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"I Wouldn't Bank On It." Says President Of ICG On The Possibility of Iran Going Back to The Negotiating Table

Rob Malley, former US negotiator during the Iran nuclear program negotiations and current CEO at the International Crisis Group, poses in his office May 7, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump will confirm on May 8, 2018 whether he will make goo
Rob Malley, former US negotiator during the Iran nuclear program negotiations and current CEO at the International Crisis Group, poses in his office May 7, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump will confirm on May 8, 2018 whether he will make goo
Interview With Rob Malley CEO Of International Crisis Group
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Rikard Jozwiak interviewed Rob Malley the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group about the Iran Deal.

Is The Iran Deal Dead?

The Iran deal as we knew it is no more because the United States is not a part of it. But the Iran deal that means Iran living up to its commitment and getting some economic benefits and diplomatic benefits -- that is still viable. But it depends on three things. It depends on how creative Europe can be, and so it's a matter of negotiation between Europe and Iran. It depends on how the internal battle in Iran will be, between the hard-line and the more pragmatic and which one is going to prevail. Some want to stay in the deal as it is, and some want to walk out. And third, it depends on the race between those two and the American electoral calendar. At some point Iran is going to say, "It's not the deal that we wanted, but it's enough, and we are going to hold our nose, hunker down, and wait to see what happens in 2020 when there are American elections."

As a result of all that, it is still a very uncertain question. A deal could still survive in which Iran lives up to its nuclear obligations. Europe does as much as it can economically and politically to give something, some benefits to Iran, and Iran decides internally that it's tempting to walk away, but if we walk away the sanctions come back. Let’s hunker down, bide our time, and get of this as much as we can to see what happens in the United States.

What would you have negotiated differently [in the Iran deal] to avoid the deadlock that we see today?

I think it would have been very difficult. It's not as if people didn't think about it. But the arguments [of] "Why didn't you deal with regional issues?" If we had tried to deal with the regional issues, tried to resolve Iran's relationship with Hezbollah, with the Syrian regime, its opposition and its support for other organizations, and its opposition to Israel, we would still be negotiating today. I mean, it took a long time to just resolve the nuclear issue. If we tried to resolve Iran's foreign policy, we would be negotiating forever, because they would have brought U.S. support for Israel and [the] U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia on the table, as well. So the calculus was let's at least neutralize one issue that can make everything much, much worse.

I don't think that was wrong. I think it was the right decision. I think the only reason today it's being called into question is because of who is sitting in the White House. Some things we could have done differently and better, but in terms of the core and the essence of the deal, I think those who argue that we should have brought in all these other issues argue that we should still be negotiating today.

What advice would you give to the United States on how to deal with Iran?

It is very hard to answer that question when they have already violated the first premise. Because the first premise, this is what I would tell the U.S. administration, "Keep this deal, respect this deal, give it two years, three years.” Let both sides see the benefits of this deal. Then go talk to Iran and say "You know what? There are things we still don't like. We are still uncomfortable with your foreign policy; in fact, we oppose your foreign policy. We need to see that change. There are things you don't like. You don't like our primary embargo."

Still [the] U.S., even with the deal, was maintaining its own sanctions … doing virtually no trade with Iran. "You also don't like aspects of the security situation in the region. Let's talk about all that." But it's almost impossible to have that conversation -- not impossible, almost impossible -- when you have violated the first pillar, which was "Let's show that this deal works and then let's build on to something else."

Do you think that Iran can go back to the negotiating table just like North Korea did?

You know, I have wondered about that after I have seen what happened between President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un. It is at least conceivable. I don't give it a big chance; it's conceivable because Trump wouldn’t, I think, necessarily mind it. That you see Trump someday decide, "I should meet with President [Hassan] Rouhani; we should have a deal, and it could be a deal that could be one page." He could show that he did something that his predecessor couldn't do. That he met with the Iranian president and got some deal and the deal could be much less than the Iran nuclear deal, by the way, because I don't think Trump cares that much about the substance of the deal.

So it's not inconceivable to me. Let's not forget that the same day last September that Trump gave the most blistering speech about Iran, … he had the French president call Rouhani and ask for a meeting, which the Iranians refused. Always in his mind there is this thing, "Maybe I can do something. Best deal maker ever. So, I can do the deal."

The reason I'm somewhat quite skeptical, number one the Iranians right now would resist it because they don't trust him because they don't want to look like they are giving in to his pressure tactics, and secondly -- unlike on the Korean Peninsula -- the regional actors would all oppose that. So in the North Korean case you had South Korea, China, to some extent Japan maybe less so, who were not opposed to it. Some of them were very much in favor in diplomacy between Trump and Kim. Here you have Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel who would be all pressing very hard [for] Trump not to go down that path. So I think there are differences, there are other ones that Iran doesn't have a nuclear bomb [and] North Korea did. So it's much easier for North Korea to go into those negotiations. I don't exclude it. I think it's harder, and I wouldn't bank on it.

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO.