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Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Aug 10, 2018

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton. A former Iranian ambassador to Germany, he was the chief spokesman for Iran during its nuclear negotiations with the international community. Several years ago, he parted ways with the Iranian government. This week he joins Jeff Schechtman for our WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Mousavian sets the stage with a look at Iran’s reaction to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA). He talks about the debate that took place inside Iran on whether or not Iran should even enter into negotiations with the US. He reminds Schechtman that 40 years of distrust is a very high hurdle to overcome.

Mousavian details the 10 years of negotiations that took place between Iran and the Europeans, beginning in 2003, long before the US was ever brought into the talks. In fact, he reminds us that this effort with the US was the first time there had been any high-level negotiations or even just talks between Iran and the US in more than four decades.   

Mousavian strenuously argues that Iran has been complying with all aspects of the agreement, as attested by 11 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

According to Mousavian, the Iranians see this deal as something worth saving, and that it should be a model for other non-proliferation deals around the world. In an obvious reference to Israel, he argues that if other nations, particularly in the Middle East, were to agree to the same deal, it could make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

From a diplomatic perspective, Iran is clearly making every effort to paint the US as the bad guy for pulling out of the deal, and Iran, which says it has been fully complying with the deal, as the good guy.

Mousavian says that the US’s rejection of the JCPOA is increasing tensions in the region. From Iran’s perspective, if the US had abided by the deal, the trust generated might have formed the basis for further negotiations on a whole range of complex issues in the region, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, etc. Now that the trust is broken, he says, there is very little chance for US and Iranian diplomacy on these, or any other issues. The net result makes the world less safe.

The only hope now appears to be that all those years of direct negotiations between the Europeans and Iran will pay off and that China will assume a bigger role as an honest broker in this region and provide economic relief from the US sanctions. The problem is that in order to keep the agreement alive, all remaining countries may need to violate the secondary sanctions provisions of the deal. These secondary sanctions put pressure on third parties to stop their activities with the sanctioned country, i.e. Iran, by threatening to cut-off the third party's access to the sanctioning country.

On a more encouraging note: Mousavian says that, in spite of all the mistrust, Iran might still be willing to enter into new negotiations with the Trump administration. After all, he says, the US and Iran are the two biggest powers in the region and it makes sense for them to find a way to talk.

For now, however, nothing further will happen if the US president and members of his administration keep spouting about regime change. Mousavian reminds us that such efforts have failed for 40 years, and that President Trump needs to learn from the lessons of history.

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