Emmanuel Riondé: How do you assess the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program signed in Vienna on July 14?
Rashid Khalidi: This is a very important agreement. I personally think that the Iranian nuclear threat has been greatly exaggerated. But at least, on that score, the Vienna agreement offers assurances that, I believe, are very good for the region and curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons. However, this agreement is especially decisive in that it clearly indicates that the United States is beginning to rethink the demonization of Iran, which is at the root of many evils in the Middle East. Certainly, Iranian practices have contributed to destabilizing the region. But this extreme demonization of Iran has made it impossible to talk rationally about the Middle East in American domestic politics—with terrorism floating like a disembodied cloud over public discourse, ridiculously conflating Iran with the Islamic State (IS), al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah.
We should listen to veteran U.S. intelligence analysts, such as Graham E. Fuller and Paul R. Pillar. For them, this is a historic agreement, not just for the nuclear dimension but because the United States has managed—with its allies, but also with the Russians and the Chinese—to negotiate for years and come to this positive result with one of the Middle East’s most important countries. The antagonism between Iran and the United States is not going to end. But the signing of this complicated and hard to obtain agreement communicates that the Iranians are not the devil and that one can at least deal with them, as was the case with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
ER: Saudi Arabia and Israel both disapprove of the agreement—should one also view the agreement as a message from Washington to its two historic allies?
RK: Yes, it is the signal of a certain recalibration of U.S. diplomacy in the region. But there are things that cannot be said explicitly in Washington: that the United States helped to create al-Qaeda by its actions in Afghanistan, for example. Or that our most troublesome regional ally is Saudi Arabia (with Israel a close second). We cannot say those things, because some of the U.S.’s most important global economic interests are tied to the Gulf, where Boeing sells aircraft and where tens of billions of dollars are spent each year on US armaments. The immense aerospace, defense, oil, contracting, banking and real estate interests that do enormously lucrative business with the Gulf are in large measure the bedrock of the U.S. economy. These potent forces do not influence Congress, they own it.
Israel has effectively taken advantage of the U.S.’s fierce opposition to Iran, a stance it has very much supported and encouraged directly and via its lobby. From this point of view, it is true that the agreement also reverberates as a political response to Tel Aviv and Netanyahu—whom Obama dislikes intensely. However, the flexibility of the United States vis-à-vis Israel or Saudi Arabia remains highly constrained and limited. Saudi Arabia is its oldest ally, with the exception of England and France. Do not forget, the connection with Ibn Saud dates back to 1933. You cannot suddenly change alliances like those with Saudi Arabia or Israel that are so solidly anchored.
ER: What then is this recalibration of U.S. diplomacy?
RK: Ever since the U.S. crushed Saddam Hussein in Kuwait in 1990, a quarter of a century ago, the U.S. military has been focused on the Middle East, where it has carried out three major campaigns: Kuwait, Afghanistan, and the occupation of Iraq. In the same period, several regimes have disappeared and been replaced by chaos in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria, to which one can add Somalia. These are five territories without real governments in which very dangerous situations could emerge.
In the United States, 15 months before Election Day, the presidential campaign has already begun, and neither the Republicans nor the Democrats can accept the "loss" of Iraq—the former started a war there that the latter promised to end. Politically, no one can afford to leave that dismembered country in such a state of chaos. And as far as the U.S. government is concerned, the greatest danger today is the IS. Who can it rely on to counter the threat? In some areas, on the Kurds, but also on Iraqi Shiite militias, which means that it must cooperate with the sectarian Shiite-dominated government that the U.S. set up in Baghdad, and it must also come to at least a tacit agreement with Iran.
From the perspective of Washington, when looking at the map of the Middle East, only three countries can defend themselves militarily that also have extensive human capital and a serious industrial base: Israel, Turkey, and Iran. It should be noted that these countries, two of which are US allies, are fully capable of regularly spurning American demands.
In Iraq, the army the US rebuilt at vast cost is an empty shell, as was demonstrated by its abandonment of Mosul in the face of a few thousand IS militiamen, and Washington’s best assets in the fight against IS are Iran and the militias under its influence. What is paradoxical is that the existence of these sectarian militias, alongside the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government dominated by extremist Shiite parties, has been the main factor in throwing Iraqi Sunnis into the arms of the IS.
ER: Republicans and Israelis argue that the sanctions relief for Tehran following the agreement may be used to arm the militias operating in the region.
RK: To be sure, Tehran will recover much money, which it will probably first use to improve the lives of Iranians. But there will be plenty left over, and some of it will surely go to Iraq. This will help the U.S., as the Shiite militias there are not a threat to the Americans, and also do not pose an existential threat to Israel. Some will go to Hezbullah and other militias which are more of a problem for Israel. However, this brings us right back to the political problem, which hasn’t changed: nothing prevents Israel from reaching an agreement with Hezbollah or Hamas and the Palestinians—nothing, that is, besides their racist settlement policy and their insistence on maintaining a permanent occupation of Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian territory. Millions of Palestinians are prevented by Israeli law from returning to their homes and it is the resistance to this situation and to this occupation that Iran supports. Of course, this support for Hamas and Hezbollah is opportunistic. But this situation is entirely the fault of the Israelis. It is not Hezbollah or Hamas that are occupying the Shebaa Farms, or the Golan Heights, or the West Bank, East Jerusalem and, effectively, the Gaza Strip: it’s Israel!
The United States and Israel should be careful: while everyone the world over agrees that the nuclear issue with Iran must be resolved, perceiving it—rightly or wrongly—as a threat, far fewer are those who subscribe to the false claims that Hamas is the equivalent of the IS or Hezbollah or al-Qaeda.
ER: Does the agreement isolate Israel?
RK: Netanyahu made a great mistake in recent years by appealing almost exclusively to congressional Republicans. Because of this departure from the previous bi-partisan approach of Israeli governments, Democrats who are otherwise very close to Israel have been aligning their positions with those of President Obama for partisan reasons. Bibi is going to do everything possible to use the Israeli lobby to pressure Congress into adopting a resolution opposing the agreement. It may pass, but the president is expected to be able to veto it (Senator Schumer’s defection from his own party’s position notwithstanding). And to override a presidential veto a two-thirds majority is needed in Congress, which will require the votes of many Democrats. Had he hoped to mobilize Democrats, Netanyahu would not have accepted [Speaker of the House] John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress last March against the advice of all the Democrats.
ER: With this agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, which was the third goal mentioned in his Cairo speech in June 2009, is Barack Obama trying to exit on a high note?
RK: Barack Obama was elected and reelected among other things because he promised to end the U.S.’s Middle Eastern wars. Just after the turn of the new century, the vast majority of Americans realized it was stupid to conduct these massive ground wars in faraway places. They are not opposed to sending drones or to supporting local forces, but they are resolutely opposed to sending troops to engage in ground operations in the Middle East. Therefore, the Vienna agreement is also a political response to this demand: it is not just the choice of a president, but of a people who no longer want to see their children die ‘over there.’
Overall, I think the recalibration of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East has not been very well conducted by Obama, who has surrounded himself with the wrong people and mismanaged the job. The region remains plagued with problems, even though it is undeniable that he inherited a very difficult situation, especially in Iraq. But it’s true that if the agreement goes through, it will save his foreign policy record. It should be stressed, to his credit, that ever since he was a senator, he has mobilized against nuclear proliferation. And history will be as generous to John Kerry for his patient diplomacy during these lengthy negotiations. This historic agreement owes a lot to him.
ER: Is it possible that in the coming years, following the agreement, there will emerge a pro-Tehran lobby in the United States?
RK: Today, Iranian-Americans count for naught in U.S. politics. They are mostly “refugees” from the 1979 revolution, or their children. These are people who do not like the Islamic Republic. It would require the Tehran regime to liberalize for Iranians in the United States to become more favorably disposed to their country of origin. This is exactly what is beginning to happen with Cuban-Americans, since the opening of the regime in Havana.
ER: Finally, could the Vienna Agreement be regarded as only the latest episode in a story that hasn’t always been one of confrontation between the US and Iran?
RK: Yes, it may be recalled that after the first Iranian revolution in 1905-06, it was the U.S. that the Iranians relied on to counter British and Russian ambitions. The same thing happened during World War II when it was the Americans who first withdrew their occupation forces from Iran. The British eventually followed suit and the Soviets were forced out by an Iranian complaint at the UN Security Council. In fact, until 1953 and the Anglo-American planned coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, the United States was considered almost a friend in Iran. Since 1979, however, it has been in a deeply conflictual relationship. On the Iranian side, resentment goes back to the Mossadegh coup, the CIA-supported repression under the Shah, and U.S. support for Saddam Hussein in his attack on Iran, including the use of poisonous gas, during a war which almost destroyed a generation of Iranians. Until the late 1980s, the hostility was mutual.
Ever since, first during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and now that of Hassan Rouhani, Iran has made several overtures to the U.S. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Iran and the United States were tactical allies against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And in the final analysis, by destroying Iran’s main enemies, Saddam Hussein's regime and the Taliban—the U.S. actually aided the regime in Tehran! Thereafter the Iranians were clearly willing to cooperate. But at the time, we had an administration in Washington that was living in a fantasy world, whose views and ideas about the region had nothing to do with reality. And it must be said that this is still the case among most Republican leaders: when they speak of the Middle East, they evoke a black and white world that exists only in their imagination.
This is an edited translation of the original French interview that appeared in Orient XXI on 3 August 2015.