Sadegh Kharazi, Iran's former deputy foreign minister and ambassador to France, was one of many Iranian diplomats forced to resign by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he came to office in 2005. Considered too liberal for the new leader, Kharazi remains critical of Ahmadinejad—and blames Washington for creating the conditions that brought him to power. Kharazi, now an adviser to Iranian former president Mohammad Khatami, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Maziar Bahari in Tehran about Iran's nuclear program, misconceptions about his country and the U.S. race for the White House. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: In a press conference with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, President George Bush insisted on a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear program. Why do you think he adopted a milder tone than before?
Sadegh Kharazi: Because of the disastrous results of American unilateralism in Iraq, they are looking for an international support of their initiatives vis-à-vis Iran. Everyone knows that an American military attack will not only damage Iran but also other countries in the region as well as American interests in the Middle East. It is interesting that Bush and Sarkozy insisted on a diplomatic solution, but we have to wait and see what they mean by diplomacy: new sanctions or new negotiations.
Do you think Iran-U.S. relations can ever improve?
The Americans say that Iran's nuclear program is a threat against the international community. But I think what they are really worried about is Iran's influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, where almost 200,000 American soldiers are stationed. By insisting on Iran's nuclear threat they portray Iran as a threat against their national interests. Unfortunately, it is not only the American government that is doing it but also some of the presidential candidates. I think this way of thinking will have tragic results. The United States has much more in common with Iran than any country in the region, or some European countries, including France. We have almost zero differences of opinion about the stability and the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, instead of working with Iran, America has allied itself with the dictatorships in the region. Americans say that they want to promote democracy in the region. Which one of America's allies in the Persian Gulf region is a democracy? Look at what is happening in Pakistan. After many years of supporting a pro-America dictator, most Pakistanis support Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This policy will inevitably have catastrophic results. Americans should change their view of the realities in the Middle East. The United States is under the illusion that it has a monopoly on truth. As long as it is an idealist and ideological view, they can't have the right policies.
How about Iran's ideological views and monopoly on truth?
We may have the same illusion. In either case it's wrong. Both sides should put aside the smear campaign against each other and populist slogans and adopt more pragmatic policies.
Do you think Americans know Iran?
Americans in general have misperceptions about Iran. The Americans' main source of information is the Iranian opposition in the United States. The opposition is mainly composed of people who haven't been to Iran for the past three decades. They present the facts for the American government with their own interests in mind and customize the information according to what Americans like to hear. There is also the Israeli lobby, which is very strong in the Congress. The third [source] is the Arab lobby, which regards any rapprochement between Iran and the U.S. as against the interests of Arab governments in the region. If Iran and the United States normalized their relations, that relationship would overshadow the one between Arab countries and the U.S.
So what is the way out?
There is a wall of mistrust between Iran and the United States. But until Americans designate a budget to change the government in Iran, we cannot have normal relations with the United States. Americans can take four steps to gain Iran's trust: 1) Recognize the Islamic Republic as the legitimate government of Iran and cancel all the programs for regime change. 2) Return frozen assets of Iran in the United States. 3) Stop its support for anti-Iranian terrorist organizations like the MKO cult based in Iraq, the Kurdish separatist group PJAK, and pro-Taliban Baluch separatists, Jondollah. 4) Annul previous sanctions against Iran and do not impose new sanctions.
But you can't seriously think that either the Bush administration or any of the presidential candidates will take these initiatives.
In diplomacy everything's possible and nothing is impossible. I think both countries should lay all the issues on the table and discuss their problems. There is no problem that cannot be solved. If both countries recognize each other's rights, then they can collaborate on many issues, including Iraq, Afghanistan and smuggling of narcotics. They can have differences of opinion, but there is no reason for the current hostility. America has its own differences with China, Russia and even Europe, but that doesn't mean that they cannot talk.
One of the main problems for foreigners is that they don't know who runs Iran and who they should talk to. Is it the foreign ministry? The president? Pragmatic politicians like former president [Ali Akbar Hashemi ] Rafsanjani? Or the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei?
The government of Iran executes foreign policy decisions made by Iran's supreme leader. Americans should not try to circumvent the supreme leader and talk to other people in the government. Talking to the Iranian government means talking to the supreme leader. He is informed about every word exchanged in the negotiations. Iran's domestic politics may be decentralized, but the foreign policy is highly centralized. Americans shouldn't think that they can use the internal factionism to their advantage.
But Ayatollah Khamenei is vehemently anti-American.
Even though Iran is ready to defend its interests by any means necessary, the first priority of Iran's supreme leader and the government of Iran is stability of the region. They don't want war and tension. That is why Iran cooperated with the United States to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq. Under the leadership of Ayatollah Khamenei Iran has normalized its relations with many countries who were our enemies in the past.
You were forced to resign from the foreign ministry by President Ahmadinejad. What do you think about his self-proclaimed aggressive foreign policy?
I belong to a generation of Iranian diplomats who believe in rapprochement and diplomacy. I may not like some of our current government policies and may think they are against our national interests, but this government and its policies are a result of wrong American policies.
What do you mean?
What our current government is doing is a reaction to years of Americans ignoring Iran's positive gestures. During the presidency of Mr. [Mohammad] Khatami, whenever we wanted to have a rapprochement with the United States they demanded more. We cooperated with them in Afghanistan and we were called a member of the Axis of Evil. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq we sent them a letter with a package of proposals, but they chose to ignore it. Extremism breeds extremism.
What do you think about Ahmadinejad's comments about wiping Israel off the map and denying the Jewish Holocaust?
I don't want to justify what President Ahmadinejad says, but Israel has been threatening Iran with military action for more than a decade. So it is Israel that has created the tense atmosphere—and as we say in Persian, you don't exchange terms of endearment in a brawl. Israelis are using the president's comments about the Holocaust in their smear campaign against Iran. We, Iranians, have to be more careful about what we say and be more sensitive to the grief of other nations. The Jewish Holocaust was a crime against humanity. But I also believe it was not the first crime against humanity and neither the last one.
Which presidential candidate in the United States would be able to improve Iran-U.S. relations?
Iran has been an issue in American presidential debates for the past three decades. We cannot cheer for one candidate against the other, because the foreign policy of the United States is made by different parts of the American government and not only the president. Some of the worst sanctions were imposed against Iran during Democratic administrations. But I think the current Democratic candidates are not warmongers like their Republican counterparts. A democratic presidential candidate would be more rational than a Republican one. But it's just a guess.