Contextual Content

Will Obama negotiate with Iran

To understand what President Obama’s foreign policy in Iran will shape up to be, Paul Jay speaks to Babak Yektafar, Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Prism. Yektafar says this administration ought to arrive at a working relationship with Iran, as it is at least partly responsible for Iran’s rise in regional power by invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein. Yektafar explains it is in the best interests of the United States to have a relationship with Iran because of its geopolitical significance, because of mutual interests, and because of the energy resources there. In the past five administrations of US presidency, Yektafar says nothing has improved. “Israel is no safer than it was, and the Middle East is no more stable than it was thirty years ago.” He says that “it’s a big mistake to make issues such as human rights, the nuclear issue, or Israel’s safety, a means to an end,” as the threat of the U.S. validates violations of the Iranian government against its people.

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Story Transcript

Obama and Iran

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and our coverage of the inauguration of Barack Obama, his first days as president. And we’re discussing just what might Obama do in US foreign policy towards Iran with Babak Yektafar, editor-in-chief of Washington Prism. Thanks again. So, in one of the debates in the primaries, Biden had attacked the policy of Bush towards Iran, the aggressive rhetoric, and he was also critiquing Hillary Clinton on this issue, where they were talking a bit about the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment and the whole issue of threatening Iran. And Biden said something which is very interesting, I thought. He said if you don’t want them to build a nuclear weapon, stop threatening regime change. But then I thought Obama said something perhaps even more interesting, which was—he says if you don’t want them to be a regional power, you shouldn’t have invaded Iraq. It’s too late for that now. And he said it once. I never heard him say it again. But if he believes that, that the world as it is now is Iran in fact is a regional power, you’re going to have to deal with it that way, if his mindset is that, then perhaps is that the beginnings of a new foreign policy?

BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTON PRISM: Absolutely. I think, first and foremost, this new administration, President Obama and Vice President Biden, who have shown in the past that they do regard this threatening manner [as] somewhat detrimental to the future relations between the two country, I think if they really settle on this point, "Is it to our benefit, is it to the benefit of the United States, to have working relations, not a love-fest, not even an ally, for that matter, but at least a working relation with Iran, given the fact that it is what it is? We have given them this rise by invading Iraq and taking away Saddam Hussein and such. Is it to our interest? Is it better to have—?" One of the priorities that President Obama has set for his foreign policy is stabilization of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, again, three countries where, as far as far as I’m concerned, that the common threat here could be Iran. It is to Iran’s interests also to have stabilized Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Yes, of course, Iran, like any other nation, would try to exert some influence and get whatever it can. But stabilization is to their benefit. Also, in regards to Hamas and Hezbollah, which it regards to, is it better to have them on our side and somehow deal in that manner, or to fight against them? But one other area that people don’t take notice of, and if the Georgian-Russian conflict was one, is Central Asia. That’s another country with the energy issues, as well as geopolitical aspects of it. Iran can be a player in that area as well, which can be of help vis-à-vis US-Russia relations and the future of energy flow from that particular region, you know, a threat of terrorism. Iran also considers itself, you know, a victim of terrorism in a number of ways, shapes, or forms. So, again, there are so many areas that there is common interest that can be capitalized, if we decide that this is much more to our advantage than having this adversarial [framework] that we’ve had for 30 years, five administrations. We’ve tried many different things within that adversarial framework, and we haven’t gotten anywhere. Israel is no safer than it was. Middle East is not more stable than it was 30 years ago. So I think that one major, big step needs to be taken by this administration.

JAY: Okay. Now let’s shift whose interest we’re talking about, ’cause so far we’ve been kind of talking about American interest, Western interest. But what about the interest of ordinary Iranians? Trade unionists going to jail, academics going to jail. Before we started rolling we talked about some doctors recently arrested. It is in fact a very repressive regime, an elite that’s—much of the elite is extremely wealthy, with a great polarization between rich and poor in that country.

YEKTAFAR: Sure.

JAY: In terms of the ordinary Iranians’ economic rights, democratic rights, does the rapprochement of sorts help them or hurt them in terms of a movement there?

YEKTAFAR: I think if it’s done correctly, it certainly will benefit them than hurting them. Some of the issues that you’ve mentioned are very serious issues, but—and this is an important aspect of it—it is easy for me to sit here, you know, in Washington and criticize Iranian regime for arresting people because they’re saying that you spied, you know, you’re a lackey of a CIA, and that. But the fact of the matter is: are we saying that CIA has never done this before [inaudible]?

JAY: Well, more than that, we actually know. According to The New York Times or The Washington Post very recently, Bush said no to Israel trying to launch a bombing attack, telling them, "Hang on. We have a covert operation going. You don’t need to do this."

YEKTAFAR: Or if they have an $80 million budget for various soft and PR and—.

JAY: Bribes.

YEKTAFAR: Exactly. Are we saying that that’s not taking place? So if you’re talking about a regime that sees itself surrounded by US forces from West to East and North and South and allies of them, if they’re in the fear of regime change, if they feel that this is the time that they’re going to be crushed because so many people [inaudible], I mean, is it not a natural reaction by a regime that sees that clamping down and being oppressive in this shape or form is a way of protecting itself? What I’m saying is that such issues—and they’re legitimate issues—it’s not exclusive to Iran. China has some of the worst human rights records, but we deal with China. Saudi Arabia, for God’s sake. I mean, there are so many of them. Egypt. But I think the bottom line is that it’s a big mistake to make issues such as human rights, to make issues such as the nuclear issue that we talked about, Israeli security, to make them a means to an end. That’s a mistake. We’re never going to go anywhere unless we make those part of the end itself. I mean, we have to be able to sit down with Iranians. We have to stop outsourcing our foreign policy with other countries because we have some [inaudible]

JAY: Specifically about the rights, the trade movement particularly has been under attack.

YEKTAFAR: Yes.

JAY: A lot of leaders have been put in jail, some for long times, for simply doing normal trade union activities.

YEKTAFAR: Women, for that matter, yes, of course.

JAY: So, in terms of that struggle, has that helped or hurt if there’s a rapprochement?

YEKTAFAR: I think it will help because, as I said, the way it is right now, it somehow gives the government itself—.

JAY: So the threat of the US gives a rationale for the repression.

YEKTAFAR: Exactly. And I’ve always said that we would have a much better chance of at least—I don’t want to say "influencing directly," but at least somehow negotiate certain aspects that we talked about that are challenged. If we have an ongoing dialog, if they don’t have this fear of overthrow, you know, we would have a better chance of trying to maybe indicate certain things that may change some of these issues. It’s certainly—I mean, it is as bad as it can get and probably will get worse the more we put pressure on them. Maybe trying the other way might—and this is something that hasn’t been done the past 30 years—maybe it would be of help to them.

JAY: Well, we’ll see. We’ll see whether in the quote says—I think this quote has to be to Iran, ’cause I’m not sure who else they’re talking about—"We will extend a hand if you’re willing to unclench your fist." I’m not sure where the clenched fist is, ’cause the Iranians have been trying to negotiate about this. They’ve just been trying to have negotiations without preconditions. Do you think Obama will make that move? Really quickly.

YEKTAFAR: You know, it’s going to be hard. It needs to be a bold step, and I don’t know if right now Obama’s ready to do that, particularly with Mr. Ahmadinejad in charge and having said, oh, [inaudible]

JAY: So, if Ahmadinejad’s personality, if there’s enough baggage with him to in itself prevent the negotiations, would the supreme leader and the elite of Iran want someone that could negotiate with the West?

YEKTAFAR: We have to understand that Mr. Ahmadinejad is just part of this puzzle. He’s one of the few people, and probably not the most influential person [inaudible]

JAY: But in terms of American public perception, you can’t even imagine Obama sitting down with Ahmadinejad.

YEKTAFAR: Probably not. But the thing is that we have worked with Iranians with Afghanistan after the fall of Taliban, in many different areas of Iraq, and so on. We work with Iranians behind the scenes. That can get [inaudible]

JAY: But if the Iranian elite really wants the grand deal, they’re going to have to have a new president after the June elections.

YEKTAFAR: We’ve seen this so many times. If the Iranians want this, the person who’s going to the actual negotiation probably will not be Mr. Ahmadinejad but someone that is appointed by the supreme leader with the backing of the Revolutionary Guards. And if it’s really the absolute deal-breaker or whatever, we may see a change in the presidency.

JAY: So we’ll see this in the June elections in Iran. This may become one of the factors.

YEKTAFAR: It may become, but we’ll have to see.

JAY: Okay. Thanks very much, Babak.

YEKTAFAR: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. Don’t forget the "donate" buttons. We depend on you for our survival.

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