Thomas R. Pickering, Trita Parsi, Kenneth Katzman, Thomas R. Mattair
The following is an edited transcript of the ﬁfty-sixth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on April 16, 2009, in the U.S. Capitol Building with William L. Nash moderating.
WILLIAM L. NASH: President, Middle East Policy Council
All bilateral relationships have a history, some good, some bad. Certain relationships have too much history, mostly bad, and, unfortunately, I think the U.S.-Iran relationship may well fall into that category. But the hard issues facing the two countries are much more than bilateral. There are many invested participants, and even the observers to the relationship have important, sometimes vital, interests in what takes place between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Today we want to discuss these hard issues and address the policy options that the United States might take to improve the political and security circumstances. I suspect economic and cultural factors will come into play as well.
THOMAS R. PICKERING: Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation and Israel
I’d like to set the stage by doing two things that are very much on my mind. One is to take a look at the world context very brieﬂy for our consideration of Iran and the Middle East, and then to take a look at Iran itself and the nature of the differences between the United States and Iran.
To begin with, the world situation has changed in so many obvious ways. We’ve had a go with unilateralism, and now we understand that multilateralism is indeed an important facet of being effective as a country. We’ve had a go with the use of military force, and now we understand, perhaps more than ever, that diplomacy has a very signiﬁcant role to play in our national progress, prosperity and survival. We’ve had a go, obviously, at a number of other facets of dealing with problems. It may be too strong to say, “diktat,” but we’ve had a go at saying, “watch what we say, not what we do,” and I think we have moved away from that. The leadership in the new administration seems to thoroughly understand those problems.
There are a couple of other features of the landscape that may be a little less obvious, but I think they’re very important. One of those — and I will talk about six major issues facing the administration — is that most of the issues that now face this administration, and indeed the world at large, are deﬁned in functional as opposed to geographical terms. So there is a shift in world attention that affects much of how we think and operate with issues, but is also a reﬂection of how the world shifts. I think this will be obvious as I lay out brieﬂy for you the six major issues.
It will also be apparent that it is no longer sufficient to think about issues in traditional narrow stovepipes. One example, obviously, is energy. Energy is intimately related to what we do on climate change, and they’re both intimately related to our policies on the environment.
They are, indeed, a cluster of issues. You could carry this to a ridiculous extreme and say everything is related internationally, but this cluster is a very important point. We need to be thinking about issues grouped together rather than in narrow stovepipes, even if we seek to treat them narrowly, and I would say there are two obvious implications of this. One is that there are synergies in the ways in which we treat issues that can help us in dealing with the policies if we do not write the policy prescriptions too narrowly, if we continue to think broadly about the set of issues. The other is the old, obvious and very debilitating problem that political leaders and diplomats have felt for centuries: unintended consequences. If, in fact, there is a cluster, then the consequences need to be made apparent between the sets of issues, and we need to think about the consequences in this cluster of issues rather than merely to think about the narrow stovepipe, to go back to the example of energy.
What are these six issues, and how and in what way do I think the functional questions predominate? At the top of the list is the international ﬁnancial crisis. It involves, obviously, how nations are going to deal, in the future, with everything from investment to mortgages. That cluster of issues is no longer easily parsed or readily dealt with as a single question. And, indeed, throughout the ﬁnancial crisis, we have found our governments running hard to stay even. I think the Obama administration has made a major effort to try to deal, for the ﬁrst time, with the future and the serious and very difﬁcult problem of how we are going to fund it all. Clearly, we do not want, at the end, to put our last hole card — the U.S. Treasury — at risk, but we all are going to see that battle right here in this building on that particular question.
Happily, we are trying to design budgets that, at least, take into account that critically important question. But that is only one facet, obviously, of a complex and difﬁcult set of relations, where even the most articulate observers have trouble telling us what the major points will be to solve the problem. We are still cutting and trying a little bit on this issue.
The second set of issues I would deﬁne — and it’s immediate for us in this meeting — is the Middle East, from the Mediterranean to the Hindu Kush. These are interrelated issues. They are not resolvable by solving one issue and all the others will fall into place, but how we deal with any one of these issues is going to be very important for the others. The issues that I see in this congeries are the three “I”-word countries — Iran, Iraq, Israel, the Arab-Israel peace settlement and the new “A” word, AfPak, the joint issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Since we’re going to go into this in detail, I will only say the following: I think diplomacy is still woefully underutilized in Iraq. We still have a militarily dominated policy, which is absolutely necessary but totally insufﬁcient, in my view, for ﬁ nding an exit strategy. And we will have to get people to begin to look at the fact that diplomacy has a role to play in two simple aspects, both of which, in one way or another, intimately involve Iran.
One of those aspects is, what will be the settlement inside Iraq regarding majority rule and minority rights, and the division of oil income? A federation of 18 provinces, three regions, or some other one? The second set of issues, which is extremely important, is this: What will be the role and place of Iraq and Iran in a future Middle East, and is it important and useful to think about regional security and regional cooperation moving toward institutional terms? Iran is a major player there, just as it is in AfPak, and Iran is a signiﬁcant player on the edges of the Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
Let me deﬁne a couple of other of these issues so at least you see where this takes us. One of those is what I would call nuclear weapons — everything from major disarmament, to moving to zero, to dealing with nonproliferation, to conventional disarmament, and indeed to the nature of potential conﬂict and how it is affected by these issues. This is another large congeries of questions, and, indeed, nonproliferation is not totally absent from the considerations we’ll be discussing this morning with respect to Iran.
Another important set of issues, which also plays into the Middle East, is what I call rivals and partners: the role the United States will play in the future international relationship of China, Russia, India and the EU — which is halfway toward being a partner but still obviously needs to be treated in part as the sum of all of its parts as well as the pieces, particularly Britain, France, Germany and so on.
The other two that I would put on my list, but you could add your own, are Japan and Brazil. These countries will be extremely important, Russia particularly on the nuclear-weapons and nonproliferation side, China in international ﬁnancial terms for us, indeed Europe as well, and Japan. We can see many ways to deal with them.
My view is that the United States needs to have speciﬁc policies for ﬁ nding common national interests with these potential rivals, so that we build partnerships rather than stronger rivalries with them as we go ahead. I believe here, again, the administration has started off very well with Russia, which perhaps, in terms of our relationship, deﬁ ned the nadir. This has been helpful for opening up the possibilities, whether nuclear disarmament, better trade relationships, or improved understanding on the Middle East and the near abroad. There are two other pressing issues deﬁned in functional terms that need to be considered. Most important, particularly in the Middle East but also in Africa and Latin America, is the difﬁcult problem of poverty, growth and development. They are closely linked to critical questions of global health, food and water; to failed states; to problems of migration; and, indeed, to drugs and criminality, all of which form a nexus. We have the critical question of trade, which is a bridge element back to the ﬁ rst issue of our international economic crisis. Finally, there are energy, climate change and the environment, which I started out with as an example. There is probably no region more important for energy than the one we’re talking about.
Having set the stage, let me brieﬂy discuss two or three things that come to mind with respect to Iran. First, my view is that the future of our relationship with Iran will not depend on a totally accurate reading of Iranian internal politics. That remains something of a crap shoot. I ﬁnd many Iranian friends have such differing views of what is happening in Iran’s internal politics that, while it cannot be ignored, it will not be a sovereign answer to the problem. Iranian actions, as opposed to “Tehranology,” if I can coin a phrase, will be much more important, and it is signiﬁcant to continue to keep that in mind and to watch as much what is done as what is said. There are no fewer factions in Iran than there are in this country, and to some extent the confusing swirl of politics in this town is an ampliﬁed mirror image of Tehran.
Second, as a diplomat, I always found an element of clarity in trying to ﬁgure out what the other side’s issues and problems were. That’s less difﬁcult. As I look at Iran and try to put myself in an ayatollah’s slippers, existential questions arise. Regime survival, regime change, the use of force: those kinds of issues have to be important if you sit in Tehran and look at this overwhelming nuclear-armed behemoth in the United States.
The second set of issues I think equally important encompasses regional stability and Iran’s role and place in it. Is Iran going to continue, for one purpose or another, to be isolated and separated, or is it going to be brought in? How and in what way can that issue be resolved to meet the demands from the region as well as from Iran and to recognize that Iran is a signiﬁcant country with a vital history that has a serious role to play? That role, in my view, cannot be revolutionary or proselytizing so much as being a major contributor to stability, and that’s a challenge.
I think, ﬁnally, there are many other issues from the Iranian side that are out there, whether it is the hangover from the USS Vincennes incident, the unresolved sets of issues at The Hague regarding the shah’s money and how it gets divided, or a set of questions that may come out of Iranian concerns involving alleged U.S. covert action to destabilize the Iranian government and so on. They need to be dealt with.
On the U.S. side, we have equally deep and persuasive concerns. Some of these obviously have to do with the nuclear program — which we’ll get into and on which many of us have some policy ideas — but that cannot be the be-all and end-all of the relationship. The other sets of U.S. concerns have to do with support for terrorism, Middle East peace, and the question of how Iran treats its own citizens in human-rights and civil-rights terms. Those are signiﬁcant.
The ﬁnal point: objectives. For the United States and Iran, the objective ought to be to seek a normal relationship over a period of time, a relationship that involves not just embassies and ambassadors, but an ability for people on all sides to talk with, to know and to work with each other. This is obviously a millennial description, but we ought to be informed on our side by millennial aspirations in the hope that things will come together well enough for us to continue to move in that direction. We have a lot at stake, and Iran has a lot at stake. I think the new administration has begun well, but it has huge challenges ahead of it.
TRITA PARSI: President, National Iranian American Council
Let me start by associating myself with a lot of what Under Secretary Pickering said and address one issue in particular on which I am in strong agreement with him. Indeed, it would be much better for us to take a look at Iranian actions rather than to try to constantly decipher what they are trying to signal through their many contradictory signals. This is important, particularly in view of the fact that the Iranians actually have a policy that they call “simulated irrationality,” in which they are seeking to confuse the outside world about their true intentions by giving contradictory signals. The best way of getting around that is to not ignore the rhetoric — you cannot ignore some of the rhetoric that is coming out of Tehran — but to assess the rhetoric by taking a look at the actions, to see if they mesh with each other or if it seems to be part of a strategy of making sure that the outside world is confused.
Part of the reason they’re doing this is that, if you are seen at times as an irrational actor, then you are less calculable. If they are less calculable, they think that that buys them security because you cannot calculate their next move. In the long run, of course, what it does is reduce trust between Iran and the outside world, which inevitably is going to be the most important factor for Iranian security. It is, perhaps, something that they think they can beneﬁt from in the short run, but in the long run it is, in my view, a devastating approach.
Israel and the Israel factor in U.S.-Iran policy are, of course, becoming increasingly important and increasingly apparent in discussions about this. This has always been a rather critical factor, but not until recently have we understood it a little better and understood the dynamics and the motivations from the Israeli side. The current position actually dates all the way back to the early 1990s, after the Cold War. It’s at that point that the Israelis started to argue with the United States that Iran needs to be contained, to be sanctioned. This was very much driven by an Israeli fear that, after the Persian Gulf War and after the tensions that existed between the Bush, Sr., administration and Israel, the United States would gravitate towards the Arab side. If it also had a rapprochement with Iran, it could come at Israel’s strategic expense, and much of Israel’s position in the region would be of less value, particularly since Israel was no longer needed as a buffer against a Soviet Union that no longer existed.
It’s at this point that you see a remarkable shift in the Israeli position towards Iran. It took the Clinton administration by surprise, because only a couple of years earlier the Israelis had, in the middle of the Iran-Contra scandal, argued with the Reagan administration that, not only should the United States talk to Iran, it should also sell arms to Iran. It should not pay attention to anti-Israeli rhetoric coming out of Iran because that rhetoric was not reﬂective of actual policy.
Five or six years later, Israel had a completely different position, which took the administration in the United States by surprise. It was poorly understood why there was this signiﬁcant shift, and it wasn’t a factor that was very prominent in the debate. That dynamic is now climaxing in many different ways. The reasons for Israel’s hesitation about a U.S.-Iran dialogue that could lead to rapprochement are probably much better understood at this point, and I think there is also a much better assessment that it is actually not an unrealistic fear in Israel. There are signiﬁcant reasons for Israel to be concerned about the course that the United States is following when it comes to diplomacy with Iran.
We have to remind ourselves that Israel is not a monolith. There are many different views inside Israel on how to deal with Iran and how to deal with America’s policy towards Iran. You have a majority view, which is held currently by the prime minister, that a dialogue that can lead to rapprochement between the United States and Iran can be very problematic for Israel. It could reduce Israel’s maneuverability in the region, particularly if a deal between the United States and Iran leads to Iran’s keeping certain aspects of its nuclear program and having an acceptance of that by the United States. You see a clear divergence between Israel and the United States when it comes to the red lines on the nuclear program.
If the United States would move towards having a more normal relationship with Iran, the Israelis fear that this would lead to an abandonment of Israel. Israel would end up rather alone to face some of the threats in the region. The United States would move in a different direction, have a different assessment of those threats, a different way of dealing with Iran. It is not an unrealistic perspective from the Israeli side. I think the Israelis understand this rather clearly. They’re particularly mindful of Iran’s aspirations to play a leadership role in the region. Iran is very sensitive to public opinion in the Arab world, particularly when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
This leads Iran into a situation in which it can accommodate the United States on a lot of different issues, but it will have far less ﬂexibility to change its position vis-à-vis Israel. Under those circumstances, Israel would be faced with an Iran that may be more friendly, less problematic towards the United States, but not much less problematic when it comes to Israel. This is clearly a fear that dominates the thinking and rhetoric coming out of Israel at this time.
There is, of course, also a minority view in Israel that has been gaining support, partly because of necessity: At the end of the day, however much Israel has been seeking to use pressure and containment to face off against the Iranian threat, Iran has become more powerful in the last 15 years, in spite of the sanctions, in spite of the containment policy. Clearly, this is not leading to a better position for Israel. The Iranian nuclear program is far more advanced now than it was just a couple of years ago.
If Iran and the United States were to have a rapprochement, it is quite unlikely that the United States would accept a more normal relationship with Iran unless there were a signiﬁcant shift, at a minimum, in Iran’s posture towards the Jewish state. There are plenty of examples in which, whenever the United States and Iran have been sending out feelers to each other, trying to ﬁnd an opportunity for some sort of an understanding, Iran’s position on Israel has been one of the cards that the Iranians have been willing to play in order to have a better relationship with the United States. One example is the 2003 proposal, which in many ways clearly indicated that the Iranians have understood, however grudgingly, that they cannot achieve a better relationship with the United States without changing their position on Israel. They cannot untangle U.S.-Iran relations from Iranian-Israeli relations, however much they would like to do so.
From the Israeli side, there is an assessment that, even if it may not be a perfect situation, a U.S.-Iran rapprochement seems to have a far greater likelihood of success in alleviating the threat that Israel perceives from Iran than the current path, on which Iran actually has gained inﬂuence and is progressing towards a nuclear option. The United States is even becoming a little more realistic, realizing that certain aspects of that program cannot be completely rolled back.
Israel’s statements threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear program should very much be understood in this context. Since the mid-1990s, some Israelis have felt that unless they were ringing the alarm bells about the nuclear program,the United States and the West would not be taking this program as seriously as they have. There has been a contradiction contradict the way that Israel has triedin the way that the Israelis have approached this. On the one hand, there has been a fear that, if Israel is very vocal about it, then Israel will put itself in the forefront on this issue. This would then be viewed as an Israeli issue, an Israeli concern, which would contradict the way that Israel has tried to frame it: that the nuclear program in Iran is a global concern; it is not just Israel’s problem; it’s the entire international community’s problem. But at the same time, if Israel is not in the forefront ringing the alarm bells about the Iranian program, the Israeli fear has been that the issue would be forgotten, that there wouldn’t be enough pressure on the West to take a hard line on Iran in order to make sure that the program could be reversed.
It’s important to understand this dynamic and the Israeli fear that the United States might go forward with diplomacy and cut a deal that lets Iran keep some of its nuclear components. This is part of the reason you’re seeing this militant rhetoric coming out of Israel on occasion. And the Obama administration understands that if it wants to improve relations with Iran, if it wants to give diplomacy a chance, it needs to ﬁrst change the atmosphere. Many of the speeches and comments by the president have, to a large extent, been aimed at creating a new atmosphere, injecting trust in order to give diplomacy a reasonable chance of success. But when you have talks about potential military attacks on Iran coming from Israel; when you have demands for time limits in diplomacy — and some people have even suggested as little as 12 weeks, essentially expecting that what sanctions and isolation and confrontation have not been able to achieve in 30 years, diplomacy would miraculously be able to achieve in three months — that militarizes the atmosphere, making it more difﬁcult for the Obama administration to pursue successful diplomacy.
A lot of Israel’s threats to take out Iran’s program should be understood in that context, and not necessarily as a clear indication that Israel is on the verge of being able to take military action against Iran. I’m not a military expert, but this is not an issue about distance, about whether Israel can reach Iran with its F-16s or not. It’s far more complicated than that. I’m curious as to whether there is an Israeli military option that could successfully take that program out. If so, why hasn’t it been utilized so far? As time passes, the program proceeds; more centrifuges, more knowledge in Iran. There doesn’t seem to be any value in waiting, if an option actually exists. I tend to believe that it does not exist, that’s it’s more a way of leveraging Israel’s pressure on the United States and changing the atmosphere.
When it comes to the dynamics between the two camps in Israel as they assess how to deal with Iran, we have to keep in mind that Iran itself plays a signiﬁcant role in this. The rhetoric coming out of President Ahmadinejad has made it very difﬁcult for a real debate to take place in Israel that would produce a more realistic assessment of how to deal with the Iranian problem. The rhetoric about the Holocaust has been particularly polarizing in Israel, making it much more difﬁcult for those who have been arguing that diplomacy actually could be useful to advance Israeli interests in the region.
Here again, Iran, by not using reckless rhetoric, is going to be a critical component in making sure that the atmospherics in the region change in a positive direction so that diplomacy is successful. Particularly at this time — when the United States needs to get out of Iraq and needs Iran’s help in those different arenas — Israel’s interests are not served by additional tensions with the United States. This administration has a golden opportunity to really change the region, and more tension is not going to be helpful for Israeli-American relations in the long run.
GEN. NASH: Trita said he was skeptical about the possibility of an Israeli attack, and my question to you, Ken Katzman, is, can we afford to discount that possibility?
KENNETH KATZMAN: Middle East specialist, Congressional Research Service
I work for the Congress, but I’m here as an expert; I’m not reﬂecting the views of CRS or the Congress or the Library of Congress, or certainly not any member or committee of Congress. You asked about an Israeli air strike. The Department of Defense (DOD), it is my understanding, has basically told the Israelis, you are not to do this, yet we continue to hear rumblings of such considerations. I don’t know if DOD has updated that guidance to the Israelis, but that has been my understanding. It is a complicated issue, and we’ll get into it a little bit more.
A lot of what we’re reading in the press is about process: President Obama’s Nowruz (Persian New Year) speech, whether there should have been a letter to the supreme leader, whether to have outreach before or after the Iranian election. What I want to discuss today is, if there are talks, what are the substantive differences? How difﬁcult would it be to get to what Ambassador Pickering called a long-term, sustainable, normal diplomatic relationship?
The nuclear program is not the sum total of U.S. concerns about Iran. Let’s not forget that the United States and Iran were engaged in low-level warfare during the Iran-Iraq War, in the latter stages, 1987, 1988, when Iran’s nuclear program was rudimentary at best. Let’s not forget that President Clinton imposed a complete ban on U.S. trade and investment in Iran in May 1995. I had the privilege of working on the Iran Sanctions Act — it was then called the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act — when I was assigned to a committee at the time. Iran’s nuclear program was not on anybody’s radar screen. So the tensions are, I think, very substantive. Let’s also not forget that during the term in ofﬁce of President Khatami, 1997 to 2005, there were two periods of suspension of uranium enrichment.
So the nuclear issue is certainly important, but it is not the sum total of U.S. differences with Iran, nor do we have any reason to suspect that Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the chief contender against Ahmadinejad in the upcoming election, would suspend uranium enrichment. In fact, he just gave an interview to the Financial Times a few days ago saying he would not suspend uranium enrichment.
So even though a somewhat more moderate ofﬁcial might be elected, he would not necessarily halt the nuclear program. I would say that Mousavi, unlike the incumbent, has a much more healthy and more accurate respect for U.S. global inﬂuence and U.S. military power than Ahmadinejad does. And it is possible that Mousavi might be more amenable to a combination of incentives and disincentives to return to a period of uranium-enrichment suspension.
But I want to talk about the fundamental U.S.-Iran differences. The two countries have diametrically opposed visions of what the Middle East should look like. Iran envisions a Middle East free of what Iran believes is domination by the United States and Israel. In Iran’s view, this condominium allows Israel to deprive the Palestinians of their rights and their land, prevents the emergence of any Arab or other power that can challenge Israel or the United States. In concert with self-interested Sunni Muslim incumbent regimes, the U.S.-Israel alliance serves to suppress deprived and underprivileged Shiite movements and parties from achieving their just rights as well. This is how Iran sees it.
Such fundamental differences make it difﬁcult, if we do get to the table with Iran, to forge any type of grand bargain. Iran’s foreign-policy goal, in the assessment of many, is to fundamentally restructure the Middle East by reducing U.S. inﬂuence and weakening Israel to the furthest extent possible. This goal coincides with Iran’s national interest, which is to force the United States to proceed cautiously in and around Iran’s borders and to be positioned to cause major harm to the United States, should it act against Iran militarily. These goals are very deep-seated. Iran has been invaded throughout its history and views itself as having been continually manipulated by great powers. This, I think, motivates Iran’s foreign policy, the desire to be liberated from its historical vulnerability.
These foreign-policy goals explain what we’re observing in the Middle East, which is Iran’s arms and material support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Shiite militias in Iraq and some Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. I think this explains why Iran is trying to preserve the alliance with Syria and has even supported Syria’s WMD programs, with some involvement of North Korea. These goals explain Iran’s support for Shiite movements in the Gulf that are seeking to challenge, or at least achieve respect from, Sunni incumbent governments there, although this support has been much reduced since the mid to late 1990s.
Iran’s support for these movements — which varies from consistent and large-scale support in the case of Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias, to situational, sporadic and non-systematic in the case of the Taliban, Afghanistan and, to some extent, Hamas — has the net effect of undermining major U.S. foreign-policy goals in the Middle East. These movements that Iran is supporting in many cases are subverting the rule of law in the countries where they operate. They are operating outside ofﬁcial structures such as ministries of defense and interior, and these movements are upsetting or attempting to derail 50- or 60-year U.S. efforts to broker a comprehensive Arab-Israeli settlement. Of course, many in the region feel that these movements that Iran is supporting have legitimate grievances. In some cases, these movements have participated in and even prevailed in electoral processes in their respective countries. These groups sometimes, as they participate in politics, are increasingly independent of Tehran in their goals.
The issue for U.S. policy, however, and why it will be difﬁcult for the United States and Iran to achieve a grand reconciliation, is that many of these movements continue to ﬁeld militias that go into action not only against governments or factions in their own countries, but sometimes against neighboring countries. This was the case with the Hezbollah-Israeli War of 2006. These movements, with Iranian backing, want to “have it both ways,” gaining from the political process while retaining their option to ﬁ ght against that process if the results do not go their way. These movements are also importing weaponry illicitly from Tehran and other suppliers as well.
Is it possible for the United States and Iran to lower tensions? Absolutely, yes. That is possible. Certainly a resolution of the nuclear issue alone would go a long way toward lessening the U.S. perception of the threat posed by Iran. However, many experts believe Iran would not acquiesce to what it sees as a U.S.-Israeli joint hegemony and end its support for these Shiite and other Islamist movements that it is supporting in the region. Rather, Iran’s foreign policy potentially could be set back by promoting successful resolutions of the crises within these countries and within the region. This would reduce Tehran’s opportunity to promote these anti-establishment movements. Tehran’s inﬂuence in Iraq, for example, was not reduced by U.S.-Iran negotiations in Baghdad between Ryan Crocker and Kazemi Qomi, but rather by the calming of Iraq generally and by the elections in Iraq, which generally rejected Iranian inﬂuence.
Iran’s inﬂuence among certain Pashtun groups, the Taliban and Afghanistan, will be reduced by successful U.S. counterinsurgency strategy and the economic development of Afghanistan, not by any U.S.-Iran deal on Afghanistan. Iran’s support for Hamas would be reduced by an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, if there were one, but not because Iran decided to decrease its support for Hamas to gain some reciprocal concession from the United States elsewhere. The same goes for Hezbollah, which many believe will only distance itself from Iran when Hezbollah has more to gain from the politics in Lebanon than it has to lose by dismantling its armed wing.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR: Author, Global Security Watch — Iran: A Reference Handbook
When I reﬂect on the title of this conference and the question of the prospects for engagement, I think the Obama administration is beginning to develop a non-ideological foreign policy, a foreign policy based on realism and pragmatism. I also think that if you look carefully at Iranian foreign policy over the last two decades, you can ﬁnd a lot of pragmatic foreign policy there. In the case of the Obama administration, its pragmatism has been indicated by its overtures to Iran; and in the case of Iran, its pragmatism has been indicated by the fact that Khamenei has, on several occasions since 9/11, been open to talks with the United States.
So I thought today that I would try to think about what kinds of agreements should be pursued when we negotiate with Iran. Instead of looking at these in terms of who wins and who loses, is there a way to construct formulas that are win-win for the United States and Iran?
The near-term issues that we face with Iran are in Afghanistan and Iraq. I think we could both conceivably beneﬁt at the global, regional and domestic levels if we were to succeed in preventing the Taliban and al-Qaeda from reasserting themselves in Afghanistan. Setting up a stable central government that shares power with provincial governments would enable the United States and NATO forces to ultimately withdraw and ease all the strain and stress on them, on our military and on our budget. It would reduce the threats to friendly Arab regimes in the region, and it would reduce the threat to the American population. For Iran, it would reduce the potential threat of being attacked by a global superpower next door in a neighboring country, reduce the possibility that a hostile regime in Afghanistan would take actions against Iran, as the Taliban government did in the 1990s, and reduce the drug threat in Iran.
What Iran said at the recent conference at The Hague about its willingness to help multilateral efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan is a very good step, and Iran has stated its willingness to help reduce the drug problem. Curbing Afghanistan’s drug trafﬁcking could help, because this is the economic activity that actually ﬁ nances Taliban and al-Qaeda operations. They run drugs from Afghanistan into Iran. And they also buy weapons in Iran on these missions. So if Iran can help stem the ﬂow of weapons from Iran into Afghanistan, this would also be helpful.
But I would point out that this drug and arms trafﬁcking takes place across the border and in areas that Iran doesn’t fully control. It’s a rugged area. There is a Sunni-Baluchi resistance movement there that kills Iranian border guards and Revolutionary Guards. If Iran is really going to help us in these two areas, we need to help it get control of that border. As a matter of fact, Iran asked NATO in 2006 to help it with border control, and NATO said no. This would be a good time to say yes if we’re really going to try to test their cooperation there and make sure their cooperation is successful. If Western powers are supporting Sunni-Baluchi movements, this would be a good time to stop that.
On the question of Iraq, I think both parties could look at Iraq in a way in which they would see mutual global, regional and domestic beneﬁts. Success would enable the United States to withdraw its forces again and relieve the strain I talked about before. It would leave behind an Iraqi government very unlikely to attack Kuwait or any other U.S.-friendly regime, and it would satisfy a weary American public.
As for Iran, it can see the U.S.-Iraqi agreement on the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces as a development that once again reduces the risk of being attacked by a global superpower next door and reduces the risk of an Iraqi regime such as Saddam’s attacking Iran again. If Iraq is stable, it reduces the possibility of sectarian and ethnic disturbances spilling over the border into Iran — Khuzestan, Baluchistan or Kurdistan. Iran could see the victory of Maliki’s list, and that of his followers, in the recent provincial elections as beneﬁcial. It seems to have been a vote on behalf of a relatively strong central government, and that could help Iraq remain united and prevent the fragmentation and civil war that would be very damaging to Iran.
There is evidence that Iran has been willing to cooperate in the past year. It responded to Maliki’s appeal to arrange ceaseﬁres when his armed forces marched south to deal with the Shia militias. It must have been easier for Iran to do that after the United States had surged forces and co-opted the Sunni Awakening (Sons of Iraq), and after that had resulted in the reduction of the bloodletting that started when the Sunnis attacked the Shia Golden Dome shrine in Samarra, and Shia militias retaliated in early 2006. It must have been easier for Iran to do that when it understood that Iraq was about to negotiate the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces.
U.S. commanders who once complained about Iranian lethal aid to Shia militias in the south of Iraq don’t complain about that anymore. They say they don’t see evidence of it. They say it’s stable. They say they think the gains are going to be lasting. And if Iran can continue to help us stabilize Iraq, that will obviously facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. forces. That means Iran has to persuade other Shia parties to accept the results of these elections, because there were to actually share power with Shia parties that favored a weak central government and strong provinces. And I think it means that Iran has to help the United States persuade Maliki’s government to actually share power with disenfranchised Sunni elements such as the Sunni Awakening. They expected to be brought into the Iraqi government and armed forces, and they haven’t been in any signiﬁcant numbers. I see the recent upsurge in violence in Iraq in recent weeks as possibly ﬂowing from their disenchantment and anger, since most of these attacks were taking place in Shia communities.
But when we ask Iran to help us with all of that, and we should, we shouldn’t ask them to do more than they are capable of doing. We should try to remember that Iraqi Shias are Arabs, not Persians. They’re not pawns of Iran. They have their own agenda. They’re trying to establish their independence. If, for example, Sunni insurgents are attacking Shia communities, Shia militias are going to have an incentive to react, whether Iran asks them to exercise restraint or not.
That takes us to the Persian Gulf and the global, regional and domestic issues at stake for the United States and Iran. There, of course, the increase in U.S. military forces followed Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and it continued when Iran continued modernizing its armed forces, decimated by its war with Iraq. The United States saw potential threats to the GCC states and to the ﬂow of oil. Iran, on the other hand, has seen the presence of American forces in the Gulf as, once again, threatening, limiting what they see as their rightful role in the Persian Gulf — which has to be deﬁned — and even potentially supporting covert operations to destabilize Iran.
If we can reach agreements and have cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq, then we need to move to the Persian Gulf and try to determine exactly what Iran’s rightful role is. What kinds of conventional weapons does it need? What kinds of conventional military exercises ought it engage in for normal defense? Even the GCC states understand that Iran has some normal defensive concerns. What level of American force is actually required in the Gulf? Remember that we really have only been there in big numbers for about 18 years. How large does our force there have to be? How much of it could be taken over the horizon, ready for rapid movement into the Gulf when necessary? Iran has asked for the total withdrawal of American forces from the Gulf, for the total abrogation of U.S. security relationships with the GCC states. That’s just not going to happen. But we can possibly devise a formula whereby Iran’s anxieties are reduced, because Iran’s anxieties about American military forces in the region are one reason it may feel it needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
These developments could be good for GCC states that have been concerned about Iran’s military acquisitions and exercises and its relationships with Shia-Arab elements within their own societies on the Arab side of the Gulf. They’re very concerned, yet they have complex relations with Iran. They have areas in which they cooperate with Iran; they engage in a lot of trade. There are differences among them about how close they can be to Iran.
Generally speaking, they oppose the use of U.S. or Israeli military force to solve our problems with Iran, because they fear that would blow back on them. Iran has conventional military capabilities, and particularly capabilities for asymmetric warfare that could prove very damaging to GCC states after an American or Israeli attack. Even though Iranian forces would ultimately be subdued, they could do a lot of damage before that. So we are going to have to consult with GCC states very closely as we try to develop formulas for the Persian Gulf, because they are not only concerned about American-Iranian military confrontation, they’re also concerned about U.S.-Iranian talks. They’re concerned that the United States would actually recognize a dominant Iranian role in the Gulf and that they would be relegated to a secondary status. And that concern has to be alleviated when we negotiate with Iran and talk to the GCC states, too. But if we are able to agree upon Iranian military exercises; access to oil and gas ﬁelds; maritime boundaries; and incidents at sea, particularly in the Straits of Hormuz, this might alleviate GCC concerns enough to allow them to get on board with these talks.
I’m not going to say much about nuclear issues except for this: The presence of American military forces in the Gulf is a concern to Iran that might lead it to want a deterrent. Ultimately, in nuclear talks, if we are going to be satisﬁed that Iran is not to move toward a weapons-building capability, it is going to have to have some kinds of security assurances. In the past, particularly when it offered a grand bargain to the United States in 2003, Iran explicitly asked for assurances that it was not going to be attacked, and that its regime wasn’t going to be overthrown.
I think for Iran to open up its nuclear programs and become more transparent, it’s going to have to know that assurances are forthcoming about its security. We could talk about speciﬁcs of the nuclear program during the Q&A, but it seems to me that what we really need more than anything — because Iran is not going to suspend its enrichment of uranium — is more intense inspections. We need Iran to really adhere to the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) so that the IAEA can go anywhere, anytime. So far, we know that Iran has not diverted low-enriched uranium, so it cannot make high-enriched uranium and have the fuel for a nuclear weapon. We don’t know exactly what’s happening at this facility in Arak because IAEA inspectors haven’t been allowed in there recently. The last time they were there, they said there’s no reprocessing facility, so we know Iran was not separating plutonium, but the inspectors haven’t been there in a while, and they need to go again.
Finally, I think it will be harder for the United States to give security assurances to Iran as long as Iran has the attitude it has toward Israel. It would be a lot easier for Iran to curb its military support to Hezbollah and Hamas if there were Arab-Israeli agreements. But, in the absence of such agreements, or at least very promising progress toward such agreements, I’m not sure that it will curb its support. If it doesn’t, I’m not sure that the United States is prepared to offer it the security guarantees necessary to make everything else hang together.
GEN. NASH: I think so far we have established a couple of broad outlines of the interrelated nature of global, as well as regional, politics and security concerns. There are important interrelated relationships among the three “I’s” plus AfPak that have to be dealt with simultaneously. We’ve also touched on the issues of the other players in the neighborhood, the Arab states primarily and their concerns, and the GCC states’ concerns about a U.S.-Iranian relationship. A number of the speakers have also talked about watching what the players do versus what they say. I want to get into policy options and discuss that, but before we do that, I want to ask a question of the panel. Ambassador Pickering was quoted in The New Yorker last week as saying that trying to ﬁgure out what was going on in Iran was a crap shoot, and I was sure he had been misquoted. I’m sure he meant to say, given the vicissitudes of the circumstances in Iran, it’s very difﬁcult to prognosticate what is going to happen. (Laughter.) But then he used the same expression here this morning, so obviously The New Yorker had it right. But my question to all of you is, give us one or two key indictors of what you look for in Iran as you try to determine your thoughts on policy options, and then we’ll get into the options themselves.
AMB. PICKERING: I think it’s important, obviously, to continue to look at what you see without getting into the policy thing too early. My feeling is that one of the next stages has to be, in effect, to open ofﬁcial contacts and see if they are going to respond to that. It’s very clear the easy way to do that is to have somebody like Bill Burns [under secretary for political affairs] go to the next P-5-plus-one meeting with Iran, and I suspect that’s going to happen. We know, in fact, that Bill has previously attended one, so things like that will be helpful. Are they going to respond there? The second set of issues is, what do they say in those meetings? The third set of issues is, what are they saying publicly, recognizing that it is a cacophony rather than harmonious noise? I think we need to continue to keep our eye on it, but my own view would be that the most important things are those that count on the ground.
DR. PARSI: We’ve seen that they have attended meetings that they’ve been invited to. What we have not seen is if anything in particular has come out of that, if they’re actually helping. I think what they are waiting for, on their end in Iran, is to be conﬁdent that the United States is looking for a strategic deal, that whatever tactical collaboration could take place in Afghanistan is going to take place within the framework of a larger strategic effort to turn U.S.-Iran relations into something more positive. I think the administration has tried to signal, as clearly as they could, that this is the intention. The question is whether the Iranians are convinced. When the Obama administration insists on using the term “Islamic Republic of Iran,” trying to indicate that they’re not looking for regime change; when in the Nowruz message the president says that he is looking for constructive ties with Iran, he’s essentially painting out what the end game would be, at least the contours of it.
Are the Iranians being convinced? My sense is that, just looking at how the rhetoric in Iran has changed over the last 10 days and how the dynamics of the internal debate between the presidential candidates has also changed, they’re starting to become convinced. They’re starting to realize that this probably is a real opportunity and that it would be a signiﬁcant mistake from their end to miss it.
But they must have conﬁdence that this is not just tactical, that this is not an effort to pretend that diplomacy was tried in order to get more support for more confrontational measures down the road. It is essential to make sure that they don’t just show up but actually deliver something, whether it is in Afghanistan or elsewhere.
GEN. NASH: Let’s turn to policy options. I’ve asked Ken, from his perch in the Congressional Research Service, to provide some broad outlines of a few policy options that you might add to those key indicators that I asked earlier panelists to talk about.
DR. KATZMAN: The administration has appointed Ambassador Dennis Ross as the point person on Iran, and he’s done some writing in the past few years on Iran, although obviously he’s more closely identiﬁed with the Arab-Israeli dispute. I think a lot of the options have been laid out pretty clearly in some of his writings and his discussions. What he’s interested in, and what I think the administration is interested in, are very clear incentives and disincentives. I think Ambassador Ross and others in the administration feel that the Bush administration’s approach was too heavily weighted towards disincentives — sanctions, obviously, and the threat of military action. I think Dennis’s view and the administration’s view is that there needs to be a much clearer sense of what’s on offer to Iran, if it’s to be more cooperative on a resolution of the nuclear issue.
These are some of the options that are out there. The incentives to offer Iran are very well laid out. In fact, there’s an annex to UN Resolution 1747 that gives the incentives that Iran could expect to receive if there were a resolution of the issue: entry into the World Trade Organization; spare parts and possibly sales of new passenger aircraft, lifting of some sanctions, more access to peaceful technology — medical, agricultural, energy — more assistance in these ﬁelds. So the incentives are pretty clear. These have been well laid out.
There are a number of disincentives: basically, the UN process of ratcheting up sanctions if Iran were not to cooperate. Obviously, some of the discussion centers around trying to restrict sales of reﬁned gasoline to Iran. Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Britain has laid out the option of a worldwide ban on new investment in Iran’s energy sector. Some other ideas involve worldwide restrictions on insurance for Iran’s oil tanker ﬂeet. Other options might be banning investment or sales to Iran, attempting to improve its oil-reﬁning sector. The Obama administration, as Trita said, has taken regime change off the table and appears to have taken military action off the table.
GEN. NASH: Trita, what would you like to add to that, particularly with respect to Israel and Iran?
DR. PARSI: It was mentioned earlier by several of the speakers that making some progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front would deprive Iran of some points of friction that it could take advantage of and use against the United States and Israel. I’m not saying that this wasn’t necessarily what was intended, but in the past it has been clariﬁed by others that in order to be able to deal with Iran, you have to ﬁrst make peace between Israel and Palestine. You have to ﬁrst peel off Syria from the Iran-Syria axis, the reasoning behind that being that as long as those conﬂicts continue to exist, they provide Iran with leverage. If those conﬂicts are resolved, Iran is left with no choice but to change its policies. I think there is perhaps a reverse way of looking at this as well. The Iranians are utilizing these conﬂicts as pressure points precisely because of the fact that they are not being included in any of the regional diplomacy. When they are being excluded, when they are not being brought to the table, when they are not being considered for a rapprochement with the United States, they retaliate by using those areas to put pressure on the United States.
By contrast, take the example of Iran’s proﬁle during the Camp David II talks in 2000. It was very different compared to the way that Iranians were involved in the Israel-Palestinian conﬂict in 1994. In ’94, they used very aggressive rhetoric against Israel and praised the Hamas bombers. In 2000, Iran was silent. This is primarily because of two factors: one, Ehud Barak withdrew from Lebanon before going to Camp David, which undercut Iran’s ability to use the Lebanese scene. But, most important, Iran had improved its relations with the European Union, and it had signiﬁcantly improved its relations with some of the key Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia. So it did not feel that, if there had been a successful Israeli-Palestinian deal at the time, it would lead to Iran’s further isolation.
But every time we present peacemaking between Israel and Palestine, or reach out to Syria as an effort to further isolate Iran, it just fuels Iran’s incentives to counter that by being problematic. Looking at it from a reverse angle may actually provide easier and better options for dealing with this issue, recognizing that, as was mentioned earlier, these problems cannot be resolved in isolation. There may not be a perfect harmony in which the administration can proceed with all of them at the same time. However, if there is an effort to only deal with some of them ﬁrst, with the explicit justiﬁcation that this will lead to Iran’s further isolation, I think we can be certain that, based on past behavior, Iran will do everything it can to make that as complicated as possible.
DR. MATTAIR: I would say that all of these issues are connected, and we should be trying to move forward on every front at the same time, maybe not at exactly the same pace. I think Iran’s concern is its security, and it is looking for some assurances there. It has already cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan after 9/11, and it really got nothing in return. So if it is being asked to cooperate in Afghanistan again, and in Iraq, it may ask itself if there is anything really there for Iran in the long run.
As it is being asked to cooperate, we need to be moving forward on nuclear talks, and I don’t think that setting a strict timeline for these talks is very sensible or that it will be very productive. They’re going to take time, because the issues are very complex. I am actually heartened to know that there are some people on the National Security Council dealing with nonproliferation issues who think that Iran is several years away from a weapon and that we actually do have time to negotiate with it. Iran is not at the threshold of making a weapon or even having the capability for it.
Then again, to come back to Arab-Israeli issues, the Iranians are not only concerned about American military power; they’re concerned about Israeli power and Israeli inﬂuence in the region. They need to have an understanding about how Arab-Israeli issues are going to be resolved. I don’t think they view Arab-Israeli issues in strictly tactical or strategic terms. I don’t think they support these movements only because it’s a way of mobilizing support for Iran in the Arab street or embarrassing Sunni Arab regimes. I think they actually have some genuine sympathy for Shia Lebanese and for Palestinians. That’s why I think it will be difﬁcult for them to abandon these groups as long as these conﬂicts are unresolved, and as long as there is violent conﬂict taking a lot of lives. I would expect that they would be looking for some progress in those areas as well as some understanding about what their role in the Gulf is going to be vis-à-vis the GCC states.
GEN. NASH: I would just add that most of the academic research on these types of situations indicates that, if policy change instead of regime change is your goal, and incentives as well as sanctions are part of your means, you have a much higher degree of success.
AMB. PICKERING: Overall, the United States has a great deal of thinking to do. There is as yet no settled view on the critical question: What’s the future role of Iran in the region? To some extent, this can be bounded but not yet fully deﬁned — bounded by the thought that neither the United States nor the Arabs of the region wish to see Iran anointed as an absolute hegemon. The United States would not, nor would the Arabs, wish to see intensive Iranian political and religious proselytizing in their territories with the idea of creating new clones of Iran in the region.
But, on the other side, the United States would not wish to see Iran in a position where it was threatened by the neighbors or by coalitions within the region as a whole. The United States would, I think, wish to see a free ﬂow of commerce with Iran and particularly, Iran pumping sufﬁcient quantities of oil to be a major contributor to the supply of energy. The United States has said, after having tried to deny it for many years, that it is prepared to accept Iran’s views about what it requires with respect to its energy future, including nuclear energy. So the United States has come around to supporting civil nuclear energy in Iran.
The United States has not yet resolved the question of whether no enrichment is the centerpiece of our nuclear policy with respect to Iran or — as Tom said and as I believe very strongly — that the centerpiece has to be adequate inspection and monitoring. The two are obviously closely linked, but the administration’s policy of zero enrichment and standard IAEA safeguards — I don’t think you can get more — is a formula for a rather disastrous inability to understand whether there is clandestine replication and preparation for breakout going on. Those are the reasons why Tom’s point is certainly one that I strongly support.
This leads me to a tactical concern: in my view, it is better to ring-fence enrichment in Iran with transparency and multinational participation, and then use that as the basis for getting adequate inspection. I think the Additional Protocol is a minimum. I also think that some of the elements that were developed in inspections for Iraq, as well as some of the newer elements — the ability to monitor personnel and other things — are extremely important and not necessarily totally implied by the Additional Protocol. This will be very heavy lifting.
In strategic terms, I think the arrangements and discussions with Iran have to range across the widest possible set of questions and draw a lesson from Henry Kissinger’s book on how he dealt with China. It has to be a discussion that begins in an important period of time about world view and regional view, as opposed to haggling about different points, so that greater understanding results. I think it has to include respect for Iran, particularly with regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has to be ﬁrm.
The process with Iran has to begin with engagement, and we should reserve a panoply of efforts such as sanctions for a later period, to see if engagement can produce results. But I’m not one who says we should totally abandon sanctions, because it’s only sanctions that stand between engagement and use of force.
I don’t think the United States is ready at this stage, in the absence of an agreement, to abandon the use of force. However, I certainly would put both regime change and use of force on the table and be ready to take them off in response to a nuclear deal that was acceptable to us and our allies. In my view, putting regime change and use of force on the table gratuitously has some atmospheric value, but less in Iran than elsewhere; I think the Iranians won’t believe it. The one way in which to make that a conclusive commitment is to do so in an agreement where we have a salient interest on our side to see the arrangement continued and accepted, and the Iranians understand this. In this way, they would know that it is a real quid pro quo, as opposed to a gratuitous gesture that can be reinterpreted the way the Algiers Accords have been over the years since we got our hostages back.
The next important piece is that, in a universal discussion, it is a canard and a snare to think about a grand bargain. That only means that everybody will attempt to get everything in before anything is done. But I totally agree on something I’ve called over the years a “grand agenda,” an agenda that has to include full discussion of everything. How it is worked out by the diplomats is a different story. It will be one of the tests of whether Iran really is prepared to work, as to how much of that can be dealt with.
Finally, in the extreme tactical piece, as I said earlier, we need to establish, as soon as possible, continuing ofﬁcial contacts that can open up the broadest possible set of discussions, and we need to move those up the ladder of authority so that more senior people can get involved as soon as possible in the kinds of discussions that have to take place to give a note of authority to the discussions and an ability to venture widely in the arrangements. Secondly, my own view is that the nuclear question, as important as it is, needs to be raised in due course rather than as the only signiﬁcant matter that we will consider putting on the agenda.
I also believe that some small steps can be taken. The Chinese began with ping pong. It was unilateral. We should begin by thinking about at least two steps that we could take that don’t require an absolute response on the part of the Iranians. One is to return the Iranian so-called consular ofﬁcials who are being held in Iraq. The second is, in my view, a clear statement that we are not undertaking covert actions to destabilize Iran politically or in security terms with, say, the Baluch or others. I would not necessarily back down from all of the efforts that we have tried to make with suppliers and others to prevent the Iranian nuclear program from moving ahead on the military side. That’s a different piece.
Finally, if we do take those unilateral steps, it would be nice to also put in the Iranians’ hands a list of people who we think are unfairly and illegitimately imprisoned in Iran and in whose welfare we have a natural interest. I also think it is extremely important for us to recognize that there is a serious Iranian interest in direct air ﬂights, and that can be accomplished through friendly Middle Eastern airlines in a very easy way. That opens the door. If you have direct ﬂights, why not issue visas in Tehran? That opens the door to the question of the utility of an interests section. Indeed, the Iranians already have an interests section here in Georgetown as part of the Pakistani Embassy.
Another step that people have mentioned is the value of deconﬂiction of naval operations in the Persian Gulf. It’s extremely important. We did it years ago with the Soviet Union. We know how to do it; it’s a fairly simple procedure. The real problem is there are two navies in Iran: the IRGC navy and the real navy, the Iranian navy. One seems to be more amenable to deconﬂiction than the other. The thing we need least is some military misunderstanding that leads to disaster in the region.
I would suggest and hope that shortly after the next exercise in Iran of electoral choice, we could not only have talks, but we could be in a position to begin to speak about nuclear issues. But that’s only a hope and obviously it takes two to tango.
Q: The nuclear issue is one of those things where you’ve got a global breakdown of the whole nonproliferation system. How do we use negotiations with Iran as a means of repairing a system that can arguably be said to have broken down? As a corollary to that, taking up Trita Parsi’s idea of simulated irrationalism, the Israelis are now surpassing Iran in its use. How do we deal with the unavoidable issue that’s going to come up in talks with Iran on Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, which seems to be outside the framework of any sort of regulatory system?
AMB. PICKERING: So far, I guess simulation hasn’t been the hard problem. We have had kind of a natural background. But I think that it’s extremely important to look at Iran in the context of the whole nonproliferation effort and to ﬁnd opportunities, if I could put it this way, because Iran wishes to be treated on an equal basis with others. So I feel very strongly that we need to begin by multilateralizing those elements of the civil fuel cycle that deal with sensitive technologies. I would ﬁrst say, we ought to take a ﬁrm decision that reprocessing is out; we ought to phase the Japanese and others out of that over a period of years. With respect to enrichment, we ought to say we will multilateralize our civil nuclear enrichment facilities in this country and expect all the weapons states to do that. That’s the gold standard. That’s the only international standard in which we’ll proceed.
I strongly also believe that we should go to the Russians and say, let’s propose multinational enrichment to Iran. If the Iranians will accept the Russian proposal for Angarsk in this context, ﬁne; if not, then we ought to at least hold the door open that some enrichment with real inspection is better than no enrichment with no inspection, or little inspection or incomplete inspection. I think that piece is important and ought to be part of it. That helps us close the big loophole in the NPT, and we ought to do this with Brazil or anybody else that wants to enrich. There ought to be, with multinational enrichment, a very serious effort to make a high standard of inspection for everybody part of the answer to the problem, rather than the other way around.
Of course, all the recognized nuclear powers have taken themselves out of the use of sensitive facilities for their weapons programs. So there is, at least by declared moratorium, no Russian enrichment for use in weapons programs and no U.S. reprocessing of plutonium for use in weapons programs. We’re all trying to ﬁgure out how to get rid of the overhang, which is the problem.
So this helps us, in effect, reinforce the move that the administration has said it’s prepared to take toward a ﬁssile-material cutoff treaty and to close the loophole in the NPT, as well as provide a solution that is universal for the Iran problem.
Q: How realistic is it that even a modicum of your recommendations would be likely to pass the U.S. Congress? Of the 535 members, only ﬁve voted against the resolution that accepted without qualiﬁcation Israel’s explanation of its invasion and occupation of Gaza for 23 days in lat December. And there was a draft congressional resolution in February 2007 that there should be no U.S. attack against Iran without speciﬁc congressional authorization. It was taken out of the resolution by Nancy Pelosi after she was lobbied by AIPAC.
DR. PARSI: You raise a lot of very important points, but let’s also remind ourselves of a couple of things. Last year, there was another resolution, Number 362, that called for stringent inspections of every person and plan going in and out of Iran, essentially calling for a naval blockade. Initially, it did have a signiﬁcant amount of support on Capitol Hill. But efforts were made to bring to the attention of the lawmakers, as well as the Democratic leadership, that a naval blockade not authorized by the Security Council is an act of war, so essentially this would be a war resolution. In spite of the fact that it did have 280 cosponsors and was supported by some of the most important and powerful groups in this Capitol, the resolution did not pass. It was not permitted to reach the ﬂoor for a vote. That was a very, very signiﬁcant deal. It indicated that the atmospherics and realities and political landscapes on Capitol Hill had changed.
Beyond that, you have several pieces of sanctions legislation that are currently being introduced, some of them pushed for very hard. Nevertheless, they don’t seem to have the greatest prospects of actually being passed this year. There is a realization, and there has been a strong signal sent, I suspect, that sanctions prior to or in the middle of the diplomatic process would undermine the president’s plan to see what he can achieve diplomatically with Iran. As long as that agenda proceeds, we’ve not seen any indication that those sanctions bills are going to get out of committee and be voted on.
This is not the way things usually are in this building. It will probably not last for very long. This puts some pressure on the administration. Even though nothing can be resolved in three months or even 12 months, some progress needs to be made on the diplomatic front in order for the president to continue to have the conﬁdence of Congress so that Congress does not step in with other types of measures. Congress does not have many tools to play with other than sanctions.
Let me also point out a third positive. Ambassador Pickering pointed out the utility of “incidents at sea.” That has now been put into a bill by Congressman John Conyers and Congressman Geoff Davis, a bipartisan bill that is attracting cosponsors right now. It calls on the administration, within the context of diplomacy with Iran, to also pursue an incidents-at-sea agreement with the many navies in Iran in order to protect U.S. service men and women patrolling the Persian Gulf.
DR. KATZMAN: A lot of the legislation Trita was mentioning, and a lot of what has been brought to a vote in the House during the last Congress and is coming up again, are what are called sense-of-Congress resolutions. They express the sense of Congress that something should be policy or something should happen. They are not always binding. It’s been my experience that, when an administration reaches an agreement with another country, even though some in Congress may not agree with it, the executive branch has quite a lot of legal authority to go through with the deal. For example, North Korea was taken off the U.S. list of terrorism states. Libya was taken off. There is congressional authority to oppose that by passage of a joint resolution with a veto-proof majority. This was not achieved, so those countries did come off those lists, even though there were many in Congress who disagreed with that. So there is a lot of latitude for the executive to reach a deal with Iran.
AMB. PICKERING: To be binding, any push by Congress has to have the president’s signature, and this president is in a strong position to deal with it. Secondly, there is no question in my mind that Prime Minister Netenyahu has an imperative to get along with President Obama, and this is quite important. It’s not going to be totally determinative; they will be sending each other macho signals one way or another. But hopefully it will make a difference. Given his experience as a very successful ﬁnance minister of Israel, Prime Minister Netenyahu, over a period of time, can show that he can also become a successful prime minister of Israel. To do that, he has to get along with President Obama.
Finally, the United States has no settled view on the use of force, and it probably won’t until the end of the day. It has a settled view, now, I believe, but only by implication, that use of force is a last resort rather than the ﬁrst or mid-term resort. I hope it continues to persuade Israel that that’s the case. It has the double burden of persuading Israel that that’s the case and doing everything it can to persuade Iran that any overt move toward a military nuclear capability is equally dangerous and difﬁcult.
Q: With regard to dealing with Iran around the nuclear issue, wouldn’t it help if we were more active in complying with Article VI of the NPT, to negotiate to eliminate our nuclear weapons?
AMB. PICKERING: You have brought up an issue that I think is critically important. It helps to set the stage for being jihadi, if I could put it this way, on nonproliferation with respect to Iran. Happily, the president and President Medvedev have agreed to move ahead not only on START and the veriﬁcation mechanism, but also on a next stage of U.S.-Russian nuclear disarmament. Hopefully, that will move along fairly well. We don’t yet know the full outcome of that, but it’s a contribution of some signiﬁcant value. Also, working with the Russians on missile defense, which seems to be at least a more open proposition than it used to be, can be very helpful in setting the stage for carrying out our commitments under Article VI of the NPT. The United States and Russia possess some 95 percent of these weapons, and they have to take the lead.
Incidentally, working with the Russians on disarmament has been one of the ways in which the administration has begun to help turn the U.S.-Russian relationship from a net negative over the past couple of years to one having some very signiﬁcant positive elements. It serves a number of very useful purposes, setting the stage for Iran, and helping us move toward a situation where we can make the 2010 NPT Review Conference into something of a success, rather than the kind of disaster we have seen in the past. I also think it can move us toward a goal the president spoke about in Prague that is very worthwhile exploring: moving towards zero.
Q: Dr. Parsi in his book emphasizes that the Israelis have traditionally seen Iran as a natural ally and were thinking in these terms even after the beginning of the Islamic Republic. Is there any possibility that Israel and Iran would do a deal, behind America’s back, in which Israel would concede Iranian dominance of the Persian Gulf in return for Iran’s giving up its support of the Palestinians and Hezbollah?
DR. PARSI: Yes, you’re quite right. From the Israeli perspective, there has been a long-held view of Iran as a natural ally: a non-Arab state in the region, which also has signiﬁcant problems with many of the Arab states. “My enemy’s enemy is my friend,” as the saying goes. That was the logic of the “periphery doctrine” that Ben Gurion put together. It’s a view that had come to inﬂuence Israeli thinking on Iran almost to an ideological level. During the 1980s, in spite of all the rhetorical indications that Iran was moving in a different direction, the Israelis kept on quoting Iran, seeking to build that relationship. They felt that the strategic logic for it remained in place; the common threats were still there.
They had some limited success. One of the lessons they learned was that in the Islamic republic, the Iranians may tactically dance with the Israelis in order to get access to Washington, but there was no strategic objective on the Iranian side to actually have relations with the Israelis themselves. This is one of the takeaways that they had from the Iran-Contra dealings. As soon as the United States and Iran started to get a little bit closer, the ﬁrst thing the Iranians did was to try to cut the Israelis out of the equation.
Even Netanyahu, incidentally, back in 1996, was toying with the idea of seeing if he could rebuild that axis. When he ﬁrst came into power, for about nine months he was almost completely silent about Iran, avoiding hostile rhetoric that Rabin and Peres had been using. Part of it was because he was not very excited about the peace process. He was not in favor of the land-for-peace formula and felt that the Palestinians would eventually betray Israel. As a result, he wanted to keep the option open for some sort of relationship with Tehran, and he sent feelers to the Iranians. He got nothing in return; the Iranians simply were not interested. I suspect that that will continue to be the case, given the perspective of this particular government in Iran, which believes that their ability to be accepted as a leader in the region necessitates that they make common cause with the Arab populations. They’re very sensitive to the Arab street. This means, from their perspective, that they have to take a leadership role on the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂ ict, even though they may not necessarily be in the forefront taking action. The shah did not succeed in moving closer to Israel while he was trying to gain Arab acceptance for Iranian leadership, and the current government will not be successful either.
I don’t see many prospects for the scenario that you sketched out. I do believe, however, that there is some ﬂexibility in Iran when it comes to changing their proﬁle on Israel. They may continue to use rhetoric critical of Israel but to couch it in the context of Israeli treatment of Palestinians rather than of whether Israel has a right to exist. They will likely refrain from being a frontline state against Israel, but that’s probably as far as they can go without losing what they view as their street credibility in the larger Muslim world.
AMB. PICKERING: The deal is obviously a horse for a rabbit. What does Israeli recognition of Iran’s putative role in the Middle East really mean? It carries no weight with anybody, with all due respect. I was ambassador to Israel for four years, so I have some sense what that means.
Q: At every negotiation, Iran brings up the question of Israel’s nuclear weapons, but it never gets discussed there or even here. Is it possible not to bring up Israel’s nuclear weapons and have a discussion about nuclear proliferation?
DR. MATTAIR: Iran is looking for security assurances, but I don’t see that being within the realm of the possible in a negotiation with Iran. The GCC states also propose a nuclear-free Middle East, which means that Israel would give up its nuclear weapons. As a realist, I think that we’re going to have to ﬁnd agreements that are doable, and I frankly don’t see this as doable in any way, shape or form.
To return to the previous question, I agree with Ambassador Pickering that Israeli recognition of Iran’s role in the Gulf is not sufﬁcient. There is the United States to think about and its relationships with Saudi Arabia and the GCC countries. How do we view their role and our security relationship with them and our arms sales to them? Israel can’t really overcome that.
Q: How do you judge what the Obama administration has done so far? They’ve taken this series of gestures — the meeting at The Hague, agreeing to have William Burns take part in these future talks. Is this how the administration is likely to continue to roll out its Iran strategy, in these small gestures, or do you expect a bigger gesture down the road? And are there any prospects for the “EU-3 plus-3” talks that Bill Burns would be a part of?
DR. PARSI: I don’t foresee any Iranian-type of press conference with dancers and everything else that they usually have when they’re announcing something major on the nuclear front. I don’t see that happening with the State Department’s review. On the contrary, I think the perspective held by the State Department and the administration is that this is an ongoing review. I think we’re seeing it being rolled out. It’s not a ﬁnished process. Even when it’s announced, it’s still going to continue. I believe that they do deserve to take some time to think this over in great detail. But, what the administration has succeeded in doing in the few months it’s been in place is to change the atmospherics. That is absolutely critical, to make sure that there is an injection of trust into the atmosphere. Without that, you’re not going to get very far.
What I’m a little bit more concerned about is that the Iranians will probably see it this way — that there’s going to be a lot of nice statements from the United States, a lot of respectful talk, and in return there will be the expectation that Iran will do something to reciprocate. I suspect that that may not happen. Instead, the Iranians will reciprocate, as they have done, by using a lot of much more respectful rhetoric towards the United States, referring to the president of the United States as a noble person, et cetera. Perhaps the best way is to just get to the table quickly without demanding any signiﬁ cant actions beforehand. This is particularly important on the Iranian side, where there have recently been demands for some action from the Obama administration before they feel conﬁdent that this is a strategic endeavor that he is entering into. It would be a mistake, in my view, for Tehran to insist on that, to the extent that it actually becomes similar to the Bush administration, demanding preconditions for negotiations.
DR. KATZMAN: Some of these additional gestures are probably going to have to wait until after the Iran election of June 12. It is no secret in this town that the administration and ofﬁcial Washington would like to see a new face in the presidency of Iran. It is not our decision, but that is obviously the hope. Mr. Mousavi, who was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq War, has said ofﬁcially that he would like to end Iran’s isolation. If he were elected, I think ofﬁcial Washington would view that as a signal that the Iranian public would also like to end Iran’s isolation. That would then set the stage for additional roll-outs from the Obama administration.
AMB. PICKERING: The State Department is not a hotbed of inconsistency, so what you see is what you’re going to get. Secondly, the worst thing we could do in our own interest is to take a role in the Iranian election. We have so far — and I think wisely — scrupulously avoided engaging ourselves. I think it’s time to move things to ofﬁcial channels and see what can be delivered. This is basically what the supreme leader Khamenei has sort of said: We want to see what you’re prepared to do, and that’s where we ought to go.
I don’t think that there is a huge role for theatrics, dancers, news spin, but I think the president at critical times could help to keep things on track, as he has done very well with the Al-Arabiya interview and then with the Nowruz message. But that has to be very carefully paced. You do not want what I would call the public piece to get well out ahead of where you’re prepared to go in developing steps.
Q: A few months ago, another think tank in Washington, the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, published a paper — Dennis Ross was afﬁliated with them at the time at a very high level — about military action. It had an alarming thesis: Ignore all of these warnings from military people not to take out the nuclear program. It seemed to intersect with another military doctrine ﬂoating around, “effects-based” outcomes: use military action to modify behavior, not necessarily to achieve a speciﬁc military result. Some senior ﬂag-grade ofﬁcers have said this is really a bad idea. It didn’t work in Gaza, for example; Hamas is still there. Should the U.S. military continue to live by the national-strategy document of 2002, preemptive (or preventive) warfare?
GEN. NASH: I don’t think we have any evidence in the last decade that that policy was particularly successful in advancing the interests of the United States. I see no reason why using that policy in the future would be any more successful.
Q: Ambassador Pickering, you mentioned that Iran is a signiﬁcant player in the Arab-Israeli conﬂict. However, if the Palestinians didn’t feel the need to seek funding for their resistance in order to get Israel to comply with international law, like the ICJ, maybe Iran wouldn’t be such a big player. How important do you think it is for all countries, especially Israel, to comply with international law?
Second, for Mr. Mattair: You mentioned that, in 2006, Iran went to NATO and was denied requests for help in the Baluchistan area, though I read in a New Yorker article in July 2006 that President Bush had signed off on a $20 million covert-action plan to fund resistance in Baluchistan so that they could somehow destabilize the theocratic government.
AMB. PICKERING: I believe in international law, and I think the question speciﬁcally relates to settlements. The United States very wisely took the view many years ago that settlements were illegal under the prevailing conventions. The Israelis have a different view. I’ll allow you to obtain their explanation; I won’t give it. I still believe that that’s the case and that we should continue to push Israel hard on the settlements issue. It is signiﬁcant, but it’s not the end-all. We have to be careful not to end up with some deal on settlements and no deal on two states.
DR. MATTAIR: I think that Iran’s inﬂuence in the Palestinian areas will be diminished if there is an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. It’s the best way to defuse extremism throughout the region and the best way to limit Iran’s inﬂuence there. If there is no Arab-Israeli settlement, I think the Palestinian resistance may actually get more extreme, because you have non-Palestinian, Sunni Salaﬁ jihadists trying to go to the West Bank and Gaza to confront Israel.
On the other question, yes, the Bush administration authorized numerous covert operations inside Iran, aimed at gathering information about Iran’s nuclear programs and possibly for encouragement of ethnic separatist dissidents. The Obama administration has an Iran review underway, and I’m sure they’ll look at that. But with respect to Iran’s border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, that’s where the Sunni Baluchi live. That’s the reason Iran doesn’t control its border as well as it would need to in order to help stop the drug smuggling from Afghanistan and to stop the ﬂow of arms from Iran into Afghanistan.
Someone asked earlier, what would Iran look for in terms of concrete gestures from the United States? The United States just put a Kurdish group on the State Department’s terrorist list: the Kurdish Free Life Party (PJAK). There were rumors that they had been supported by Western powers. Now they’re on the State Department’s terrorist list. If the United States takes the same attitude toward the Jondallah, Abdulmalak Rigi’s Sunni Baluchi group, and puts them on a terrorist list and encourages everyone to desist from supporting them, that will help Iran gain control over its border and help us in Afghanistan — if they should want to.