Q&A: Abbas Milani, director of Stanford’s Iranian Studies Program

Sept. 30, 2013, 1:05 a.m.

Abbas Milani is the director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford, co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution and author of the book “The Shah,” among others. With recent news of direct talks between Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and the Obama administration, The Daily sat down with Milani to provide a context for the revived presence of US-Iran relations in the media sphere.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): What do you see as the main challenges facing Iran? Of these issues, what are the Iranian people expecting President Rouhani to improve on?

Abbas Milani (AM): Domestically the biggest challenge, by far, is the economy. Unemployment is officially at 20 percent… realistically at about 40 percent. Inflation is increasing above 40 percent, and realistically it’s about probably double that. Oil revenues, which are 80 percent of the government’s source of revenue, are dwindling. There is no sign of increase-in fact every indication shows that with the sanctions increase there will be further dwindling.

The second challenge is that the right-wingers are now regrouping and are trying to rock any reversal of diplomacy that would hurt them economically and politically. We can look to further tensions there within the regime.

The more strategic tension is that Iran is a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic country, and there are increasing signs of dismantlement amongst the Kurds, amongst the Turks, amongst the Balochi, and holding the country together as it has been for 2,000 years is going to take some savvy-hopefully Mr. Rouhani will have that.

TSD: Regarding the economic challenges, what do you expect President Rouhani’s position to be in terms of mitigating the debilitating economic effects of the sanctions imposed by the United States on the Iranian people?

AM: I expect [President Rouhani] to do two things. First of all: to stop some of the utter corrupt incompetence that defined Ahmadinejad.

If [Ahmadinejad’s administration] had not squandered billions and billions–by some accounts seven hundred billions of dollars in the last seven to eight years–they could have weathered the sanctioning much more easily. So one aspect of what I expect Rouhani to do is to try, but it’s not going to be easy because the government is so used to corruption and losing money.

The second thing I expect him to do is to see as quickly as possible whether he can find a way of easing sanctions. More oil, import more and attract more foreign investment. They have already announced a major program to attract new tourism. They are trying to increase the revenue, control the expenditure, bring the budget under control, create some employment and get out of the mess that Ahmadinejad has created.

TSD: Upon his election, President Rouhani spoke about “resetting relationships around the world.” Do you think that he is going to be willing to make the necessary reforms to the trajectory of the Iranian nuclear efforts, as well as simultaneously restore relations with the West?

AM: His views are that, “We are not going to give up our program, but we are willing to make the kinds of concessions that would allow the international community’s mind to rest at ease and would allow us to continue some from of peaceful nuclear program.”

At the same time, the fact is that there are radical groups on both sides in the West and Israel, and in Iran, that don’t want these negotiations to be fruitful. Tension is in their benefit, and they might well find a way of torpedoing this. Rouhani has some room to maneuver, but he can’t maneuver too much. He has to concoct a solution that can be sold at home as a victory over the West and over Israel, and then be acceptable very much to the West and Israel as a serious enough concession to allow the regime to continue. It sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s exactly what he has to do.

TSD: Taking matters from the other side, what does the international community need to do in order to act affirmatively towards Iran, yet without removing Rouhani’s capability of reforming his country with the support of his people?

AM: The difficulty that the international community faces is that, on the one hand, they don’t want to make no response, but on the other, the Iranian regime is now in a much better negotiating mood because it is feeling the effect of the sanctions.    You don’t want to completely let them off the hook, but you also don’t want to hurt the Iranian people unnecessarily. The Iranian population is overwhelmingly pro-Western, and that is a very important political capital not to squander. Finding a balance between these two, in other words-telling Rouhani that his good behavior is going to be rewarded but at the same time not falling prey to some shenanigans of the regime…making some pretend concessions and then going back as soon as the pressure is lifted-is going to be the challenge of the U.S. policy.

TSD: Looking back 20 years from now, what should the United States have done regarding its approach to Iran and the nuclear weapons program?

AM: I think they should have accepted early on that Iran has the right to enriched uranium within the NPC but that, because [Iran] has lied in the past, because it has launched programs without duly notifying the IAEA, it needs to sign the Protocol; it needs to accept more intrusive inspections.

I think that the outline of an agreement is fairly evident. Iran continues at five-percent enrichment, it opens up all of its nuclear sites and it makes a very clear categorical statement that is in some ways verifiable, that it won’t take larger steps towards weaponizing.

If they had insisted on trying to do that, I think there would have been an agreement some time ago. Rouhani was very close to getting this deal, and radicals torpedoed it. Whether the ‘torpedoists’ will succeed in torpedoing it again, I hope not. But there are enough people in Iran who are worried that unless they make some kind of a concession, the whole system will collapse.

Contact Alexa Liautaud at [email protected].


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