Faculty Interview with Ali Vaez

*The transcript of this interview, conducted by Meghan McGee, has been lightly edited to enhance flow and clarity.

Please tell me briefly about your background and how you ended up at Georgetown.

I have a rather peculiar background. I was born and raised in Iran. I was always interested in international relations and politics, but my parents, like most Iranian parents, used to tell me that politics is a dangerous business and I shouldn’t go into it. So, I decided to study science. I studied technology and I ended up getting a PhD in biomedicine and nuclear physics.

When I was doing my postdoc in Boston in 2009, the very controversial election of President Ahmadinejad happened. It prompted the Green Movement, which was then brutally suppressed, and I was very emotionally engaged in that episode because I actually organized the voting station for Iranian students in Boston. I witnessed the hopes and fears of those who participated, who had very little experience living in Iran or speaking Persian, but who understood that that was a critical turning point in the country’s history and wanted to prevent Ahmadinejad from inflicting more harm on the motherland. Some of them wanted to prevent a conflict between their home country, Iran, and their host country, the U.S. 

Then I came to Washington just to get a sense of what the debate around Iran was like. And that was in 2009, when the nuclear crisis was front and center and there was speculation that maybe the U.S. and/or Israel would attack Iran. And I was shocked by the poor level of understanding about Iran in Washington and by the fact that many Iran experts in DC either don’t have the educational background or the language skills to possess a good understanding of Iran. I thought to myself, “This is going to end and grief,” and decided that if there’s anything I can do about it, I should.

So, I decided to drop out of the very attractive academic position that I had at Harvard, and I went back to school. I studied international relations at SAIS (John Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies), so I transitioned from the world of science to the world of policy and took a position at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). FAS really works at the nexus between foreign policy and science, where I focused specifically on weapons of mass destruction. And then a year later, I was hired by International Crisis Group to start working on Iran and nuclear negotiations, and that work gradually expanded into other issues like Iran’s domestic politics regional policies.

I have to admit the beauty of the American system that allowed me to make that transition and gave me access to the policymakers so that I could work to influence policy. But the same motivation that drove me to change gears entirely in my life—personal and professional—also led me to start teaching at Georgetown. It’s the same objective: to try to help current and future U.S. policymakers and practitioners gain a better understanding of this country with which we have not had a diplomatic relationship for the past 41 years.

Iran is an important player in that part of the world, and it’s really a pity that we don’t understand it well here in the U.S. So, I thought this work would be my contribution to the creation of a better understanding. Georgetown is a perfect place for doing this, of course.

Do you see students who take your class change their minds about Iran by the end of the course?

That is not my objective. You know, I don’t see the class as a form of brainwashing my students to either develop sympathy towards Iran or to become critical of the Trump administration’s policies. As you remember, I tried to bring guest speakers from different perspectives: for and against the nuclear deal, critical or in favor of the Trump administration’s policy towards Iran. I just want to help the students understand the complexities of this issue. I think that this, in and of itself, is a valuable contribution to the debate around policy. If we don’t view issues as black and white but instead view them as different shades of gray, I think that is a very positive thing.

There are many things that people misunderstand about Iran, but what would you say is the biggest thing that Americans get wrong about the country?

I think generally, US policymakers have not come to terms with the fact that in 1979 there was a popular revolution in Iran. That was partly driven by anti-American sentiments, which were a result of the overreach that the U.S. had done while attempting to interfere in Iran’s domestic politics. Key examples include the 1953 Coup and attempts to manipulate the Shah’s policies. Although by the time of the Revolution, the Shah had become quite independent in his own decision-making, but the damage to his reputation had already been done. So, I think U.S. policymakers have never come to terms with the fact that the status quo ante of Iran pre-1979 is no longer reproducible, so they have to accept Iran the way it is not the way that they wish it to be. That’s the cause of all problems, because that creates a biased lens in which, whatever Iran does, it is seen in a negative light in Washington.

For instance, in the aftermath of the signing of the nuclear deal—which was the most positive development in the bilateral relationship since the Revolution—the Obama administration, in order to alleviate the concerns of Arab allies in the region, turned around and sold $90 billion of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This exacerbated and deepened Iran sense of inferiority in the conventional weapons realm, so it sought to double down on its ballistic missile program. It also worked to increase support for its proxies and partners throughout the region, which then was used by the critics of the JCPOA as an example of Iranian perfidiousness.

This is a clear example of the problems that emerge when we do not understand the drivers of Iran’s policies in the region or its policies regarding its ballistic missile program. You hear all of these hyped, exaggerated notions out there that Iran is an expansionist country, that Iran is trying to revive the Persian Empire. As if what other countries in the region do is benign or stabilizing. One could even level the same charges at the U.S. given its activities in the region, from the invasion of Iraq to its aftermath. I think all these misunderstandings stem from the fact that we don’t believe Iran has any kind of legitimate security concerns. And we see Iran in a zero-sum way that results in the kind of demonization that has completely prevented Washington from being able to figure out a modus vivendi with Tehran. That is why I’ve tried to, in my limited way and with my limited capabilities, work to rectify this.

Could just also talk briefly about your work at the International Crisis Group and discuss how you see that impacting the larger push for a new Iran policy here in the United States?

International Crisis Group is a conflict prevention organization. As you know, there are a lot of organizations who deal with the consequences of conflict, from refugees to health issues to reconstruction to conflict management. But Crisis Group believes that prevention is better because it obviates the need for a cure. But prevention, by definition, is also harder because you have to read the tea leaves and be able to predict in advance when something can go wrong. But in the case of Iran, I think we’ve been actually pretty successful because the organization from the early days of the nuclear crisis had put forward the idea of a nuclear deal that would see Iran have a limited and rigorously monitored program in return for economic incentives. We saw that as the only realistic solution to the nuclear impasse.

Throughout the years, we’ve been able to develop this into a more concrete set of ideas. During the nuclear negotiations, the fact that I had the technical scientific background—that I could understand the non-proliferation issue inside and out—and I also had cultural understanding and language skills allowed me to talk to all parties and help them bridge the existing gaps. This is the typical way that Crisis Group tries to address an international challenge: we talk to all sides, we have no limitation about who we talk to because it’s only when you talk to all the stakeholders that you are able to draw a big picture of the potential conflict situation and then try to come up with concrete policy recommendations. We do high level advocacy to make sure that policymakers listen to those recommendations and take them into consideration.

My work prior to the nuclear deal was aimed at securing an agreement. After the nuclear deal, it was aimed at sustaining it and making sure that it was implemented as thoroughly and effectively as possible. But my efforts were also aimed at preventing other crises. This included ensuring that regional turmoil did not spill over and undermine the implementation of the nuclear deal, and vice versa. From the time that President Trump was elected, the goal has been to try to save the deal.

I strongly believe that the nuclear deal’s demise will not make anybody in the region more secure; it will just add another layer of complication to the existing turmoil. I’ve tried to deal with the negative repercussions in different ways, for instance by trying to help the Europeans develop mechanisms that would allow them to preserve their trade with Iran or use their position to mediate between Iran and the United States. Now I think we’re at the stage where we have to think about what comes next because the reality is that the U.S. put Iran in the box with its maximum pressure strategy. But this is not a sustainable situation. Sooner or later, we will have to move either towards war or towards diplomacy.

We still continue to do everything in our power to highlight the dire consequences of conflict in the region. But we are concomitantly trying to figure out ways that diplomacy can produce mutually beneficial outcomes for both sides.

What would you say is the most challenging part of that process?

The most challenging part of the work at this moment is that the question of Iran has become so polarizing that it’s very difficult to have logical discussions with the stakeholders. It’s also very difficult to provide nuanced and balanced analysis because people expect you to either be against the Islamic Republic or they accuse you of being an apologist of the regime. They expect you either to fully agree with the Trump administration or fully to disagree with them. There seems to be no middle ground when it comes to Iran-related issues. Of course, a natural inherent challenge for me is that as someone from Iran, with my name and my complexion, I always have the added challenge of ensuring that people judge what I say, not who I am or where I came from. My analysis is based on my research and my discussions with the stakeholders. Impartial analysis has become more and more difficult in this very polarized environment.

But do you think the average American’s perspective on Iran is changing in a more positive way? Or would you say it’s still divided?

No, I think the majority of American people are still traumatized by the experience of the hostage crisis, which is the first foreign policy crisis that was live-streamed on TV. That has left a mark that exists to this day and has not been rectified. Other than that, the American people either don’t know much about Iran or still hear all the negative news and developments about Iran. They’re subject to this demonization effort that happens in the media all the time.

Not that the Iranian regime does not commit atrocities or violates human rights, but a lot of governments in that region are engaged in similar behavior. But because they’re American allies, they’re not depicted in the same way in US media. That is something that I doubt will change unless there is a major change in the nature of the bilateral relationship. But something else has changed: now the elite opinion about Iran is much more divided than it used to be in the past.

In the past, sanctions resolutions in the U.S. Senate were passed with a majority. But now, the Democrats have a much more realistic, balanced view about Iran than the Republicans do. This is mostly as a result of the polarization that occurred around debates on the nuclear deal in 2015. I think the fact that Bibi Netanyahu and the Republicans overplayed their hand in trying to bring down the nuclear deal, which created a blowback effect that remains to this day. This could be a positive thing because it now has generated debates around the Iran question in at least one of the coequal branches of government that could result in a more nuanced approach toward Iran.

Some people have called 2020 “the year of avoiding war with Iran.” What do you think 2021 should look like for US policy toward Iran?

I’m hoping 2021 could be the year of diplomatic engagement because, regardless of whether there is a Trump 2.0 presidency or there is a Democrat in the White House, I think the current situation is not sustainable. As long as Iran suffers under sanctions, it has an incentive to try to impose costs on the U.S. in retaliation for America’s maximum pressure strategy. As we’ve seen just in the past seven months, Iran and the U.S. have thrice come to the brink of a military confrontation: after Iran shot down the US drone, again after the attack on Saudi Aramco, and finally when the U.S. killed General Qassem Soleimani and Iran retaliated with missile attacks on American military installations in Iraq. This pattern is bound to continue as long as the underlying dynamics that have generated it still exist. I’m hoping that if President Trump is reelected, he would bring to office a group of national security decision makers who support his vision of reducing the US military footprint in the region. One of the requirements would be to find a mutually beneficial deal with Iran, but that cannot be done by a group of people who are either ideologically hawkish on Iran or have been seeking regime change in Iran forever.

If a Democrat comes to office, I’m hoping that the U.S. would return to the nuclear deal because without doing that it’s very difficult to restore trust. But at the end of the day, I think there is a need for a strategic rethink about Iran in this country. If the US priority—as the Defense Department put it in the National Defense Strategy—is to engage in the great power competition, it would have to shift its focus from the Middle East, where there is increasingly little at stake for the U.S., to China and Russia. That requires the U.S. to find a modus vivendi with Iran. Otherwise it would constantly be dragged back into this rivalry that just in the past few months has resulted in the deployment of more than 20,000 US troops to the region by a president who is seeking to end the endless wars.

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