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“The Iran–China agreement would make the Middle East a more tense security environment and it may very well actually increase the risk of military confrontation between Tehran and Washington,” the U.S professor told ILNA.

Stephen Herzog who is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow on Managing the Atom of the Harvard Kennedy School says in an exclusive interview with ILNA news agency that maximum pressure” has failed and it has even brought Iran and Venezuela closer together as energy partners. He believes that The United States must be willing to cease the policy of “maximum pressure” and enter into negotiations with Iran as an equal partner. Stephen Herzog is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University and previously worked for the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the Federation of American Scientists.

Here you can read his full interview with ILNA news agency:


Q: Iran and China are negotiating and want to sign a new 25-year agreement despite US sanctions. Does this agreement lift Iran out of economic isolation?

A: On one hand, I see the appeal and benefits for Tehran from concluding a broad agreement with Beijing. My understanding from news reports is that the deal could account for up to $400 billion in bilateral activities. The Iranian economy has been hit hard by the relentless “sanctions-only” policy of the Trump administration. In many respects, China is offering Iran an economic lifeline that will help undo some of the damage caused by sanctions.

Yet, on the other hand, Iran should tread with caution to maintain its sovereignty and avoid dependence on China. The Chinese government has a history of making one-sided deals with states in vulnerable economic positions. Beijing would be involved in 5G network development, banking, and port and railroad infrastructure in Iran. China would also receive discounted Iranian oil. Many countries in Africa and Asia, such as Ethiopia and Pakistan, have become dependent on China after accepting large deals. Such dependence has given China a free hand to exert political leverage over these countries in both their bilateral diplomatic relations and in multilateral organisations. Additionally, Iran’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative could close off other trade opportunities with the European Union and India.

Chinese involvement in Iran would indeed also introduce a key US competitor into the Middle East, a region of geostrategic priority for the United States. Increased Chinese maritime traffic through the Strait of Hormuz could heighten the risk of incidents at sea. Meanwhile, the weapons, joint military exercises, and training apparently envisioned in the Iran–China agreement would make the Middle East a more tense security environment. While security cooperation could be beneficial for Iran’s national defence, it may very well actually increase the risk of military confrontation between Tehran and Washington—something everyone would prefer to avoid.


ILNA: The US policy of “Maximum Pressure” has failed in Iran and Venezuela. Why does the United States not abandon this disastrous policy?

A: I agree that “maximum pressure” has failed and led Iran to further develop its uranium enrichment capacity. It has even brought Iran and Venezuela closer together as energy partners, with Venezuela serving as a destination country for Iranian gasoline exports.

The Trump administration has routinely claimed that “maximum pressure” will force Iran to make concessions in nuclear negotiations, as well as over Iran’s ballistic missile programme and support of militia groups labelled by the United States as terrorist organisations. However, Iran has enhanced its trade ties with China, Venezuela, and other countries. The activities that the Trump administration claims to be stopping are also continuing. It is a paradox to watch US officials—particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—continuously say more sanctions are needed because of Iran’s strength while also claiming Iran is weak because of sanctions. Both cannot be true simultaneously.

I think for many Trump administration officials, “maximum pressure” and sanctions have become almost like an article of faith. But they clearly aren’t working, so the United States would be better served by a more constructive approach prioritising negotiations and a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).


Q: If what you say about “Maximum Pressure” is true, can the JCPOA survive?

A: That’s the “million-dollar question.” If former Vice President Joe Biden defeats Trump in the US presidential election in November, I am confident Biden will seek a return to the JCPOA framework. Biden is very committed to the deal, which was negotiated while he was serving under President Barack Obama. Accordingly, I understand why Iran would refuse to talk to Trump until after the outcome of the US election is clear.

Yet, the Iranian government isn’t doing itself any favours by enlarging its stockpile of highly-enriched uranium. It only encourages the Trump administration to implement further sanctions and makes it difficult for European Union officials to defend the JCPOA. This is not an effective signal of Iran’s capabilities—or the consequences of US withdrawal from the deal—because it just hardens Trump’s dedication to sanctions. Full adherence to the provisions of the JCPOA would allow Iran to silence its critics and expose the foolishness of the “maximum pressure” campaign.

If the JCPOA survives, it will ultimately be through changes in both Iranian and US foreign policy. Iran will need to roll back advances in its uranium enrichment programme that exceed the limits of the deal and must be open to discussing its ballistic missile programme. The United States must be willing to cease the policy of “maximum pressure” and enter into negotiations with Iran as an equal partner. This could become harder if China begins to have considerably more influence in Iranian politics. But negotiations are about bargaining. The terms of an agreement cannot be fully set by one party before the dialogue begins.


Q: The media has reported that the Trump administration is considering the first US nuclear weapon test since 1992. The Iranian government was quick to condemn this proposed US violation of international norms. Is nuclear testing still supported globally?

A: No, I don’t believe there will be backing for a nuclear test explosion from the international community or the US public. Nuclear testing by the United States could provoke a dangerous new arms race with China and Russia and could damage the environment. The Iranian government was therefore justified in joining other countries that criticized these discussions. But Iran would send an even stronger signal of its commitment to forever end nuclear testing by ratifying the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).

If the Trump administration tested a nuclear device, it would face strong opposition and political backlash. Polling I conducted with researchers from Yale University and Sciences Po showed there is simply no public support for a nuclear test. 72% of Americans don’t want new nuclear testing, including nearly 60% of Republicans—from President Trump’s party. Many members of the US Congress have also spoken out against nuclear tests. In countries allied with the United States, public support is even lower. For example, 83% of the British population and around 87% of the Japanese population opposes a nuclear test.



JCPOA US Congress Middle East Joe Biden Maximum pressure Iran–China agreement Nuclear testing US public Stephen Herzog ballistic missile programme
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