Accessibility links

Breaking News

"Deterring Iran": an interview with Michael Singh

As the U.S. State Department certified to House Speaker Paul Ryan that Iran is compliant with its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the Trump administration is “conducting across the entire government a review of Iran policy.”

The United States has to “look at Iran in a very comprehensive way in terms of the threat it poses in all areas, of the region and the world, and JCPOA is just one element of that,” Tillerson said on April 19th.

As the results of the U.S. government’s review is expected around the end of July, some experts have already weighing in on how the new U.S. administration should face Iran. Among those is Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Singh, who used to be senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, published a set of recommendations for the Trump administration called Deterring Iran. In this interview, Singh discusses different approaches toward the future of the nuclear deal, as well as Iran’s position in the Middle East.

RADIOFARDA: You write that the U.S. Strategy of Deterrence requires Iran to believe challenging U.S. interests will be costly but playing by the rules of regional and international order can be beneficial. How can playing by the rules be beneficial for Tehran?

Michael Singh: Just to give one example, we, the United States and our international partners (P5+1) signed a nuclear agreement with Iran. We had a robust debate about it in the United States as to whether the nuclear agreement was good, strong, and restrictive enough. But I don’t think there is much debate among experts about the general principle that if Iran is willing to really give up any aspirations to have nuclear weapons and accept limits and inspections of its nuclear program, we should be ready to offer sanctions relief.

To me, that’s a good example of receiving benefits for constructive actions and constructive policies. The idea that we are not sanctioning Iran simply to sanction Iran, not simply because we somehow don’t like Iran, but for specific actions, and if it stops those actions, we are willing to stop our sanctions.

RADIOFARDA: Among your recommendations, without mentioning the Sunset Clause, you highlight there is an end date to the deal and recommend the administration work with allies to extend the terms of JCPOA. What are Iran’s incentives for agreeing to the extension?

Singh: What the Iranian government needs to recognize -- something believed here in the West, and I think in Europe and Asia, as well -- is that Iran pursuing nuclear weapons capability, even if it doesn’t actually produce a nuclear weapon, simply having the capability on the shelf to produce a nuclear weapon, is destabilizing. It is destabilizing for the region; it creates an incentive for Iran’s neighbors to also pursue nuclear weapons capabilities. Because the United States and other countries are interested in stability in the Middle East and because of the impact that instability has on Europe and the rest of the world is something we simply can’t accept. We can’t simply tolerate this kind of destabilizing action in the Middle East. Therefore, I think what we would want is to see the expansion and an extension of the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.

In exchange, I think the benefit for Iran would be to avoid a crisis and the renewal of the tensions that we have seen over the past 10, 12 years over its nuclear activities, to see an extension of trade with Iran and its integration into the world economy and acceptance as a member of the international community of nations.

RADIOFARDA: In your opinion, did Iran reap the benefits it expected from the nuclear deal?

Singh: The nuclear deal removed the obstacles to economic growth and to improving relations with its neighbors and other countries. But these sanctions were not the only obstacles in Iran’s path. If Iran is really going to benefit from the nuclear deal, and for it to be a real opportunity, Iran will also need to engage in reforms at home, reforms in its economy. It also needs to change its behavior toward its neighbors in the region.

They were great benefits, especially if Iran takes these other steps to really maximize the opportunity and the potential represented by the nuclear deal.

RADIOFARDA: You highlighted that the U.S. should actively educate the international private sector regarding sanctions compliance obligations with respect to Iran. Do you see this in line with what Secretary of State John Kerry was doing in sitting down with representatives of businesses and international banks encouraging them to do business with Iran, which is also mentioned in JCPOA, or does it contradict that idea?

Singh: What we would want to see happen in the United States is for business that is illegitimate or illegal with Iran, according to our laws, not to take place. But business which is legitimate to go ahead. And the best way to encourage that is to provide information and clarity to companies.

If we still have sanctions on this or that entity or a certain type of sanctions on Iran, we need to be clear with businesses what those sanctions are, how they work, and to which entities they apply, so that business which is legitimate and allowed can go forward and the business which is illegitimate won’t happen.

RADIOFARDA: Another issue among your recommendations is to persuade IAEA to provide more public details in its reporting. How do you see this could help with verification of the Iranian program and avoiding further development?

Singh: Here in the West, there is a lot of skepticism and suspicion about Iran’s nuclear activities and Iran’s real intentions with regard to its nuclear program. Of course Iran claims it has no intentions to make nuclear weapons or pursue nuclear weapons capability. The best way to put suspicion to rest and build confidence is to have transparency; to be very clear, very detailed in reports about what exactly is happening in Iran’s nuclear program.

That is in the interest of anyone here in the West who does not want to see a nuclear crisis with Iran. It’s also frankly in the interest of the Iranian government and the Iranian people so that other countries will have confidence in their stated intentions.

RADIOFARDA: Why is public reporting needed, in your opinion? If the administration gets enough details to verify, wouldn’t that be enough?

Singh: In the West, because our countries are democracies, we have more than one branch of government; for example, the U.S. has Congress, which is very much active in Iran’s policy, especially in regards to sanctions policy. It is important this information be made public so independent experts can judge it. Our habit here, of course, is not simply to take our government’s word for things but to want to see the underlying information and judge it for ourselves.

Again, if there is in fact nothing illegal or illicit happening, then both the United States and Iran and the other parties in the agreement should welcome the judgments of independent experts to build that mutual confidence we need.

RADIOFARDA: But you well know Iran would say this is confidential information related to the security of the country which it is sharing with IAEA to comply with the deal and safeguards and the additional protocol, and it won’t support sharing in-depth details with the entire international community.

Singh: If Iran’s program is in fact purely civilian in nature, oriented toward power generators and the production of medical isotopes, as the Iranian government says it is, there is no potential compromise of defense information and military information possible by being transparent.

You also have to weigh priorities. In an ideal world, we would simply trust the IAEA, we would trust the Iranian government, but I think given the history of this issue that trust is simply lacking. As we go forward, what will be more important than protecting any potential sort of confidential information would be ensuring the stability of the agreement, the stability of Iran’s relations with the West and ensuring survival of the nuclear deal. That, to me, would have to take precedent, and hopefully the Iranian side would see that, as well.

RADIOFARDA: You mean not only Iran, but also trust in the IAEA is far from perfect?

Singh: It is absolutely far from perfect. Obviously, from the Western perspective, Iran has not been forthcoming in the past about its nuclear activities, so we are approaching this deal with a healthy degree of skepticism. With the IAEA, I think there is certainly trust in the IAEA’s intentions, but the fact is that we have seen in the past that the IAEA has missed things, whether in North Korea or other nuclear programs. That’s why it is important that we have not just one agency but also independent experts who can assess this information.

RADIOFARDA: In your report, you mention that Iran policy is far from being the only problem of the new U.S. administration in the Middle East, but in your opinion it is the most important one. Can you elaborate?

Singh: From the point of view of the United States and Washington, when you look at Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and these crises that we see unfolding across the Middle East, invariably you have Iran and its proxies playing a role in these conflicts. Here in the U.S., the point of view is that in Syria, the Assad regime would be much more likely to be forced to bargain diplomatically if it weren’t for the military support provided by Iran that allows Assad sustain the conflict.

In Iraq, there is tremendous concern about the role Iran is playing in equipping and training militias, which may be are independent of the government’s authority. And in Yemen, there is tremendous concern about Iran providing arms to the Houthi rebels who have unseated the legitimate government.

We are concerned about all these problems, but in every one of these you see a common denominator, which is Iran playing a role in fomenting instability and sustaining these conflicts.

RADIOFARDA: In all these crises, do you think there is an opportunity for the U.S. to talk these matters over with Iran? I don’t mean as an ally, but as a country to work with in order to solve issues.

Singh: In some cases, the United States and Iran might share a short-term objective, like defeating ISIS in Mosul. But we don’t necessarily share the same long-term interests. What the United States would like to see in Iraq is an Iraq which is independent, democratic, strong, and pluralistic. There is suspicion in the United States that Iran doesn’t really share those interests. Iran is looking to assert more control over Iraq than we would like to see or is appropriate for one sovereign country to exert over another. So, certainly, in the short term there is a possibility of cooperation and working together, but I would say only if we can reconcile those longer-term interests. And right now we are very far away from that and there is a great deal of suspicion.

RADIOFARDA: Is that why when you suggest the continuation of engagement with Iran, you suggest having regional allies in mind or involving them in this process?

Singh: We have to have engagement as a tool. It’s not an end in itself. It’s something we use not just with Iran but with many countries to advance our objectives and interests and so forth, and we have to see it that way. When we think about engagement with Iran, I don’t think the problems of the region can be negotiated between the U.S. and Iran. I don’t think that’s appropriate. What is appropriate is that the countries in the region including Iran come together to talk multilaterally about these problems.

One issue we have experienced in recent years was that because the U.S. has been seen as dealing with Iran to the exclusion of its allies, there have been suspicions that have grown not just toward Iran but toward the United States from some countries in the region. Overall, that is negative for the atmosphere of the region.

RADIOFARDA: While the United States was busy with nuclear negotiations, it was also cooperating with allies and, for example, signing deals on arms and other things.

Singh: Yes, there was a lot of cooperation happening. But there was also some suspicion from the Arab states, from (Persian) Gulf states toward U.S. policy with regard to Iran. For example, if we talk about issues like Syria, like Yemen, it’s important we have our allies there with us because their interests are very much implicated by these issues. This is not a matter for the U.S. to deal directly with Iran or Russia. It is important that all the relevant interests are reflected at the negotiating table.

RADIOFARDA: One of your final recommendations was the continuation of visa issuance and people-to-people contact. We are discussing this at the time that President Trump signed an executive order twice on the temporary restriction for Travel of citizens of six countries including Iran, which it has been suspended by court orders. What are your thoughts?

Singh: This immigration executive order provoked a lot of debate and controversy in the United States, and what is important to recognize is that the suspension of visa issuance is described as temporary. While the new administration has a chance to review security procedures, and to take stock of where things stand, I think this is important to bear in mind because the immigration policy for the United States and for any country is about tradeoffs, balancing things like security against the need to have people come for tourism, etc.

These are the tradeoffs which the administration has to look at. With Iran, I think it has always been in the United States’ desire to welcoming the Iranian people, desire to reach out to them and perhaps desire to differentiate between the policies of a government and the attitudes of the people. My hope is that will continue in the future because I think that’s quite appropriate and also quite important for America.

  • 16x9 Image

    Hannah Kaviani

    Hannah Kaviani is a Radio Farda staffer based in Prague, since 2008. She followed the nuclear negotiations between Iran and 6 world powers between 2013 and 2015 and covers the aftermath of Iran deal.