Interview Conducted By René Pfister
In an interview, Middle East expert and former White House adviser Vali Nasr warns of the danger of a new war in the region and calls on Europeans to oppose Washington’s Iran policy.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Nasr, are we on the verge of a new war in the Middle East between the United States and Iran?
Nasr: The risk is there, largely because there’s no communication between the two sides. There is a lot of room for misinterpretation. Unlike North Korea or China, Iran is a case where President Trump has taken what was a relatively stable situation and has now made it much worse and more dangerous, without either showing a way to success or a Plan B if his plans fail. There is political vulnerability for him, particularly going into an election year. But the case is also going to show exactly how weak and ineffective Europe is. There’s already a tremendous amount of damage to Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: Why is that?
Nasr: The Europeans are showing that they are completely part of the American foreign policy establishment. In fact, in Iran, there is a view now, which has become quite prevalent, that Europe has played a sinister role by keeping Iran in the deal for two years while at the same time facilitating American pressure.
DER SPIEGEL: But the Europeans criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas even flew to Tehran in June in to maintain contact with Iran.
Nasr: The Europeans spent great time and energy to negotiate the nuclear deal. And after the U.S. left the deal, the Europeans said they would at least try to save it. But with every push by the U.S. administration, the Europeans decided not to stand their ground and backed away. Recently, the United Kingdom captured a tanker carrying Iranian oil off the coast of Gibraltar under dubious legal justification. With that action, the British government showed what Iran had all along suspected, which is that Europe is an instrument of the American foreign policy and acting on Washington’s behalf even in escalating the crisis that was created by the U.S. leaving the nuclear deal.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, has flipped sides and will support Trump’s Iran policy?
Nasr: I don’t think Britain can support America’s Iran policy any more than it is doing right now. The only last step that is left is for the UK to also come out of the nuclear deal. But that would have broader implications because it also underlines Britain’s break with the EU. However, by asking the rest of Europe to support Britain in the tanker crisis (Eds: surrounding the seized British tanker Stena Impero) and jointly form a maritime security force to protect shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, Britain is trying to force the rest of Europe to join the U.S. foreign policy.
DER SPIEGEL: What should the Europeans do to save the deal?
Nasr: There are some options, and all have to do with the Europeans fulfilling their economic commitments under the Joint Plan of Comprehensive Action (JPCOA) nuclear deal. For instance, the governments of the European signatories to the deal, Germany, France and the UK, could buy Iranian oil, or they could give Iran a credit line equivalent to a certain amount of oil. Of course, that would risk a direct confrontation with Washington. Since this would be a government deal, it would challenge the U.S. to sanction European governments, although that’s not likely.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think Trump has a strategy for dealing with Iran?
Nasr: Trump thinks that if he pressures people and they come to the table, they will give in to his demands. It seems to have been working, or at least he thinks so. He has bullied the Mexicans, the Canadians and the Europeans. Ultimately, at some point, they have all tried to accommodate him.
DER SPIEGEL: But it doesn’t seem to have worked with Iran yet.
Nasr: The Iranians don’t trust Trump. The president says he wants to talk to Iran, but his key national security people don’t actually want to implement his policy. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are not in favor of negotiating with Iran. Prior to his assignment to the White House, Bolton said publicly that he wants regime change in Iran. The Iranians know that even if they showed up for a meeting with Trump, and even if they made some agreements, it could get nowhere because the level two and level three who actually have to implement things will undermine it. Bolton and Pompeo are not committed to getting to a new agreement with Iran. They want to escalate tensions with Iran and regime change.
DER SPIEGEL: Many people say that the strategy behind Bolton’s appointment was to get a falcon into the White House who can ratchet up the pressure on Iran and thus help Trump to reach his goal of renegotiating the nuclear deal.
Nasr: Even if Trump really thinks that, it’s poor decision-making on his part because Bolton is undermining Trump’s goal of convincing Iran that he is serious about talks. Take the recent case of the Japanese effort to mediate between the U.S. and Iran. Trump spent a lot of time with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Iran. Trump asked him to go to Tehran and carry a letter from him to the Iranian leadership. The Iranians saw that as a positive sign and made a gesture before Abe came by releasing a Lebanese prisoner who is also a permanent resident of the U.S.
DER SPIEGEL: What went wrong?
Nasr: Right before Abe arrived in Tehran, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Iran’s petrochemicals industry. From what I hear, Abe’s trip was dead at that point, literally before he even arrived. I think that was Bolton’s doing. It’s easy for a master bureaucrat like Bolton to do these kinds of things.
DER SPIEGEL: Why did the Iranians shoot down the American drone and seize a British tanker as they have now done? Do they want to provoke a war with the U.S.?
Nasr: I don’t think so. For a year, the Iranians did not escalate in response to the U.S. leaving the nuclear deal and increasing pressure. The Iranians’ strategy was what they call “strategic patience.” But in late April, Trump increased sanctions more and said the U.S. would force Iran’s oil exports down to zero. The U.S. also designated the Revolutionary Guard as a foreign terrorist organization. The Iranians made the decision that the U.S. had interpreted “strategic patience” as weakness and saw no resistance or risk to increasing pressure. Even moderate voices in Iran decided that unless Iran reacts and creates some deterrence to Trump, that he was going to keep escalating. Their message is very clear: We can escalate this crisis. You can threaten war, but it will be costly to you. We can be crazier than you.
DER SPIEGEL: What is the Iranian public’s view of the nuclear agreement?
Nasr: Originally, the deal created an enormous amount of positive expectations. For most Iranians, the deal was not about the nuclear issue or even better economic opportunities. This was really the beginning of the opening of Iran. Everybody expected that European companies were going to come, and then eventually the Americans would follow. The message of moderate politicians like President Hassan Rouhani was that Iran’s future is with the West, that it has to invest in relations with the West. The nuclear deal would lead to economic ties, and that would lead to other deals, and gradually Iran’s relations with the West would change.
DER SPIEGEL: So, what now?
Nasr: The mood toward the deal is very negative. Many think that the trust they put in the U.S., at least in their mindset, proved to have been mistaken. And what they had thought of Europe was also mistaken. The Iranians think they were duped and that they were cheated, and the blame is passed on to moderates like President Rouhani. Nobody in Iran right now can make a case for talking to Trump. Nobody is willing to take that decisive step and come forward.
DER SPIEGEL: And what happens if neither side is willing to yield?
Nasr: One scenario could be that Trump will kick the can down the road until after the election. The second is that he may actually begin thinking about ways in which there could be some more positive engagement. But to actually get to talks, I think there has to be something he is willing to give Iran in terms of sanctions relief. The Iranians need some kind of win to manage their own public opinion, so that going to talks doesn’t look like surrender to Trump. The Iranians have domestic politics, and the public way in which the American officials handle Iran is counterproductive. Pompeo cannot be this aggressive with Iran and then expect that any Iranian politician could talk to him without paying a heavy domestic political price. Iranians will not accept humiliation.
DER SPIEGEL: Why is the U.S. so obsessed with Iran?
Nasr: Iran is not just any developing country — it’s an ancient civilization. It has that kind of gravitas about it. It is a country of over 80 million people, and it is strategically located between Europe and Asia. But there is also a psychological fascination with Iran in the West: The Iranian Revolution was the last great revolution. We use the word “revolution” freely, but there are really only four grand revolutions in history — the French, Russian, Chinese and the Iranian Revolution in 1979. It was a huge shock for the West and the U.S. in particular. The hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were the main reason why Jimmy Carter lost the election against Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Iranian Revolution is seen as the main fuel for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a political force. Now, there is a second generation of American leaders whose views on Iran were shaped during the Iraq war in 2003, people like Trump’s former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster or Senator Tom Cotton, who fought in Iraq. For them, the face of it is not Ayatollah Khomeini, it’s Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force. They see Soleimani as a terrorist who killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers with Iranian roadside traps and who manages Iran’s regional operations in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
DER SPIEGEL: Is there any hope of containing all the tensions in the region in the foreseeable future?
Nasr: The reality in the Middle East has changed drastically over the last decade. The Arab World has collapsed. Its most important Arab countries, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, have all been battered and weakened. I don’t think Saudi Arabia can replace them. It is an important player in the region, but it is not as important as the West might think. It has considerable financial capacity, but on the ground in the region, it’s not relevant to Lebanon, to Syria or Iraq, and it is failing in Yemen. You have a situation in the Middle East that is similar to the time leading up to World War I. Like Europe at that time, what you see in the region is a balance of power between Iran, Turkey and Israel, plus the U.S. and Russia — competing big powers that are struggling for influence. Iran has had a big opportunity because of the collapse of the Arab World caused by the Arab spring and the invasion of Iraq. That door opened for them, and now they have the greatest influence in the region. That’s why countries like Saudi Arabia want the U.S. to roll back Iran’s gains.
DER SPIEGEL: It doesn’t sound very encouraging when you compare the situation in the Middle East with the situation in Europe immediately before the outbreak of World War I.
Nasr: Because of that, it is so important that the U.S. start a serious strategic conversation with Iran. We now have a situation in which the U.S. is saying to Iran: “Give up your nuclear capability, give up your missiles” and, meanwhile, we will give $100 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia and Israel. In addition, you have to leave all the Arab countries that surround you. Why would the Iranians do that? The U.S has to start with getting a sense of what Iran’s security interests are and, hence, it’s strategic calculus. When Henry Kissinger met secretly with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in 1971, the first thing he asked was: “What is your strategic doctrine? What are your security concerns?” Unfortunately, I don’t see a man like Kissinger in the White House.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Nasr, we thank you for this interview.