NEW YORK — Ali Larijani, the powerful speaker of the Iranian parliament, praised President Barack Obama for being “wiser” than his predecessor in negotiating a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear crisis, but warned that if Obama’s successor does not fully implement the deal, Iran won’t either.
Larijani, who in a 2012 conversation with Al-Monitor had seemed indifferent to the outcome of US presidential politics, told Al-Monitor in an interview on Sept. 1 that Obama's victory had made a difference. Even though the toughest economic sanctions against Iran were imposed during Obama’s tenure, Larijani said, “It was very wise of him to finally realize the error of his ways and decide to resolve the issue through political dialogue.”
Asked what would happen if a Republican opposed to the agreement is elected president in 2016, Larijani, a former nuclear negotiator and member of an influential political family in Iran, said, “Maybe this can hurt parts of the deal but I don’t think this will be in the interests of the United States. I’m not sure that the other countries involved in the negotiations would like the idea. This will make Iran change its mind and not to be that committed to its obligations.”
No Republican candidate for president has publicly supported the nuclear agreement and several have suggested they would try to scrap it if elected. The Obama administration now appears to have enough votes to prevail in a congressional review of the deal by relying only on Democratic support.
Larijani, who sought to negotiate a nuclear agreement when he was secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council from 2005 to 2007, was stymied both by the attitude of the George W. Bush administration — which insisted that Iran give up uranium enrichment — and by the bellicose and erratic rhetoric of then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Asked his view of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached by Iran, the United States and five other world powers on July 14, he said it was “acceptable” and that Iran had “managed to achieve some of its goals” but that the agreement was not perfect. “Of course there are some problems and shortcomings in it,” he said.
Larijani singled out inspection and verification measures imposed on Iran, including 24/7 monitoring of declared Iranian nuclear facilities and access to nondeclared sites if there is suspicion that Iran is carrying out banned nuclear weapons research. While some US and Israeli critics of the deal have said these measures are not stringent enough, Larijani suggested that they were excessive.
“There is going to be very strict supervision and surveillance on us — unprecedented supervision,” he said. Even though Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “It seems that Iran’s case has become an exceptional one,” he said. “The restrictions are going to stay with us for very long periods of time.”
Larijani acknowledged that it was his idea to ask the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, to join the negotiations. Salehi, who got his doctoral degree in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before the Iranian Revolution, bonded during the negotiations with US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was a professor at MIT when Salehi studied there.
“He’s an expert, someone we fully trust,” Larijani said of Salehi. “He has had long experience in this matter. He’s the one in charge of the nuclear organization. The diplomats are not able to go into specifics. A technical person can be more effective. His presence, his joining the negotiations was very fruitful.”
Larijani, who has defended the JCPOA before the Iranian parliament, did not say whether there would be a vote there on the agreement. President Hassan Rouhani has said that he does not favor a vote but clarity on the issue will likely await the conclusion of Congress’ review process.
In New York to attend a meeting of parliamentary speakers from around the globe, Larijani — who is on only his second trip to the United States — is using the opportunity to meet a number of influential Americans. So far, he has seen former members of Congress, former diplomats involved in the so-called Track Two talks with Iran, academics and members of US think tanks. In both on- and off-the-record remarks, he has strongly defended Iran’s regional policies and suggested that other countries need to change their approach to defeat extremist groups such as the one that calls itself the Islamic State.
Some opponents of the JCPOA have expressed concern that Iran will use funds obtained from sanctions relief to increase support for Hezbollah, Shiite militias in Iraq, Houthi rebels in Yemen and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Larijani said those opponents are “exaggerating a little bit” and seeking “pretexts or excuses” for their opposition. “The money that will be released will not be that huge to bring about big changes,” he said.
The Obama administration estimates that Iran will have access to about $50 billion in oil revenues that have been frozen in foreign banks. Some of that money has been committed to purchases in those countries. Larijani noted that Iranian foreign policies had been consistent even when Iran was under the most severe economic pressure.
Iranian officials assert that Iran’s main priority is improving its economy and that that requires a calmer environment than currently exists in the Middle East.
Larijani said that Iran is seeking “lasting security in the region” and that US allies such as Saudi Arabia are the ones that are fueling instability and extremism.
He criticized the Saudis for bombing Yemen, comparing the onslaught to the Bush administration’s pre-emptive invasion of Iraq in pursuit of what turned out to be nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. “What [the Saudis] did was wrong and it was supported by the Americans,” Larijani said.
However, he dodged questions about why Iran has intervened on the side of the Houthis in Yemen, a country that does not border the Islamic Republic and with which it has no special historical ties. Larijani also offered no new formula to pacify Syria and repeated Iranian talking points about favoring a “political solution” and a government of national unity — outcomes that look unobtainable at present.
Asked whether prospects for Iranian relations with the Saudis had improved since the conclusion of the JCPOA and whether that might tamp down proxy wars in the region, Larijani said that the Saudis and other Sunni Arab states “have their own internal problems or problems with each other and are trying to hide these problems behind a kind of Iranophobia.”
Larijani, whose father was a senior ayatollah and whose brother, Sadegh, is in charge of the Iranian judiciary, also sidestepped questions about Iran’s domestic politics, refusing to say if he would run for parliament again in elections next year or form an alliance with other pragmatic conservatives and Reformists supporting the Rouhani government.
Queried about whether the extraordinary US-Iran bilateral diplomacy that produced the nuclear agreement would lead to an overall improvement in relations, Larijani said, “It all depends on the way the US acts, its attitudes and actions in the region.” Quoting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has called the JCPOA a “test” of American intentions, Larijani said it would be necessary to “wait for the outcome of the implementation” of the agreement before concluding there is a wider basis for US-Iran reconciliation and cooperation.
Larijani's remarks to Al-Monitor were similar to those delivered later in an off-the-record meeting organized by the Asia Society.
“He’s very self-confident,” remarked one of the attendees — Gary Sick, a former adviser to President Jimmy Carter during the Iranian Revolution and the 1979-81 hostage crisis, when Iran held US diplomats captive. “He turns the questions around and answers the question he wants to answer and does it rather skillfully. He seemed to enjoy the give and take.”
Frank Wisner, a former US ambassador to India and Egypt who has taken part in numerous unofficial meetings with Iranians over the past decade, called Larijani “a very careful spokesman of the Iranian government.” Wisner added, however, “I was hoping for more.”
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: Why do you think the JCPOA is good for Iran?
Larijani: The JCPOA is the result of lengthy work. For about 12 years, this nuclear challenge was going on. There were different paths that the US and some European countries chose to deal with Iran. Sometimes they threatened us with a military option, sometimes they imposed sanctions on us. From the very beginning, Iran said that this is something very clear and it can be resolved through negotiations. After a while they came to a conclusion that they had to try a new path — negotiations — and that in itself was progress. This standoff came to a kind of resolution. …
The Americans continued their bullying even during the negotiations. But still the Islamic Republic of Iran managed to achieve some of its goals in this agreement. Of course there are some problems and shortcomings in it. There are people who are opposed to the deal and we hear some of their voices in Iran, but overall I believe this is an acceptable deal.
Al-Monitor: What would you change if you could?
Larijani: There is going to be very strict supervision and surveillance on us — unprecedented supervision. We are a signatory to NPT and a member of IAEA but it seems that Iran’s case has become an exceptional one. The restrictions are going to stay with us for very long periods of time.
Al-Monitor: You used to be in charge of the nuclear file. Are you disappointed or jealous that you were not able to seal the deal?
Larijani: It’s not important who concluded the deal. The result is more important.
Al-Monitor: I have heard that you were the one who suggested that Ali Salehi join the negotiations.
Larijani: I think it was a great idea. He’s an expert, someone we fully trust. He has had long experience in this matter. He’s the one in charge of the nuclear organization. The diplomats are not able to go into specifics. A technical person can be more effective. His presence, his joining the negotiations was very fruitful.
Al-Monitor: Was it your idea?
Larijani: Does it make any difference to you? Yes, it was my suggestion.
Al-Monitor: When we last met in 2012 you said it didn’t make any difference if President Obama was re-elected. In hindsight, did it make a difference? Would the US and Iran have been able to achieve this agreement if Mitt Romney had been elected president?
Larijani: I don’t know if we could still achieve this without him. Let’s not forget that some of the harshest sanctions were imposed on us during his time. But I think it was very wise of him to finally realize the error of his ways and decide to resolve the issue through political dialogue.
Al-Monitor: Of course he would say that the sanctions played a role.
Larijani: I have heard such things. If anybody is realistic enough, he or she would realize that is not the case. Maybe he or other people say such things for domestic purposes. … During Mr. Bush’s time, people thought they could make Iran surrender if they put sanctions on us. The next president was wiser. He realized that what the others had followed before him was not effective. He realized that maybe it has some economic costs for us but it cannot stop our nuclear technology.
Al-Monitor: It looks now that the agreement will make it through the Congress but we are entering another presidential cycle. Are you worried that if a Republican wins, the deal may not be fully implemented?
Larijani: Maybe this can hurt parts of the deal but I don’t think this will be in the interests of the United States. I’m not sure that the other countries involved in the negotiations would like the idea. This will make Iran change its mind and not to be that committed to its obligations.
Al-Monitor: If the US does not fully implement the agreement, then Iran won’t either?
Al-Monitor: Some of those who oppose the deal focus not just on the nuclear issue but on Iran’s policies in the region. How do you think the nuclear deal will affect Iran’s foreign policies? Is Iran going to look to resolve conflicts or will it use unfrozen funds to bolster groups such as Hezbollah and become more militant and aggressive?
Larijani: I think there are people who are exaggerating a little bit. People opposed to the deal are seeking pretexts or excuses. The money that will be released will not be that huge to bring about big changes. … Our foreign policy vis-a-vis the region is not something we hide. We are a country that believes firmly in a lasting security in the region. We are opposed to radicals and extremists. Do you know of another country that is really and practically standing against terrorist groups like [the Islamic State]? It’s a matter of great regret that the allies of the US are helping these terrorist groups in my region. … Before this, when we were not under any sanctions, did we attack another country? But the Arabs did — Saddam Hussein did attack us and other Arabs gathered behind him. … Iran has not attacked any other country in the last 200 years. So we may have our differences with other countries but we don’t want them to live in insecurity.
Al-Monitor: What are the prospects for a better relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran since it seems that many of the region’s conflicts are fueled by groups supported by one or the other?
Larijani: That’s not all of the story. These countries have their own internal problems or problems with each other and are trying to hide these problems behind a kind of Iranophobia. We don’t have a problem with our Saudi brothers. Sometimes they say things we don’t understand or do things that they should not expect us to support. For example, attacking Yemen. The only reason was that they were worried that their security would be disturbed.
Al-Monitor: They were also worried that Iran was supporting the Houthis. Why was Iran doing that? What is Yemen to Iran? I understand Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. But the Houthis? The religion they practice isn’t even like the Shiism you practice.
Larijani: It was wrong for the Saudis to attack Yemen. This is like Mr. Bush’s pre-emptive strike in Iraq. This does not give you license to go to war and destroy another country. [That the Saudis were concerned about their security] is just an excuse. They wanted to dominate Yemen. What they did was wrong and it was supported by the Americans. This is a logic that is not acceptable to us.
Al-Monitor: Why is Iran supporting the Houthis?
Larijani: Houthis have always had their differences with the Saudis. And during the time of [former Yemeni President] Ali Abdullah Saleh they always had problems and they were always attacked by the Saudis. We didn’t have an issue with them. We even advised them to cooperate with Ali Abdullah Saleh when he was the president. I paid a visit to Yemen myself [six years ago] and I talked to Saleh. He asked me to talk to the Houthis. … But they somehow mistreated the Houthis and this did not help things.
We still have the same idea. We believe in a national unity government in that country. The vote of the people should reign supreme. All groups should have their own share in the government and also the rights of the minorities should be respected. I don’t think this is a kind of interference or intervention on our part. This is a theory that we believe in. We have the same theory about Iraq. In Iraq there is democracy, there is a national unity government with Sunnis, Kurds and [Shiites]. But the very same countries in my region oppose the Iraqi government because it is democratic. We did not send troops into Iraq so that group would be in power.
Al-Monitor: Do you want to see the same democracy in Syria, which has a Sunni majority?
Larijani: Yes, why not. We believe that definitely there should be democracy and a national unity government. From the very beginning we said there has to be a political solution. The same countries thought otherwise and wanted wars to continue in Syria supported by the US and other big powers.
Al-Monitor: Do you think the JCPOA will transform the US-Iran relationship? Is there a possibility to send Americans to staff an interest section in Tehran in a few years?
Larijani: We are not really discussing matters of this sort or thinking about such things. We have to look at what will transpire in the future. It all depends on the way the US acts, its attitudes and actions in the region. And that’s what the supreme leader also said, that we would wait for the outcome of the implementation [of the JCPOA].
Al-Monitor: Will you run for re-election to parliament next year, and do you want to continue to be speaker?
Larijani: I don’t know.
Al-Monitor: Will you make an alliance between pragmatic conservatives and Reformists backing President Rouhani for the next elections?
Larijani: Mr. Rouhani is not running for parliament.
[Editor's note: This transcript has been lightly edited to omit repetitions.]