What Americans Don't Know About Iran

Historian John Ghazvinian on the long pattern of tragic lost opportunities for mutual understanding and diplomacy.

John Ghazvinian is the leading historian of U.S.-Iranian relations, the author of the indispensable study America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present. His book shows how opportunities for positive relations between the U.S. and the Iranian people have been repeatedly squandered. From installing and propping up one of the world's most abusive dictators (the Shah) to ignoring overtures from Iranian leaders interested in reducing tensions, the opportunity to be a partner rather than an adversary to Iran has been overlooked. Unfortunately, hostility is met with hostility, and Ghazvinian does not know whether the U.S. and Iran can pull themselves out of the downward spiral of relations. Ghazvinian does not defend the current Iranian regime, and is fair in criticizing Iranian failures as well as those of the U.S., but his book presents Americans with crucial facts about their government's policies (from U.S. support for Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks on Iran to the rebuffing of Iranian attempts to cooperate with U.S. anti-terrorism efforts) that should unsettle anyone who sees Iran simplistically as an irrational rogue state, or part of an "axis of evil."

nathan j. Robinson 

I've been diving into your book over the last couple of weeks, and I feel like there are crucial revelations about Iran on every other page—or things that I think that, if not "revelations," 99.7% of people in the United States don't know about. Over and over, the overwhelming impression that was left was how little the average person in this country knows about Iran and about U.S. relations with Iran.

I want to start with the standard story that they might get through the press: Iran is an oppressive theocracy whose leaders hate America and vow to destroy Israel; Iran is a country that's role in the world is to sow chaos through the use of proxy militias, and moreover, is a threat to the region because it is in constant pursuit of nuclear weapons. It has even been described as part of an axis of evil. When you hear someone give this kind of conventional picture of Iran as a global menace, where do you start to untangle that?

john Ghazvinian 

First of all, I think it's worth acknowledging that a lot of the labels like that don't come out of nowhere. The Iranian government's behavior is far from benevolent, but I think that what you're getting at with your question is that we do have a very sort of cookie cutter, or simplistic, image of Iran. It is sometimes painted in a very kind of black and white image. Of course, as all countries around the world, Iran should not just be painted in black and white. There is a lot of gray and a lot of nuance. I tried to bring some of that out in this book, and I tried to do it through the lens of history, since I'm a historian.

What I was really trying to do, more than anything, was to get us away from this very confrontational narrative that we have. And of course, Iran has a very confrontational narrative about the United States as well. It’s important to emphasize that these two countries, of course, have now spent more than 40 years at each other's throats, making very negative statements about each other and painting each other in the most negative light possible, or rather, their governments have. Naturally, history can also become a bit of a victim of that. We have a tendency sometimes, both in Iran and in the US, to see history used as a weapon or as an accusation. And what I tried to say in the book, and I've said many times in lectures that I've given about the book, is that there is a tendency among either the United States government, those who want to defend the U.S. government, or those who want to be very critical of Iran and the Islamic Republic, to begin the narrative with 1979 and emphasize that as the original sin, the moment where the new revolutionary government in Iran looked the other way as student radicals took over the US Embassy and held Americans hostage for 444 days, as the beginning of Iran's radical revolutionary phase in which it began to do nothing but sow trouble in the region, as you described.

Those who are very critical of the U.S. government, or perhaps sympathetic to the Islamic Republic or to Iranian nationalism in one form or another, tend to use 1953 as their starting point, as their original sin. That, of course, is the year in which the United States Central Intelligence Agency overthrew Iran's very popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in a bloody coup. The accusation is that everything was fine up until the U.S. came in and interfered in Iranian affairs and precipitated, or helped, usher in 25 years of Iranian dictatorship under the Shah, which then resulted in a backlash in the form of the revolution, which then also had a sort of anti-American quality to it.

Now, I think both of those narratives are perfectly legitimate, but they're also very limited, and they only take us some of the way towards understanding the history of U.S.-Iran relations. There's a tendency with both of those narratives to sort of say, everything was fine until this bad thing happened, until the evil Iranian revolutionaries took the embassy hostage, or, everything was fine up until the evil American CIA overthrew the Iranian government.

Well, the reality is, what does that mean when we say everything was okay? If we say everything was okay before 1979, then we're eliding and forgetting about the Shah's dictatorship. It was a very pro-Western, pro-American government, but it was a dictatorship, particularly towards the end, and it was supported by the United States. So, that wasn't a perfect, rosy picture either. It just happened to be the two countries had very good relations. If we say everything was fine before 1953, I often find that people who say that don't have a good sense of what U.S.-Iran relations looked like before '53. Was there a golden age of U.S.-Iran relations in the 1940s, 1930s, 1920s, or 1910s? In some ways, but in some ways not. I try to bring a lot of that out in the book, and to ask myself, as well as readers, if we're talking about how everything went so wrong and are looking for blame, maybe we should ask, was there a time when things went right? 


It is true, though, that if you want to understand why there might be some resentment of the United States, there are a number of facts that we in the United States ought to look at to confront more directly, including the fact that in 1953 the U.S. supported the overthrow of the government and the installation of what was really one of the worst dictatorships in the world. You go through the history of the Shah's reign: the torture, abuse, and the misuse of public funds and the decadence. It's just quite grotesque, and the whole time the United States was supplying the regime with more weapons than anywhere else. It was something like the largest country for U.S. weapons sales. If we want to examine our own past, it really is a pretty shameful period in U.S. foreign policy.


There's no question the United States has a lot to answer for in terms of its treatment of Iran over the years; there's no question that the Iranian government has a long and not entirely unreasonable list of grievances against the United States. There's also no question that the United States has a long and perfectly reasonable list of grievances against Iran. This is what I was getting at and what I really was trying to get away from, to some extent, in the book, is history as grievance narrative. But I completely agree with you, we have to address those things. We can't ignore the role that the U.S. has played in Iran at various points in history, especially in 20th century history.


What comes across very strongly in the book is the kind of tragedy of misunderstanding. You asked, is there a point where things went right? and your answer is, no. But you do highlight many points at which things could have gone otherwise. Misunderstandings, overtures—there are all these moments where there's the possibility for collaboration or dialing down tensions or reaching an agreement, and that those little windows are consistently missed.


It's true. I assume you mean since the Iranian Revolution, and I completely agree. Since 1979, there's been a catalog of missed opportunities, missed overtures, poor timing, of one country being ready for a little bit of a rapprochement with the other country when the other one isn't, and vice versa. The United States and Iran have been locked into a really unfortunate cycle since 1979 that has only got worse and worse. Ironically, right after the revolution, when Iran was in its most radical, anti-American phase, the U.S. approach to Iran was actually much more accommodating than it is today. It's kind of interesting. I opened the book with an epigraph from Ronald Reagan, a quote from1986 during the Iran-Contra scandal when he came on television. Among other things, he said, the Iranian Revolution is a fact of history, but between American and Iranian basic national interests, there need be no permanent conflict, which is an extraordinary thing for an American President to say, particularly a Republican.

No American president since Reagan, with the possible exception of Obama, has really spoken that way about Iran, which is interesting. And that was during the 1980s, when the hostage crisis was only five or six years old and very fresh in the memories of Americans. Reagan was literally selling weapons to Iran by the Israelis. That's a very different place from where we are now. How do you explain that? Obviously, I think that the book goes into great detail on that, and there's no simple explanation.

But we got to a point, particularly at the end of the Cold War, as a lot of the Arab states and the Israelis began to engage in a peace process, as the Soviet Union became less of a factor in the Middle East, as many Arab states that had previously either been neutralist or leaned slightly in the direction of the Soviet Union moved more firmly into the American Camp, Iran began to become more and more isolated from the United States and Western Europe in the Middle East. It became easier and easier to kind of demonize Iran, and Iran responded by becoming more and more of a thorn in the side of U.S. policymakers regionally. Up to that point, it had been very much bogged down in a war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq throughout the 1980s, but by the 1990s it started to actually play a spoiler role in the Arab-Israeli peace process. It started to actually fund or support, to some degree, Hamas, which it hadn't done before. You start to see the cycle where every win for Iran is seen as a loss by the United States, and every win by the United States is seen as a loss by Iran. It becomes a zero-sum game, and we're kind of locked into this cycle that we've never really been able to pull out of, where we're unable to recognize that sometimes, every now and then, these two countries actually have interests that align.

That happened after 9/11. There was an extraordinary moment after 9/11 where both countries were very much focused on destroying the Taliban. Iran had a very bad relationship with the Taliban throughout the 1990s, and it had almost gone to war with them. Iran began secretly cooperating with the United States to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, and yet neither country could admit this was happening. The Iranians didn't want anyone to know about it. The Americans didn't want anyone to know about it. And when news of this kind of secret cooperation reached higher levels in the US government, particularly the desk of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, they quashed it. They said, we don't want this—no, we don't want to talk to evil, we want to destroy evil. And so, Iran was labeled an axis of evil. And then, yet, what was interesting is even several months after that, that Geneva channel—that secret channel of cooperation over Afghanistan—continued despite the rhetoric. So, it's a real shame that these two countries sometimes can't admit that they can or will cooperate over shared interests.




There was this extraordinary—I don't know if it was even previously reported because it's based on an interview you did from before 9/11, where you point out that at a time when the United States was unwilling to publicly or even privately communicate in any real way, there was this attempt for the Iranians to encourage the US to take more seriously the terrorist threat from al-Qaeda.


That's right. In fact, that's one of the things that they were arguing about on September 10, 2001. The two countries had no direct talks—they were not authorized by their governments to actually speak directly—and yet, their lower level diplomats were engaged in what was called the Six plus Two talks over Afghanistan, which was basically the countries that neighbored Afghanistan, in addition to the United States, who were all engaged in how to basically control the arms smuggling and the opium trade that was coming out of Afghanistan, to enforce a weapons embargo against the Taliban, etc. So, the two countries' diplomats were actually sitting in the same room during these Six plus Two talks in the weeks and months leading up to 9/11. The Iranians were trying to get more vigorous language in the communiqués about terrorism and the threat of Sunni jihadi radicalism coming out of Afghanistan, and the Americans and their Pakistani allies were trying to water down that language and say, no, let's just focus on the work we have at hand. That's what they were arguing about, literally, on September 10. In fact, they were supposed to have a meeting that morning of September 11, to kind of hash out the terms of the communiqué, and, of course, were interrupted by the events of 9/11.


One of the tragedies that you point to is that, I think in 2003, Iran made this overture to the United States. You wrote, "perhaps the boldest that the Islamic Republic had ever tried, sending a proposal to Washington via the Swiss foreign ministry to end the hostility between the US and the Islamic Republic, pledging that if sanctions, asset freezes and other penalties were repealed and the axis of evil talk was dropped, Iran would address virtually every concern the United States had ever raised about its actions," and when that gets to the White House, the response was, we don't talk to evil.


Yes. There's a lot of debate about this so-called “Grand Bargain” fax that was sent through the Swiss Embassy to Washington. There are people who will dismiss this and say, it's not clear whether these people were speaking for the Supreme Leader, whether Iran was speaking with a unified voice, etc. Iran, at the time, had a president and a government that was very reformist and outward looking towards the West, and was very interested in repairing relations with the West. But that was President Khatami, and he was very much hemmed in by the Supreme Leader and some of the hardliners. So there is a line of argument in the US, particularly among neoconservatives and hardliners, that says that the Grand Bargain fax was never a serious document. But I think you have to account for the fact that this was at least worth exploring, and it never really was, and I think that was a real missed opportunity. Iran put everything on the table: support for proxy militias, for Hezbollah, the nuclear program, the Arab-Israeli peace process—all kinds of things. Iran was willing to do a kind of grand bargain with the United States, or at least that was what the document suggested. How serious were they? How well would it have worked? Who knows, but it was never explored, and that seems like a mistake. 


Yes, from the Bush administration's perspective, once you've labeled a country part of an Axis of Evil, and if you genuinely believe that, then their instinct was to wave away basically anything that came from Iran as more duplicity. The word “evil” is not especially helpful in international relations. You point out that there were more opportunities in the '90s that were missed previously. You talked about, during the Clinton years, there were similar possibilities that ended up being sabotaged. Can you mention what happened before? 


So, in the summer of 1997, Iran had an extraordinary election in which the sort of dark horse candidate won the presidential election, Mohammad Khatami, who was a real breath of fresh air within the context of the Islamic Republic. He was the first president since the revolution to be genuinely very open to an improved relationship with the West, certainly with Western European powers. He did a landmark, unprecedented interview with CNN, where he praised American culture and history, and expressed not an apology, but regret, that the hostage crisis had taken place 16 years earlier and dismissed it as a sort of act of revolutionary excess, indicated genuine openness to improve relations with the US.

But this was 1997. The Clinton administration, at the time, was a little bit slow to respond. They were excited by what they were hearing, but were not sure how much power Khatami really had, how much latitude from maneuver he would have. He was elected in the summer of 1997, and he spent his first few months really going on this charm offensive towards the West, including the interview with CNN, which, I believe, was in January 1998, if I'm not mistaken. But it was also in January and February 1998 that the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted in the United States. So, the Clinton administration found itself suddenly all hands on deck, consumed with a very different kind of issue, and there wasn't a lot of follow up. It's not like Iran had a sort of domestic lobbying apparatus, or any kind of ability to follow through with the interview, or push for better relations with the US. It simply didn't have an embassy in the US. Still doesn't; the Embassy has been shut since 1980. So, there wasn't much follow through on that.

And then, by the time the Clinton administration was in a position where it was able to take seriously the Iranian overtures, it was 1999 or early 2000. It was March 2000 when Madeleine Albright, the Secretary of State, made a speech expressing regret for 1953. Again, not an apology, but regret, and saying, that in the benefit of hindsight, that was an anti-democratic move on the part of the US. She even cited US support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War and his use of chemical weapons and so on, as an example of US policy that, in hindsight, was regrettable. Those are really extraordinary overtures by the United States, but they came in March 2000, by which point, two-and-a-half years had gone by, and President Khatami was significantly weakened domestically. His hardline opponents had begun to circle around him, and he was facing a severe domestic crisis of legitimacy. And so, when Madeleine Albright made her speech, she talked about democratic elements in Iran and undemocratic elements in Iran, and that was seen as a very divisive statement in Iran. I think it was well-intentioned, but it was received at a time when things were already quite divisive in Iran, as a way of driving a wedge between the Supreme Leader and the president.


That raises one of the other key takeaways that comes from your book, which is even to talk about how, Iran does this, and Iran does that, we talk about countries as unified entities when we talk about international affairs, and in some ways, it's just so totally misleading. As you know, there are liberal currents, there have been Islamist currents, and there have even been Marxist-communist currents in Iran. No country is one thing. What is the first thing that Americans should understand about the internal political differences within Iran that would help them to better understand the country?



I think the first thing is exactly what you said, which is to simply recognize that Iran does have a domestic politics. It's not this monolithic force. Now, in recent years, Iran has moved to consolidate power much more under a kind of hardline administration, but for most of the history of the Islamic Republic, power has been very much contested. Now, some of that has been factional, some of it has been cronyistic or personal, but some of it has been very much ideological. Iran's political establishment is only allowed to operate within a fairly limited range of ideological standpoints. It's not like someone can come out and form a political party in Iran and question the whole idea of an Islamic Republic, for example, or question the authority of the Supreme Leader under the Shia theological principle of velayat-e faqih, which is the guardianship of the jurisprudent. Those things cannot be questioned. Someone cannot come out and form a political party that says the United States is not a force for evil, and we need to improve our relations with the US—that cannot be a platform. Those things are red lines within the Islamic Republic. Someone cannot come out and form a political party that is atheistic and rejects Islam. Those are three or four of the major red lines. But beyond that, there's actually a pretty significant range of opinions that are permissible within Iran, and you'd be surprised how vigorous and how vicious actually Iranian elections tend to be. I remember being in Iran during the 2009 election, which was one of the most vicious elections Iran has ever had, and watching the presidential debates. By today's American standards, they were not so vicious—things have got a lot worse—but by the standards of 2009, it was the kind of thing I had never seen in a US election. Presidential candidates sitting there on the stage accusing each other, just saying straight up, you're lying, you're deceiving the nation, you've humiliated us—saying this to the president, for example. And, I remember the next day, the opposition candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was accusing the president of lying. And suddenly, over the next few days, you had all of his supporters out there on the streets waving these banners that had the slogan “lying forbidden,” with the word “lying” with a sort of no entry sign drawn around it—a sort of red circle with a line through it. Those kinds of slogans had really taken off. That is a level of politicking that is not always appreciated. But as I say, it is important to bear in mind that a lot of that has disappeared over the last few years. The 2009 election was heavily disputed. For the next few elections, each of them have seen lower and lower turnout and more and more disillusionment from reformists or for people who want to see the Islamic Republic move in a more moderate or even pro-Western direction. The last election suffered record low turnout, with a series of candidates who were all basically from a conservative or hardline camp.


One of the frustrating things or impressions that I get from reading this history, and you can correct me if this is wrong, is that one of the reasons why it is a red line to advocate for improved and friendly relationships with the United States, is that when that has been tried, the United States has not reciprocated. I'll just quote from your book, where you write "the lesson was that there was no point of turning a friendly face to America, because America hated Iran" was the message that came across in a number of instances—the ripping up of the nuclear deal might also count in there. There are many of these tragic moments, like when the US shot down an Iranian airliner and didn't apologize for it, where we could have made it seem like it was worth trying to forge better diplomatic relations with the US. 


I think it's important to bear in mind that Iran's revolution has always been fairly anti-American from the beginning, from the hostage crisis on. So, it's not like Iran's leaders needed additional reasons to be anti-American, but it is true that over the last 20 or 30 years, particularly the current Supreme Leader and the people around him have drawn the conclusion that there isn't a lot to be gained from pursuing negotiations with the United States, except tactically to reduce sanctions, if possible.

The last time it was really seriously tried, of course, was the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in 2015 when the supreme leader was very skeptical about it, but said, let’s go ahead and try this, but I'm skeptical. He allowed the President and his government to go ahead and negotiate the deal with the Obama administration. That could have gone very differently, of course, as a result of a really unfortunate twist of history in the United States that no one really saw coming, which was the election of Donald Trump and withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018. That would have been very difficult to predict in 2015, but it gave tremendous ammunition to hardline anti-American voices in Iran, who just turned around and said, you see, we told you so, you cannot trust the Americans. It's a real shame because that's seriously dented any electoral possibilities that the moderate forces have in Iran now. No one takes them very seriously anymore because they were seen as naive as being duped by the United States. 


I'd like to discuss Iran's nuclear program. You actually just had an op-ed in the New York Times about this, called The Death of Iran's President Could Change the World. One of the points that you make is this picture of Iran as hell-bent on building nuclear weapons is almost completely wrong. In fact, there has been almost a great reluctance among many leaders to pursue nuclear weapons due to a religious proscription on weapons of mass destruction. One of the things that you point out in your recent op-ed is now we might be getting to a point where they say, compliance with the nuclear weapons treaty—the Non-Proliferation Treaty which they're a part of—has gotten us nowhere, so we might as well build a nuclear bomb. Once again, the lesson is, we cooperated and got nothing, so perhaps we should go in a different direction. 


I've taken a relatively contrarian point of view for the better part of 20 years in believing that Iran never really seriously wanted a nuclear weapon when they restarted their nuclear program in the 1990s. They were exploring some of the possible military dimensions, there's no question about that, but I don't think this was a real priority for them. I think that what has happened, though, over the past 20 years is this dysfunctional dynamic, especially between Iran and the United States, has created an awful and vicious cycle. And Iran is responsible for this as well—I definitely am not laying all the blame on the United States—but I do think that the Bush administration's insistence on zero enrichment for many years in the early 2000s, in other words, saying that Iran was not allowed to have any kind of nuclear program, not even a civilian, peaceful one that enriched at 3% or 5% to fuel nuclear reactors, [didn't help]. That is very much within its rights as a member of the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty), as is true of any country that belongs to it, which includes more than 190 countries. You're allowed to enrich uranium for civilian purposes, as long as you also allow in IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors to make sure that you're not diverting, which is where the crisis began in the early 2000s, and it got worse and worse and worse.

When it began in 2003, Iran had only 164 first generation, fairly antiquated centrifuges and no enriched uranium. By the time the nuclear deal was finally negotiated in 2015, Iran had something like 19,000 centrifuges and a large stockpile of medium enriched uranium. But it had to then scale back—it agreed to scale back on a lot of that, and these were second generation centrifuges as well. Good modern technology. That is interesting because that's more than Iran really needed for the civilian energy program. And the standard line from kind of hawkish elements in Washington and elsewhere was, this proves that their goal is a nuclear weapon. I'm not actually so sure of that. I think it developed a sort of self-fulfilling cycle. To some extent, they were, I think, trying to take a stronger negotiating position. It's a classic thing when you negotiate: you build up more than you really want so that you're seen to be giving away more, to some extent.

But also, I think that it became an act of defiance, a matter of national pride, and especially under the Ahmadinejad administration from 2005, it became almost a certain kind of spitefulness, where Iran began to accelerate its nuclear program more quickly than I think it otherwise would have done. Now we end up in a situation, where the JCPOA was an opportunity for Iran's more moderate leaders under President Rouhani to say, we can give up or scale back aspects of our nuclear program to get sanctions relief and to end our isolation, and maybe we don't have to go so hell for leather on the nuclear program. But again, when Trump pulled out of that deal, that changed the thinking in Iran considerably. It was, well, actually maybe we should just keep accelerating and keep enriching.

Now, for about a year or so, Iran didn't actually do that. It actually maintained its part of the deal, hoping that the US would be persuaded to come back to the table. But when it wasn't, and it looked like that wasn't going to happen, Iran began to increase its enrichment to the point where now, today, they're enriching uranium over 80%, and they are probably a couple of weeks away from a bomb if they wanted to be. And I think the key phrase there is "if they wanted to be." This is a very important breakout time. That is the time that it would take a country to build a nuclear bomb if it chose to do so. It doesn't mean that they're literally two weeks away from a bomb. Sometimes people get a bit confused when they see headlines along those lines. But Iran's breakout time is now very short, which means that they, in effect, could build a nuclear bomb if they simply chose to. It wouldn't be that difficult for them.

They haven't made that decision to do that yet, and there are many reasons. Some of it is religious, as you said. There is a fatwa, a religious ruling against nuclear weapons on moral, religious grounds, but there is also a strategic reason why they have always pursued this kind of hedging strategy of going right up to the edge of building a nuclear weapon, but not actually building one. It's not because they don't know how, or because they don't have the capacity. No, it's because they have chosen not to. They've made the choice again and again that Iran's perfect happy medium is somewhere between building a bomb and not having any kind of nuclear program. For Iran to completely dismantle its nuclear program, as the Bush administration was demanding in the early 2000s, would be to leave its entire energy industry reliant on external sources, which would give a lot of leverage and pain points for Iran's enemies, and Iran has plenty of enemies, particularly the United States, and it would have left the regime very vulnerable on a number of levels.

But to race all the way to a bomb would actually have a different kind of problem for Iran. First of all, everyone would know that they were doing it because you can't really build a bomb in secret. You have to kick out the IAEA inspectors, switch off the cameras, pull out of the NPT, and basically do what North Korea did in 2003. Everyone would know you were building a bomb, and immediately the United States would invade and probably bring about regime change in Iran. So Iran, for 20 years, has had much more to gain by building nuclear capability—in other words, the know how—than it does from actually building the bomb itself. Now, is that calculus changing? I think there may be some reasons to think that it could be, and that's what the New York Times op-ed was about.


Well, let me ask you about the calculus now. One of the points that you make there is that—and this is another thing that seems very obvious, but not obvious in the United States—is that Iran's leaders are rational and strategic. And there is a separate question from, "are they pursuing a nuclear bomb?" which is, "why would Iran want nuclear weapons?" The picture painted by leaders of the United States and Israel is, Iran wants to wipe Israel off the map and would use a nuclear weapon, but most states acquire nuclear weapons for reasons of deterrence. You've pointed out there that the United States has threatened to invade Iran. U.S. leaders talk about "all options on the table." If they did pursue the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, that would not necessarily mean that they were pursuing it for reasons of aggression. Obviously, Iraq was invaded by the United States. Israel is a state with nuclear weapons. There are plenty of reasons why you might want a nuclear weapon if you were Iran.


Well, the thing is, and this is where it gets kind of tricky, one, two, three, or even five nuclear bombs don't really do very much for Iran. Because what are they going to do with those? They're not going to fire off a nuclear weapon because Israel has an instantaneous second strike capability and over 100 nuclear weapons, and, of course, would have the backing and the support of the United States and a lot of the NATO powers as well.

For Iran, again, I think it always has more to lose from actually getting a bomb than it does from getting the capability of having one, of being where they are now with this kind of hedging strategy. They get most of the same benefits of having a bomb. There's a deterrent quality of your enemy knowing that you could build a bomb within a few weeks. It’s almost as strong, if not better, than actually having a bomb itself, which, again, for Iran, would attract probably invasion if they were seen to be racing for a bomb. Now, is that calculus changing? Not yet. It's still a real taboo in Iran to suggest that they should go ahead and build a bomb. The Supreme Leader feels very strongly that Iran is better off working within the architecture and the infrastructure of the International Non-Proliferation regime, in other words, the Non-Proliferation Treaty and being open to inspections and so on.

But you do sometimes hear hardline voices in Iran, increasingly now, saying, we've come this far, so maybe we should just go ahead and do what North Korea did. It wouldn't be that hard, and especially after the recent exchange of hostilities with Israel, which is a nuclear-armed power. That has definitely started to lift the taboo a little bit in Iran. And we have to remember also, the Supreme Leader is 85 years old, and we don't know who's going to come after him. There was a lot of speculation that Raisi would be, but he's now dead.


But what you just said about the Supreme Leader being committed to working within the framework of the NPT and allowing inspections, I feel like even that basic fact is not well understood in the United States.


Yes. I don't know how to account for it. There is a certain kind of media narrative, and I don't know what to do about that other than sort of say, look, these are the facts.




To conclude here, what has come up several times is the tragedy of US-Iranian relations, of what you described as a vicious cycle, points to things could have gone differently, to points of cooperation. Your book was published several years ago now, so maybe your assessment has changed, but in your conclusion, you write, “not only to both countries have a great deal to gain from a more positive relationship, but there's no good reason that they could not one day take the truly bold step of becoming strategic partners, if they could get past domestic political constraints.” So, you do argue that this is not destiny. The United States and Iran are not destined to be adversaries from now until time immemorial.


Absolutely. I always say in conversations like this that I'm an idealist, but I'm not an optimist. I feel very strongly that there's no real reason why the United States and Iran have to be at such loggerheads. They do share plenty of interests, and they do share, historically, a lot of friendship. The vast majority of their history, as I demonstrate in the book, is one of mutual admiration, fascination, and sometimes even idealization. But I'm also realistic. I don't see any prospect of an improved relationship between the United States and Iran anytime soon, and it would take some kind of dramatic event or change in the dynamic. That's always possible. We're in very volatile times right now in the Middle East, but something really fundamental would have to change in both countries’ domestic and regional politics. There are just too many interest groups that are deeply invested in the idea of US-Iran enmity, both in Iran, in the United States, and in the region. 


I did actually want to mention that it does seem that at various points where there might have been better relations between the United States and Iran, Israel, especially Benjamin Netanyahu, has very much not wanted to see that. You do raise the question, and I wanted to just put it to you here, which is, why would Israel have been so strongly opposed to the nuclear deal? You point out that you might think that it's the sort of thing they would favor because it would keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.


Yes, because Israel has never actually been afraid of Iran's nuclear program, despite what it says. Israel's own intelligence makes it clear that Iran is not about to build a bomb, and that this is not the kind of threat that Israel's politicians make it out to be. Now, Israel's real concern, the concern of Netanyahu for many years, at least under the Obama administration, was the idea of improved US-Iran friendship. That was much more concerning to him than Iran's nuclear program. Have you noticed that we haven't heard that much noise from Israel over the last few years about Iran's nuclear program? Why is that? Iran is now enriching at over 80%. Iran's nuclear program is objectively much more of a threat now than it was in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 when enrichment was down around 10-20%, and we were hearing never-ending noise from Israel about how there was no more time to waste, that we only had a few weeks or a few months, Iran was on the verge of a bomb, that the US shouldn't be trying to do a deal, and this was an emergency. Why was that? The real emergency was that Israel was concerned that Obama wanted to improve and reset relations with Iran, and so the Israelis tried to do everything they could to make that difficult by threatening this atmosphere of constant emergency and insisting and pushing the US to impose sanctions or isolate Iran. That was the real concern, and it succeeded very well, actually.


And why did the Biden administration not revive the deal? 


You'd have to ask them. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. It doesn't make a lot of sense to most Iran analysts that I've spoken to over the years. They had an incredible opportunity in 2021 where they had six months left in the Rouhani administration in Iran, that same moderate administration that negotiated the deal in the first place, and they just took a very hard line, which was strange. It was the United States that had pulled out of the deal, and the Iranians were saying that the US needed to show that they wanted to come back into the deal because they’re the ones who pulled out. And the Biden administration was kind of raising the stakes and the demands and so on, and really taking its time.

There just didn't seem to be a lot of urgency, despite the fact that there was an election coming up in Iran in June 2021, which, of course, brought in a very hard line president. And there were still opportunities in 2021 and 2022, and in fact, the Biden administration was seriously engaged in some talks with Iran in the summer of 2022 that looked very promising. But then these protests broke out in Iran, and there was a domestic crisis, and it was even more difficult for the United States to be seen doing a deal with the government that was killing its own people, in addition to these news reports about Iran selling drones to Russia during the Ukraine invasion. It just was politically much too difficult by that point for the Biden administration, and I think at this point, the ship has sailed, and we're not going back to the JCPOA. I think everyone knows that.

Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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