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IRAN: Is peace possible between Washington, Tehran?

May 27, 2009 |  8:01 am

Iran-nicoulaud Iran-nicoulaud Iran experts abound. But few of those talking about the Islamic Republic have ever lived or worked there. 

Francois Nicoullaud, the former French envoy to Tehran, lived in Iran for more than four years, learned some Farsi and wrote a small book about Iran. 

He discussed ways to resolve the impasse over Iran's nuclear program in an article that appeared in today's Los Angeles Times. 

During the same interview, he talked about the deeper conflict between Iran and the U.S., and whether he saw any possibility of resolving the decades-old animosity rooted in the U.S. role in the 1953 coup d'etat that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh and the 1979 revolution that led to the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran

LAT: Do you think that the United States and Iran are ready to forgive and forget 30 years of hostility?

Francois Nicoullaud: The Americans have apologized already for the wrongdoings of the past, especially for the CIA coup against Mossadegh. The difficulty for the Iranians in apologizing for their own wrongdoings, ...

... namely the American hostages episode, comes from the fact that the takeover of the American Embassy has [been] built up as a founding myth of the Islamic Revolution, resembling the storming of the Bastille at the beginning of the French Revolution. 

But I certainly believe that the Iranians, apart from the political meaning of the event, could, and should, express, on humane grounds, their regrets and sympathy for the personal sufferings inflicted on the American hostages. Many of them already do so in private. 

LAT: Do you think they are ready to give up on "death to America, death to Israel” slogans, ideological pillars of the revolution? 

Nicoullaud: That also will come, in time. There should be a step-by-step approach. I believe the nuclear issue is the easiest to solve of all the problems that the West has with Iran, precisely because of its scientific and technical nature. It is much easier to verify the application of an agreement built on technical checks, controls and inspections than an agreement touching on the ways and means of Iran in the region, be it in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq or Afghanistan.

LAT: Iran's highest authority, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently described Iran “returning to the world system” as submission to injustice, something that could never be allowed.

Nicoullaud: Suspicion is on both sides. But things change. This regime also is sensitive to public opinion. And the public opinion in Iran certainly favors coming to terms with the Americans. 

LAT: There was this window of opportunity from 2003 to 2005 when Iran suspended its uranium enrichment program, but then restarted. What lessons can we draw from that experience, if any? 

Nicoullaud: One basic mistake on the part of the West, of the Europeans, was to think that we could seduce Iran with carrots. The Europeans tried to put together some kind of package containing civilian planes, oil drilling equipment, power plants, economic cooperation, membership to the World Trade Organization. ... But the package could not take form as long as the Americans were not ready to lift their economic sanctions. 

And furthermore, it was basically a wrong approach to reward Iran for not trying to produce a nuclear bomb. Being a member of international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is Iran's simple duty to remain away from such a endeavor. So we created a sort of bazaar atmosphere, which was very detrimental to the negotiation. 

LAT: Do you think that the Obama administration is doing well so far in terms of dealing with Iran? 

Nicoullaud: Obviously it still has to build a united approach, and this is quite natural for a young administration. Discussions are going on, and one can see progress. I guess that the Americans will be ready intellectually to negotiate by the end of the summer. So the critical period will be October, November and December 2009. 

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Francois Nicoullaud. Credit: NECO/SIPA/Newscom