Sahar Nowrouzzadeh is a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and responsible for the Iran portfolio. She previously served as the Director for Iran on the National Security Council Staff at the White House. In an exclusive interview with AVA Diplomatic, originally conducted in Persian and translated into English below, she clarified how the future presidential election may affect the implementation of the JCPOA and U.S. commitments contained therein and cleared the air about some of the inaccurate information published by some outlets regarding her background.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Sahar Nowrouzzadeh,
Member of Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, Responsible for the Iran Portfolio
Interview by Mohammadreza Nazari
You are the second person to be appointed as the Persian Spokesperson of the Department of State. How much does having a Persian spokesperson contribute to developing a better understanding between the two countries?
My rotation as the Director for Iran on the National Security Council Staff at the White House came to an end a few months ago at which point I returned to the Department of State. I am currently a member of the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and responsible for the Iran portfolio. At the UN General Assembly, I engaged with Persian-speaking reporters and temporarily took on the responsibilities of the State Department’s Persian Spokesperson. Although I may assume the same responsibilities again in the future, my primary duty is covering the Iran portfolio on Secretary of State John Kerry’s Policy Planning Staff.
Just like all the other State Department’s foreign language spokespersons who try to communicate with the people of all different countries in languages like Arabic, Spanish, Russian, French, Portuguese, etc., the Persian-speaking spokesperson of the Department of State also tries to connect with the people of Iran in Persian and explain the policies of the United States in Persian. We hope that this is an effective means by which to directly connect with the people of Iran.
Is one year enough time to evaluate all that can be expected from the JCPOA?
I think it’s necessary to note that just as President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have stated on numerous occasions, we want the people of Iran to experience economic improvements in their everyday lives over time. We have to remember that it has now only been about 8 months since the implementation of the JCPOA and so, compared to the many years during which the international community had serious concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program which led to numerous nuclear-related sanctions, 8 months is a relatively short period of time. It is clear that regaining the trust of the international community will take time and so will the finalization of decisions and transactions of international banks and companies, of which many are large-scale. At the same time, economic progress even thus far has been substantial. For example, for the first time in decades, we have now witnessed licenses being issued to Boeing and Airbus in order to sell new civilian passenger airplanes to Iran. Now, finalizing an agreement for the purchase of hundreds of airplanes is time-consuming and complicated, even under what would be considered normal circumstances. Another example of economic progress are Iran’s oil sales which are almost back up to the level they were at before sanctions were imposed. So it’s clear that important progress has already been made even in this relatively short span of time. Naturally, though, it will take time for the Iranian people to feel the fruit of such arrangements. I must also say that we are continuing our consultations with the P5+1, the EU and Iran. We, for example, have dispatched teams from Department of State and Department of Treasury all around the world in order to offer guidance to various institutions regarding what doors have been opened for doing business with Iran after the implementation of the JCPOA, and we are going to continue our efforts along these lines. It goes without saying that not only do we not prohibit lawful trade with Iran, but we also consistently keep in touch with various organizations to clarify how they may conduct permitted trade with Iran.
Additionally, other factors that have nothing to do with sanctions must be taken into consideration. Many of Iran’s problems existed even before sanctions, which stem from Iran’s own policies, as well as mismanagement and a lack of economy transparency inside of Iran. Naturally these issues have impacted and will continue to impact the decision making of many companies considering doing business with Iran. Over the years and after the international financial crisis, banks have placed even more focus on such matters. Economic transparency, for instance, is one of the influential factors in building trust in an economy, which is opposed by some inside of Iran. We hope that Iranian officials use this opportunity and build a brighter future for the people of Iran;
How imminent is the suspension of the JCPOA by the next US president-elect? How propagandistic are Mr. Trump’s claims over calling off the JCPOA?
In the United States, as in many other countries, during an election season, different views are expressed. As mentioned earlier, the JCPOA is an international understanding between P5+1, the EU and Iran which has been approved and supported by the UN Security Council and the majority of the international community. It is a win-win deal for all sides and so, as long as Iran continues to fully implement its commitments, we too will continue to fully live up to our commitments.
Is there a strong enough will between Iran and the US to extend their talks a little beyond the borders of the nuclear case? If so, what topics would be of interest for future negotiations?
President Obama has always expressed his openness to and remains prepared to hold talks with Iran based on mutual respect over matters other than the JCPOA. However, we have not seen such readiness from Iran yet. We hope to see this in the future, though. The opening of diplomatic channels between the United States and Iran is in the interests of both sides and was one of the biggest achievements of the nuclear talks. Before such channels were established, tensions and misunderstandings only increased. The existence of such channels does not mean that no differences remain between the United States and Iran and perhaps we can say that when two countries have serious differences with each other, these channels garner even more importance in avoiding misunderstandings or intensifying tensions. In the past, we saw such increases in misunderstandings and tensions were not in the interests of either side. These types of channels demonstrate that the two sides are willing to exchange views, explain their positions and see if they can clear up existing misunderstandings or find solutions through diplomacy that are in their mutual interests. That is how we managed to, over time, achieve the JCPOA and reach understandings on other issues such as the settlement of an important claim pending before the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal at The Hague after over three decades and the reciprocal release of prisoners, which was a significant humanitarian step taken between the two countries.
Given the current situation of Syria, is there any ongoing negotiation between Iranian and US officials?
The goal of the United States in Syria is to defeat Da’esh and Al-Qaeda and help all sides iron out a political solution through the UN. As President Obama has stated prior, the United States is prepared to work or cooperate with any country, including Iran, to resolve the crisis in Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has also made it clear that Iran must take part in the negotiations for a political solution and the international community knows well Iran’s deep ties to Bashar al-Assad. Iran is currently a member of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), which includes the US, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and others; that is not to say that we agree with Iran’s actions or the actions of other countries in Syria or that the international community has turned a blind eye to Iran’s support of Bashar al-Assad and his violent crackdown on his own people. We still hope that Iran uses it influence to achieve a constructive political solution and for all sides to set their main objectives as destroying Da’esh and Al-Qaeda and bringing peace to Syria through a political transition in accordance with the desires of the Syrian people. We cannot revert to the prewar conditions in Syria after so much bloodshed and carnage and there is a wide consensus among the members of the ISSG that the conflict in Syria can only be resolved through a political solution.
Did you assist the US negotiating team in preparing a Persian version of the JCPOA? Did you face any real challenge from the Iranian officials in preparing it?
The official version of the JCPOA was drafted between P5+1, the EU and Iran in English. We did not have a role in its translation into Persian.
In 2009, you joined the NIAC chaired by Mr. Trita Parsi. How much can organizations such as the foresaid be effective on the US foreign policy toward Iran?
Unfortunately, this is among an array of inaccurate information first published by those who were against President Obama’s decision to negotiate with Iran and the JCPOA, which was not irrelevant to my Iranian ethnic background either. Other outlets republished that inaccurate information without ensuring it was true or false. After graduating from my undergraduate studies in 2005, which was about eleven years ago, I started my career in government service and since that time, I have continuously been in government service. During my third year of college which began in 2003, while pursuing my studies at George Washington University, I spent some time as an intern at NIAC.
In my opinion, the Iranian-American community, just like other communities, should be active in the U.S. civil society and be present in and participate directly in U.S. democracy. Such participation provides Iranian-Americans with an opportunity to express their views in every area, including domestic and foreign policies. They hold diverse views towards a variety of subjects, just as other communities do, and there are a number of active organizations doing work along these lines in the United States.
Some Iranian outlets broke the news about your bilateral meeting with Hossein Fereydoun, the brother of Iran’s President, during the nuclear talks. Is that true? What did that meeting address?
To date, I have not met Mr. Hossein Fereydoun.
There is a photo of you standing next to Mr. Abdulrasoul Dorri Isfahani, who was a shadow member of the Iranian nuclear team later charged with spying accusations and put in detention by security officials. On what level did he cooperate with you and the US team?
Just as everyone knows, in recent years there have been numerous discussions between P5+1, the EU and Iran at different levels and in a variety of formats and such talks are ongoing. Naturally, these types of discussions have been and will continue to be necessary to reach solutions on various matters. During one round of talks between the United States and Iran, along with other members of the Iranian delegation sent on assignment by the government of Iran, Mr. Dorri Isfahani was also present. Naturally, along with the rest of the members of the Iranian delegation, I met him that one time.
Considering the setup of a virtual US Department of State for Iranians, please tell us your opinion about it. How successful has this virtual Department been in fulfilling its agenda?
The Virtual Embassy-Iran (Tehran), which includes a website and USAdarFarsi social media platforms, is the primary official resource for the Iranian people to get information directly from the U.S. government about U.S. policy and American values and culture (in Persian). The U.S. government created this platform, and works hard to keep it updated with fresh content, to provide information about travel to the U.S., educational opportunities, and our policies towards Iran and the rest of the world. The Virtual Embassy has grown over the past few years from a simple website to a whole variety of online platforms, including USAdarFarsi accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Instagram and Telegram. This amazing growth is thanks to the Virtual Embassy’s audience. The website is not a formal diplomatic mission, nor does it represent or describe a real U.S. Embassy accredited to the Iranian Government. But, in the absence of direct contact, we hope it can serve as a bridge between the American and Iranian people.
A while ago, a US Senator made a touristic visit to Iran. Do you intend or like to come to Iran, too?
Of course I would very much like to travel to Iran in the future in order to experience up close the people of Iran, the culture of Iran, the beautiful architecture and historic monuments and artifacts of Iran. And to experience the places which my ancestors lived and were raised. I hope that one day I will be able to take such a trip to Iran. And I know that I’m not alone and that many Americans are friends of the Iranian people and would like to travel to Iran one day.
After six years of service as the Farsi-speaking Spokesman of the Department of State, what do you think was Alan Eyre’s most tangible achievement?
Alan’s position was part of a much broader initiative by President Obama, encompassing his annual Nowruz message and our ‘Virtual Embassy Tehran’ website, to establish direct communication with the Iranian people, so they could better understand our policies and positions, and also so we could hear their concerns and viewpoints. I hope what Alan showed is what President Obama has often referred to: i.e. our respect and admiration for Iranian culture and heritage, and our desire to forge strong bonds with the Iranian people to our mutual benefit.