Iran, US Experts Call Nuclear Deal a 'Breakthrough' – to an Uncertain Future

Highlights: Hossein Mousavian, Robert Einhorn and Thomas R. Pickering assess the recent U.S.-Iran interim nuclear deal. (2 min., 30 sec.)

Former Iranian and U.S. diplomats said Tuesday that the interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 nations has created an opportunity for cooperation on other regional challenges, such as the Syrian civil war, and even rapprochement between Iran and the U.S.

But the former officials, speaking at Asia Society’s New York center in a panel discussion moderated by George Stephanopolous of ABC News, disagreed on how Iran and the U.S. might address their common interests in the region until a permanent agreement on Iran’s nuclear program has been struck.

Hossein Mousavian, who served as Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005, said he believed Iran and the U.S. must “enter a broader dialogue” even as the nuclear talks unfold.

“We have a crisis in Afghanistan. The U.S. is a big player, Iran is a big player. They have many common interests. We have a crisis in Iraq,” Mousavian said. “And it’s really interesting to remember that Iran and the U.S., despite all hostilities, are supporting the same governments in Baghdad and Kabul.”

Robert Einhorn, former U.S. nuclear negotiator, noted that the U.S. and Iran have each recognized the need to decide how Iran’s nuclear program should be ratcheted down before they can tackle other issues.

“There are those in Iran and those in the U.S. who believe this is not just nuclear, this is about long term rapprochement in the region,” Einhorn said. “There are good hopes for that in the long term, but there's an interesting symmetry between the U.S. and Iran in the short term. Both countries say, ‘Nuclear first.’”

The former diplomats agreed that the interim nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 nations represented a watershed moment in international affairs.

“I think that it would take a paroxysm of inventive imagination to believe that it is not a breakthrough in the context of 30 years of almost no contact but no sustained and continuing contact,” said Thomas Pickering, former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. “On the other hand, the other element of a breakthrough is, where does that door lead?”

Mousavian agreed with Pickering: “These are unprecedented events we have never had during the last 34 years.”

Pickering said Iran and the U.S. should take advantage of their renewed relations and share views on other issues outside of formal negotiation processes.

“There is no question in my mind that in some corridors, in some corners, in some discussions, other issues come up. And it is much more important to have the Iranians know what we think about these questions than it is to have them presume the worst in terms of how we go ahead,” Pickering said.

Einhorn stressed that Iran and the U.S. should focus their negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program for the time being, rather than bargain on multiple matters at the same time.

“There aren’t going to be tradeoffs. It’s not as if [the U.S. is] going to say, OK, Iran, you make concessions on nuclear, we’ll cut you some slack in Syria,” Einhorn said.

However, Einhorn noted that a successful agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would set the stage for negotiations on other issues.

“If there is a successful final deal on the Iran nuclear issue, that’s going to [help] on Syria,” Einhorn said. “The American public, publics all around the world, will be more supportive of engagement on Syria if Iran diplomacy has worked.”

Einhorn offered a sobering assessment of the prospects for a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program.

“On December 7, the president said there was a 50/50 probability of reaching a final agreement. I think that may be a little optimistic,” he said. “The obstacles are really huge.”

Mousavian said the U.S. could not expect to reach a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program if it chose to take up Israel’s demand to dismantle Iran’s nuclear capability entirely.

“I believe [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] would never be satisfied, because if the Iranian nuclear issue were resolved today, everybody would ask about peace process, everybody would ask about hundreds of Israeli nuclear bombs,” Mousavian said.

Einhorn agreed the U.S. and its P5+1 partners should not adopt Netanyahu’s “maximalist position.”

“That should not be the standard,” Einhorn said. “It’s not achievable, and it’s not necessary. We could have an agreement without meeting [Netanyahu’s] criteria.”

Pickering said the U.S. and Israel agree that Iran should be denied nuclear weapons but hold different views on further restrictions.

“We have not agreed on no nuclear capability, whatever that might mean. I mean, some nuclear capability is in [scientists’ heads].”

About the Author

Profile picture for user Josh Rosenfield
Joshua Rosenfield is Director of Content Strategy with the Asia Society Policy Institute. He is based in New York.