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14 January 2016, Gateway House

U.S.-Iran: overcoming brief setbacks?

Former United States Ambassador Frank Wisner talks to Gateway House about the progress of U.S.-Iran relations in the aftermath of the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, including the U.S. response to Iran’s testing of a missile. He also discusses the U.S. perspective on India’s prospective APEC membership.

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Edited excerpts:

Gateway House: What is the update, particularly regarding the lifting of sanctions, on the recently concluded P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran?

U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner: We’ve already seen extraordinary developments such as the decision of the Iranians to transfer the overwhelming majority of their low enriched to Russia. You will see the other steps taken soon at which point the UN sanctions will be relieved.

The American sanctions are imposed for other reasons – terrorism, human rights etc. They won’t be lifted, but Iran will begin to remerge on the international economic scene. What’s really important from my point of view are two things – first, by entering into and complying full heartedly with the joint agreement on nuclear matters, Iran has decisively proved to the world that it has backed away from a nuclear weapon. That means a level of tension in an already fraught Middle East has been removed. An issue of proliferation has been resolved, at least for many years to come. The second is despite all the trouble in the region today, despite the tensions in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran is now back in business with the international community.  It has a way of living inside its region, a way with Saudi Arabia, with Turkey, with United States, with Russia – and that’s very important if we’re ever to see the nations that are key to future settlements in the Middle East acting responsibly.

Gateway House: What do you think is the significance of the recent arrest of the U.S. sailors by Iran?

(Note: The sailors have hence been released.)

U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner:  It’s not the first time a foreign military craft has been seized. I remember the British had one taken some time ago, and after negotiations the British bowed and their sailors were all released. So let’s see how this plays out.

The Gulf is a really overcharged waterway. You not only have lots of oil tankers moving up and down it, but there are a lot of navies. We’ve been incredibly lucky over these past years, with as much hostility as there is, without having people bumping into each other. Did the Americans stray into Iranian territorial waters? I would say they did. The challenge now is to try and resolve it peacefully and quickly. And I understand that there are signals from Iran that that might be possible. Neither we nor Iran want to come to blows in the Gulf.

Gateway House: What would be a red line for the U.S. when it comes to issues of security? For example, the U.S. responded to Iran conducting a missile test by seeking a response from the UN, while it could have had a more severe response.

U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner: Well, I’m not privy to the President’s mind in this matter. But I remind everyone that the missile testing was in violation of a UN Security Council resolution. So your first channel for addressing it has to be the UNSC. Now I’m not particularly optimistic the UNSC is on this matter, and I think the United States send signals to Iran that the wanton violation – whatever its reasons are – of the UN Security Council resolution, has a consequence. It’s important to make it clear that we’re not going to just sit around and allow UNSC resolutions to be torn up. We will take some action.

Gateway House:  During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the U.S. in September, President Obama mentioned that the U.S was open to supporting India’s entry into APEC. However, there was no follow up discussion even at the APEC meeting in China that took place afterwards. Has the American position changed on this?

U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner: We welcome India working its way into APEC. We’re looking for an Indian decision to move into APEC and accept the standards of economic cooperation that have typified APEC since its founding. APEC plays a very important role, not just in negotiation of trade agreements but in very practical matters – in public private partnerships, in infrastructure development, in global supply chain development. It’s a very useful institution, which India has not been a part of. It might be possible for India to take a look at some of those conventions and see if they meet Indian standards. That is one way of signaling India wants to be part of a cooperative framework.

Gateway House: Do you think there is a sincere Indian effort to be a member of APEC at this point of time?

U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner: I think India has expressed a general disposition. Has India fully accepted the consequences of that decision, of moving – as many APEC members have – to a freer trade regime of exports and import openings:  I’m not sure they’re there yet.

This interview was exclusively conducted for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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