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Vali Nasr: 'Starving Somebody Won't Make Them Do What You Want'

Vali Nasr: "I think the Iranian public could look and say that our position is unreasonable."
Ahead of Iran's presidential election on June 14, RFE/RL asked top U.S. observers to weigh in on the effectiveness of sanctions, the end goal of nuclear negotiations, and the possible benefits of taking a more diplomatic approach toward Tehran.

RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to Vali Nasr, a renowned expert on the Middle East and South Asia who served as an adviser to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and is a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. (Also see RFE/RL interviews with Dennis Ross and Ryan Crocker.)

RFE/RL: You write in your latest book, "The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy In Retreat," that current U.S. policy could turn Iran into a failed state but won't change its nuclear stances. What concrete measures do you think the U.S. should take to end the current impasse?

Vali Nasr:
The U.S. is locked into its policy -- which is pressure and no real conversation. So, it's easy to keep escalating the pressure, although you're running out of things you could do. And yes, the pressure really has an impact on the Iranian economy -- it's kind of like trying to starve somebody. Yes, they do lose weight, and that only proves that starvation works. But it doesn't mean that starvation actually gets them to do what [you] want.

I think the thinking in Iran is that they're much more likely to survive sanctions than surrender, because there's no deal on the table. It's possible that they may consider a deal, and even that would be difficult. So if they could go back home and say, "We're going to suspend the program, but look -- we got rid of the oil embargo, we got rid of the financial restrictions, the GDP is going to go up, it's going to relieve pressure, there's going to be more jobs." There's a scenario in which some Iranian leaders may see that as a positive.

If what we're asking them is that you're not going to get anything, and we expect you to just come and sign off the program, they're not going to survive that. You know, you put billions of dollars, and decades, and go through all this hardship, you're not going to just hand it over. So I think the right incentive structure is not on the table. The pressure works, but pressure is not going to get them to change policy.

RFE/RL: Former White House adviser Dennis Ross has argued that the exclusion of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from the Iranian elections suggests that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not interested in a nuclear deal. Do you agree with his assessment?

No, I don't think that's quite right. I think actually the elimination of Rafsanjani should be a huge sigh of relief for the West, because it would have been very difficult to continue the sanctions pressure with an Iranian president that is very different from [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad. Because so much of the West's policy toward Iran in the past 10 (sic) years has been around Ahmadinejad, his person. So if you had somebody who would be more amenable, it would actually undermine the current American strategy so it would put pressure on the administration to do more than it wants to do.

Right now, it's easy to keep passing the buck to Khamenei, but in reality Rafsanjani could not cut a deal with the United States unless something concrete is on the table from the United States. He can't go back home and say, "I'm selling the same thing they offered [current nuclear negotiator and presidential candidate Said] Jalili." Which is, "You give us everything and we consider that as sort of good behavior in future consideration, we may give you aircraft parts and possibly let you deal in gold."

Rafsanjani wouldn't do that because, as an Iranian politician, you can't be the [Neville] Chamberlain of Iranian politics. [Rafsanjani] can only survive politically in Iran if he is actually able to deliver something that looks like a strong deal. And I don't think people here are willing to give a strong deal.

It's not like we made an indication that if Rafsanjani is made president somehow we're going to give him what we didn't give Ahmadinejad. Khamenei may not in his heart be serious, we don't know. But I'm sure [of] one thing: He's come to the conclusion that we're not serious and that what we're really after is regime change and surrender.

RFE/RL: Do you think the current sanctions approach could turn Iran's population against the United States?

I think so because I think people don't think in just black and white. You can dislike your own government and a foreign government at the same time. You can believe that the United States is doing the wrong thing: "Yes, we have a bad government, but you're punishing us and you're turning our country into dust because of that bad government." So, this is not a clean strategy.

I think the Iranian public could look and say that our position is unreasonable, that we're asking them to give up something that many Iranians may take pride in, that they see as a mark of scientific achievement, that they see as the mark of "great power" status, that they see as the protection of the country. That we want that to be given up, but we're not willing to offer anything in return, we're not reasonable. And it's possible that the population will come to gradually blame the U.S. for its policies. We saw that happen in Iraq.

We're not in support of the Iranian public, we're putting pressure on them for something we want and something that they may actually not agree with us [on]. I think the Iranian public is divided on the nuclear issue. That's the best way you can put it -- that not everybody agrees that this is a bad thing and probably many of them buy the regime's line that this is necessary for industry and electricity and the like.