– To what extent are Americans interested in foreign policy? Is the foreign policy agenda going to influence their preferences in the upcoming election or it will be centered around domestic issues?
– Well, that answer can be very short, because the evidence is very clear. Foreign policy is a very minor factor for most American voters and the crucial variables mostly have to do with American economy, and one of the reasons why President Trump is thought of having a very good chance of being re-elected despite all of his problems and troubles is that the economy is doing fairly well and by some standards quite well. Since most Americans care most about these domestic issues, that’s very much in Trump’s favor. In effect, if he were not such a controversial figure, I think, most of the pollsters in the US would say that Trump would be in favor to be re-elected, because the economy is in good shape. It is very difficult to defeat the sitting President and it is especially difficult to defeat him as the economic situation is good.
– Do you expect the meddling issue and the anti-Russian sentiment to gain momentum in the upcoming election?
– Yes, one of the huge differences between the environment in Russia and in the US is that it is overwhelmingly taken for granted in Washington and throughout the US that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. They took a number of steps to harm Clinton and to support Trump. Of course, there is a fear that Trump will be trying to do it again in the next election. But the Democrats have an incentive to undermine the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency and the fact that he basically benefited from the intervention of a foreign power. And then he spent 3,5 years basically very deferential to Vladimir Putin.
There is another angle to it, which is that Washington almost across the spectre has become quite anti-Russian. The combination of Putin, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria has led to a perception in Washington that Russia is breaking the rules, challenging the US, defying various international arrangements and conventions. The centre of gravity in Washington is that Russia has to pay the price, Russia is to learn the lesson. John McCain, Marco Rubio – all these influential Republicans are tough on Russia. Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign against Obama, what was his main foreign policy plan? Russia is the number one threat. But the Democrats are in the same note, partly because they are much more supportive of the so called liberal international order, so called rules-based system, so for the typical international law for the Democrats the seizure of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is a much bigger violation, a challenge to the preferred world order.
So the question is how Russia can be disciplined. So, in a peculiar sort of way Trump is quite unique in Washington and in the US and his preference for a more benign and friendly relationship with Russia. And he said he will manage his own administration – Bolton was harshly anti-Russian, Pompeo is highly anti-Russian, etc. The administration was filled with traditional Republicans. Most of them were anti-Russian. So, the whole Russia angle is something that sets Trump apart.
For all these reasons, I think, people are going to be playing up all this Russian angle quite a bit in the election. And then for many people involved in American electoral politics the whole question of preventing foreign intervention in the 2020 election is like it’s up in the limelight, it’s the issue. Huge amounts of money have been thrown out to protect the elections, to try and prevent digital intervention, to try and counterbalance social media interventions, fake information. There is this irony that Trump is the guy who sort of popularized this notion of fake news, but he is the person who more than anyone else in the US has benefited from false information. They put this thing up in the web and put it past the eyes of millions of people. There’s lots of people who are not experts, just ordinary people going about their normal lives who have very little ability to differentiate between a genuine claim and a false statement.
– Although Trump seeks better relations with Russia, he defies the very foundation of these relations – arms control. How to motivate him to extend New START?
– Well, first of all, one of the hallmarks of the Trump presidency is incoherence. He pursues contractionary lines all the time. He says he wants to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians and then he behaves in a way that is 100% pro-Israeli. One of the problems he’s had in the US-Russian relations is that he has wanted to improve relations and he feels very warm personal ties to Putin, but the Congress has been slapping more sanctions, passing laws preventing Trump from being too generous to Russia, also there were public rumors that Trump wanted to withdraw from NATO and then he had to be talked out of this.
Regarding arms control, here you have a war between two of Trump’s strong instincts: on the one hand he’s very pro-Putin, pro-Russian and on the other hand he’s very anti-Obama so New START has a huge deficiency from Trump’s point of view which is one of Obama’s great achievements. If there’s one consistent thrive in Trump’s presidency it is that he continues to undo what Obama did. I think that impulse is still very powerful for Trump, and it makes him very inclined to be very negative about the New START. People tell him it’s important, significant, in our interest – all the same things people told him about the JCPOA. In the end, he followed his instincts and not his advisors. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens again.
The best case is simply that New START survives until the new administration comes in. If Trump is re-elected, it is very hard to say what we’ll have. He may just let it expire. If there’s a Democrat, they’ll probably have two weeks to save it…
– Which is enough for Washington but hardly for Moscow.
– The Russian side has said that. Russia’s position has been changing, and it’s moved to a much more favorable spot vis-à-vis New-START but in the past Russia said there were a lot of issues that needed to be discussed, that two weeks was not enough. The thing is that the provision for extending New START is in New START, it’s already ratified. It simply requires an agreement of two governments to exercise an option that already exists in New START, and it’s possible, it takes a phone call or a plane trip or something that can certainly be done in two weeks if there’s will on both sides to make it happen.
At one time or another it’ll be clear on either side whether there’s will to make it happen, but maybe when we get closer to the trench. What do we have to do if, imagine 2021 or 2022, we’re missing it, there’s no New START and we don’t start new negotiation? Prompt global strike with conventional counterforce, cyber assets, missile defense – these are all herd issues, none of them has been addressed before. We could have a lot of stretches where we’re struggling to find a new framework.
Now, about the American arms control crowd, there’s been an argument that the process of negotiating arms control itself was a kind of a confidence-building measure and from the beginning of SALT I which was November 1969 until arguing about the completion of the New START negotiation in November 2009, a four-decade period, with some interruptions we had more or less continuous negotiations between the US and Russia/the Soviet Union on strategic nuclear issues. We had meeting after meeting, we had communities of experts that knew one another, we had diplomats who made careers out of being arms control negotiators, and we had long and deep ties with our counterparts on the other side. By the time we got well into the process we had kind of a common language so we could understand one another – we meant the same things when we used the same terms and so on. This reinforced the legal architecture that occasionally evolved to an agreement.
I believe that the last negotiating session between Russia and the US was the session that completed New START and that was late 2009, then the treaty was actually signed at a summit in April 2010. So, we’re talking now 11 years with no serious negotiations. All of the old guys retired, those who were experienced, had all the history on their heads. I grew up in that era. There’s no bureaucratic habit anymore that these things should be normal and ongoing.
– What is there that makes negotiation and agreements possible?
If it’s a negotiating arrangement, then there’s one overarching question we should be addressing which is what do we want to get and what do we prepare to give in order to get it? It’s as simple as that. For example, the basic dynamic of the JCPOA was Iran agrees to significant constraints on and transparency in relation to its nuclear behavior in return for a certain normalization of its economic relations with the world, especially the Western world. We were easing up some sanctions, Iran was accepting some significant constraints. So, what do you do then? In the American case we have layers and layers of economic sanctions on Iran and the ones that we eased in relation to JCPOA was 20% and not the most important ones. If the JCPOA mattered, it was because of what Europe, Russia, and China were going to do.
America’s approach would be completely constrained with several major sanctions’ regimes working. Anything to do with the IRGC couldn’t do it. Most of the American sanctions were rights-related, not nuclear weapons-related. We had lots of cards to play with respect to easing up sanctions and if we had an administration that was interested in diplomacy and shaping the future using these negotiating instruments, we could’ve had ways of providing additional benefits.
The other thing was that much of the American government, even under Obama, was not that enthusiastic about the benefits that Iran was supposed to get from the JCPOA so they were still cautioning the Europeans and especially the financial institutions that they still had to be very careful about doing business with Iran. And this very much hampered the pace and the scale of the benefits to Iran, all caused by those elements of the US government that really weren’t enthusiastic about the Obama policy. But across time you could’ve altered that picture and you could’ve provided guarantees and insurances to firms. My British friends used to say there was not a single British financial institution that was prepared to underwrite a large deal with Iran because they were still sort of fearful of the US Treasury Department even after the conclusion of the JCPOA. Well those were problems that could be worked across time and offered as benefits to Iran and return to initial concessions.
My sort of broad take on this is that Iran’s grand strategy aimed at a normalization of its relations with the world driven by a concern that it knew that it would be reintegrated into the world economy and this would address its economic and sociopolitical problems. Iran has a huge job creation problem, especially among the youth, because of the population growth, and they have an unemployment issue. They have a highly educated population much of which is underemployed which leads to social frustration and I believe it leads Tehran to see that as a threat to the regime, so they are motivated to solve this.
My Iranian colleagues say Iran has oil but 80 million people as well who cannot be prosperous on formal grounds that the country has oil: Iran is not Kuwait, nor is it Bahrain or Qatar, it has a much larger population. And, of course, they have this deformation in their generational distribution so that some huge percentage of the population is under 30 years old so they’ve got to produce jobs for all those people, with the oil sector, even if it generates a lot of money, failing to generate a lot of jobs because it's not a job intensive industry. So what I’ve heard a lot from the Iranian colleagues is that they need to have a normal economy, it needs to be modern, which means it needs to be high tech, with means it should be IT, it needs to be diverse, and they can’t do that when they’re isolated and cut out of the world economy. So, first and foremost, they need to have some sort of modus vivendi with the Americans because as long as they’re number one on Washington’s hitlist Iran is not going to be able to escape.
– Are there alternative options for Iran amid the maximum pressure campaign?
– Now there’s an understanding in Iran and even affection that someone favors the Eastern strategy: if the Americans and the West are going to treat you harshly, focus your strategy on Moscow, Beijing, and Deli. The three big Eastern powers will do enough business. Now some people see that as an escape plan if it’s necessary, some Iranians see it as a preferred outcome if they’re totally put off by the West and the Americans, but they cannot fully integrate themselves into the world economy if they are left out of the global financial arrangements. If they can’t do business in Washington, if the Europeans don’t what to do business with them and furthermore, if the vision is to create a modern high tech advanced economy in Iran, they need access to American and Western technologies, they can’t create the kind of system that they seem to want just by doing trade with China. They can get some of it but the cutting edge is using the Silicon Valley.
– Many say the 2003 bargain offer from the Khatami administration was a missed opportunity for a US-Iran normalization. With the current mismatch of approaches in the two countries, are we going to miss another opportunity with normalizing the bilateral relationship for several more presidential cycles?
– Well some would say so. The argument goes that starting with Khatami in the late 90s, the Iranians were trying some way of repairing their relationship with Washington and, of course, there have always been some prominent sceptics like Khamenei, the IRGC, and the “Death to America” crowd. Like any place, Iran has a spectrum of its own internal complexities, but there’s been a faction in the elite that for a very long time has been trying hard to escape this spot that they’ve been in. They’ve had an uphill battle because the Israelis have been working strongly against them in Washington, and the Saudis and the Emiratis have been working strongly against them in Washington, and Washington itself has spent an entire period since 1979 demonizing Iran so the American public has been exposed to very harsh views on Iran. So they have a real uphill battle, and then Iran itself has done – and God only knows if it’s a by-product – a lot of things that have not helped from the point of view of their own proclaimed interest of better relations with the United States, there are a lot of things they’ve done or apparently done that were very much counterproductive from that point of view.
– Like what?
Like assassinating people in Europe amid the JCPOA negotiations, taking the Americans on what looked like pretty flimsy grounds. Is this the IRGC or the conservatives in Iran trying to prevent normalization? We have a famous article published in International Security in 1997 about such Spoilers, those who want to spoil peace processes.
So, when you add that all up, there are a lot of obstacles to change the chemistry of US-Iran relations. When you adopt the logic that you need to normalize, one of the questions you ask is how far you can get with Washington as long as you occupy such hostile relations with Israel, with all your domestic rhetoric about Israel as the cancer of the Middle East and so on. Relatively to what the Iranians say their strategy is, such policy is counterproductive. Many Iranian diplomats and experts say, “We couldn’t care less about Israel, the whole issue with Israel is that it threatens us, and we have a deterrence problem, we have no organic ties to Hamas that feel instrumental for us, what really matters is the relationship with Washington, and if we had a better relationship with Washington, Israel would stop threatening us and no longer be such an issue for Iran.”
Well that’s an interesting take, and the problem is true for someone, but that argument has essentially no traction in Israel. And the reason for that – the Israelis say, “Well who’s really running things in Tehran – it’s the theocracy, the most ideological folks who always say horrible things about Israel.” And then if Israel is not satisfied with the situation, then you have the Israelis going to Washington – they’re very influential and up on the hill, most of the Congress eats out of Israel’s hand.
You couldn’t be more tied with Netanyahu than Trump is. And then Trump’s Middle East envoy is Kushner. And who is Kushner? He’s an orthodox Jew who’s utterly devoted to Netanyahu and Likud. So, surprise, surprise, they come up with a Middle East plan which is basically 1000 percent pro-Israel. Within days the Arab League rejected it unanimously, Abbas cut off all the relations with the US, the violence has flared up in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s just utterly ridiculous.
If you ask why Trump has so much more flexibility with North Korea, which by any standard is more difficult to understand and already has nuclear weapons, you think North Korea would be the place we have trouble with. Why is it so much more difficult with Iran? I think a big part of the answer is Israel and Saudi Arabia – both regional players, regional powers. Trump apparently was doing lots of business with the Saudis before he became president, so he has a personal affinity for the Saudis, you remember the first presidential visit he made was to Saudi Arabia, which is unprecedented. So, the deck is really stacked against Iran in terms of what they now are able to accomplish, and I say they haven’t always helped their own cause with their own behavior.
– So, what if Trump gets re-elected in November?
Four years ago, who would’ve imagined Trump as a president and so many unpredictable things can happen. But what I would say is by the time we get to the end of next spring – the spring of 2021, we will know who the next president in the US is and who’s the next leadership of Iran. And if Trump is re-elected and the next leadership of Iran, as everybody expects, will be much more conservative, much more hawkish because the moderates who wanted to normalize are discredited and voted out, the critical question is what happens there and my fear is that under Rouhani and Zarif Iran has reacted to the maximum pressure policy of Trump in a quite restrained, careful, cautious, limited way: one small step at a time, only reversible steps. This reflects I think the temperament of those who are responsible for negotiating the JCPOA, who believe that the JCPOA was in Iran’s interest, who regret the situation that Trump has created and are trying to lead Iran to salvage the situation.
If Iranian critics of the JCPOA take over the next government, it’s hard to imagine that they will behave in such a restrained and cautious way. And it’s plausible, if not likely, that what they would do is completely renounce the JCPOA and go back to upgrading their nuclear program in an unconstrained fashion. Now Israel has said that that is intolerable and unacceptable, Trump has said that this is intolerable and unacceptable, and if diplomacy is not available and economic coercion has not been adequate to compel an Iranian surrender, then the only remaining option is the use of force, and I think that’s where we might be in this situation in the middle of 2021 where there is serious contemplation of the use of force, when Iran withdraws from JCPOA in a serious and enthusiastic way without doing that cautiously and reluctantly. I’ve had many discussions of this issue in Israel over the years, and the predominant view in Israel is that Iran with nuclear weapons represents a serious and a legitimate existential threat to Israel, and when people like me say the use of force will have many costs and risks, the answer is – to address an existential threat, so be it.
The interview was prepared by Adlan Margoev as part of the grant project "Systematic Development of International Activities of the MGIMO Institute for International Studies" (Superviser - Aleksandr I. Nikitin; project No. 2022-02-02).