Tom Countryman has served in the State Department’s Foreign Service since 1982 and currently serves as the Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation. He has held overseas posts in Yugoslavia, Egypt, Italy, and Greece, as well as several positions in the State Department dealing with Near East and South Asian affairs. Mr. Countryman speaks Serbo-Croatian, Arabic, Italian, Greek, and German.
HPR: There has been quite a bit of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran, specifically regarding Syria. By heightening tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, could the newly negotiated deal regarding Iran’s nuclear enrichment create a more difficult situation in Syria than already exists?
COUNTRYMAN: It is hard to imagine a more difficult situation than already exists in Syria. What began as a peaceful demonstration by the citizens of Syria against a despotic regime has turned into a bloodbath because of the response of the regime to use violence on a day-to-day basis against its own people with both conventional weapons and, in several instances, chemical weapons. It is a horrid enough situation as it is.
Iran has been the primary supporter of the Assad regime logistically and in terms of weapons and ammunition, and the Saudis have given strong support to the opposition that is fighting the regime. So in that sense I suppose you could call it a proxy war, but that would minimize the fact that it began as an uprising by Syrians citizens who saw an opportunity for democracy that was being denied by the regime. I don’t believe that it can become worse as a result of this deal, but I’m also not prepared to say that you should expect it to become a better situation.
HPR: Regarding Iran’s relations with Russia, does the Russian government have any sort of diplomatic leverage to influence Iran to be more cooperative in Syria?
COUNTRYMAN: Certainly the fact that Russia has maintained political and economic relationships with Iran at the same period that Iran has cut those relationships with the United States has proven important in the P5 + 1 negotiating process with Iran. As we’ve maintained the unity of the negotiators in that process, the Russian ability to speak hard truths to the Iranian government has been valuable. With regard to Syria, it’s a very different situation because both the Russian government and the Iranian government have been so strongly supportive of the Assad regime. I’m not sure that the Russian government has played the same role in speaking hard truths to the Iranian government [regarding Syria]. The Russians do support Iranian participation in a Geneva 2 conference, which is a prospect about which we have real doubts and certainly which the Syrian opposition forces oppose.
HPR: Do these negotiations present the opportunity to leverage Iran away from its terrorist ties or is that something that is unfortunately outside of this framework?
COUNTRYMAN: It certainly is outside of this limited framework. We would welcome a situation in which Iran is a more normal actor within the world, does not resort to terrorism or hostile activities towards its neighbors. And that’s something that you can hope for and look forward to, but it is not actually within the scope of these negotiations.
HPR: In its willingness to temper its nuclear program, Iran seems like it is moving away from its traditional policies of overt aggression, but if Iran’s terrorist ties are not a part of this negotiation process, does slowly opening up Iran’s economy potentially feed into a more subversive funding of terrorist groups?
COUNTRYMAN: That’s a complex question, and I’ll make two points.
One, you can only address one question at a time. We will still have significant issues with Iran if and when we complete this nuclear agreement that satisfies us that they have no possibility of gaining nuclear weapons. We’ll still have concerns about support for terrorism, about support for regimes such as Assad, and we’ll still have deep concerns about the human rights situation in Iran. But I don’t think it’s feasible to tie all those issues into the nuclear weapons negotiations.
Second, almost all the sanctions of the United States and the international community were imposed in connection with Iran’s nuclear weapons program. You can’t play a game of bait and switch, which is to say, ‘We’ve imposed these because of your nuclear program, now we’re satisfied with your nuclear program, but we’re going to maintain the sanctions until you do everything else we want.’ The question is not if that is a legitimate tactic in international relations. The question is if that is an effective tactic, and it would not be effective to expand the nuclear sanctions to require Iran to become exactly the country that we wish it to be.
HPR: What has been the most rewarding project you have worked on thus far?
COUNTRYMAN: There’s a wide range of challenges you get in the State Department in the Foreign Service.
I still remember very well in the 1980’s working on reuniting families who had been divided by the Ceausescu regime in Romania and working in almost a political ransom process to bring these families back together. Actually seeing a family reunite is the kind of personal reward that you don’t usually get when you’re working on bigger policy issues.
The position I hold right now has been very rewarding, as well. In any diplomatic job, you have to be thinking about the future, but especially in the field of non-proliferation and disarmament, you’re thinking ahead generations, ideally. What John Kennedy proposed in 1963, what Ronald Reagan discussed with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, what Senators Lugar and Nunn did with the Soviet Union in 1991 laid the foundation for a far more secure and peaceful world than people would have predicted back in those days. So to feel what I’m doing today is actually going to make life more secure for my children and for their children is even a greater reward than what you normally get out of good diplomatic work.