use a softer tone.

Western countries should also understand that, despite its oil riches, Iran is not a rich country (which may be a more subtle cause for its sense of insecurity). Even before the latest round of punitive sanctions, the Iranian economy had a performance problem. Official inflation and unemployment rates are said to be 10% and 14.6% respectively but the actual figures are probably higher. Furthermore, more than a quarter of Iran’s population is below the age of 15. Iran can only provide jobs for its growing population if it can attract more foreign investment and increase its non-oil trade with the rest of the world, which can only happen if joins the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Thus, aside from using a softer tone, the United States and other Western countries should convince Iran that, if the nuclear talks produce positive and tangible results, they will hasten Iran’s application to become a WTO member.

In order to build trust, the Iranians have an important duty as well. The revelation of undeclared Iranian nuclear facilities – a uranium enrichment plant in Natanz in 2003 and another one at a military base near Qom in 2009 – have cast significant doubts in diplomatic circles over Iran’s true intentions.

To put an end to that problem, Tehran should offer to submit the list of all of its nuclear facilities (finished and unfinished) to the P5+1 group in order to demonstrate its sincerity. A mission by the United Nations can verify that no additional nuclear sites exist in Iran, which would help to develop confidence between the two sides.

With a modicum of trust, the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 group can yield better results and serve as a stepping stone for Iran’s integration with the international community.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Wikileaks Documents Reveal Growing Turkish Concern Over Iranian Nuclear Program


November 29, 2010

Wikileaks has finally released the first batch of U.S. State Department documents (slightly over 240 out of a total of nearly 250,000). Dubbed “Cablegate,” the collection comprises cables sent from 274 U.S. diplomatic posts from around the world.

The reports sent to Washington from the U.S. embassy in Ankara provide a colorful picture of how U.S. officials have perceived Turkey in the last six years. For the next few days, I will analyze the 27 documents that the U.S. embassy in Ankara sent to Washington.

(That is, of course, if we can overlook some very embarrassing comments and rumors about certain Turkish politicians.)

One of the most striking things about the leaked documents is that they reflect growing Turkish apprehension over Iran’s nuclear program. As I had pointed out last month, Ankara is beginning to see Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to its national security.

We now have evidence confirming that assertion.

Apparently, in a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on February 6, 2010, Minister of National Defense Vecdi Gönül acknowledged that the Turkish government was becoming “concerned about the Iranian threat, [e]ven though Turkey does not expect an attack from Iran.”

Barely twelve days after the Gates-Gönül talks, in a meeting between U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns and Undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Feridun Sinirlioğlu, the Turkish side once again “acknowledged [that] the countries of the region perceive Iran as a growing threat.” Mr. Sinirlioğlu added that, even in Syria, which enjoys good relations with Iran, “alarm bells are ringing.”

It seems that some arm-twisting took place between Washington and Ankara. In the run-up to the meetings in February 2010, on October 21, 2009, U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey reportedly used strong words with respect to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan’s attempts to mediate the nuclear standoff with Iran. Following Mr. Erdoğan’s dismissal of Iran’s intention to develop nuclear weapons as “gossip” during his trip to Tehran last fall, Ambassador Jeffrey reportedly conveyed his government’s displeasure to Mr. Sinirlioğlu, “that Washington was now wondering if it could any longer count on Turkey to help contain Iran’s profound challenge to regional peace and stability.” Mr. Sinirlioğlu pointed out that the Turkish Prime Minister was categorically against nuclear weapons in the Middle East and that Turkey supported P5+1 talks with Iran.

Fast forward to last week’s NATO summit in Lisbon, where the United States and its European allies agreed to install a missile defense shield. Although Turkey refused to label Iran as a “threat” to NATO, it nevertheless agreed to join the Alliance’s prospective missile defense system. Even Russia, which is growing more resentful of Iran, has agreed to cooperate with NATO on missile defense.

In light of these developments, there is only one conclusion to draw from the Wikileaks documents: Turkey and other Iran-friendly countries are becoming increasingly suspicious of the Iranian nuclear program and perceive Iran’s foreign policy ventures as “growing threats.”

It seems that policy-makers on both sides are going to have to show more flexibility and creativity during the Iran–P5+1 talks in Geneva on December 5, though Iranian negotiators have a harder task this time: If the talks fail to produce positive results, and if Iran gets the blame, their neighbors – including Turkey and Syria – may not be as sympathetic as they have been in the past. At a time when even the United Arab Emirates is implementing sanctions against Iran (the UAE is Iran’s fifth largest trading partner and its liberal trade regime helped Iran to circumvent sanctions in the past), deepening their country’s isolation would not be a prudent course of action for Iranian leaders.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


Memo to Republican Senators: Killing New START is Bad Politics (And May Undermine Iran Nuclear Talks)


November 27, 2010

It’s surprising to see Senate Republicans refusing to vote for New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia. Originally borne out of Ronald Reagan’s wish to abolish all nuclear weapons in the 1980s, New START limits the number of U.S. and Russian warheads to 1,550 for each side (the figure was over 10,000 when START I was signed in 1991).

(Click here for the full text of the treaty.)

Led by Jon Kyl of Arizona, Senate Republicans argue that New START would only make sense if the U.S. nuclear arsenal is “modernized” and old weapons are replaced with new ones. In order to assuage Mr. Kyl’s concerns, the Obama administration has allocated $80 billion over the next 10 years to replace aging nuclear weapons. About ten days ago, however, Mr. Kyl’s office issued a brief statement, which considered the passage of New START unlikely because the White House had failed to address numerous Republican concerns. (Foreign treaties require 2/3 of the U.S. Senate’s vote to get ratified. Thus, when the new Congress begins its work on January 3, the Obama administration will need support from at least 15 Republicans – an unlikely prospect.)

Add to that criticism from Mitt Romney (he sought the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 and is the most likely name to lead the Republican ticket in 2012), who claims – quite erroneously, as Fred Kaplan correctly points out – that New START would weaken U.S. posture around the globe, the delay in the Senate appears to have ulterior motives.

It looks like Republicans are using the critical treaty to weaken President Obama and decrease his chances for re-election in 2012.

This can turn into a major foreign policy blunder for the Republican Party. As The Atlantic’s Max Fisher indicates, not only would non-ratification weaken U.S. diplomacy around the world (no foreign government would want to strike a bargain with a divided United States; why sign an agreement with the Americans if it’s going to be killed in the U.S. Senate?), it would also damage Russian President Dimitri Medvedev, a key ally when it comes to resolving the standoff over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. Mr. Medvedev’s support had enabled the United States to pass resolution 1929 from the UN Security Council, which imposed additional sanctions on Iran last summer.

If New START enters into force, both Washington and Moscow can gain the momentum that’s necessary to lead the world into total nuclear abolition. The two countries with the largest nuclear arsenals committing themselves to reducing their stockpiles is a powerful argument against proliferation. It would give the United States, Russia, and other members of P5+1 greater credibility vis-à-vis Iran during the upcoming talks in Geneva.

On the other hand, killing New START would destroy the whole point of talking to Iran over its nuclear program: How can the P5+1 tell Iran not to obtain nuclear weapons if its leading member seems unwilling to curtail a portion of its nuclear forces? How can the United States convince Iran that nuclear weapons are bad if some American politicians cannot part ways with The Bomb?

In the final analysis, it’s understandable that Republicans are trying to weaken Mr. Obama and decreasing his re-election chances. Politics is politics.

But New START should not be one of those anti-Obama maneuvers. It’s simply too important to U.S. interests around the world – especially non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.

Given Mr. Obama’s problems, Republicans will probably have other opportunities to undermine him. But if the Republicans use New START against Mr. Obama and manage to win the presidency in 2012, the new Republican president may find himself (herself?) dealing with bigger proliferation headaches.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


“Do No Harm”: How Can Turkey Help With the Iran Nuclear Standoff?


November 15, 2010

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki’s proposal to have the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in Istanbul received awkward reactions from the Turks. Some Turkish news sites misunderstood Mr. Mottaki’s suggestion as Iran’s sine qua non condition to restart the talks. Even Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s politically-savvy president, made it sound like Turkey would soon join the talks as a leading mediator, which simply wasn’t true.

Of course, even without sitting at the table, Turkey can help to resolve the standoff in several ways.

The prime directive for Turkish officials should be “do no harm” – and it should be upheld primarily by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Mr. Erdoğan, together with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has successfully orchestrated Turkey’s rising prestige around the world in the past decade. But the Prime Minister has also frequently boxed himself with less-than-refined remarks. Last March, Mr. Erdoğan suggested that he reserved the right to deport illegal workers from the Republic of Armenia after American and Swedish legislators passed resolutions describing the forced deportation of Ottoman Armenians during World War I as genocide. Then, in a meeting with women’s rights organizations last summer, Mr. Erdoğan drew the ire of many women after he confessed that he “does not believe in gender equality.”

Unfortunately, Iran’s nuclear program has not been spared from the Turkish Prime Minister’s gaffes either. Last month, Mr. Erdoğan pointed out the discrepancy between pressuring Iran for its nuclear program while the Western world remains silent on Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Mr. Erdoğan’s comparison, though meaning well, didn’t help Iran at all. The Iranians have never juxtaposed their nuclear program with Israel’s nuclear weapons because, as they frequently point out, they do not want nukes.

(Of course, whether Iran’s declarations are completely genuine is another matter.)

Thus, in order to “do no harm,” Mr. Erdoğan should stop comparing Iran’s nuclear program with those of other countries. Playing the “but you also have nukes” card brings Iran and the Middle East closer to war; not away from it.

Next, the Turkish government should impress upon the United States and Israel to stop threatening Iran. Everybody is aware that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons could drag the region into war. But bullying the Islamic Republic may actually convince the mullahs to develop nukes.

Finally, Ankara has to do some tough-talking with Washington and Tehran behind closed doors. To the United States, Turkey has to point out the following: Last summer’s episode, when the United Nations Security Council resolution voided the Turkish-Brazilian-Iranian treaty, frustrated progress with the negotiations, and made Ankara and Brasilia look like idiots, cannot be repeated. Washington and other parties should decide as to whether they want Turkey to get Iran to swap its enriched uranium for nuclear fuel or if they want Turkey off the table completely.

Finally, the Turks have to show to the Iranians that their intransigence could start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Although Turkey and Iran enjoy very friendly relations today, a future nuclear arms race – regardless of who started first – would draw many Turks’ ire. As I write these lines, even members of Mr. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party are floating the not-so-distant possibility that Turkey will develop its own nuclear weapons should Iran (or another Middle Eastern country) initiate a nuclear arms race.

That would do much harm to the entire world.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).