AUSPC 2012: Iran – Policy Successes and Shortcomings
21st Annual Arab-US Policymakers Conference – AUSPC 2012
Friday, October 26, 2012
AMERICAN AND ARAB POLICY SUCCESSES AND SHORTCOMINGS REGARDING THE REGIONAL GEO-POLITICAL DYNAMICS OF IRAN
Dr. Thomas Mattair - Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council; former Research Scholar, Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research; author, The Three Occupied UAE Islands: The Tunbs and Abu Musa and Global Security Watch — Iran: A Reference Handbook.
Dr. Kenneth Katzman - Specialist in Middle East Affairs in the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.
Dr. Trita Parsi - Founder and President, National Iranian American Council; authorA Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran and Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States.
Mr. Alireza Nader – Senior Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation; author, Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry, The Next Supreme Leader: Succession in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and lead co-author, Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran.
Ms. Hillary Mann Leverett - Senior Professorial Lecturer of U.S. foreign policy, American University’s School of International Service; Visiting Scholar, Peking University’s School of International Studies; CEO, STRATEGA; co-author, The Race for Iran Blog; co-author, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Needs to Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic (forthcoming).
[Remarks as delivered]
[John Duke Anthony] We are privileged to have as the chair for this session Dr. Thomas Mattair. He’s the long time professional writer, researcher in this field. He’s also the Executive Director of the Middle East Policy Council. And the Middle East Policy Council as you may know puts out one of the foremost periodicals if not the foremost periodical on issues pertaining to the United States and the Arab world primarily but the larger Middle East and Islamic world as well.
He spent some time several years in the UAE as a researcher at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research and wrote a voluminous study of the issue of the three islands that are occupied by Iran and became occupied on December 1, 1971 with one of the three islands that the Iranians occupied was smaller than the ship or naval vessel that occupied it. So it’s been a controversial issue ever since within GCC circles and United Arab Emirates foreign policy circles.
Dr. Thomas Mattair.
[Dr. Thomas Mattair] Thank you very much John. I look forward to doing this and I appreciate the invitation. I especially look forward to it because I, as chairman don’t have to make formal remarks, that’s up to my panelists.
I think this is a very well chosen topic and a very well chosen panel, because we are about to have an election for the presidency. Whoever becomes president will have a number of important decisions to make and we should evaluate how successful we’ve been and what shortcomings need to be corrected.
The reason the panel was well chosen is you’re going to hear different points of view on these topics, and I won’t won’t take long but they obviously involve examination on whether diplomacy has advanced our objectives, whether the sanctions have advanced our objectives, if they have. Are we going to be intelligent in our diplomacy?
The defense sales and the security cooperation agreements we have with the GCC counties, have they been valuable in terms of deterring and containing Iran? And then in a larger sense, the intervention in Iraq. What impact did that have on Iran’s geopolitical position?
The current policy we have in Syria, where we seem to be attempting to limit their regional influence in the Arab world. Are we doing the right thing there? Are we doing not enough, or are we doing too much?
And I can’t end without mentioning Palestinian question because more often I hear the argument that the two state solution is dead and that’s a shame because if we’re going to negotiate with Iran, it might be intelligent to do more than just talk about the nuclear issue. It might be better to talk about the whole range of issues that are outstanding between us. And at one point in time, Iran indicated willingness to talk about Israeli-Palestinian issues and indicated an interest in the two state formula proposed by King Abdullah, at that time he was Crown Prince Abdullah, and if it’s too late I think it makes agreements on all the regional issues that are of concern to Iran a lot more difficult.
And then of course there’s war. Hard to evaluate now, beforehand, but we have a number of studies that they’re looking at the costs and benefits of war and the costs are significant. I would like to mention one study that I think adds something that hasn’t been done by other studies and that’s a study by Khosrow Semnani from the University of Utah which is called the “Nuclear Ayatollahs” [The Ayatollah’s Gamble: The Human Cost of Military Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities] which details the human casualties that will occur if there’s a war, from the blast, from the heat from the toxic chemical fumes from the radioactivity, on both sides of the Gulf, and that is something you don’t hear much about in Washington.
So without further ado, I’ll introduce the panel. I think we’re going to have Alireza Nader speak first and I’ll introduce each one, as they’re ready to speak. He’s a Senior Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. He’s the lead co-author of Coping With a Nuclearizing Iran. He’s also written about Israel and Iran, which Trita Parsi has also written about, and about succession in the Islamic Republic. Before coming to the RAND Corporation he was a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis and he’s actually a graduate of the Malone program from the National Council of US-Arab Relations. So Alireza.
[Alireza Nader] Good afternoon, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you on a very important topic that is indeed in the news these days quite often. I’m going to talk about the effect of the Arab Spring on the Islamic Republic and it’s power in the region and also talk about the effect of sanctions and the effectiveness of US policy toward Iran.
Sanctions have hit Iran at a very terrible time for the Islamic Republic, at a time when Tehran’s regional influence is in decline. And if you remember a few years ago Iran was really ascendant in the region. Some analysts and commentators spoke of Iran as a regional superpower. The Iranian regime claimed that it was a key security actor in the Persian Gulf in the region and this is really due to the US invasion of Iraq and Iran’s empowerment in its western neighbor of course.
After Saddam Hussein, Shia parties and Kurdish parties with friendly ties to Iran took power in Iraq and Iran’s power in Iraq expanded significantly. And Saddam Hussein had served as a bulwark to Iranian influence in the region and he was gone. One key debate right now is how powerful is Iran in Iraq and it is indeed powerful.
Also Iran’s influence in Afghanistan has increased since the overthrow of the Taliban. The Islamic Republic played a key role in the establishment of the Karzai government and it is a very powerful regional actor especially in western Afghanistan.
In 2006 Hezbollah and Israel fought a war, a relatively short war, but it had very important implications. Hezbollah managed to stand up to Israel’s military might and a lot of the Arabs in the region perceived Hezbollah as having won the war. Of course it wasn’t necessarily a technical military win, but in some ways it was a psychological, political, military win for Hezbollah. Not a lot of Arab armies have managed to perform as well since 1973 against Israel. And of course Iran’s ally, Palestinian ally, Hamas managed to take over the Gaza strip.
So this demonstrated that Iran’s championing of the resistance front against Israel was successful and combined with successes in Iraq for Iran. Iran was in some ways the ascendant power in the Middle East. You could accurately describe it as such.
But things that really changed in the last few years and it really all started in 2009 with the Iranian presidential election and then soon protests. The regime’s harsh crackdown against the protestors, which included executions, torture, rape, summary executions, running people down in the streets, this really damaged the regime’s credibility in the region and this was an event that was widely televised in the Middle East.
A lot of Arabs actually that I talked to at that time were inspired by the Green Movement in Iran because they saw Iranians as going into the streets and challenging an authoritarian government. I had my Arab friends tell me that Arabs should be dynamic and energetic like the Iranians in 2009. Of course the regime in Tehran still stands today for a variety of reasons that I won’t have time to get into. But that was an indication in 2009 that the Islamic Republic was in trouble and it’s behavior demonstrated that it lacks legitimacy in Iran and across the region.
So the 2009 demonstrations really damaged the Islamic Republic’s credentials as a force of resistance and supporter of the downtrodden in the region. The Arab Spring has made things a lot worse for the Islamic Republic namely, due to Tehran’s support for the Bashar al Assad regime in Syria. Iran has welcomed the other uprisings in the region, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, because the Iranian leadership saw those uprisings as really hurting US power and influence in the region, specifically, the leadership of the Islamic Republic had been waiting for Hosni Mubarak to be overthrown for decades. He was one of their primary enemies in the region, competitor, and a bulwark to Iranian influence in the region.
And so the Iranian leadership portrayed the Arab uprisings as a victory. Ayatollah Khamenei the Supreme Leader in Iran has claimed that the Arab’s were inspired by Iran’s own Islamic Revolution in 1979. Interestingly the head of the Green Movement, the symbolic head of the Green Movement, Mir-Hossein Mousavi who’s under house arrest actually claimed that, “No the Arab’s weren’t inspired by Iran’s revolution in 1979 but by the 2009 protest.”
Regardless, the regime’s actions in Syria have done a tremendous damage because it is viewed as being on the wrong side of history. Not just by Arab’s necessarily but Iranians as well. As you know, the regime in Syria has killed tens of thousands of people and Iran has effectively abetted the Syrian regime’s crackdown on brutal treatment of the insurgency. And it’s not that the Iranian leadership doesn’t view Iran’s policies uniformly. There have been figures in Iran within the political elite that have questioned Iran’s approach. They realize that if Bashar al-Assad falls, Iran will lose all if not most of it’s influence in Syria and the Levant and Syria is Iran’s gateway of influence in the Arab world.
So the stakes are high and Iran’s inflexibility on the issue has been opened to debate in Iran, but again Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei is reported to have said that Syria is our front line in the fight against the United States and we’re not going to back down in Syria because if we back down in Syria we’ll be next. So we can’t really expect a lot of flexibility in Iran’s policy toward Syria. We can expect the Iranian regime, especially the revolutionary guards to support Bashar al-Assad as much as they can.
In addition, despite the Islamic Republic’s claims that the Arab Spring had been beneficial for it, we see that in Egypt this is not necessarily the case. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a Sunni Islamist party with very different views of regional policies. The Egyptian President Morsi was in Tehran recently for the non aligned movement meeting and there was a lot of worry that him going to Tehran would indicate that Iran was not as isolated as the US had imagined it to be or wanted it to be, that Morsi’s meeting with Iranian officials indicated that Iran is an important regional player.
Of course what did Morsi do during the conference? He actually embarrassed his Iranian hosts. He criticized the regime of Bashar al-Assad and implicitly criticized the Iranian regime for its support of Syria. And this was an embarrassment for the Iranian leadership to the point that they changed the translation on television. He criticized Syria and Iranian television said “Bahrain.” So, trying to save face basically.
But we’ve seen that Egypt is not necessarily going to follow Iran’s policies in the region. In fact the Egyptians have kept their distance from Tehran. They have not resumed relations yet and there’s a lot of tension between the two countries on some issues.
In addition, Turkey has emerged as an important competitor to Iranian influence in the region. Any issue you look at, whether it’s the Palestinian issue, Syria, Iraq, Turkey is competing with Iran. The competition is not kinetic; they’re not fighting it out. They’re cooperating economically still. The Turks are in principal opposed to sanctions against Iran to solve the nuclear crisis but there’s a lot of competition between the two counties.
Hamas has distanced itself from Syria and Damascus and recently the Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal was in Turkey and he said to the Prime Minister Erdogn, “You are not only the leader of Turkey but you are one of the leaders of the Muslim world.” And this goes to show how much Iran’s axis of resistance which has included Hamas is being weakened.
Now onto sanctions. As you know, sanctions that had a disastrous effect on the Iranian economy and in large part this is due to the Iranian government’s own mismanagement and dysfunction, specifically the Ahmadinejad administration’s handling of the economy. But sanctions have abetted the economic situation and exacerbated it. The Rial, the currency has depreciated by 90 percent in the last year, middle income Iranians are hurting, it’s hard to put food on their tables. The entire country is really suffering because of sanctions but also really because of the Islamic Republic’s policies and mismanagement. And sanctions have raised the cost on Iran’s nuclear pursuit.
We often talk about that sanctions haven’t been successful, that we haven’t seen any signs that Iran is rolling back its nuclear program. Well I would argue not yet perhaps but sanctions have raised the cost of Iran’s nuclear weaponization if it chooses to go that direction.
Ayatollah Khamenei had traditionally dismissed sanctions but recently he said sanctions are brutal and so the regime is under a lot of pressure. We saw in recent weeks Iranians come out in the streets to protest against the regime. And it wasn’t just the bazaar in action against Ahmadinejad specifically. These are ordinary people in Iran who are protesting against the government. And their chant was, leave Syria alone, think of us. Demonstrating that Iran’s regional policies are not necessarily popular among the Iranians because they realize the costs of Iran’s nuclear pursuit and support for the Bashar al-Assad regime. And frankly Iranians don’t want their government to support Bashar al-Assad, that brutal dictator in the region.
Sanctions have also the effect of weakening Iran’s influence in the region. Iran will have a harder time funding Syria, groups like Hamas, Hezbollah. And this may be one of their reasons actually Hamas is distancing itself from Tehran. Tehran is no longer able to fund Hamas and some of the other Palestinian groups as effectively.
Now of course sanctions are not a magic bullet, they’re not a silver bullet; they’re not a magic solution. They have to be coupled with engagement with the Islamic Republic and there are indications that Tehran is serious about coming to the table and it has been serious actually for several months. There’ve been indications that it wants to discuss and perhaps even resolve the nuclear crisis.
I would argue that preceding the latest sanctions against Iran and their effects, that when the P5+1, the UN Security Council, and Germany sat down to talk to Iran, there was a problem of sequencing. Iran wants P5+1 to recognize it’s right to enrich uranium and lift sanctions, whereas P5+1 wants Iran to build confidence to undertake measures that show our international community that Tehran is serious about compromising on the nuclear program.
Because if you think about it, it’s much easier for Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20%. It’s much easier for Iran to stop building the Fordo facility, which is buried underneath a mountain. It’s easier for Iran to open up some of the sites including Parchin, a suspected military nuclear weapons site to international inspections. It is much harder, however, to lift sanctions that the United States and its allies have spent years and years building. So right now we find ourselves in an advantageous position, vis a vis the Islamic republic. The equation has changed. Iran is not the ascendant power in the Middle East.
There’s one thing however that can set that back and that’s a military conflict with Iran. An Israeli attack against Iran could roll back some of these achievements. It could destroy the sanctions coalition that has been built against Iran. It could have a rally around the flag effect in Iran and really enhance the regime’s popularity amongst one of its core constituents and it could lead to an increase in popularity among the Arab populations regarding Iran.
So at this point the best solution is to not necessarily solve all our problems with Islamic Republic because I think as long as Ayatollah Khamenei and the current system is in power we can’t have a final solution regarding any issue that we face with Iran. But to really diffuse the nuclear crisis for now and let the events take their course because in the long term the trends are in the favor of the United States and for those who seek democracy in Iran. Thank you.
[Mattair] I’d like to ask Hillary Mann Leverett to speak next. She is Senior Professorial Lecturer of U.S. Foreign Policy at American University’s School of International Service. She has a new book coming out called, Going to Tehran: Why the United States Needs to Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic, she’s the CEO of STRATEGA consultancy which analyzes international decision making and she’s a co-author of www.raceforIran and also, you have a bio here that you can read, but Hillary also has extensive service in the US government National Security Council Policy Planning staff, was one of the few American diplomats empowered to negotiate with Iran in 2001 and 2002, Afghanistan and other issues. So we have a person with some firsthand knowledge here.
[Hillary Mann Leverett] Thank you very much. Thank you Dr. Mattair for such a kind introduction and to Dr. John Duke Anthony for inviting me to this very important conference. It’s good to see some friends here and some students of mine from American University. Thank you again for having me.
Fifty years ago this month, the United States faced perhaps the defining challenge of the Cold War in the Cuban missile crisis. Today some say we’re facing a similar defining test of US foreign policy in how we deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran. In this context, it’s striking to recall the words of then President John F Kennedy. He warned us as Americans that the great enemy of truth is very often not the lie — deliberate, contrived and dishonest — but the myth — persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often President Kennedy said, we hold fast to our clichés. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
Today I’m going to challenge you to step away from what may be the comfort of your opinion because I think President Kennedy’s warning applies very much today to how we talk about the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For over 30 years we in the United States particularly here in Washington have put forward a series of myths about the Islamic Republic of Iran. That it’s irrational, illegitimate and vulnerable. And in so doing, we have consistently misled the American public and our allies about what policies will work to roll back and contain the Islamic Republic of Iran.
From the beginning Americans treated Iran’s revolution in 1978-1979 as a major surprise. But the only reason it was a surprise was official Washington’s denial of the Iranian people’s growing demand for an independent political order free from American domination. For over 30 years the Islamic Republic has defied constant predictions of its collapse and defeat. But American policy elites still put forward myths about the Islamic Republic that ignore or in fact contradict basic forces driving political life inside the Islamic Republic with the idea that if we just believed these myths enough, if we just believed, we’d see how to deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The most persistent and I would argue dangerous myth put out there is the depiction of the Islamic Republic as a system so despised by its own population it is in imminent danger of overthrow, a vulnerability that in the prevailing view here in Washington can be exploited by the United States and our allies. Today this idea comes out in two interlocking arguments.
The first is that sanctions are working and the second is that the Arab Awakening has left the Islamic Republic isolated in its very own neighborhood. With sanctions supposedly working, some policy elites argue that Iranians will rise up to force fundamental political change inside the Islamic Republic and force their government to make concessions. Those who make this argument should tell us how Iran’s economy now, today is so much worse than it was in the 1980s when the GDP in the Islamic Republic lost half its value. Half its value. And the population did not rise up then to force fundamental political change or concessions to hostile foreign powers.
Those who say that sanctions are or will work should also point to any precedent, any precedent, anywhere where a population rose up because of sanctions to overthrow its government and replace it with one that would adopt policies of the sanctioning foreign power. They should explain why even after crippling sanctions on Iraq, for ten years, over ten years, that killed over one million Iraqis, half of whom were children, that the Iraqis didn’t rise up to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That only happened because of the US invasion of Iraq.
But even after the US invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government, even then Iraqis did not set up a pro-American, secular, liberal government, that was willing to cede some of its sovereign rights to a foreign power. Some claim it’s all different now with the Islamic Republic, because the Arab Awakening’s demonstration effect will work together with sanctions to finally break the back of the Islamic Republic. But this ignores the fact that the Islamic Republic sees the Arab Awakening as hugely positive for it, hugely positive.
Iranian policymakers and analysts believe that any Arab government, any Arab government, that becomes at all more representative of its populations beliefs, concerns, and policy preferences will by definition be less enthusiastic about strategic cooperation with the United States let alone with Israel and more open to Iran’s message of foreign policy independence.
What policy elites here miss is the Islamic Republic does not need governments to be more pro-Iranian. That’s not what they need. They just need these governments to be less pro-American, less pr- Israel, and more independent.
But you often hear in Washington in particular that the Arab Awakening means that Iran is going to lose Syria, it’s only Arab ally, or as candidate Romney said evidently without looking at a map, Iran’s only outlet to the sea. This reflects how it is American elites not those sitting in Tehran who are in denial about basic political trends in the Middle East let alone basic geography. While the Islamic Republic does not believe that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will be overthrown by Syrians the key point is that even a post Assad government would not be pro-American or pro-Israeli and it even may be less keen on keeping the border with Israel quiet. And unless a post Assad government were Taliban-like, Syrian’s foreign policy will be just fine for the Islamic Republic.
Even more significantly, Americans have a hard time coming to terms with the fact that today Iran’s most important Arab ally is not Syria. It’s Iraq. The first Shia led Arab state in history. It’s Iraq. But we never mention that. The United States cannot come to terms with the facts today that for the first time one of American’s key regional pillars, Egypt, is in play strategically. It doesn’t mean they have to become pro-Iranian, they’re just in play. They’re no longer reflexively pro-American. Iranian military ships for the first time in 30 years can go through Suez. Iran doesn’t need Syria anymore.
American elites have a very hard time coming to terms with these facts and an even harder time coming to terms with the reality that the Arab awakening is accelerating the erosion of American standing and position in the Middle East, not Iran’s. But rather than face this reality Americans embrace, particularly elites here in Washington, embrace the logic-defying proposition that the same drivers of political change empowering Islamists in Arab countries will somehow transform the Islamic Republic into a secular, liberal state. It is a logic-defying proposition. Still reality is what it is.
On the eve of 9/11, just over 10 years ago, every Middle Eastern government, every single one, was either pro-American, in negotiations to become pro-American or anti Iranian. Every single one. Today the balance of power has turned decisively in Iran’s favor and not because they have fired a single shot, not a single shot. But because of elections. Elections that have empowered people in their own countries. So in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Turkey, in Egypt, in Gaza, in Tunisia and Lebanon, Iran is dealing with governments today not just compared to 10 years ago but compared to two years ago that are no longer reflectively pro-American or anti-Iranian.
That is a huge boost to Iran’s strategic position no matter how you look at it. Still some commentators argue that the sanctions and the Arab awakening somehow will force the Islamic Republic to make concessions that the United States and Israel have demanded of it. The main flaw with this argument isn’t even the Iraq example that sanctions and isolation never led to any change in Iraqi decision making. It’s not even the fact that there is no basis in the history of the Islamic Republic for making any kind of concessions of these sorts. The main flaw is that what is put forward as evidence of imminent Iranian concessions is not new.
Unlike others in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic or Iran at the time was an early signatory of the NPT, of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. And the Islamic Republic has been willing to negotiate with the United States and others about their concerns over Iran’s nuclear program as long as Iran wouldn’t have to concede its internationally recognized sovereign and treaty rights. The Islamic Republic negotiated with what was called the EU3 at the time, France Britain, and Germany, in the early 2000s to suspend its three percent, three percent, enrichment activities and did so for nearly two years.
Later the Islamic Republic negotiated with Brazil and Turkey to in effect suspend its 20 percent enrichment activities. But it was the United States not the Islamic Republic that rejected the negotiated outcomes of those talks. Still, Tehran continues to be open to a more comprehensive deal regarding its nuclear program. But again, as long as the United States accepts Iran’s right to pursue internationally safe guarded uranium enrichment on its own territory. In this regard, the nuclear issue is actually quite simple. If the United States accepts Iran’s right to pursue internationally safe guarded enrichment on its own territory, there could be a deal. A deal with intrusive verification and monitoring and possibly limits on Iran’s 20 percent enrichment activities.
But the key problem here is that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before, it refuses to acknowledge clearly Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil. Even if the Obama administration and there are rumors that they’re thinking about doing this after they’re elected, were to offer Iran a bigger carrot as if the Iranians were donkeys and a final shot of diplomacy, there is no indication that the Obama administration is willing to clearly recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own soil. And therefore there wont be a deal.
Even if there’s no deal and Iran doesn’t collapse, some policy elites continue to posit that sanctions and their version of diplomacy is all worth it. It’s worth it in the end because Iranians, Middle Eastern publics, and Americans most importantly will come to see that Iran’s suffering and inability to get a deal on the nuclear issue is the Iranian government’s fault. And therefore it will be understandable and even justified for the United States in the end to strike Iran militarily.
But we should have no illusions about the strategic consequences of an overt war with the Islamic Republic. Any new overt use of US force to disarm yet another Middle Eastern state of weapons of mass destruction that it does not have, while staying quiet about Israel’s 200 plus nuclear weapons arsenal would elevate already high levels of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, threaten our remaining allies there, and render their cooperation with the United States practically impossible. And US military action against the Islamic Republic would have no international legitimacy, no UN Security Council authorization, and no allies but Israel and maybe, I stress, maybe, the UK. If you were reading the press this morning of their latest legal opinion.
The larger part of the international community and remember 120 of the UN’s 193 member states are part of the non-aligned movement who voted to have the Islamic Republic of Iran as their chair. And they’re already on record as saying that they would consider an attack illegal and that would ratify American’s image as an outlaw superpower.
This is really important today compared to even a few years ago. Because a few years ago the United States was still an unchallenged superpower and other country’s views mattered less. And today they matter more, including Iran’s views. They matter more. And herein lies the real challenge nobody in Washington has faced. How do we work with, with, an Islamic Republic of Iran or even in Egypt for that matter, acting to promote its interests as it sees them as an independent country, not as many in Washington wish it to be.
Thank you very much for your attention.
[Mattair] Thank you, Hillary. Our next speaker is Dr. Trita Parsi, who is the Founder and President of the National Iranian American Council, NIAC, and that is a focal component of dialogue and engagement between US and Iran. And Dr. Parsi is the author of an award-winning book called, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States, published in 2007. And has a new book this year called the Single Roll of the Dice – Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran, both from the Yale University Press. I should say that all these panelists are also quoted in the major media frequently so that’s another thing. I don’t mention about each one at a time, but all of them.
[Trita Parsi] Thank you so much. It’s a great pleasure being here. I think it’s going to be quite an interesting Q&A following this. I’m going to cut my talks perhaps a little bit short and just go on to some of the most important points and then leave as much as possible for the discussion afterwards. The panel asks what ways have the United States or the GCC been able to get closer to some of its objectives and have effective policies vis a vis Iran.
It’s a good question because it reminds us to ask ourselves what are the objectives? And the objectives that often times are talked about tend to be micro objectives, very tactical, and we tend to forget the larger strategic picture. And if we take a look at the larger strategic picture, for instance making sure that Iran does not get close to nuclear weapons capability, having a two state solution that is feasible, to have stability in the region in the Persian Gulf, it’s difficult to make the argument that over the last 10 years we’ve walked particularly closer to any one of those objectives.
Now in the case of the United States and Iran, rather than a conversation about what the balance is, who’s winning right now or losing right now, I would just make a presentation on why I think this problem that is frankly imminently resolvable has just become more and more difficult over the last couple of years. And I think its largely because from both sides, I’m simplifying perhaps a bit now, pursuing a perpetual policy of escalation. Both sides have a policy in which the major component the main central component is on pressure. And by pursuing this pressure policy there’s the constant, endless search, for a game changer for something that enables one side to either force onto the other a deal that it otherwise would not accept or frankly just make sure that the other side capitulates.
And in this search for this game changer, what I think by now should be clear is that even though both sides at times have been quite successful in achieving something that has at least marginally changed the game and certainly put a lot of pressure on the other side, it has not had the discipline to translate that into a bargaining strength at the negotiating table and cash it in for the type of the deal that nevertheless would be quite attractive for it.
Every time either side has managed to score such a point what has happened is that it has been struck by winner’s curse. As one major effort starts to pay off, rather than going back and trying to see if we can get a better deal, both sides have become a little bit greedy and ask themselves why don’t we just do this a little bit longer and see what else we can get. We’re facing that right now here in Washington, I would make the argument.
There is a perception that these sanctions have been tremendously successful. I would definitely make the argument that they have put a tremendous amount of pain on the Iranian side. And the minute the stories started to come out in the New York Times and Washington Post that the Iranian economy is indeed in great trouble, the goalpost tended to shift a little bit. Now it was no longer about getting them back to the table or getting a deal, but now more and more open question marks were raised about can this actually lead to regime change? Can we just have it all for a couple of months and see what else we can get?
As that happens, the interest of the suffering party then decreases to engage in negotiations as well because then the negotiations then become a negotiation for the terms of its capitulation. And instead they intensify their search for the next game changer. Something that will once again be able to turn the tables and find an exit way from the very precarious situation that they’re in right now.
Look what happened after the talks collapsed in 2010 and 2009, the Iranians started enrichment at the 20 percent level. There were question marks, significant question marks in the Western end whether the Iranians would actually succeed in doing this. They managed to do it. The West imposes sanctions on the Iranians hoping that would change the nature of the relationship or the negotiations, it didn’t. Once they got to Istanbul to negotiate, instead the Iranians significantly increased their demands putting preconditions for talks, saying essentially all sanctions need to be lifted in order to have any conversation about the nuclear issue.
Instead the talks collapsed, we go back to the table, and then the west manages to get its game changer which is through the help of Saudi Arabia, a lot of pressure of the Europeans and others, all sanctions have been imposed on the Iranians. Economic pain is inflicted on them in a manner that has not happened for quite some time and they truly are suffering in many different ways. And at this moment, then the question is, can this then lead to a situation in which we can translate this into a negotiating benefit or whether we will once again perhaps become a bit too greedy and hope that it can achieve more. In the meantime the Iranians will have time to find some sort of a game changer. And if you just take a look at what is happening in the media right now, there seems to be an effort on the Iranian side to start hitting back in a way that perhaps wasn’t the case a year and a half ago.
Whether it is cyber warfare against Saudi Arabia. Whether it is flying drones over Israel. Or other things that are happening. We are not seeing any indications not yet and I would argue as I will in a couple of seconds, it is highly unlikely that we will see a measure from the Iranian side that would be anything resembling the capitulation that I think increasingly seems to be demanded in Washington.
Just keep in mind what came out in the New York Times I think it was yesterday or today. That they are proceeding relatively fast to finish the Fordo plant. By that, they’re getting closer and closer to the Israeli “red line” but they’re not moving closer to the American “red line.” They’re expanding their program, exasperating the tensions that already exist between the United States and Israel without doing anything that gives any excuse on the American side to say that they’re getting closer to the American “red line.”
These are not the actions of an entity that seems to be just about to capitulate. Now one can raise the question but for how long can the Iranians tolerate this amount of economic pressure? Things inside of the country are definitely becoming very difficult. The main elements inside the country that are suffering are the middle class, and the middle class tends to not be supportive of the regime in the first place.
The regime itself has put in place several different programs to shift the pain of the economic mismanagement as well as the sanctions to be borne by the middle class rather than by the lower classes, and the lower classes tend to be the backbone of their support.
Some of the theory behind the idea that this type of pressure eventually will bring the Iranians to a situation in which they would have to accept Western demands is summed up by saying the Iranians don’t cave under pressure, they only cave under immense pressure. And the analogy then is to point to what happened in 1989. When Khomeini after, for years, having said that there would be war, war, war until victory finally had to concede and accept the UN resolution that put an end to the war, something that he likened to drinking a cup of poison.
So we have to recreate that scenario in order to get the Iranians to accept the demands. That is the proposition as such, the theory behind it. Now beyond the moral questions of the collective punishment that these sanctions are bringing on to a population in Iran that I think has made it quite clear that they would like to see a different political order. There are several differences between what we’re seeing today and what existed in 1989 that I think renders it quite unlikely that this strategy will end up becoming the type of a game changer that I think it’s intended to be. 1989 Khomeini accepted drinking the cup of poison. He did so because he knew exactly what would happen if he did. If he drank that cup of poison the war would end, there was no question mark about it. Is that the proposition that’s put in front of the Iranians right now? I don’t think that’s clear at all. If the Iranians were to capitulate right now I don’t think they’d have a clue as to what they would get, or not get.
In the conversations there has been discussions that perhaps down the road maybe enrichment on Iranian soil can be accepted. Perhaps at some point, we don’t know when, some of the sanctions, not specifying which, could be lifted. Without that type of clarity of what it is you actually want to get if you capitulate, it is not particularly rational to expect them to do so.
Secondly, to president Obama’s credit, he is no Saddam Hussein. Which means that when Saddam Hussein made a decision, you either agree with it or you would die if you were inside the Iraqi political establishment. Saddam did not have to deal with a pesky congress nor did he have to deal with an Israeli prime minister. As a result, the Iranians had confidence that Saddam had the strength to live up to his end of the bargain. That is not the perception that the Iranians have rightly or wrongly about President Obama.
Can President Obama promise the lifting of sanctions mindful of the fact that most of the sanctions that really are hurting the Iranians have gone through Congress and only can be lifted if there’s a Congressional decision? Can anyone here remember the last time Congress lifted sanctions in a relatively swift manner? Moreover, the principal that was established in the negotiations was the principal of reciprocity, the idea that any reverse civil concession from the Western end had to be matched by a reversible concession from the Iranian end. Anything reversible from the US end had to be matched by an irreversible concession from the Iranian end. The conversations about sanctions that should be lifted or could be lifted at least in the short run have mostly centered around what sanctions waivers the president could use, which is then ultimately reversible.
In fact they would probably have to be renewed every 6 months or so. And then there would be a new president at some point in the United States and there’s no clarity or guarantee whatsoever that that president would respect the previous decision. These are some of the challenges that I think are faced in the negotiations.
If there is a window of opportunity however, after November 7th up until the Iranian New Year, if President Obama wins, there is going to be an opportunity to move very quickly for negotiations. In fact one meeting has already been scheduled. This would be an opportune time because it is right at a moment in which Obama’s political capital and maneuverability will be at its maximum. The Iranians will be right before entering their new year and then after that their election season which they would once again be politically paralyzed. And if that opportunity can be utilized it will be very interesting to see, do both sides have the discipline? Both sides claim that their winning and they’re doing great. They all have their rhetoric and talking points as to why the Arab Spring has been fantastic for them. But do they have the ability and the discipline to go to the negotiating table and translate whatever strength it is they have into a strong negotiating position and then change that strength into an actually deal.
I suspect if we don’t see something, obviously I don’t think there’ll be an end deal at all before the Iranian New Year in March, but if there isn’t any progress before or during this period, it’s going to be quite questionable at what moment it can be achieved again. Because then the political circus on both sides are going to start again and negotiations are going to once again become the victim of domestic politics.
Thanks so much.
[Mattair] Dr. Kenneth Katzman has agreed to be the discussant. He’ll be commenting on these presentations. He’s a specialist with the Congressional Research Service, he’s a senior Middle East analyst for the US Congress, provides reports and briefings to members of the Congress and their staffs. He’s also served at various times at the majority staff of the House International Relations Committee and is the author of a number of books and articles and is very well known analyst here in Washington.
So Kenneth I give it to you.
[Kenneth Katzman] Thank you very much and first let me say all my comments are in my personal capacity rather than as a congressional person. I do have a few comments of my own and then we’ll get into discussion.
To Trita’s comments, though, I would like to say that sanctions on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya were all lifted within about one year of the fall of the regimes that were concerned there. So I think if you look into the way sanctions work, and I’ve done a lot of work on this, many of you have seen my Iran sanctions report for Congress, I’m sure, the Administration and the Executive Branch still have quite a bit of discretion as far as lifting sanctions or easing sanctions should it come to that.
I just want to say the fundamental principal, just a few comments, mainly on sanctions, effective sanctions. The fundamental principle of US policy toward Iran is to compel the leadership to choose between forging an acceptable compromise on its nuclear program or essentially going broke.
We are now getting a real world test of that proposition. Iran is on its way to going broke. Its oil exports are now below 900,000 barrels a day, a drop of more than 60% of its 2011 average of about 2.5 million barrels per day.
Oman which has six or seven million people, so maybe 10% of the population of Iran is exporting 700,000 barrels a day. So if Iran falls much further, which is likely, in the next few months, it will exporting less oil than any single Gulf state other than Bahrain. And if you add up the populations of all the Gulf states, it is still only about maybe 40% or so the population of Iran. Iran’s production of oil has fallen to 2.6 million barrels down from about four million barrels per day in previous years.
There is virtually no new investment in Iran’s energy sector except by Iranian firms themselves. International firms have pulled out in droves, not only investors but also suppliers of basic parts, equipment and services, due to not only US but also European Union, Japanese, South Korean, and other sanctions. The net effect is that Iran has become a marginal player in the international oil industry and if the current trajectory continues it is on its way to being nearly eliminated as a player in that industry entirely.
However, the effective sanctions on Iran’s energy sector will make it harder for Iran to return to it’s position in the industry if there is a nuclear deal and if the international community then wants to then ease sanctions. The energy sanctions are taking a severe toll on Iran’s economy. Everyone is aware of the plummeting value of the Riyal. I tend to look a little more closely, I try to look at their hard currency reserves and it’s my understanding that those reserves have fallen to about S70 billion from a level of about $105 billion at the end of 2011.
Trita talked about the proverbial cup of poison that Ayatollah Khomeini drank in 1988. I also have some reference to that. He accepted that advice to end the war, to give up on the idea of war, a war until victory against Iraq because all of his advisors basically went to him at once and said war until victory is not achievable. This is too high a cost. We need to cut our losses. I believe we are getting close to the point where critical mass of Ayatollah Khamenei, Sayyed ali Khamenei’s advisors are going to come to him and tell him that the sanctions are extracting too high a cost and that there needs to be a compromise on the nuclear issue. Still, Khamenei has shown himself to be highly inflexible even more so than Ayatollah Khomeini.
To compare it to Saddam. Saddam Hussein when faced when international sanctions of this magnitude accepted the UN Oil for Food program that allowed to get him back to pre-sanctions level of oil exports of about 2.5 million barrels a day. Although of course he did not control the revenue from those sales. Khamenei is now down to 900,000 barrels per day in exports so one could even argue that Khamenei is less flexible than Saddam Hussein was when faced with a similar situation. And I see no evidence whatsoever that the great Supreme Leader cares one wit about the economic situation of his people. Not one wit more than Saddam Hussein did. His economic managers seem to be doing their best and they are trying hard to shield the poorest and the least capable Iranians from the effective sanctions but their strategies are likely to only go so far as these sanctions begin to set Iran’s economic engine down.
Ultimately the way out of this situation is for Khamenei to care about his population and take the way out that he’s been offered and has not accepted to date. That said, having observed and studied his decision making over many years, I’m skeptical that we will see a change of heart from this font of wisdom and brilliance and light that Khamenei is, anytime soon.
Now just a few points on Hillary Mann’s presentation. I found it interesting the comment that Iran doesn’t really care if Assad falls or they can manage if Assad falls. Well if that’s true, why are they fighting so hard to keep him in power? So I’d think there’s a little bit of a contradiction in that statement. I would also say that they have sent Pasdaran Revolutionary Guard Quds forces to Syria. The Quds forces will not be decisive in keeping, the Quds force that are helping Assad will not keep him in power. He is going to fall. It’s just a matter of time. The Quds force are light infantry. Assad does not need more light infantry. He needs heavy weapons. These heavy weapons are being degraded daily. Once his heavy weapons are denuded, he is going to collapse. I think that’s a given.
I also would take issue the idea that somehow the region is shifting toward Iran’s position. That’s very interesting to me because Khamenei and his advisors calculated that the regional governments would not cooperate with US international sanctions but since then they’ve been absolutely shocked at the degree to which the region has cooperated with the United States and with international sanctions. The countries and the leaders they thought might stand with them have actually distanced themselves and abandoned Iran entirely and that’s why the sanctions are working as well as they are.
And I think the idea that somehow the regional governments are going shed a tear if there were a confrontation between the United States and Iran over the nuclear, if the United States did strike. And of course I’m not advocating, very few people would advocate a strike, but if it did come to that, I really doubt that hardly anybody in the region would shed a single tear over it.
I do not think you’re going to see mass demonstrations in the region arguing that Iran has been wronged, Iran is the victim here. Any such strike would come after much due diligence, many more talks, and many more opportunities for Iran to take a compromise. And the idea that Iran is somehow going to be hailed if there is a strike, it really contradicts what even a cursory read of these statements from the Persian Gulf leaders would say.
So in conclusion, I suppose I’m not overly optimistic but I would say that the United States and its partners have offered Iran a way out. I think these offers have been genuine, well thought out. I think they’re not maximalists, they’re not I think as Trita says trying to change the regime. If the regime accepts the deal on the table I believe there would be a deal that would lead, as Mrs. Clinton has said, to a quick easing of sanctions and I think the solution is for Iran to find a way to accept the deal that is on offer.
[Mattair] Thank you. We have some good questions here but let me ask if anyone wants to comment on this. Because the title is “American and Arab Policy Successes and Shortcomings,” and people emphasized US policy.
Does anyone want to comment on what the GCC countries think about American policy in the region in terms of its containment of Iran. For example, it seems to me that they’re generally satisfied with defense cooperation and have accepted and cooperated on sanctions but they have considerable concerns about war and considerable concerns about the consequences of Iraq and what our policy is in Syria and certainly Palestine. So would anyone like to comment about that?
[Nader] I’ll go first if you don’t mind. So I think part of Iran’s failure is isolating itself from its neighbors as Ken said, particularly the GCC states. Under Ahmadinejad since 2005 the Islamic Republic has done a lot to scare everybody in the region through its nuclear pursuits but a range of other actions. When you look at Iranian policy before Ahmadinejad there was a tendency to seek some sort of cordial working relationship with the GCC states including Saudi Arabia especially Saudi Arabia. For example, Rafsanjani really tried to ease some of the tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Khatami followed a much more conciliatory policy towards Saudi Arabia and the GCC states. Of course the historic and ideological tensions between the two sides never went away but Ahmadinejad has managed to really exacerbate tensions with the GCC states through his rhetoric but really through his actions as well.
So when you look at Iranian policy in the last several years, especially since 2005, it has had a lot of failures. And Iran finds itself in the situation it is in because it has managed to drive the GCC states into US arms.
[Leverett] I think the critical issue, there’s a tendency to put a lot of blame, importance on Iran’s President Ahmadinejad but the critical strategic game change that happened in the past 10 years that I think sent shockwaves through the GCC and has really changed the geopolitics and geo-economics was the US invasion of Iraq, and essentially the complete overhaul of the political order in Iraq to become a Shia-led Arab state.
This is something that I think in particular our Saudi friends have not even really begun to grapple with. It is something that has changed fundamental politics, fundamental economics. It means that Iran is no longer dependent on Dubai. It has a huge, huge trading partner in Iraq. It means not only Iraq, but Afghanistan. Today, two years ago members of Congress thought they could have legislation that would cripple Iran because they would cut off Iran’s gasoline imports. Well today, Iran not only is not dependent on gasoline imports, but exports that gasoline to Afghanistan.
So what Iran has been able to do in the neighborhood I think is a show of both strength but also a show of US weakness. And a show that the United States doesn’t really understand or even care about the basic balance of power politics that are necessary in the region, and which spur tremendous concern among our GCC allies.
[Parsi] Very briefly, the last UN sanctions on Iraq were not lifted until 2010. Beyond that comparing Iraq and Afghanistan to the situation with Iran, it kind of misses the point because those are two states in which there was a regime change.
If you read and Ken knows these sanctions legislation better than anyone, you see also the requirements for lifting the sanctions from the Congressional side goes well beyond just a nuclear issue. And the issue at hand is not whether technically this could be resolved or not, the issue at hand is what is the confidence on the other side that when there is a promise to do so, that they have confidence that that promise can be executed in an effective manner. And I think that confidence simply doesn’t exist and I think there are some reasons for it.
Last time the Administration fought the US Senate on sanctions they lost 100 to 0. 100 to 0. That’s not a particularly impressive record. When it comes to what was offered I think Wendy Sherman made it very clear, as did Secretary of State Clinton, sanctions relief was not on the table in these last three rounds of talks. They were not. It’s just plainly stated by the US negotiators.
Imagine if, and to expect that they will be immediately after the Istanbul meeting when the principal of reciprocity was established, to immediately in the next meeting go and expect it to be put on pause, we’re going to side-step reciprocity I don’t think is realistic. But I think that is mainly because of election politics here in the US. Going forward perhaps it will be a little bit more flexibility on all sides. But imagine if the Iranians had accepted the proposal, which was shut down Fordo, ship out all the 20 percent, as well as the LEU stockpile. But there was no sanctions relief offered at all. We would still have seen the European oil sanctions go forward. We would still have seen a very negative effect on the Iranian economy, and I would think that the Iranian people would be asking themselves, after all of this grandstanding, why did Iran give up so much and not get anything that had any positive impact on the economy?
And then they would ask themselves, so if they got nothing on the sanctions front, what did Khamenei get himself that caused him to accept the deal? And actually would put him in even more of a problematic position with his own population because the population, already quite prone to conspiracy theories, would think that there’s been a deal between the regime and the United States, that only had saved the regime itself. It would actually exasperate a lot of the problems that they already have.
[Katzman] I just want to say that a great many of the sanctions are linked to Iran’s placement on the US list of terrorism, state sponsors of terrorism. The President has discretion to take Iran off that list, subject to a joint resolution of Congress blocking it, although that can be vetoed. And I don’t think any such effort has ever been vetoed.
So the President has discretion immediately to lift a great many sanctions with his own authority by taking Iran off the terrorism list. Now I’m not saying Iran is close to getting that,
[Parsi] Not even anywhere close to getting that.
[Katzman] I’m just pointing out this discretion, the tremendous discretion the administration has to balance to ease sanctions if it decides to.
[Mattair] Thank you everyone. We have about 15 minutes for these and I have four questions here that deal with the same subject so I can’t ignore it. The most simple formulation is this, would the US have such an emphasis on Iran’s nuclear policy if it were not for Israel? Are Israel’s concerns really security? And I guess I should couple that with one that makes a reference to some Israeli military and intelligence analysts who think that military strikes against Iran are not a very good idea so when we’re determining our policy toward Iran, how much are the Israeli concerns driving us?
[Nader] To some extent, I don’t think we can say that the primary shaper of US policy is just a concern regarding Israel because the United States has very many different interests in the region, has many different partners in the region. There are various implications regarding Iran’s weaponization of its program including proliferation, could do real damage to the NPT, the worldwide nuclear proliferation regime. It could lead to great tension and anxiety in the Persian Gulf, a strategically important region. And frankly yes, if Iran develops nuclear weapons it would endanger Israeli security. And I think that the biggest danger there is not that the Iranians would immediately launch their nuclear weapons at Israel. They’re too thoughtful and rational for that sort of behavior. But if you have two states with nuclear weapons with no communications, there is a great chance that any sort of conflict between the two states, whether its conventional or asymmetrical, lets say between Hezbollah and Israel, could escalate into an inadvertent nuclear exchange. And that is very dangerous, not just for Israeli security, not just for US security, but for global security.
So in reality Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability is a global issue. And I think one of the US successes has been to make sure that this is a global issue that it’s not just a matter of the Israelis being worried And answering your question regarding viewpoints in Israel. Actually there’s a diversity of viewpoints on Israel regarding the military option. We’ve seen it in the last few months and years where various figures have come out and said that right now is not the time for military strike against Iran because the consequences would be quite possibly very negative, not just for US security, but Israeli security as well. So while the possibility of an Israeli attack against Iran remains substantial, I don’t think it’s necessarily inevitable. It depends really on how negotiations proceed in the next few months and what kind of pressures the next U.S. Administration faces regarding military option.
[Leverett] I want to answer that question in two different ways. One also relates to a point that Ken Katzman made about no one in the region would shed a tear if the United States attacked Iran over its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction program.
It’s interesting to have these ideas on our own but it’s even more important to look at polling which is really the one objective piece of evidence that we can analyze. And if you look at the most recent Arab public opinion polling done in the Middle East, mostly among Sunni Arab populations, its very interesting. Something like 62% of them think that Iran is not just developing a nuclear energy program but a nuclear weapons program. Just about 62%, give or take. Over 75% of them think that would be a good thing, think it would be good for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Those are the people.
What Ken is talking about are the governments, the governments, which we have learned the big lesson from the Arab Awakening is that the governments matter now but they may not matter as much tomorrow or next year. We have to take public opinion seriously and that is a very serious statistic.
And one of the reasons why its there is again not because people in the region are pro-Iranian or pro-Shia, no. It’s because what they see Iran doing is standing up to the United States and Israel, which gets to the other piece of this question.
Is what the United States is doing in terms of constraining Iran’s nuclear program, there to benefit Israel? If you look back at the history, Iran started its nuclear program because the United States gave it to Iran. Gave it to Iran under the Shah before the Islamic Republic and when the United States gave Iran its nuclear program the Tehran research reactor which is so often in the news, that research reactor could only process highly enriched uranium, only.
The Islamic Republic after the revolution had to pay to get reactor reconfigured to take only low enriched uranium. So the intent for the United States before it disagreed with Iran’s policy of defiance or independence, however you would characterize it. The United States was not only just fine with Iran having a nuclear weapon, but probably fine with Iran having a nuclear weapon since it provided all these inputs but helped it go along in that direction.
Now is that just because the United States wanted to have its policemen? Yes. But is it also because if the Israelis feel constrained by an Iranian nuclear problem, that’s a problem for the United States itself. It’s not just that we want to protect what the Israelis are doing. It’s in a strategic sense what the Israelis are doing helps the United States to dominate the region. And this is the crux of the problem.
The United States has sought for years to try to dominate the region. Now I have nothing against what’s called hegemony or dominance, if it can work. I’m all for my children having a great economy here, having their college paid for, if it can work. The problem that we have found in the Middle East like we found in Asia vis a vis China is it doesn’t work.
And so if it doesn’t work our pursuit of this kind of dominance hurts us as we futility try to pull it off. So yes, Israel is pushing for this but they’re pushing on an open door. You go back for example to the 2006 war in Lebanon. Yes it was an Israeli initiated war, but the United States was full square behind it. Could Israel with US support have pulled off the 2006 war in Lebanon if Iran had breakout capability, probably but they would think twice. And that’s the crux of the problem.
[Mattair] Well let’s go back to diplomacy. There’s a question for Ken. It’s exactly what is the deal on offer, our deal? Is enrichment on any level on Iranian soil an absolute nonstarter for the US? Is it something that we will not accept? And then let me ask a follow up for Hillary. What do you suggest as concrete steps we can take to resolve these problems with Iran diplomatically?
[Katzman] What has been discussed in the three rounds, concerns 20 percent enriched uranium is a confidence building measure. What has been discussed in the rounds that took place over the spring and summer were basically an interim agreement where Iran would suspend and ship out existing stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium. The United States fell back from an earlier position of, and this is in the UN resolutions, but the US and its partners drew back from it, of demanding that all enrichment be ceased. Now the US hasn’t necessarily dropped that as an ultimate goal but in terms of an interim agreement, what was discussed was 20 percent enriched uranium.
[Leverett] It’s a very important question, because a lot of times we argue back and forth but what are the concrete steps that can be taken. There are a few.
The first is, one of the rumors about when or if talks are commenced after Obama presumably is reelected, what would be on the agenda? The United States is pushing to have that agenda be focused only on the nuclear issue. That’s a mistake. Because as Ken rightly pointed out, Iran is listed here as a state sponsor of terrorism, there are all kinds of human rights and other concerns.
Whatever Iran would give up on the nuclear issue, yes there may be a deal if we can accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium on its own territory but that deal is going to be fragile if we continue to press Iran on all of these other issues and there’s no accommodation, there’s no strategic agreement, no strategic understanding on the range of issues. So the agenda must be broad. The agenda must address the range of issues that bedevil the US-Iranian relationship.
With that there has to be a demonstration of US seriousness. Now we often fall back on our grievances, the concerns real and imagined that we have with the Islamic Republic and some of them are very real, I’m not minimizing it. But we fall back on that as an excuse not to deal with this country strategically, as we dealt with China when we needed to because it was in our interest. Here the issue with Iran is it’s in our interest to have a better relationship with this powerful country. It’s in our interests. What they did to us in the past should be in the past. We need to deal with them in terms of our interests. In that regard we should take a lesson from what President Nixon and Kissinger did with China and that is demonstrate in two concrete ways.
One, this is what Nixon and Kissinger did with China. They stepped down from the intelligence operations we had with China. They told the CIA just stop what they were doing in Tibet to undermine the People’s Republic of China. Stop it. So that’s number one. We have spent nearly half a billion dollars in money in intelligence operations to undermine the Islamic Republic. We need to stop that as we did with China.
The second thing we did with China is we put a moratorium on the constant persistent patrols of the Seventh Fleet right off of China’s shore. We can do something also to demonstrate that the Fifth Fleet is there to protect American interests, not to harass and undermine Iranian interests. Those are two concrete things we can do in conjunction with having a serious broad agenda for strategic realignment with the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. That’s the formula that worked with China and that should be at least tried with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
[Mattair] If we widen the negotiations to cover more topics, how do we deal with the diminishing prospects for two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution and how do we construct something that does not lead GCC states to think that their interests in the Gulf are being sacrificed?
[Nader] I think if we reach a deal with Iran, does that mean that the GCC states should feel that the United States is turning their back on them. Because I don’t think the United States necessarily is looking for a final deal with the Islamic Republic in which we solve all our differences with the regime in Tehran. And it shouldn’t look for that.
I agree that, yes, we should have a strategic relationship with Iran, that Iran is a country we should work with but we have to make a distinction between Iran as a country and the Islamic Republic as a political system which is not democratically elected, which have some of the worst human rights abuses in the world, which supports terrorism, which is pursuing a nuclear weapons program contrary to international norms and laws. So when the US is negotiating with Iran I think we should keep that in mind.
And I don’t think the United States officially wants to implode the Iranian government or have the Iranian government collapse or have the Iranian government capitulate. I think our goals are pretty well defined. We want Iran to stop enriching uranium to a higher degree that can be used for a nuclear weapon, period. And I think that’s very achievable.
Part of the problem is Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei like Ken said is inflexible. He’s even more inflexible than Khomeini was and there are indications that his advisors including with them the revolutionary guards are not happy with them. He’s been criticized even publically for his decisions and style of rule. And when you look at the Islamic Republic, this is not a system that’s different than other authoritarian regimes that have been overthrown in the Middle East.
It is corrupt, it denies its people basic rights, social political and economic, it discriminates against half the population, women, and is actually making life much more difficult for them.
These are things that matter. These are things that create dissatisfaction among Iranians with the regime. So when the Islamic Republic talks about the Arab Spring as benefitting it, this is delusional. This might be the read of the situation, but it is not a correct read. Khamenei is not a worldly person. He’s relying on his very close advisors who also have a very incorrect view of the world. So going forward, negotiations shouldn’t be about defusing this crisis that frankly the Islamic Republic has put its people in.
[Parsi] I think that after the Arab Spring, it’s one thing to say that all the relationships with governments in the region in which you don’t have the type of political order and freedom and openness that is desired by the populations. It’s one thing to say that all of them cannot change right away and there’s going to be some relationships that are, still going to limp for a while before they get changed. But I think in the aftermath of the Arab Spring to start new relationships based on purely security considerations with no considerations of other factors, the same factors that have brought us the situation in Egypt and elsewhere. I think it would be a mistake. But perhaps more importantly, mistake or no mistake, I don’t see any desire on the US side or on the Iranian side for having a partnership between the two sides.
At best I think they’re looking for some sort of a codified rivalry in which they can compete without ending up in a war. The Iranians don’t view the US’s presence in the region as legitimate and ultimately they believe there is an expiration date for the US to stay in the region. As a result they don’t want to invest in that basket, they don’t want to put their eggs there. And the US for its own good reasons believes the Islamic Republic has an expiration date and doesn’t want to have that same type of investment.
What is achievable however is to take several significant steps back from the brink of the abyss of a military confrontation. That is highly achievable, frankly that is something that I think there’s a desire on both sides to achieve. I think it is an exaggerated fear amongst other nations in the region and perhaps even a little bit outside the region that have this fear-thinking that this would be some sort of return to the US relationship with the Shah in which Iran would gain that type of a strategic significance at the expense of other current strategic allies of the United States.
I don’t see any chance of that happening in the short or even in the medium term. And I don’t see any chance of that happening unless there’s some significant changes in Iran and again I don’t see a desire on the US or the Iranian side for that type of relationship. There is a desire for a different type of competition, a different type of rivalry, but not for that type of a partnership.
[Leverett] What the United States or what is necessary is different. It is necessary for the United States to have a strategic realignment with the Islamic Republic of Iran, like it was necessary to do so with China. And how it affects our allies in the Middle East is critically important to look at the parallels. If you look at the parallels with China and you take Japan and Taiwan for example. Japan’s economic and political development experienced its biggest success after the United States went to China, after Nixon and Kissinger went to Beijing. Japan benefitted enormously as Saudi Arabia and our other gulf Arabs would benefit enormously from a more productive, less tense, less militaristic environment in the region.
Then if you take Israel and you compare it even to Taiwan. That issue was bracketed between the two countries, between China and the United States. It was bracketed. You could similarly have something between the United States and Iran over Israel and the Palestinian issue that is bracketed but I must come back to this other issue.
This is in our strategic interest that the Islamic Republic of Iran just like China. Keep in mind when Mao was in charge, when Nixon went to see Mao he had just presided over the killing of over three million Chinese. The Chinese didn’t just have a nuclear energy program. They had tested nuclear weapons.
The issue here is what is in the US national interest? Not whether we think Iranian government officials are good or bad. But even there, this is another critical challenge for the United States. As Middle Eastern populations become more empowered and have more of a say in each of their countries, they are not going to vote for, they are not going to support a secular, democratic, US model for their governance. They’re not going to do it. They’re not going to accept or lobby for a complete copy of the Islamic Republic for Iran, but they are going to try to fight just as hard as Iranians are today to have a governing system that is theirs, that they can evolve and change over time, that integrates both Islamic principles and republican politics.
Republican politics does not just mean our idea or our myth of one-man one vote. That means a system where people have competitive politics, there’s real participation and there’s a real say. It’s not perfect in the Islamic Republic of Iran but it’s theirs and its up to them to evolve it. That’s the challenge for the United States. Not just in Iran, it’s going to be our challenge in Egypt and all over the Middle East. We need to come to terms with it.
[Mattair] Well we have not exhausted the topic but we have exhausted our time. And there’s another panel that needs to set up. Thank you to each of you. I think it was excellent.