A Case for U.S.-Iran Diplomacy

Interview with Roberto Toscano

Semira N. Nikou
Roberto Toscano served as Italy’s ambassador to Iran between 2003 and 2008.
  • Along with five former European ambassadors to Iran, you wrote an open letter in June 2011 encouraging the United States and the European Union to engage Iran on its controversial nuclear program. Given the failure of diplomacy since 2003, what are the prospects of engagement--realistically?
Let me turn it around—what are the prospects of non-engagement? The strategies pursued until now are definitely not producing results. At the same time, centrifuges, doubts and tensions increase. The idea that prompted us former ambassadors to suggest a different approach was to see whether this stalemate can be overcome, and how.
We should have two priorities in addressing the nuclear issue. One is to prevent conflict--preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, which by itself is a threat to international security, and preventing conflict that might arise around proliferation issues. Second is to follow a policy that does not diminish, but increases, chances for a democratic Iran.
On both counts, what we, the West, have done until now has been counterproductive. If you ask me about the chance of engagement now, I would stay it is slim. In 2003 and 2004…the position of the Unites States and Europeans was that Iran have zero centrifuges. The idea was, since you, Tehran, were a suspicious fellow, you had no more rights. But in international law, especially on non-proliferation, you need rules that are applicable to all.
The assessment of the majority of experts—both technical and political--is that what Iran wants is threshold capacity—to arrive at a stage where it can produce a nuclear weapon if it wants to. The same situation Japan is in, for instance.
We should prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons—and make its attainment of threshold capacity more difficult --by applying strategies that are realistic. There are several elements. One is to shift from the impossible goal of eliminating Iranian capability and instead increase control over Iran’s nuclear program. The shift would be from prohibition to enhanced controls.
For instance, Iran had adopted the Additional Protocol from 2003-05. It did not ratify but still applied the protocols. The difference between the present system and the Additional Protocol is that now inspectors still inspect Natanz regularly, but they cannot go to undeclared sites. And of course, the real guarantee is when they can go to undeclared sites. But the Additional Protocol is not universally ratified—meaning, not all signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have ratified it. So the Additional Protocol has to be a part of the negotiations. It cannot be imposed as a rule because it is not a universal rule.
The nuclear issue has been singled out as being the only one of concern for us. There are many more—regional problems, Iranian policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan, etc. If you do not contextualize the nuclear issue…it will always be looked at as a zero-sum game. 
Good diplomacy is when you give and take on a wider front…After all, I am not talking about a “grand bargain”—for which there are no conditions right now, especially given the recent regime and internal political situation—but at least an attempt to begin talking about the wide range of issues.
In 2003, there was a letter sent … to the United States. Not only did the United States not reply, but it reproached the Swiss ambassador for having transmitted the proposal. It was a very basic, generic proposal…but somebody should have answered, asking the Iranians to be more explicit. At that time, the idea was different—that there was an unstoppable wave of democracy after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
  • What tangible steps can the United States and Europe take toward negotiations with Iran?
We have a prerequisite--which is unfortunately in the Security Council resolution--that enrichment should stop before negotiation [begins]. This is a bad idea because the result of a negotiation is required as a prerequisite to negotiations. It is very difficult to know how to get out of this. I am afraid we have painted ourselves into a corner.
  • How has Iran’s political crisis affected the regime’s interest or position in negotiations on nuclear issues?
There is a common interest in not damaging the system—because in that case all in the regime would go under. But things could get out of control because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is reckless.
The political confrontation between the supreme leader and the president is…not on whether the nuclear program should be maintained, but on how. The impression is that the Ahmadinejad-Mashaei gang would be more innovative—(Esfandiar Rahim Mashei is Ahmadinejad’s controversial chief of staff.) The supreme leader is more of the status quo. We do not know what exactly others want, but they are probably more willing to change. Having said that, there is no way that Ahmadinejad can prevail over the supreme leader, so this is all very theoretical.
The nuclear negotiations have changed several times…So the West should prove to be more imaginative—to test, provoke, and challenge. We should not let the status quo just lie there because it is festering; it can go wrong—also by mistake. I am afraid if we do not do something to address those issues, starting with the nuclear but not only the nuclear, conflict could arise out of carelessness, mistake. Just accidents.
  • Since 2009, the Obama administration has gradually shifted from a policy of engagement to heightened pressure through sanctions on human rights and nuclear issues. How do sanctions affect the chances of future negotiations between the two countries?
The first problem is a sort of disconnect between the political dynamics in the two countries. I have no doubt that if Obama had been president at the same time as Khatami, something would have happened.
You do not have to overestimate your adversary. George F. Kennan had it right: You prevent your adversary—in his case the Soviet Union-- from shifting the competition with you onto a military field. From then on, you just have to let everything else play—your economy, open society, culture. The Soviet Union was not invaded, was not bombed, not isolated—and it was the Soviet Union! You mean that Iran is more powerful than the Soviet Union?
So why see this Iran as a devilish, all-powerful system that you either destroy or it will destroy you. Iran is not capable of even a match with Israel. Everyone is talking about the possible nuclear weapons in the future of Iran when Israel already has them.
  • Do you distinguish between human rights sanctions and those against Iran’s nuclear program?
Yes. The difference is not in the effect of sanctions but their political significance. They have a different tag and political impact…People who want democracy in Iran have welcomed sanctions against human rights violators.
As far as sanctions against the nuclear program, Iranians—even democratic Iranians—are not so unified in approving them because of nationalism and because they think it is legitimate for the country to develop a nuclear energy program under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The idea of saying that since we [the West] do not trust you [Iran] the normal rules do not apply, is hard to sell—not only to the regime but also to the people.