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Interview: Sadegh Zibakalam on the Iran nuclear deal

Interview: Sadegh Zibakalam on the Iran nuclear deal

Sadegh Zibakalam is a prominent Iranian intellectual and political commentator and a Professor of Political Science at the University of Tehran. I spoke with him from Tehran:

Q. Is this a good deal for Iran? How significant are the concessions made by Iran to reach this agreement? 

Obviously it's about more than the content of the deal. The immediate concern for many Iranians was that the relationship between Iran and the world is becoming more normal. After 36 year of 'death to America' maybe this is the beginning of establishing normal relations. These considerations are far more important to younger Iranians than concerns over the nuclear program. There has been a lot of suffering as the result of the nuclear program. Most people have not seen any tangible benefit out of the nuclear program; only sanctions and restrictions. 

Q. How have perceptions towards the nuclear program changed in Iran over the past years?

Since President Rouhani was elected, for the first time there has been a critical view of the nuclear program. You must realise that this is a huge development. Before this, everyone had to bow and worship the nuclear program. What is lost and what is gained by the nuclear program — the expenses and the benefits of the nuclear program — this is what has been raised during the past two years. 

People have begun to ask questions like: this electricity that we're getting from Bushehr (nuclear reactor), how much does it cost the consumer? The image that hitherto existed in Iran has changed. 

Q. Why is this deal so important for Iran at this point in time? What are the main things Iran hopes to achieve by implementing this deal?

The nuclear deal will benefit the reformists, the centrists and the moderates. 

Iranians want to see the lifting of sanctions, the normalisation of relations with the outside world and the bringing of outside companies to Iran. Many of the Western international companies left Iran before the sanctions began. Those that remained were mainly small Chinese and Malaysian companies but many of these left afterwards, afraid that they would be punished by the Americans if they stayed. 


Q. In Iran, is this deal being seen as an arms control deal or something larger that may lead to the normalisation of relations between the US and Iran?

There is a debate between the hardliners and the progressives over how the arms industry will go ahead. The hardliners are saying that they will not allow any inspections, especially of the missile industry. Others are saying that the IAEA is not interested in what we're doing in our missile industry, that they are only concerned with the kind of missiles we are making – they are only concerned by the kind that can carry nuclear warhead. If we have nothing to hide, what is the problem?

Q. What about the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps? What is the Revolutionary Guards' perspective on the deal and what will they want to get out of it?

I believe the Revolutionary Guards will continue to back the deal, even with more vigour. They will carry on supporting the Houthis, Assad and Hezbollah. 

Q. How important is this deal for Iran is terms of opening up dialogue and cooperation in the fight against ISIS? 

I think without mentioning it, but at the back of particularly Washington's mind was this idea of getting Iranian support against Daesh (ISIS). The US has obviously stated that you can only rely on our support to bomb Daesh – you have to carry out fighting on the ground by yourself. The US knows nobody can fight Daesh other that Iran. The only country that has the capability to counter Daesh is Iran. One of the reasons the US wanted this deal was to maybe pave the way in enlisting Iran's hep in Iraq and Syria. Of course there is the difficulty in getting Iran involved, in that Saudi Arabia and Sunni governments are opposed to Iran getting involved.

Q. There is a fear among Western countries that Iran will now pump more money into regional conflicts such as backing Bashar al Assad in Syria. Will the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force be looking for a financial boost for operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen? 

That fear is correct because Iran will have more potential to support Assad's plan in Syria but also the Houthis in Yemen. Arab governments are worried about this but not the US. The US is happy with Iran in Yemen because Yemen is a hotbed for al Qaeda. The US also sees that Iran is useful in Syria. If Assad is overthrown tomorrow, it will not be a moderate Sunni group ruling Syria, it will be al Nusra and others ruling Syria. Because of that tragic scenario, the US has turned a blind eye on Iran's role in Syria to prevent Syria being ruled by hardliners. 

Q. Iran is now talking more to the US than with other Arab governments. What effect will this deal have on Iran's relations with neighbouring Arab countries? 

I don't think they are in a position to create problems per se for Iran. All of them, perhaps with the exception of Saudi Arabia, all of them are going to have to take the US position.

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