Iranian Statesman Ardeshir Zahedi Looks to the Future

Ardeshir Zahedi and Gregory Copley
Ardeshir Zahedi and Gregory Copley

Ardeshir Zahedi was, in 2013, awarded the International Strategic Studies Association Star for Outstanding Contributions to Strategic Progress for his extensive writings on the history of modern Iran, a process which continues. Ambassador Zahedi answers question posed by Defense & Foreign Affairs’ editor Gregory R. Copley in Montreux, Switzerland.

Ambassador Zahedi, You have seen talk during the US Presidential and Congressional election campaigns through 2016 that the incoming Donald Trump Administration would seek to overturn the July 15, 2015, nuclear treaty with Iran. What should strategic policy officials be thinking about those suggestions? After all, you were the one who signed, for Iran, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968.

Firstly, the deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the nuclear program of Iran — was an international agreement involving not just the United States and Iran. It was a deal signed by the P5+1: the five Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. As a result, a unilateral withdrawal from the agreement would not necessarily be accepted by the other six signatories, although a US decision to go back on an agreement signed by the United States Government would have some real ramifications for the perception of the US as a reliable treaty partner.

But setting that aside, the reality of the deal was more about satisfying the international community’s concerns about nuclear proliferation and about Iran’s own security fears which prompted it to seek the protection of nuclear weapons in the first place. The agreement, regardless of the substance, was an important step toward normalization of relations with Iran, and about enabling Iran itself to return to a sense of normalcy. In that respect, it started moving us all away from war, and reduced the need for Iran to pursue defense policies.

Abandoning the agreement now would only legitimize the Iranian Government’s ability to itself walk away from it, leading to a possible escalation in its nuclear program. I don’t think that the other parties to the agreement — the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France, and Germany— would be persuaded to go along with any new US decisions to unilaterally impose a new set of embargoes against Iran. That means that the US alone would miss the opportunity to help Iran transition back to a normal, stable society, and it means that the US would miss the opportunity to see Iran as its bridge to Central Asia.

The reality is that Iran is the pivotal country which links East and West, North and South. There is no question that, one way or another, it is the key to the stability of the Persian Gulf region. The US once was able to truly balance its good relations with the Shah of Iran and with the Saudis, and that’s what it needs to try to do again. It has taken much longer than we all would have liked to see the possibility for a restoration of good US-Iranian relations, and there is still much to be done.

So my recommendation to the US would be to see the 2015 agreement as a stepping stone to rebuilding both the US position in the region and to helping Iran return to normalcy. I know that there are people in the region who have concerns about the Iranian leadership. There are others who have attempted to take up leadership of the region while Iran has been under sanctions. But in the end, isn’t the prize of having a friendly, stable, and normalized Iran worth having for the US?

So do you think we are, in fact, starting to see a return to some sort of normalcy in Iran, after the Iranian Revolution—like all revolutions—has gone through its predictable phases since 1979? Are Iran’s governing mullahs starting to act more like Persian leaders than merely as religious leaders? Is Iran returning, in a sense, to its historical Persian geopolitical rôle?

I have so much confidence in the people of Iran, because they have an understanding of their roots, and I knew that some day they would come back to their nation. I thought it would take maybe 20 to 25 years. However, when the Shah left, I knew that we would never go back to the way it was during the Pahlavi era. We have seen so much: the Mongol invasion; the Arab invasion. But, even at the time of Cyrus the Great, we were talking about human rights. We’ve always proven that we were capable of advanced human and scientific thinking. We’ve always evolved through problems.

Now it has been about 38 years since the Pahlavi era has ended, and I believe we’re ready to resume our place in the world.

When I left Iran, we were not even 36-million people; today we have more than 80-million. And today, the population is far more educated, as well; 60 per cent of them [are educated]. I think that it would be in the interests of the West that Western societies and governments should recognize these facts, and that Iran is returning to its national identity and is one of the oldest civilizations in the world. We have, over the past couple of centuries, suffered at the hands of the great powers: Russia, Britain, France. But that period, which began with the weakness of the Qajar dynasty, lasted only about a couple of hundred years of our long history.

Now we are indeed coming to a new period. Iran has a rosy future. As I said, we have so many educated people, a high proportion of graduates of the top universities of the world and a large number of women with university degrees.

From 80-million plus population of Iran, more than 60-million are under the age of 30. We have some 30-million educated people working. The percentage of girls in universities exceeds that of boys and more than two-thirds of those educated are women. Leadership of the future will come from this generation, from the hands of the youth. They are the architects of the future of Iran. I’m proud of them; I respect them. I have so much confidence in this generation.

I have so much confidence in the people of Iran. It is time for the West to recognize Iran as a partner, and not as an enemy. Yes, we are returning to our traditional Persian identity, as the cradle of civilization. Now we need a leader to come from our people; the young people will decide.

Religion is important in Iran, but Iranians are open-minded; we love and honor our minorities, and guarantee their place in the structure. We have to also recognize that in 1953 it was an ayatollah who helped save the Shah, so it is not a matter of the religious versus the secular. Looking back, even the transition in 1979 was not as radical in terms of structure as it might have seemed. So the revolution was in its own way somehow in line with Persian traditions.

We see Iran returning to its roots of Persianism?

Agree 100 per cent. Yes, things are changing; the monarchies come and go, and yet we retain the sense of Persianness. Some 60 per cent of our 80-plus-million people are educated; two-thirds of the educated are women. Leadership will come from the people, from the hands of the youth. This is a society where people of different faiths and origins are welcome: Sunni and Shi’a; Jews; all of the ethnic groups; all actually have always had their rights respected.

We have had good and bad kings in history; good and bad ayatollahs; just as in other countries there are good and bad presidents, and so on. The changes which have been occurring in Iran are — if we see them in the context of the longer-term picture — in the pattern of Persian tradition.

Are we seeing the potential of looking at some of the older historical ties, and perhaps seeing a trading and alliance bloc which would include Iran, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Lebanon, the Palestinians, and perhaps Ethiopia, even extending to Greece and Cyprus, acting as a cohesive trading group?

Why not? Even Ye men, but that situation has fallen into the hands of the Saudis.

We have seen some of Iran’s neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey —starting a war in Syria and taking an active rôle in Iraq. Perhaps this has exacerbated the ongoing civil war in Turkey, leading to moves toward an independent Kurdistan, carved out of Turkey and perhaps Iraq and Syria. How does this affect Iran’s Kurds?

Let us not forget that the Kurds are of pure and ancient Persian origin. The Medes were Kurds and they established the first royal dynasty of Iran some 2,800 years ago, in Ecbatana.

Iran has always had good relations with the Kurdish people as a whole. We, in Iran, have helped the Iraqi Kurds defend themselves in the past. However, I don’t think that what is going on now will result in an independent Kurdish state at this moment. I don’t think that the civil war in Turkey will result in the breakup of that country; I don’t believe that.

Some Kurds, of course, want independence, but I do not think it will come in my lifetime; certainly they have, and should have, some autonomy in their countries of the region.

Clearly, the wars in Syria and Iraq have meant that outside powers have been funding and arming various groups, including the Kurds, and this has muddied the waters. But I think that the Turks will remain a nationalist people and that what is going on now will not result in a breakup of Turkey.

I had a wonderful relationship with my Turkish brothers when I was Foreign Minister of Iran, but that was before the present situation.

What do you think about the situation elsewhere in the region? Let’s start with Oman.

I loved the Father [Sultan Said bin Taimur] and the Son [Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said]. Oman may be the most stable country on the Arabian Peninsula today. Sultan Qaboos is a wise man, a wise ruler. The economy of the country is good. But if we [Iran] had not gone there to help, things might have been different. Oman was on the verge of falling down, and I took the responsibility and we increased our military support there [to combat the Dhofar Rebellion in the 1970s]. Oman was beloved of my King, and it is a historical brother of Iran.

Saudi Arabia?

It is, of course, America’s great ally. But the bulk of the population is comprised of foreigners, who come there to work. According to official Saudi statistics, 48 percent of the population still lives under the poverty line, with an annual income below a $1,000, and often in deplorable conditions. And yet there are almost a thousand princes in the country. So the Saudis need the West to stay in control.

They have no national identity to fall back on, representing all of the people of their territory. Of course, the modern state of Saudi Arabia was only created in 1932, after the fall of the Ottomans, and the deals after World War I. I think they know that without the US and the West — with the arms sales and the like — they are nothing. They do have many educated people, of course, but who is the driver? The opposition is completely underground, so we don’t know what might happen there.

Jordan, Syria, Yemen?

Jordan I think is moving toward a better situation. Jordanians are educated. They have had good leaders, noble leaders. And they know how to handle adversity and difficult situations.

I have respect for Syria, too. We have changed it recently [by starting a war in that country]. But I think that even the Israelis would have been happier if we — the world — had not tried to change it.

I believe that if the agreement between the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was respected and had the [US] Defense Department had not intervened — if the US Air Force had not bombarded 52 times the Syrian Military convoys, later admitted to have been a mistake — the problems could have been solved in a less painful way. More than half-a-mil lion people would not have lost their homes or their families. To the great majority of international conflicts, there is a solution through negotiations and diplomatic maturity.

I have always said that the age of gunboat diplomacy is over.

What is happening in Yemen is totally inhuman. We see the US being drawn in to support the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, and the US then runs the risk — as the major supplier of weapons and intelligence to the Saudis — of being seen as responsible for war crimes, or crimes against humanity because of the attacks on civilians, and particularly the children.

There is something wrong where, not just in Ye men, but in, for example, Syria, where we see one side justifying or rationalizing their involvement causing civilian casualties as “an accident”, and the actions of the other side as being “war crimes”. But the reality is that there needs to be far greater thinking before entering into these conflicts.

I have been so terribly moved by recent atrocities in Yemen that I wish to express the depth of my sentiments. Here’s a copy of the letter of the [US] Democratic Congress man from California, Ted W. Lieu, to US Secretary of State John Kerry on October 11, 2016.1 I wholeheartedly share Congress man Lieu’s sentiments, urging an immediate stop to US support for the Saudi-led Coalition fighting in Yemen. What I wanted to add to the recent comments of the powerful lady Katy Kay, the courageous Nawal al-Maghaf, and other celebrated BBC World Service commentators is this:

I admire Congr. Ted W. Lieu, of California; and the noble lady Katty Kay, and all the BBC World Service commentators who have been fighting with courage to open the eyes to the atrocities committed in Yemen. They are right to insist that the US government has not only failed to protect the smallest and most impoverished nation of the region but has become complicit by supporting the Saudi led Coalition. They are, like many of us, surprised that while Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq are regularly mentioned, the American leaders and even the media have deliberately pushed the Yemen crisis aside.

Congr. Lieu, in his letter to the US Secretary of State, reminds the establishment in all honesty and sincerity that “every US assisted bomb that kills children, doctors, patients, newlyweds and funeral mourners has the potential to amplify hatred towards the US”.

Amnesty International’s Annual Report for 2016 speaks of 70 unlawful coalition strikes, deliberately killing 913 civilians, the use of seven types of internationally banned arms and destruction of hospitals, schools, homes, and centers of distribution of food and medicine. More than 65 percent of the victims are women and in no cent children even in the tender ages of three to six months.

It is more than urgent today to launch an independent inquiry into the alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The world cannot and should not continue to close its eyes and ignore the atrocities of this ignoble war.

Could we go back to where we could see a great regional trading zone again, with Iran, Egypt, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen, the Arabian Peninsula states, and so on?

Why not? But when we lose the justice of our relations, we lose everything. We can not reduce our relations to being just about religion. We see that happening now.

We started to create a regional capability to determine our own security and relations when we created the Baghdad Pact [between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan] in 1955, for example, but that started to have problems when the coup occurred against King Faisal II in Iraq, in 1958. We then changed the name to the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) and it offered some hope. Yes, we had some differences, but we could still talk.

Iran withdrew from CENTO just before the 1979 revolution when Mr. [Shapour] Bakhtiar was Prime Minister. But the RCD [Regional Cooperation for Development: established by Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, in July 1964] is still alive, and Iran and other member countries work together for the reconstruction and development of the region.

But if we want to create, or recreate, a great regional trading area, it all begins with getting back to seeing our relationships in terms of respect and justice.