Donald Trump, Hassan Rouhani
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from The White House, European External Action Service / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0), and European External Action Service / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0) and US Department of State (PDF).

Want to understand the consequences of pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal? What it means for the US, Iran, and rest of the world? Listen to this conversation with Iran scholar and former Iranian ambassador and government official Seyed Hossein Mousavian.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton. A former Iranian ambassador to Germany, he was the chief spokesman for Iran during its nuclear negotiations with the international community. Several years ago, he parted ways with the Iranian government. This week he joins Jeff Schechtman for our WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Mousavian sets the stage with a look at Iran’s reaction to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA). He talks about the debate that took place inside Iran on whether or not Iran should even enter into negotiations with the US. He reminds Schechtman that 40 years of distrust is a very high hurdle to overcome.

Mousavian details the 10 years of negotiations that took place between Iran and the Europeans, beginning in 2003, long before the US was ever brought into the talks. In fact, he reminds us that this effort with the US was the first time there had been any high-level negotiations or even just talks between Iran and the US in more than four decades.   

Mousavian strenuously argues that Iran has been complying with all aspects of the agreement, as attested by 11 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

According to Mousavian, the Iranians see this deal as something worth saving, and that it should be a model for other non-proliferation deals around the world. In an obvious reference to Israel, he argues that if other nations, particularly in the Middle East, were to agree to the same deal, it could make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

From a diplomatic perspective, Iran is clearly making every effort to paint the US as the bad guy for pulling out of the deal, and Iran, which says it has been fully complying with the deal, as the good guy.

Mousavian says that the US’s rejection of the JCPOA is increasing tensions in the region. From Iran’s perspective, if the US had abided by the deal, the trust generated might have formed the basis for further negotiations on a whole range of complex issues in the region, including Yemen, Syria, Iraq, etc. Now that the trust is broken, he says, there is very little chance for US and Iranian diplomacy on these, or any other issues. The net result makes the world less safe.

The only hope now appears to be that all those years of direct negotiations between the Europeans and Iran will pay off and that China will assume a bigger role as an honest broker in this region and provide economic relief from the US sanctions. The problem is that in order to keep the agreement alive, all remaining countries may need to violate the secondary sanctions provisions of the deal. These secondary sanctions put pressure on third parties to stop their activities with the sanctioned country, i.e. Iran, by threatening to cut-off the third party’s access to the sanctioning country.

On a more encouraging note: Mousavian says that, in spite of all the mistrust, Iran might still be willing to enter into new negotiations with the Trump administration. After all, he says, the US and Iran are the two biggest powers in the region and it makes sense for them to find a way to talk.

For now, however, nothing further will happen if the US president and members of his administration keep spouting about regime change. Mousavian reminds us that such efforts have failed for 40 years, and that President Trump needs to learn from the lessons of history.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. For George Bush, it was once part of the Axis of Evil. For Donald Trump, Iran seems only to be part of an axis of firing up his base, placating Israel, and being supine to the Saudis. The Iran Nuclear Deal was far better and more enforceable than anything we will ever see with North Korea. Iran, according to those on the ground, the IAEA inspectors and other parties to the deal often referred to as the JCPOA, was a deal that Iran more or less was abiding by. Now with the US having pulled out of the deal and imposing new sanctions, the Europeans, the Chinese, and the Russians, the other parties to the deal, are trying along with Iran to hold all the pieces together. The problem and complexity is that it’s about both proliferation and economics. And while the administration is filled with Iran hawks, many of whom still seek regime change in Iran, there’s no telling where all of this will wind up. In a global neighborhood it remains a tinderbox: what’s next for Iran, for Syria, and for the region.
To try and bring all of this together and provide an Iranian perspective, I’m joined by Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, one of the foremost authorities on the subject of Iran. Ambassador Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson Center at Princeton. He’s a former Iranian ambassador to Germany. Head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council. And he was the spokesperson for Iran in its nuclear negotiations with the international community. He’s the author of the previous books, The Iran Nuclear Crisis: A Memoir, and Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View of the Failed Past and Road to Peace. It is my pleasure to welcome Seyed Hossein Mousavian to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much for joining us.
Seyed Mousavian: Thank you very much, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Was there surprise inside Iran with the decision that the administration, the US administration made, to pull out of the deal, out of the JCPOA? Certainly it’s something that the administration, that Trump had signaled repeatedly. But the fact that it actually happened, did that surprise anyone in Iran?
Seyed Mousavian: First of all, Jeff, let me mention that although I am working at Princeton University, but what I express in this interview and on my op-eds, other interviews, is just my personal analysis and personal view and this is not Princeton University’s position. About your question, I would say no, because building even during the negotiations 2013, 2014, 2015, there was a big skepticism in Iran whether any deal would be reached or not because of hostile US position. And second, if any deal [was] achieved, whether the US would comply with the deal or not. It was one of the most important discussions we had during, domestically inside Iran, during the period of negotiation.
The reason is that Iranians, after Iran/Iraq war, they have had 3-4 major compromises with the US. And the US practically failed to deliver its commitments on all of them. That’s why frequently, repeatedly, Iranian Supreme Leader was telling the Iranian nation in 2013, 2014, 2015, that “Look, you should not trust the US. Sure the US is not going to abide to its commitment. We cannot trust the US. I have not prevented the government to negotiate directly with the US, but I am not confident. I don’t trust the US. The US is not going to implement the deal.” And it was a big discussion.
Ultimately, the deal was agreed. Of course it was a big surprise because about 35 years hostilities, no relation, no diplomatic relations. No high level direct negotiations. For the first time, Iran and the US at the level of Foreign Ministers started to negotiate the most disputed issue between Iran and the US, which was the Iranian Nuclear Program. You heard many times from US authorities saying, even at the level of president, saying that the Iranian Nuclear Program is national security threat number one for the US. But it was really surprise, not only to Iranians, many Americans, even Europeans, because even on the most disputed, complicated issue between Iran and the US … When they took and freeze the negotiation only after 18 months. They could agree on a very comprehensive deal, which the other world powers, they all also agreed to. The deal was implementing perfectly from the Iranian side, even up to today. The last report of the IAEA, International Atomic Energy Agency, was issued just 2-3 months ago for the eleventh time after the beginning of implementation of the deal, I mean January 2016. For eleventh time, the IAEA has confirmed Iran’s full compliance.
Jeff Schechtman: What was the argument that won the day inside of Iran, inside that debate that you were talking about? Obviously President Rouhani seemed to be the most positive in terms of what the potential for the deal was. What was the argument that won the day to get Iran to do that deal?
Seyed Mousavian: Iran started nuclear negotiations with EU, three Europeans: Germany, UK, and France 2003. The negotiations continued for 10 years. Where Russia, China, Europeans, they were all involved. But at the end, for any final deal, it should go through United Nations Security Council and United States was a member of the UN Security Council, and the US should agree. That’s why during negotiations from 2003-2013 with other world powers failed, because US was not involved directly. Therefore Russians, Chinese, Europeans, they were encouraging Iran to enter direct high level negotiations directly with the US because US also is between five permanent members and the deal would never be reached if the US is going to oppose. And Iran finally agreed to go for direct high level negotiations with the US, but coming back to your question, skepticism.
Many, many people, they were skeptic in Iran, especially principalist conservative, the right-wing. All they were saying, “It is a mistake. You should not go to negotiations. You cannot trust the US. The US is not going to abide to any commitment and so and so and so.”
Jeff Schechtman: Given that 10 years of negotiation with the Europeans, now that the US is out of the deal, is that a plus in terms of Iran sticking with the deal as far as the Europeans and the Russians and the Chinese go? Sticking with the P4 + 1 arrangement.
Seyed Mousavian: See Jeff, to understand the Iran Nuclear Deal, I need to explain one very, very important issue. The reason Chinese, Russians, Europeans, India, and overwhelming majority of international community is supporting the deal. The first reason to my understanding is: that this deal is the most comprehensive agreement ever reached during the history of nonproliferation. 170 pages, which includes the highest level of transparency measures on nuclear program. Which includes every objective guarantee for non-diversion of the peaceful nuclear program to weapon program.
This is really an asset for nonproliferation in the world, because the other agreements including NPT nonproliferation treaty, which is the main international convention, it has a lot of shortages. That’s why North Korea could easily go through it to nuclear bomb.
The world powers, with 200 scientists, they negotiated not for … only for two years, perhaps for 13 years, to curate the most comprehensive, detailed agreement during the history of nonproliferation to assure that Iranian Nuclear Program would never divert toward weaponization. This is really an asset. It is far beyond Iranian nuclear issue, because it could be an asset for nuclear defense free zone in Middle East. It can be an asset for nuclear weapon … free the world from nuclear weapons free, because there is no other agreement which you can find better than this, including every intrusive inspection, the highest level of transparency measures. Open nuclear program, all limits on heavy water, all limits on enrichment. The country is going to accept Iranian Nuclear Deal on its nuclear program. That country for definitely forever would not be able to go for nuclear bomb.
Jeff Schechtman: Looking at that agreement, looking at the JCPOA as a model as you’re talking about. Even a model for the whole region. Is that a powerful argument for Iran to stay in the deal with the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese?
Seyed Mousavian: Iranians, they are going to prove to the international community that … First, on any disputed issues with the world powers, including the US. They prefer diplomacy, and they are ready to negotiate. And they are ready to be flexible. And they are ready to agree. And if they agreed, they would be fully committed. This is what they have practically shown on the nuclear deal. 18 months of negotiation with the US, Secretary John Kerry was involved, the US Foreign Ministry was involved, the other five powers, they were involved. They agreed and now all countries, even the US officials, even your head Secretary Mattis on multiple went to the Congress and said “I have read this deal. It’s very comprehensive. It’s very good deal, and Iran has fully complied.” The UN Secretary General many times has said, “Iran has fully complied.” Iranians are going to show to international community that they are really ready for diplomacy, negotiation, and if there is any agreement, they would be really committed and the world can count on Iran. One.
Second, it is … I think this is a good argument for the international community to support the deal beyond Iranian-American disputes, because everyone is convinced already. If the countries in the Middle East are ready to accept the same limits and transparency measures Iran has accepted within the nuclear deal, then we would have definitely nuclear defense free zone in Middle East. You know the United Nations Security Council passed the first resolution in 1970’s. It is about 50 years now. On nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East. But for 40-50 years, this initiative has failed. Now there is a document for one country. The best nuclear scientists of the world, they have negotiated. The best diplomats, all powers, all five permanent members of United Nations Security Council. They all have signed and everyone is convinced, because this is the most comprehensive agreement of the nonproliferation history. If other countries in the Middle East is going to comply, then we would easily have nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East.
If I were President Trump, because President Trump was going to fight Obama’s legacy. And he was going to say, “I am going to curate a bigger legacy.” Okay. He was going to curate an agreement with Iran or the region with Trump brand. Okay, that’s fine. But President Trump could come and say, “Now I’m going to use this agreement to bring nuclear weapon free zone in Middle East.” This could be President Trump’s legacy.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, getting Israel or Pakistan to buy into that seems pretty impossible.
Seyed Mousavian: First of all, Pakistan is not part of Middle East. Second, Israel has supported the nuclear weapon free zone in Middle East. And is the only country in the Middle East with the nuclear weapons. Now, Israel is accusing Iran day and night. And you remember Prime Minister Netanyahu had a press conference, claiming that Iranian Nuclear Program is not peaceful, Iran is after nuclear bomb and so on, and so on.
Okay. Iran is member of nonproliferation treaty, and its sole international agency, which is responsible for nuclear program as member of the state is International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA. They all have proved that Iran has fully complied the deal and the Iranian Nuclear Program is peaceful. And Israel is the only country with the nuclear bomb. While other countries in the Middle East, they all agree to go ahead for a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East. While this is UN resolution, not once. You have this resolution for many, many times during last four, five decades. Why we should not, the US should not pressure Israel to accept the same deal in order to bring the willing of international community for zero nuclear bombs in whole Middle East? Why all pressures and sanctions and accusations should be on Iran, which is member of NPT, does not have nuclear bomb, and has signed to the most comprehensive deal of nonproliferation history?
Jeff Schechtman: Given the sanctions that are being put in place, how difficult is it going to be in your view for Iran and the Europeans to be able to continue this deal?
Seyed Mousavian: It would be difficult because one of the elements of the deal is that they all six powers, they have been committed, they are committed to deliver economic benefits to Iran in return for such a deal. Now the US is violating the deal. The US is violating the United Nations Security Council resolution. The US is violating 12 resolutions of International Atomic Energy Agency. But worse, the US is punishing the other countries and Iran because of full implementation of a deal reached is UN Resolution.
This is really a strange during the history of the United Nations Security Council also, because now a member is punishing the other member states for compliance with a resolution. The other countries, Iran and the other world powers, everybody is complying with the Resolution 2231, which is related to nuclear deal. And the US is killing the deal, withdrawing from the resolution, and punishing the other countries because they have shown their commitment to UN resolution. That’s why we are getting to a very, very complicated situation. As I understand Europeans, Chinese, Russians, Indians, and the international community, they want to keep the deal. They want to comply with UN Security Council. They want to support the deal, but at the same time … I mean, the secondary sanctions, if the US is going to implement HH[inaudible 00:19:30] and punish the other countries because of economic relations with Iran, there would be definitely a big crisis for the future of the deal.
Jeff Schechtman: The Chinese seem to be anxious to step in and try and pull all of this together. Do they have a bigger role to play than they have so far?
Seyed Mousavian: I think Chinese, they would have much more role because our experience shows during 2012 … 2006, sorry, to 2012, when we had UN resolutions. We had international consensus, sanctioning Iran, the most comprehensive sanctions. Unilateral, multilateral, international, six UN resolutions. All type of sanctions from OA central banks … Everything was there. However, Chinese economic trade relations from 2006-2012 increased dramatically with Iran, while economic trade relations of western countries decreased dramatically. For example, the European share in Iranian economy and trade before 2006 UN sanctions was something like 30, 35, 40%. But after 2012, the share of Europeans came down to 10%. But the share of Chinese increased from 10% to 40, 45%. Therefore China has shown, has huge capacity.
And I believe this round of confrontation and challenge between the US and Iran would be a little bit different compared to the Ahmadinejad period, because this time we have UN resolution. Iran is complying the resolution, the international community’s convinced Iran is a good guy and the US is bad guy because killing the deal. If Chinese, Russians, Europeans are going to continue economic relations with Iran is based on United Nations Security Council resolution. That’s why I think, although I am sure there would be a big challenge because of US secondary sanctions, but at the end, there is a big chance to preserve the deal minus the US.
Jeff Schechtman: How has the termination of this deal … How has it added, or how might it add to growing tensions in the Middle East. Further tensions between Iran and Israel. And tensions in the regions overall.
Seyed Mousavian: See, Iranian Supreme Leader, who is the ultimate decision maker like the US President. He has the same authority, perhaps a little bit less than US President. He said we would watch the negotiations, nuclear negotiations and the results. If there is a result, if the US complies with the agreement, then Iran would be ready to start negotiation with the US on the other issues, like regional issues. It was the Iranian statement before the deal. Therefore, Iran was watching to see how the US would behave after the deal. If the US is going to fully employ the deal, then this would have curated trust on the Iranian side for negotiating on the other regional disputes like Syria, like Yemen, like Iraq, like Lebanon, like Afghanistan and so.
But now, when the US has violated the first highest level agreement agreed between Iran and the US after 40 years. Now Iranians, they say “How we can trust you to negotiate for all the other issues?” Even if there is a negotiation. Even if we agree on some of the regional issues. Then another US President can come and say, “You know what? I don’t like it.” And can kill it. How we can trust the US with such a system?
Jeff Schechtman: Is Iran willing to enter into a new set of negotiations with the US? Looking at a new deal, a new framework?
Seyed Mousavian: I think if President Trump changes his behavior, complying with the UN resolution implementing the Iranian Nuclear Deal, Iran would be ready to start dialogue with the US negotiation with the US on the other regional issues to bring peace and stability in this region. Whether we like it or not, US is a big power in the region and international power. And Iran is a big regional power, if not the most powerful country in the region. Therefore at the end, this would be really helpful, positive, constructive for peace, security, stability in the region, if the US and Iran would cooperate.
We have civil war. We have terrorism. We have failed states. We have multiple crises in the Middle East. Middle East practically is at the verge of collapse. Libya has collapsed. Syria is in deep crisis. Yemen is in fight. I mean, everywhere we have flight, terror, explosions, disintegration, the threat of… even between Arab allies. Look Qatar and Saudi Arabia. And don’t forget that it was Arab countries, for example GCC countries, Gulf Cooperation Countries cooperated with NATO attacking an Arab country like Libya. It is an Arab country, Saudi Arabia, UAE, with the US are attacking Yemen. It was Saddam Hussein, an Arab country who invaded Iran and invaded Kuwait, an Arab country. Therefore, these Arabs are attacking the other Arab countries, creating war crises. And at the end, when they fail, they blame Iran.
Jeff Schechtman: And of course, there’s been further conflict of late between Iran and Israel as well.
Seyed Mousavian: Yeah, the tension between Iran and Israel, Jeff, has been ongoing after revolution. This is not something new. And Iranians, they have been threatening Israel. Israelis, they have been threatening Iran even more than Iranians threat … Israelis, they have threatened Iran. Netanyahu, day and night, he is threatening Iran, pushing the US to attack Iran, to bring regime change in Iran. To sanction Iran. But the problem with the US media is that if Iran threatens Israel, this is the leading news number one. If ten times a day, Prime Minister Netanyahu threatens Iran, nobody cares.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that the Europeans have the political will to stick with this?
Seyed Mousavian: Yes. I’m totally convinced Europeans have very powerful political will to … because it is of course an Obama legacy, but more it is European legacy. Because Europeans started these nuclear negotiations with Iran 2003. Europeans, they have invested 15 years on this deal. And this is the most and important foreign policy achievement of United Europe. European Union. And I have no doubt that the Europeans have political will, but I really don’t know whether they have economic capacity or not. Political capacity, they have political will. The capacity on economic side, we need to watch what’s going to happen.
Jeff Schechtman: What are the impacts going to be of the sanctions on Iran at this point?
Seyed Mousavian: Definitely would harm Iran. There’s no doubt about it. Already Iranian national currency is facing a big devaluation. This is not only because of US sanctions, because US sanctions had started some days ago. Iranian economic system has huge disfunctionalities and problems from corruption, from too much involvement of state over the economy. Not a real privatization happened after the revolution. They have a lot of major problems. All these domestic problems coupled with the US sanctions definitely would create more problems for Iran.
But what, at the end … The end question is that whether the US would be able to bring regime change Iran through sanctions and pressures, I say no. Because already the US has tried for 40 years. Every possible [inaudible 00:29:37] from cooperation with Saddam Hussein on military war with Iran, to providing chemical material and technology for Saddam to use chemical weapons against Iran, to cyber war, assassination of nuclear scientists, economic war, political war, intelligence war. And after 40 years, the US is extremely angry and has lost its control, because they say Iran now has influence everywhere in the region, is very powerful and the US allies have been weakened.
Therefore, the conclusion and the outcome of 40 years of US pressures and sanctions has made practically Iran more resistant and more powerful. This is what the US says. And now President Trump is going to experience what the United States of America has experienced for 40 years and they have failed. But after 40 years, now we have a deal as an outcome of high level direct negotiations. Why you are not going to use this one in order to resolve the other disputed issues?
Jeff Schechtman: I’ve got to let you go, but finally, is it your sense that there are any other back channel negotiations going on right now, either through the Europeans, through any other nations or organizations?
Seyed Mousavian: As far as I know, some countries like Oman, like Switzerland, they are trying to mediate and to bring negotiations between Iran and the US. But I heard Iranian Foreign minister just two days ago, said as far as he knows, there is no back channel, official negotiation direct between Iran and the US.
Jeff Schechtman: Ambassador Hossein Mousavian, thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Seyed Mousavian: Thank you very much. Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Iran flags (Blondinrikard Fröberg / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), nuclear symbol (NGerda~commonswiki / Wikimedia), and Donald Trump (The White House / Flickr).


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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