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When I went to Tehran in 2011 to interview then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, relations with the U.S. were at a low, and distrust between the two nations was at a high. So it was unsurprising that Iran's leader played to type perfectly, spouting nasty rhetoric when he sat down with me.
What was surprising was the stance of the ordinary people – Iranians on the street, in cafes, at my hotel – who expressed an admiration for America and an interest in improving relations across the board.
But not everybody gets the chance to travel to Iran and meet the locals as I did. Well, we found the next best thing. Inside an art gallery in downtown Manhattan sits a large, golden box. It may look like a fancy shipping container, but enter and you'll discover it is actually a "portal" to Iran.
The artist Amar Bakshi, a former GPS producer, set up a web-connected camera in New York and partnered with an artist to do the same in Tehran, enabling face-to-face conversations between people who would not otherwise meet. Despite being 6,000 miles and a world apart, participants can easily slide into conversation with each other about their daily lives. Some even demonstrate their passions, like this dance.
I went into the portal and spoke with several Iranians about their lives and their country and how they see the U.S. Perhaps President Obama and Rouhani should meet this way – call it a diplomatic dance.
Fareed speaks with author and chef Anthony Bourdain about his visit to Iran. Watch the full interview on GPS this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN, or watch Bourdain in Iran on Parts Unknown at 9 p.m. ET.
So you did the thing most American negotiators haven't yet done, which is actually go to Iran.
Yes, and an incredible experience. What we saw inside Iran was extraordinary, heartbreaking, confusing, inspiring and very, very different than the Iran I expected from looking at it from afar, from a geopolitical sense or what we read on the news – what we know from that long and very contentious relationship we've had as nations.
What do you think was the most surprising thing to you?
To walk down the street as an American and have total strangers constantly saying, where are you from? America, have you tried our food? Thank you for coming. Just outgoing, friendly, welcoming to strangers, to a degree that we really experience very, very few places – and I'm talking Western Europe and allied nations.
We'd been told to expect that. But you get thrown by it when you face it everywhere. Our producer – it was his birthday and we all went out with our local crew to a very crowded restaurant. Traditional Persian music and Iranian families eating. And someone found out that my producer, it was his birthday. The entire restaurant sang "Happy Birthday" to him and presented him with a cake. It was a very different Iran than I had been led to expect or could have imagined.
Fareed speaks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the controversy over a video created for the song “Happy.” Watch the full interview this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.
You had six Iranians, young Iranians, who made this video of the song “Happy.” They’ve been sentenced to lashes, which have been commuted. They’ve been forced to recant on television. Why make them go through this punishment for making a harmless video about a song?
We do have a multitude of problems in the region and the world at large today than to speak about the prosecution of certain individuals. But, be that as it may, I as the president of Iran have been sworn and put there by the will of the people to protect the constitution. If the constitution is ever violated, it is my legal responsibility to take the appropriate steps and implement appropriate actions.
I don’t know the specifics of the case you are referring to, but perhaps in a country, a certain – in any country – a certain individual can be detained or questioned or put on trial. If it is done so, if this is done within the legal framework and if that individual has broken the law, then they must be prosecuted through the legal channels properly. If they haven’t broken the law, then it is a moot point.
You haven’t seen the video. It’s completely harmless.
CNN speaks with Fareed about Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's speech to the United Nations and Tehran's potential role in tackling ISIS. Watch Fareed's interview with Rouhani this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.
What struck you most about Rouhani’s speech?
It wasn't a particularly interesting or dramatic speech. It repeated themes that the Iranians have been saying for a while. Rouhani has been more forthcoming in interviews he's done – I had an opportunity to do one of them. In those, what becomes clear is the Iranians believe that they can be part of the solution in Iraq, in Syria, with regard to ISIS, even in Afghanistan. But first the nuclear deal has to be achieved. They are putting a lot of hope and a certain amount of pressure on the West to produce a nuclear agreement, a compromise that everyone can live with, and then they say they could be helpful for issues of shared interest, common interests in the fight against ISIS.
Certainly coupling issues that the West, the U.S. does not want to have coupled there. You spoke with him yesterday. He's critical of these air strikes in Syria. What did he tell you?
Well, he's critical of them, but I think it's important to note the criticism is very muted. It's of two forms. One is what you heard in the speech – this is all the West's fault. You invaded Iraq. You created instability. You created a haven for this kind of activity.
The second is rather technical grounds, which is that it's technically not something that can be sanctioned by international law because it doesn't have U.N. approval and it didn't have the Syrian government's approval. He moves off that pretty quickly. He's in favor of battling ISIS – there's no condemnation of U.S. air strikes. I think that they would very much like – the Iranians, that is – to have the United States take an active part in the struggle against ISIS. They just want to make sure they get the nuclear deal.
CNN's New Day speaks with Fareed Zakaria about U.S.-led military strikes against ISIS, the Obama administration's strategy, and why the politics are so complicated. This is an edited version of the transcript.
This morning, a new round of U.S.-led air strikes targeted about a dozen oil refineries to try and cut off the money that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria makes through the black market. But we don't know how successful these bombings will be, and we're not really going to know because the coalition isn't on the ground in a meaningful way. And even if they achieve every objective they want to, it's far from over. Explain the complexity of this situation in terms of how you make real change.
Well, you're exactly right. Think about the initial air campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, brilliantly successful in Iraq, brilliantly successful in Libya. And then what you have is the ground operation, and most importantly the political operation as it were – who is going to govern these areas? Who is going to take charge? And the problem we face in Iraq – we have an answer, and we have a strategy. The Iraqi army tries to move in, the Kurds move in, you're trying to create a more inclusive Iraqi government. Not there yet, but at least that is the strategy.
In Syria, it is a mess because once you start striking at ISIS, who is going to replace it? Well, the al-Assad government, the Syrian government, wants to be that person. We want the Free Syrian Army, the rebels, the moderate rebels as we call them, to take over. And, guess what? This is a 12-cornered contest. It's going to be very messy.
So, imagine the two-step race here. We have a one-step campaign to defeat ISIS. Then we need to, in our minds, help the Free Syrian army defeat the al-Assad government.
Meanwhile, just to complicate things further, the Iranian government, which has been backing the Syrian regime, is going to fight those free Syrian rebels. I had the opportunity to interview President Rouhani of Iran yesterday, and he said flatly, the Free Syrian Army are terrorists. From Iran's point of view, they really don't make that much distinction between ISIS and the Free Syrian Army. They're going to fight both. FULL POST
Fareed speaks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the ongoing nuclear negotiations. Watch the full interview on "Fareed Zakaria GPS," this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.
In his speech today, President Obama had a direct message to Iran. He said don’t let this moment pass. We can reach a solution. Is he right? Is the United States negotiating in good faith?
Well you see today, we are faced with a very good opportunity vis-à-vis the nuclear talks and negotiations. This good opportunity was created in reality only last year in result of the expression of the political will of the majority of the people of Iran and their vast participation in those elections and the mandates received out of those elections. A new atmosphere was created as a result of all of that. We must all make good use of it – our side as well as the five plus one. Everyone together must make good use of this historic opportunity…
…Mr. President, on the basis of my reporting, my understanding is that Iran has offered to go down to 9,400 centrifuges, the United States wants you to go to 1,500 centrifuges. Why don’t we split the difference? 5,500? Are you willing? Shall we announce to the world that that is the midpoint?
Well we have a saying in Farsi, “In the middle of the conflict, do not start setting rates.”
Fareed speaks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani about the Free Syrian Army. Watch the full interview on "Fareed Zakaria GPS," this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.
When you that say you don’t want the United States to fight ISIS but in the fighting of it create another terrorist group, what group are you thinking of?
The American authorities they themselves they have announced that they wish to train another terrorist group, equip that group and send them to Syria to fight.
You mean the Free Syrian Army?
You can call them whatever you wish sir. Be that as it may, it is a group, it is another group, that as they have announced, I’m not sure what their plan is, they say we wish to train these folks in another country, military training, and they even announced a time frame. With whose permission, with whose authority, with what mandate, according to what international laws and norms are they doing this?
By Brig. Gen. John H. Johns and Angela Canterbury, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Brig. Gen. John H. Johns (USA, ret.) serves on the Council for a Livable World Advisory Board and is a former deputy assistant defense secretary. Angela Canterbury is the executive director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The views expressed are their own.
World powers announced late Friday the need for an extension of negotiations as diplomats work to achieve a comprehensive deal on Iran's nuclear program. This is an opportunity we can’t forgo. Diplomacy must be given the chance to succeed, lest we live with the probable consequences of failure: an Iranian nuclear weapon or another disastrous war.
In fact, diplomacy has already yielded results – Iran has met all of its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action, which took effect in January. Since that time, real progress has been made in scaling back Iran’s nuclear program, and intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities have taken place under a more effective verification regime. These inspections have given the United States and its allies unprecedented insights into Iran’s nuclear facilities. Further, Iran has significantly dialed back its nuclear activity. Its stockpile of dangerous enriched uranium has decreased from 195 kilograms at the outset of the deal to just 4 kilograms in June – a 97 percent drop.
We’ve come a long way toward our goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb. But we need a long-lasting agreement. And to achieve that, we must keep Iran at the table. It’s reasonable that negotiators need more time to settle on the details of what will undoubtedly be an extremely complicated settlement. And Iran’s compliance thus far suggests that its leadership is committed to this process, and that extending the talks offers real hope for success.
Of course, hawkish detractors in Congress can be expected to continue to try to derail the ongoing negotiations by pushing for more unilateral sanctions. But we cannot sanction Iran into abandoning its nuclear ambitions. If that were so, Iran already would have capitulated. After all, sanctions have been an effective tool for getting Iran to the negotiating table. Now we are at the table, and we need to stay there to complete the agreement.
We also cannot allow the negotiations to be hamstrung by unreasonable demands, such as those being made in a letter by Senators Bob Menendez and Lindsay Graham. If we undermine the diplomatic efforts, Iran can be expected to return to its former nuclear activities.
But even more importantly, we will lose the inspections that allow us to monitor those activities. Nothing could be more dangerous. Without inspections, with no idea of how Iran’s nuclear program is proceeding, we will be operating without information essential to our national security.
Not surprisingly, those who pushed us into war in Iraq are calling for military engagement with Iran. After more than a decade of war and so many lives lost – all without truly advancing our national security – this call to abandon diplomacy and a rush to war again are truly implausible. We’ve been down that path before. If there’s one thing we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that military conflicts have unexpected consequences. In the case of Iran, U.S. military action could very likely force Iran’s nuclear program underground and unite Iran’s leaders and people in a dash for the bomb.
The nuclear talks represent a critical opportunity to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, protect U.S. security, and prevent another war. We must give these talks adequate time to succeed.
Ultimately, what would you choose? Another war, a nuclear-armed Iran, or another four months of talks for the chance for peace and security?
By Zachary Keck, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Zachary Keck is managing editor of The Diplomat and a monthly columnist at The National Interest. You can follow him @ZacharyKeck. The views expressed are his own.
As the July 20 deadline for a deal over Iran's nuclear program approaches, it seems increasingly unlikely that Tehran and the P5+1 will reach a comprehensive agreement. Indeed, Iran has already signaled its willingness to extend the talks for another six months as outlined in the interim agreement, and President Barack Obama should therefore begin to prepare Congress for this reality as soon as possible. The U.S. has too much to lose by rejecting this offer. And fortunately for the administration, the case for extending the talks is an easy one to make.
To begin with, the U.S. has nothing to lose by agreeing to an extension. Despite the unconvincing arguments of its critics, the interim accord heavily favored the U.S. and its allies. Under the agreement, Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program, as well as rollback its most dangerous elements. Equally important, Tehran agreed to intrusive inspections to demonstrate its compliance with the agreement.
In return, Iran received roughly $7 billion in sanctions relief spread across the six month period. At the same time, the P5+1 refused to lift the sanctions regime, which costs Iran an estimated $5 billion per month. Iran therefore continues to lose billions of dollars every month the negotiations drag on. All this means that even if extending the talks doesn't result in a comprehensive agreement, it will still freeze Iran's nuclear program and continue to squeeze it economically.
Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
CNN speaks with Fareed Zakaria about the advances made by militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over the past week, what role the United States can play in assisting Iraq's government, and whether the latest violence was inevitable. This is an edited version of the transcript.
What can the U.S. do?
I think that what the president is trying to do is to force the Iraqis, particularly Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, to make some political overtures to the Sunnis. Because I think he recognizes at the heart of this problem what you have is a disaffected population – about 20 percent of Iraq that is fueling and supporting the insurgency.
Remember, the problem is not arms or men. The Iraqi army is about three-quarters of a million men strong. They have been trained in equipment supplied by the United States for ten years. The insurgents are about 2,000 or 3,000 people. So the fact that the insurgents [are] taking this down tells you that the basic problem is not a military one, it’s a political one. The army won't fight. The Sunnis in the area are providing support for the insurgency. FULL POST
Watch "Fareed Zakaria GPS," Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
By Fareed Zakaria
If the Bush administration deserves a fair share of blame for “losing Iraq,” what about the Obama administration and its decision to withdraw all American forces from the country by the end of 2011?
I would have preferred to see a small American force left in Iraq to try to prevent the country's collapse. But let's remember why this force is not in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki refused to provide the guarantees that every other country in the world that hosts U.S. forces provides.
Some commentators have blamed the Obama administration for negotiating badly or half-heartedly and perhaps this is true. But here's what a senior Iraqi politician told me in the days the American deal was being discussed. “It will not happen,” he said, “Maliki cannot allow American troops to stay on. Iran has made very clear to Maliki that its number one demand is that there be no American troops remaining in Iraq. And Maliki owes them.”