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Axis of Anxiety: U.S. Options on Iran [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speakers: Kenneth M. Pollack, Senior Fellow and Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, the Brookings Institution, and Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power In The Islamic Republic
Presider: Barbara Slavin, Senior Diplomatic Reporter, USA Today
November 1, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations

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BARBARA SLAVIN: Good afternoon and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you for coming. It’s a wonderful crowd today, and I think I know why. We have two of the premier Iran experts in Washington, who are going to speak today. I’m hoping their expertise will rub off on me a little bit. They’ve both written good books, and I’m in the process of doing one as well. So I’m very, very grateful to have them here, and I’m sure you will be as well.

We’re going to start with Ray Takeyh, who has just written a very thoughtful and good book, Hidden Iran, which is full of very good insights about the country, about U.S. policy and how it has interacted with Iranian policy over the years.

As you all know, Ray is a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and this is his first significant book. He told me that his doctoral thesis was also published, but I think this one is going to have a somewhat wider audience.

And our other guest is Ken Pollack, who comes to us from Brookings and the Saban Center, also a premier scholar on Iran who’s written a very good book, “The Persian Puzzle.” He has a background in government, as you all know, worked under the Clinton administration, twice at the National Security Council and before that at the CIA.

A few rules:

As always, please turn off your cell phones and pagers, if you’ve forgotten to. We’re being broadcast now on C-SPAN, so we would especially appreciate it if there aren’t any interruptions.

I’m going to start with Ray, and then we’ll give Ken a chance to speak for a little bit, and then we will open it up to questions.

Beginning with Ray, I wanted to give him a chance to talk a little bit about the current thinking in Tehran, as he sees it, on the nuclear issue in particular, how they are calculating. We see that they’ve made some new aggressive moves. They’ve started up a second cascade of centrifuges and introduced uranium into it just last week.

So I want to begin with you and ask you why they are behaving in this manner. Are they not afraid of the U.N. Security Council?

RAY TAKEYH: No—(chuckles)—nor should they be. I think it’s very difficult to gauge their nuclear calculation, simply because we don’t have access to their deliberations. So almost everything that says about Iran’s nuclear program is rather speculative.

But I think there are certain determinations that have been made by the regime, namely, that the country will proceed with its nuclear program up to the uppermost limits of what the NPT can allow, which is essentially creating a very elaborate nuclear infrastructure that can give them a weapons capability when and if they should want to move to that capability. That involves completion of the fuel cycle, additional centrifuge construction and so on and so forth.

Now, the question is, do you move with this particular program in so explicit defiance of the international community, or do you try to have some sort of negotiations over confidence-building measures and so forth? I mean, I think that’s the debate that takes place.

But in terms of actually going back to the Paris Agreement of 2003 or the agreement of 2002, namely, suspension of the program as a means of generating confidence-building measure—a prolonged suspension—I think that’s no longer a credible option, as far as one can see. This is a country that can be behave in very erratic and unpredictable manner.

But—and I think what Iranian calculation has done in the past year, at least, is expose the fact that there is a divergence between the United States and international community over urgency of the Iranian threat. Obviously nobody is sanguine about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but to what extent is Iran an urgent and immediate threat? I think that divergence has been crystallized by the process of the Security Council, where there’s periodic disagreement about how to proceed forward.

So one can look forward to, I think, Iran having a mature nuclear capability in the future, and that future may not be that distant one.

SLAVIN: Perhaps if you could just continue a little bit—you talked about the deliberations in the Security Council. We can get into this more in the Q&A.

There was a period, certainly, in the summer where it looked as though the Iranians would suspend, at least for a short while—

TAKEYH: Yes. Right.

SLAVIN:—to get into talks with the Bush administration. Are they no longer interested in talking to the Bush administration?

TAKEYH: That’s one of the great puzzles—what actually happened in September when there was a meeting between the European representative, Mr. Solana, and Iranian representative. In that case, I think it was Mr. Larijani. There are—at the end, there are three explanations. When the—to give background, there was a possibility of some idea of a three-month suspension as a means of generating negotiations, as sort of an interim measure. And there are three particular explanations. All of them have some degree of viability, and as with most things in Iran, it’s impossible to determine which is the accurate one.

First is actually what the Europeans are saying, namely it was a delay tactic. And that has some degree of plausibility because Iranian diplomacy often is concentrated on short-term gains as opposed to long-term damage. So it’s entirely possible that they said something that they didn’t actually mean as a means of just delaying.

The second possibility is that Ali Larijani was freelancing and he didn’t have necessarily the approbation of the nation’s leadership. That to me sounds implausible simply because he doesn’t have that kind of guts.

SLAVIN: (Laughs.)

TAKEYH: He doesn’t—he won’t freelance on a critical issue like that to that degree.

The third is that there was some vague agreement within the Security Council—Iranian Security Council where these issues are deliberated, and then the Ahmadinejad wing of the politics essentially scuttled at. That has some degree of possibility, but for that to have happened, those agreements would have to be very vague.

So pick your option on the menu. I happen to think of the three, the third probably is the most reliable one, which essentially leads you to believe—any of these three propositions take you in a very different direction. The third one would lead you to believe that the internal balance of power within Iran’s polity is shifting toward the president as opposed to other members of the security apparatus.

SLAVIN: Okay. We’ll leave it there. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of questions about Ahmadinejad and his role.

I’m going to turn to Ken and ask him what the implications of this internal conflict is now for U.S. policy, whether we’re going to be able to make any progress, whether U.S. policy may be frozen, really, for some months because of these issues with Iran and other developments, like our elections and North Korea and various other things.

KENNETH M. POLLACK: Well, I think it’s a great place to start, Barbara. And let me start by saying that I agree with both Ray’s point about where the Iranians are, having just recently spoken to a variety of different Iranians.

It’s clear that even the word “suspension” is anathema in Tehran, and it does seem very unlikely that we’re going to get an Iranian agreement to suspend at least in the sense of what my friend Bob Einhorn calls “no spin suspension.” I think that’s very unlikely at any point in the near future for the Iranians.

And then pick up your point that I think you’re right, this is creating something of a logjam. It’s creating a little bit of a deadlock for the United States. And the first way I’d put it is that while there are a lot of fears about what the Bush administration is planning to do, as best we can tell, it does seem pretty clear that the principals within the administration understand just how bad all of the American options are on Iran, and that this unfortunate series of events has led them to conclude that the diplomatic option is the least bad option and it remains that.

There’s a lot of debate within the administration. There certainly are people who are pushing for a more aggressive policy, for a policy of regime change, for a policy of military strikes, but they don’t seem to gaining a whole lot of traction, because the principals do seem to understand that as difficult as the diplomatic track is to pull off, it actually is the least bad option. And it does offer some payoffs to the United States short of the ultimate payoff of actually convincing the Iranians to give up their program. It does preserve U.S. leverage, it does preserve the U.S. position with regard to our allies, all of which is very important both to the long term on Iran and to the Bush administration on a variety of other issues.

Now, where they’re going to go—I think you’re absolutely right, Barbara. I think that we’re likely to see something of a deadlock in U.S. policy for a number of months until some of these other factors play out. Given where we are now, given the Iranian response, I don’t think that the administration yet has an answer, and I think they’re right to not have an answer. Because right now what they’re going to look at is there are a number of different variables out there, and what happens with those variables over the next three to six months will open up new possibilities or close off other possibilities for us. And only when we’ve seen which way those variables are spinning should we then make a decision about which way should we go.

You’ve mentioned two of them that I think are very important, which are the U.S. elections and North Korea. I’ll add a third, which is Iraq.

You know, very quickly, North Korea is a big one out there because you might get the Chinese to do something different as a result of North Korea. The administration is making the case to the Chinese that it’s the right thing to do, is to say the reason we need to step in an take a hard line with the Iranians is because we don’t want another North Korea. We don’t yet know how the Chinese are going to respond. They might say, yes, that’s right, let’s take pre-emptive action now—that is, pre-emptive sanctions action against Iran now—or they might say you know what, we’re so caught up with North Korea, let’s not bother with Iran. We can put that aside, we’ll come back to it later.

The elections, obviously. If you get a Democratic Congress, it’s going to be much harder for the administration’s hawks to push their policies. And again, I don’t think that the hawks are in the driving seat on Iran policy right now. But it will be even more difficult.

And then the last issue out there is Iraq. And, obviously, we can talk more about all these things. But Iraq is becoming an all-consuming problem for the administration. It is getting worse and worse. And in my conversations with senior administration officials, and listening as best I can to other people, and reading the tea leaves, it seems pretty clear that they understand that Iraq is getting so bad that the worst thing that they could do is open up a major can of worms with Iran, and that more and more, they actually need Iranian assistance on Iraq, they don’t need to open up a new war with Iraq.

And, obviously, there’s concerns about what the president’s legacy is. But even there, I think that the president understands full well that his legacy is about Iraq; that history is going to judge George Bush on one thing and one thing alone, and that is Iraq, and that no matter what he does on Iran, if he loses Iraq, he will go down as one of our worst presidents in history, and he cannot allow that to happen. And so I don’t think that he or his advisers are going to do anything on Iraq which they believe would actually jeopardize their legacy on Iraq.

SLAVIN: I’m going to take my prerogative and just ask one follow-up, and then I’ll open it up to the floor. And that is, could it be that when the administration offered talks about the nuclear issue in May, that what they really wanted to do was facilitate talks with Iran about Iraq and this was their way of doing it?

POLLACK: I think that that was part of it for some members of the administration. One of the things that struck me about the administration and Iran is that every member of the administration seems to have a very different take on Iran, and that at the end of the day, they did come to this meeting of the minds, this “lowest common denominator” policy of a negotiated approach to the Iranians, with the Europeans taking the lead. But every member of the administration who I was able to speak to had a different rationale for doing it. And there clearly were members of the administration for whom the biggest issue out there, or one of the biggest issues out there was Iraq; that they understood that Iran’s influence in Iraq was very important and that it could be very helpful. And they understood that in fact, while the Iranians had done some things that were unhelpful to us in Iraq, they had also done a lot of things for us that were actually quite helpful, and they were looking to parlay this into something else.

But again, I don’t want to push that too far because it’s also clear that there were other members of the administration who believe that Iran’s influence in Iraq has been wholly pernicious, or just believe the two things shouldn’t be mixed.

SLAVIN: Okay. I’m going to open it up. Now, please state your name and your affiliation, if you would.

Yes? The gentleman all the way back there.

QUESTIONER: Bill Sudow.

SLAVIN: I think—wait for the microphone, if you would, sir.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, my name is Bill Sudow. Question: Are there any other issues with Iran that are sort of on the table at the same time? For example, the Hezbollah and the destabilizing influence that they seem to have in the Middle East?

SLAVIN: Who wants to go?

TAKEYH: Well, at this particular point there are no discussions or negotiations with Iran. And nuclear negotiations were actually rather targeted and limited to the nuclear issue, so they didn’t have other particular agendas on the table, as I understand it.

POLLACK: If I could just add a point to that, take that question and move it into the realm of recommendations, I think it is also one of the reasons why we’re a little bit locked up on Iran right now, not just in terms of U.S. policy, but also in terms of the Western-Iranian dialogue. We’ve got ourselves into a situation where the West is insisting on suspension, and that’s the one thing that the Iranians won’t give up. And I think that if you are thinking creatively about how to get past this, one of the ways to do it is actually to expand the conversation to the broader panoply of issues. And, obviously, terrorism, support to Hezbollah is a problematic issue. But it gets you to a second step, which is to talk about the larger set of things that the U.S. and Iran could be willing to give up, under the right set of circumstances. And it could be that while we’re locked at the moment on the nuclear issue, because while dealing with it as just a specific, one-track issue has led us to a roadblock, if you open things up, you might be able to unlock that problem by dealing with a larger panoply of issues here.

For me, it goes back to my own read of things like the Arab-Israeli dispute and the negotiations that we had in the 1990s. And one of the things that I learned is that you have to simultaneously be doing the step by step, and also doing the end game, because typically both get locked at different points in time, and only by doing both simultaneously can you use one track to make up for a roadblock on the other. So if the step by step, the incremental process starts to slow down, you can shift gears and start refocusing energy on the kind of end game, what do things look like at the end, can we come up with a broader package of trade-offs on both sides that could then unlock things later on for the step-by-step approach.

SLAVIN: I take it that both of you agree that there should be no preconditions for talks?

POLLACK: I agree.

TAKEYH: Well, I would say one thing about the precondition of suspension. It’s not unusual for the United States to assist on that because, obviously, completion of the fuel cycle will give Iran a capability, so the idea of the negotiations being used as a delay tactic. And also, the fact that in the negotiations with the Europeans, Iranians did suspend, that has created a political condition that is difficult, I mean for the Bush administration to accept negotiation terms that were unacceptable to Schroeder’s Germany.

SLAVIN: Right.

TAKEYH: So it’s just politically a difficult thing to do.

And also now there is a legal issue. I mean, there’s a series of Security Council resolutions mandating suspension. So this is a problem with articulating this dispute in the context of legalistic procedures and institutions such as the U.N. So it’s a difficult one to countermand.

SLAVIN: The gentleman here.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. H.P. Goldfield, Stonebridge International. A question for both panel members.

Ahmadinejad’s star seems to be on the ascendancy. What are the potential challenges to that ascendancy? Or put a different way, as you unpack either foreign policy or domestic issues in the context of Iran, what do they fear? What does he fear?

TAKEYH: I actually think at this particular point Ahmadinejad is probably the second most important actor in Iran, arguably the most important actor because the supreme leader doesn’t have the capability or will or desire to rein him in. He has consolidated his control over all the relevant ministries. The ministers that count in Iran—you’ve got to look for the word “deputy” minister, not the actual minister. That’s true about Interior and Foreign Ministry.

And also, he is altering the entire administrative nature of the—structure of the country with his rearrangement of the budgetary provisions for the provinces and so forth. So he is probably the most—strongest president Iran has had since the first two, three years of the Rafsanjani presidency between ‘89 to ‘92, ‘93.

There are several reasons for that. Number one, the country’s economy, within the context of the Iranian economy, seems to be doing reasonably well. I think the projection of growth for next year is about 5.6 percent. The nuclear issue is playing well in terms of stimulating nationalistic fervor without paying any sort of a cost. And the country as a whole, the entire security establishment, is feeling triumphant. d

Now, Iran is triumphant because they kept their heads while all about them lost theirs—the Afghans, the Iraqis, and then ourselves. So they remained alive.

How do you take this down a notch? The debate has always been is Iran China of 1948 or China of 1969, 1970? Between ‘48 and 1950, China was not interested in negotiating with the United States, despite very pragmatic gestures toward it by the Truman administration. In ‘69-‘70, it was. The complexity and contradiction of Iran is it is both. Some people are in ‘48, some people are in ‘69. And that’s what makes Iran very difficult to have a coherent approach to.

What can bring Ahmadinejad down or lessen his influence, which is increasingly institutional? A serious downturn in the country’s economy. A unified international community imposing strenuous sanctions on Iran for a prolonged period of time. A disposition among the regional actors to confront Iranian power. Otherwise, nothing at all.

So I’ll stop there.

POLLACK: Let me just highlight Ray’s point, because I think he nailed it. In fact, I don’t think Ahmadinejad’s afraid of anything, and I’m not certain he would be afraid even under those circumstances, because that just seems to be the nature of the guy.

TAKEYH: Yeah.

POLLACK: But I think Ray has put his finger on exactly what could bring him down, what could undermine his basic power, which are internal developments that would turn the people against him and would start to bring out critics, that would empower critics of his within the government itself. And I think Ray’s list in terms of problems with the economy, the international community uniting against him and posing real sanctions on them, which, of course, would also get to point number one, and then the possibility of some kind of a regional alliance forming against Iran are the three obvious ones that could really start to convince other members—it wouldn’t convince him, but would convince other members of the Iranian establishment that Ahmadinejad was hurting Iran, not helping it.

TAKEYH: Let me just say in terms of this particular young generation of conservatives in Iran, in terms of their approach to their predecessors, there’s a unique degree of contempt for elders of the revolution. They have contempt for Rafsanjani because they’re affronted by his corruption, and they tend to live a very austere life. They have sort of a contempt for the Khatami presidency. It’s the same sort of a thing that, you know, the president uses toward the Democrats—you know, defeatocrats, appeasers—because they also have moral clarity and a strategy for victory.

So in a sense, they’re resistant toward pressure from the elders of the revolution because they hold them in such open contempt. There was a lot of discussion about the new council on foreign relations that Iran had, led by former Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, appointed by the supreme leader. Ahmadinejad has refused to meet with them. I mean, when he says, “Why don’t you meet with Kamal Kharrazi?” he says, “Well, let him go have dinner with Khatami. I have no interest in this.” I mean, that’s the level of defiance, arrogance, confidence that is unseen in the Islamic Republic. As Ken was saying, his courage is remarkable. His intelligence may be deficient—(laughter)—but he’s not lacking in courage of his deeply held convictions.

SLAVIN: Trita.

QUESTIONER: Trita Parsi, National Iranian-American Council. Ray, you mentioned earlier on that the Iranians are quite tactical but not necessarily very strategic. But if we take a look at how things are on our side, there’s a lot of focus on going to the Security Council. I want to see what you both think will happen if that is successful, mindful of the fact that in the early 1990s, the United States sought to isolate Iran, it was at a time when the United States was at the apex of its power, its diplomatic standing in the region, and it failed. And Iran was much, much weaker. Now we’re in a situation in which the situation has changed quite a lot. The United States is in a much weaker position; Iran is in a much stronger position. Why would this tactic work now when it failed before?

TAKEYH: Well, as I said, I don’t think it will work. You know, I think there will be some pressure on Iran. I mean all these financial issues that are on the banking regulations and travel—you know, the U-turn on dollars, I have no understanding of any of them. I mean, I can’t balance my checkbook, so I’m not going to pretend to understand these complicated financial transactions about how dollar reserves are prohibited to an Iranian bank engaged in international commerce. I have no idea what any of that means, but, you know, that sounds serious to me! (Laughs; laughter.)

Maybe—I mean, there is—the country will feel some pressure. The question is whether that pressure is sufficient to detract it from its contemplated course. And that’s something I’m rather in agreement with you.

POLLACK: I’d put it this way, because I think that the jury is much more out. And in fact, I think that it is more likely than not that we will get at least one more resolution out of the Security Council.

And to answer your specific question, Trita, in some ways Iran’s greater power is making it more dangerous and is bringing the Security Council together. Beyond that, you’ve got an administration that, quite frankly, is dealing much more deftly with the Security Council than it has in the past. That’s an important element. And, you know, remember, the past is the prologue for this. An important element of it is a lot of European countries and other countries around the world want to work with the Bush administration because they are behaving in exactly the way that the world wants them to behave in. And so there’s a lot of people who are getting on board with this because they’re saying the Bush administration is now doing exactly what we asked them to do on Iraq; they didn’t do it then, they’re doing it now; that in and of itself means they ought to get a reward.

But beyond that, the simple fact of the matter is that I think that the revelations by the International Atomic Energy Agency really did change a lot of people’s views. You know, you and I have had this conversation in the past. For many years I was trying very hard to understand what changed in Europe. In the 1990s, we would give the Europeans all kinds of evidence that the Iranians were making progress on a nuclear enrichment capability, and they just weren’t interested. It wasn’t they didn’t believe us, they just weren’t interested. Now they’re interested. Now they are more Catholic than the pope. They are now harder over on this than the U.S. intelligence community is. And it seems to be because they really believe that the IAEA was right and that this is an important issue and that they can’t allow Iran to proliferate. And as a result, the Europeans have been much more helpful to the U.S. than they were in the early 1990s, and that has made all the difference.

And, you know, I think we ought to remember that all long, critics of this policy, from within the administration and without, have consistently said that such-and-such will never happen: that the IAEA would never censure the Iranians, that they would never refer their nuclear file to the Security Council, that the Security Council would never take up the debate, that the Security Council would never pass a Chapter VII resolution. Well, all of those things have happened. And when you talk to the Europeans, they actually believe that it’s a fairly likely prospect that you could get the Russians and the Chinese to agree to some sanctions against Iran. And I think that’s the big issue, because I think that, again, it’s not foreordained. I wouldn’t bet my salary. But I do think it’s more likely than not that we’ll get some sanctions on Iran.

The issue is given where the Iranians are, given how Ray described them—and I agree with his description of where they are—if the sanctions are nothing more than a slap on the wrist and there is nothing that comes after it, I think the Iranians will see that as a tremendous victory over the international community.

If, on the other hand, the first resolution is the first step in a series of ever-tightening sanctions on Iran to the point where you could get to this issue that Ray and I both agreed on of a determined international coalition imposing serious sanctions on Iran, then I think things turn around.

We are many steps away from that, and it is going to require the Russians and Chinese to show a willingness to sanction Iran that they’ve not yet shown. But again, I think the jury is out for the moment.

SLAVIN: All the way in the back, the lady with the scarf.

QUESTIONER: Hi. I’m Mahtab Farid from Radio Farda. I’d like to get your reaction on why is it that it seems like all the pressure is put on the people of Iran, where there are so many messages from Washington saying that they support the Iranian people, but yet the draft resolution in Security Council putting pressure on the Iranian students for not allowing them to study in certain areas.

And to Ken, you talked about Democrats and this may change the policy. But it seems like there are a lot of Shermans and Schumers on the Hill which, you know, passed Iran Freedom Support Act, so I’d like to get your reaction on that as well.

Thank you.

TAKEYH: That’s one of the sort of the contradictions that you’re alluding to, namely that there’s sort of an attempt to reach out to the Iranian community by bringing in more exchanges—economic exchanges, cultural exchanges while calling for a travel ban. I don’t know how to explain that contradiction.

SLAVIN: Well, and those involved with the nuclear or—and missile programs of Iran.

TAKEYH: Even that’s curious, because technically, everybody is involved on the nuclear issue. I mean, you can say Iranian banking system is involved in the nuclear issue, the entire national security apparatus. So these have to be sort of delineated a little more carefully.

But—and the prospects of sanctions and isolation of the country will also damage this outreach, so—

POLLACK: I think your second question about the Democrats is an excellent one. And again, it gets to this issue of we just don’t know how these variables I discussed are going to change come the spring.

You know, as you’re pointing out, you do have a lot of Democrats who are pretty hard over on Iran and would be willing to support some very aggressive policies toward Iran, and that could set up a range of options for the administration. That said, I think it’s pretty clear that the Democratic leadership is not in the mood for a war with Iran, and I think that those voices within the administration and outside of the administration who are calling for military operations against Iran are going to have a harder time if you’ve got a Democratic Congress. I just don’t think, you know, a Democratic-controlled House, let alone a Democratic-controlled Congress, is going to be supportive of that kind of a measure.

On the other hand, as you’re suggesting, if the decision that the administration takes is to move toward regime change, you probably could see some support—some bipartisan support on that issue. But, you know, then the House divides differently, because you’re going to have a lot of people saying, well, it’s all well and good for us to support regime change, it’s all well and good for us to support democratic opposition inside of Iran, but how exactly does that keep us from having the Iranian regime acquire a nuclear weapon in the next five to eight years? That’s the problem with the regime change option is it doesn’t answer that issue. And there are a lot of Democrats and Republicans in the Congress who, for them, that’s the biggest question.

SLAVIN: Yes, Marvin.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. I’m Marvin Kalb with the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. You both seem to agree that the Iranians are moving towards developing a nuclear bomb, and you have spoken a great deal about what the U.S. might do and the Russians and the Europeans and the Chinese and all. I am more curious at the moment of what is happening within the Middle East. Let us assume that within five or eight years, as Ken just said, the Iranians have a bomb. What will the Saudis do? What will the Syrians do? The Egyptians? Do we know anything at this point about what other Arab countries—about what Arab countries are doing in response to this probability, as you see it?

POLLACK: Well, the problem, of course—actually, first—just a quick clarification, Marvin. I think it’s clear the Iranians are moving toward a capability to produce nuclear weapons. I honestly don’t know what the heck they’re actually going to do when they acquire that capability. I’m convinced there are some Iranians who want to actually make nuclear weapons, and there does seem to be a lot of activity associated with the actual creation of weapons. But I think it’s unclear at this moment in time, and there are other voices who are saying, let’s get the capability, we don’t need to actually make the weapons.

Now to your particular question, though. You know, what we’re hearing from the Arab states of the region is, you know, what I’ve come to find typical from them, which is this is a tremendous threat, we can’t possibly allow this to happen. What are you Americans going to do to stop it? (Laughter.) Okay? And when I—and I’m sure that this is the case for the administration as well—turn it back on them to say, well, you know, the administration could actually use your help, it will be very useful for other countries like the Russians and the Chinese to hear that the states of the region are very concerned about this and would be willing to help out, would be willing to support measures to bring the Iranians around. Things like, you know, a simple statement from the Kuwaitis and the Saudis and the Emiratis in which they said if the Iranians were to do anything with the supply of oil as a result of U.N. sanctions, we would gladly make up any shortfall. Whether or not they would actually do that, that would, in and of itself, send a very powerful signal. And you know, I’ve made exactly that point to high-ranking members of those governments, and the response I typically get is, “Yeah, but what are you Americans going to do to stop this problem?”

I think the bottom line is, right now they’re not thinking about what they would have to do. And to some extent it’s because typically the states of the region don’t think strategically, they don’t think three or four moves down in the chessboard, what they’re going to do.

But to a certain extent, I think it’s also because they don’t know yet. It’s going to put them in a very difficult situation. A state like Saudi Arabia is going to feel very threatened by Iran with a nuclear weapon. And on the one hand, I think that there will be voices inside the kingdom saying, “We need to match the Iranians.” I think that there are going to be other voices in the kingdom saying, “Matching the Iranians will simply open up a tremendous number of other problems for the kingdom with the United States, with Israel, with other states of the region that we don’t particularly need, and therefore let’s not go down this road.”

I think, again, it’s one of the reasons why the Saudis would like us to solve the problem for them. And for me, again, it’s also one of those reasons why I’d really prefer that the Iranians never get a nuclear weapon, because I don’t know what the Saudis are going to decide. And frankly, I don’t want to put them in a position where they have to make that decision.

TAKEYH: Well, I do know what the Gulf states will decide, and they will accommodate Iranian power. If Iranian power continues to surge and their demands remain modest—and Iran is not the Iran of 1980s; it’s not calling for assassination of the Kuwaiti emirs, challenging the sovereignty of Bahrain; it doesn’t use the words that the founder of the revolution did when he used to call the Saudis “palace dwellers” and monarchy as a relic of the past—so if—as Iranian power surges, I think you’re going to see at least the Gulf states accommodate Iranian power.

The traditional balance of power in the Gulf does not exist, and it cannot be refurbished. Iraq is a broken state. It is no longer capable of balancing Iran. Historically the Gulf states have approached their northern neighbors by balancing their relationship with Iran and Iraq and their alliance with successive Western empires—the British Empire and the America empire. Then essentially they purchased security from abroad. They don’t have that option anymore, simply because the American presence is so divisive within the Gulf states that they cannot rely on a visible, robust American presence. I think the United States will continue to have a modest offshore presence in reliable countries like Bahrain and Kuwait, but it cannot reintroduce troops into Saudi Arabia, because from domestic politics of those countries, that is simply unacceptable.

So in light of this changed balance of power, which is, in essence, Iranian co-prosperity zone, I think you’ll find those countries largely accommodating Iranian power, so long as Iran remains what it is today: relatively modest in terms of its demands on these particular states.

So the idea and the—that somehow the walls of containment can be built around Iran is a fantasy. Containment never worked. It cannot work. It is intrinsically a relic of the past.

SLAVIN: Elaine? Okay.

QUESTIONER: Elaine Monaghan with Congressional Quarterly. Ken, you mentioned that the hawks are not in the driving seat. I wondered, from your discussions, what you do think is the kind of prevailing view of the hawks of what can be done? And is it military? Is it covert? Is it propaganda? And can any of those options be pursued even while there is this deadlock that you’re talking about?

POLLACK: It’s an interesting question. I think one of the reasons why the hawks have not been able to kind of wrest control of the policy is because they’re deeply divided, quite frankly. And you know, you get different hawks proposing very different solutions on Iran.

You know, typically the divide is between military operations and regime change. But—and even that’s not clear. There are all kinds of different flavors of military operations. There are all kinds of different flavors of regime change.

You know, there are people who want to do it very aggressively and try to bring down the regime within this window that I laid out of, you know, maybe five to eight years before the Iranians acquire a nuclear weapons capability.

You have other people who see it as just a long-term goal. I mean, you know, you’ve got various neocons on the outside writing about how we need to think about this the way that we thought about the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. And it may take us 15 or 20 or 25 years using Radio Farda and using Voice of America and using all variety of other measures to simply let the Iranian people know that we’re here for them and we want a change and that it’s going to take a while.

And because you’ve got all of this dissent and division, it’s made it much harder. But I think the dissent and division also reflects that the hawks themselves don’t have a perfect answer. You know, that is, collectively they don’t. Individually, I’m sure they do believe that they have a perfect answer. But collectively, it’s very difficult.

And the leadership of the administration, I think, is actually being fairly realistic. And when you talk to someone like Reuel Gerecht—and I think Reuel deserves a lot of credit; you know, he’s very hawkish—Reuel believes that the military option is the only one that could possibly work with the Iranians. But Reuel is willing to say that the military option with Iran is an open-ended war, and it means massive airstrikes not just against the nuclear program but against their military facilities, against their terrorism infrastructure.

It means repeated strikes against them. It means going after them every time they reconstitute. I think that that’s a very realistic way to think about what the military option against Iran really looks like. And the problem is that, you know, even if you are Secretary Rumsfeld or Vice President Cheney, that doesn’t look like a great option right now. With 150,000 troops in Iraq failing to keep that country from sliding into civil war, do you really want to open up this new war in Iran?

SLAVIN: Let’s see. In the middle there.

QUESTIONER: Allan Wendt. Just following up on your last point. If it did come to armed conflict, how significant is Iran’s conventional military capability? And would they be able, for example, to blockade the Strait of Hormuz and interrupt the world supply of oil flowing through that strait?

POLLACK: The best way I can answer that, Allan, is to say that Iran’s conventional capability is significant enough that we’d have to eliminate it if we were thinking about doing this. In the absence of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force, they could shut down the Strait of Hormuz. Their capabilities are probably more than a match for the Gulf militaries. It might be a hard fight between them, but I think the Iranians would probably win out in the end, if only because of geography, because of where they’re positioned and how difficult it would be for the Gulf militaries to bring any kind of capacity to bear against them.

That said, for the U.S. Navy they’re not a major threat. They’re a big enough threat that the Navy could not do it in a half-hearted manner. And again, this gets to this point about what the military option looks like. This is not a fight that we want to do with one hand tied behind our back, but if we were to bring all of our capabilities to bear, I think you would find that the Iranian Navy and Air Force would have a short, very exciting life. But it’s only if we bring all of our capabilities to bear.

And that’s the point, is you shouldn’t think about this as a surgical operation where we take out three or four sites in Iran and walk away and leave the smoldering ruin. We would want to eliminate Iran’s capacity to retaliate, and maybe not the initial wave of strikes, but at some point early on in that conf conflict, I think we would find ourselves saying: You know what? We can’t risk them shutting down the Strait of Hormuz, we need to rip up this capability. We’ve got the plans, we’ve got the wherewithal to do so, but it’s going to require a major effort, and we might lose some ships and some planes doing it.

SLAVIN: The gentleman with the glasses, down there.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. David Apgar, Corporate Executive Board. How serious is drug addiction amongst Iranian youths right now? If it’s serious, how much heroin is coming from Afghanistan? And if a lot of it—is there any scope for the U.S. to try to wield positive influence by to some extent offering or trying to lock up the Afghan-Iranian border?

TAKEYH: I think that there’s a serious drug addiction. The estimates are about 2 million Iranian youth are addicted to largely the narcotics that are coming through Afghanistan. And there’s been a lot of cooperation between Iran and the United Nations and others in terms of how to deal with the question of narcotic exports and drug addiction and interdiction of that. It’s particularly the Afghan-Iranian border, which is largely a no-man land.

Those efforts have been going on in the U.N. How can the United States help? Buy up the Afghan drug crops.

QUESTIONER: Allan Gerson, Gerson International Law Group. This question is particularly for Ray. While you were speaking, I couldn’t help but look at the blurb for your new book, and it has this tantalizing phrase. It says that &Hidden Iranemphasizes, quote, “how Iran’s democratic transition must come on its own terms and at its own pace.”

I wonder if you might tell us a little bit more about what you mean. Is a democratic transition likely at all? Is there a democratic opposition that the United States could possibly support?

TAKEYH: Well, if you look at sort of Iran’s—not just demographics, because I think there’s too much emphasis on how many percentage of the population is under 30 or what have you, but it’s a country of about 85, 90 percent literacy rate. It’s a country of struggling middle class. Essentially it is a country where the population recognizes the deficiencies of its government and who is responsible for it.

And in the long term, and the long term can be a very long term, I think Iran will be gradually a changing, transformative society. Now, that increasingly may resemble sort of the China, where, you know, there’s a Chinese Communist Party but there’s nothing particularly communist about that Communist Party. It’s sort of an internal transformation on its own pace.

I don’t believe that’s something that can be generated from abroad. It’s not something that can be stimulated through broadcasts. I don’t even know what broadcasts mean in the era of global media; you know, the notion of broadcast means that Iranians will somehow listen to Radio Farda and say, “Okay, that’s what’s wrong with my society. I just had no clue that these things were wrong. Now I’m aware of it, and I’m going to go out in the street and revolt.”

I don’t understand—I might not be conceptually sophisticated to appreciate that argument, but I don’t understand it myself.

Giving money to exiles, which is—because there’s no cohesive democratic movement within Iran; there’s a democratic impulse and there are democratic sentiments, but there’s no cohesive opposition movements. But these things generate internally, and maybe the country will shift in its own momentum and its own transformation. But I don’t think that’s something you can do externally.

SLAVIN: Yes?

QUESTIONER: Andrew Pierre, Georgetown University. I wonder if both our speakers would speculate briefly on what the world would look like in 20 years if either—if Iran developed either the capability or an existing stockpile of nuclear weapons, bearing in mind that at a Carnegie Endowment meeting or Council on Foreign Relations meeting 20, 25 years ago, we all would have been very concerned about China and India and Pakistan, and yet, we’ve learned to live with that.

However, as one little sort of footnote on this, that’s before we were concerned about the sale of fissile materials, and so on, to terrorist groups. So you might want to encapsulate that thought in your answer.

Thank you.

SLAVIN: Put on your old CIA hat!

POLLACK: When I was at CIA, I always avoided doing the requests for things like that. And quite honestly, I can’t give you a firm answer what the world looks like. All I can do is lay out for you some of the issues that are out there and some of the concerns.

First, you know, your comment has within it a particular perspective. I would have disagreed with your point about Pakistan. I’m not happy that the Pakistanis have nuclear weapons. The problem is simply that we can’t do anything about it because the alternatives are horrific at the moment. And that may wind up being the case with Iran. And quite frankly, that’s one of my concerns about Iran. It’s one of the reasons I disagree with Ray in his rather glib answer before about what the Gulf States are going to do. I don’t think we know what the Iranians are going to do once they get nuclear weapons.

And, you know, you made a very good point, which is we have typically misread a lot about proliferation. We both misread the determination of states to acquire the weapons, and their behavior once they acquire them. Some of the states behave much more responsibly, and that’s what Ray is simply positing. And that may be the case. It may be that once Iran acquires this capability, they actually do behave in a more reasonable fashion. I think you could argue that China actually did behave more reasonably once they had acquired nuclear weapons, rather than less so. Pakistan, I would argue, was exactly the opposite. Pakistan was much more responsible before the 1998 nuclear tests. And there was a straight line between those 1998 nuclear tests and their ramping up for support of the separatists in Kashmir, in fact, to the point where by 2000, they were sending in their own intelligence agents in (Mufti ?) to go and stir up trouble, and that’s what led to the 2000 Kargil crisis. Now, we did get through the 2000 Kargil crisis, but I would prefer not to have too many more Kargil crises or Cuban missile crises, and especially given the capacity of the United States and Iran to misinterpret the other’s actions, those kind of crises strike me as very dangerous. And if I could keep the world from having to go through those crises, I would certainly do so.

But I think that’s going to be a critical question, is once Iran acquires this capability—and let’s assume for a moment that everyone knows they have a capability, whether or not they actually turn it into bombs or not—how do they behave? Do they become like China, more responsible? Or like Pakistan, less responsible? And, you know, there as well, to just pursue the Pakistan analogy a little bit further, there is the same issue in Iran of succession. You know, Ray had a very important caveat: as long as the Iranian regime continues to behave in its current fashion. Well, we’ve seen Ali Khamenei as rahbar now for 17 years. And you may not like Ali Khamenei, but he has actually been fairly prudent in his leadership of Iran. We have no idea who succeeds Ali Khamenei as rahbar, and it’s probably going to happen within the next five to eight years, because this is not a man who’s in very good health. We just do not know who follows him. And, you know, there are clerics out there who are angling to succeed him who could be much more aggressive and could put the fear into a whole lot of countries around them and make the region a lot less stable. On the other hand, there are other people who may take over his mantle who would be even more responsible, even more prudent, that could steer Iran in a very different direction.

So again, for me, it’s why Iran with a nuclear weapon is a very important for the issue—or for the United States and for the region, because there are tremendous unknowns. And I think you could see the region move in very different directions, depending on when they acquired the nuclear weapon, who was leading Iran and how they chose to behave.

TAKEYH: If you look at the—I think we were talking about this the other day—the history of nuclear weapon states, there’s always been leakage. The United States shared their technology with Britain and France. France shared it with Israel. Israel shared with South Africa. China shared it with Pakistan and North Korea. North Korea shared it with everybody— Pakistan shared it with everybody else, so Iran, in that sense, if it follows the normative trajectory of how nuclear weapon states behave, one can stipulate some degree of leakage. Now, Iran may be the exception. But in terms of bad behavior, Iran is rarely the exception. That’s cause for alarm and that’s cause for concern.

In terms of who will succeed Ali Khamenei, we’ll have a better idea this December, when there’s an election for the Assembly of Experts, whose responsibility is the choice of successor and overseeing the Office of the Supreme Leader. My experience with the Islamic Republic is as bad as the incumbents are, the successors are always worse. (Laughs, laughter.) That may again be different. The contenders for this particular office at this particular point don’t lend a great degree of confidence.

SLAVIN: (Laughs.) That’s not an endorsement of Rafsanjani, is it?

TAKEYH: Well, I mean, there’s four tendencies competing for this election.

Number one, the reformists are. They’re putting up some candidates.

Number two, traditional conservatives, you know, traditional clergy.

Number three is Rafsanjani’s people.

And number four is—(inaudible)—people.

So there’s the four political factions that are contesting the December 10-11 th Assembly of Experts race. And I think that already the minister of Interior is already busy excising the reformists, so—(laughter)—

SLAVIN: Okay. So many hands here. I’m going to go here and then to that gentleman. First, here.

QUESTIONER: Spurgeon Keeny, National Academy of Sciences. So far, this whole discussion seems to indicate there are no attractive options and focuses on when will Iran go nuclear with a weapons state. I’d like to question the group, ask their comments on a different kind of option, which we could have done in the past and maybe we still could, and that is to accept at face value Iran’s statement that this is a peaceful program and couple that with their ratification of a reinforced additional protocol to the IAEA safeguards, which they are still associated with, and in addition, encourage rather than try to prevent arrangements such as Russian Bushehr reactors, where fuel is made available and at attractive prices and then returned to the source.

If this approach were taken, or had been taken, would this tend to open up Iran more and be more favorable in a change in orientation of leadership than the present tack, which seems to have no interesting prospect of success, and what would have been in the past or what would be in the future that rather radical change in approach to the problem.

POLLACK: To some extent, what you’re suggesting actually was the going-in position of the Europeans. They weren’t able to accept Iranian enrichment. And I don’t know if you were indicating, Dr. Keeny, whether or not you’d be willing to allow that.

QUESTIONER: Yes, to allow that.

POLLACK: Allow enrichment? Okay. But safeguards over them.

You get into an interesting area. Certainly the Europeans were very willing to accept a lot of Iranian nuclear program as long as there were appropriate safeguards. The Iranians resisted a lot of the safeguards. They resisted early on a lot of the demands from the IAEA for greater information, cooperativeness, et cetera. They have agreed to but never fully ratified the additional protocol. So there’s been a lot of resistance on the Iranian side.

There’s also been a lot of doubt on the Western side as to whether you could actually allow them the technology for full enrichment and then be confident in the safeguards. You know, for me—and this is now me just speaking—the lesson that I learned from Iraq is that if the safeguards are strong enough, we ought to have actually a lot of confidence in them. You know, before Iraq, we were just certain that the IAEA wasn’t catching the Iraqi—and I—you know, I was guilty of—as guilty of this as anyone—just certain that the Iraqis were fooling the IAEA, they were not being caught.

What we learned after the war was in fact the IAEA was catching them, by and large; and more importantly, that it wasn’t a matter of you have to catch every single thing they do. Simply what you had to do was you had to create a system that made it likely that you were going to catch them from time to time, and whenever you caught them, they would be sanctioned for doing so.

That’s what ultimately convinced Saddam to end his program. It wasn’t that he believed that the IAEA was going to catch everything that he was doing. It was simply that he was being caught enough times to keep the sanctions applied to them. And so under those circumstances, you know, I personally would be willing to look at that.

But again, I don’t have the technical background that you have or that other experts have to be able to say whether we could design an inspection regime that was intrusive enough to make us feel comfortable that if the Iranians had a major secret program going along, given the fact that we’ve now allowed them the enrichment technology, that we would have confidence that we’re going to catch them and—and this is an important additional element—that the Security Council would sanction them appropriately once they were caught, which is a big problem on Iran, going back to what Ray was saying beforehand; that you might catch them and the Security Council might just be willing to turn the other way. If you could build in a system where that was in place, I think it would be an interesting thing to think about.

SLAVIN: I think we’re getting toward the last questions, so, let’s see, why don’t we take two or three at a time. Okay. (Laughs.) No, these two had their hands up before. This gentleman and this gentleman. I think that will probably do it.

QUESTIONER: Herman Cohen, Johns Hopkins. Ray, envisaging Iran as a regional hegemon, would they be able to resist the pull of Shi’ite liberation in the Gulf states, in Saudi Arabia?

QUESTIONER: Same question as Marvin Kalb’s earlier question about regional implications, except in this case about Israel. How far are the Israelis likely to allow the Iranian nuclear program to continue? And at the point where they are about to do something, what would the United States government be saying to them?

SLAVIN: Okay. Ray, why don’t you—

TAKEYH: The question of Shi’ism within the Gulf, as opposed to Iraq, which is a different issue, at this particular point Iran’s foreign policy toward the Gulf states is not necessarily a concern with their internal composition, but their external behavior. And so long as their external behavior meets whatever modest mandates Iranians have, they’re not particularly concerned about how the Gulf states rule themselves, whether they have a monarchical government or an Islamic government, whether they integrate the Shi’i minorities, they don’t. So it’s very much a realistic approach.

That really began in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war and has persisted into three successive presidencies—Rafsanjani, Khatami and even Ahmadinejad. He has never spoken about the terms that Iranians used to employ in the 1980s calling for uprisings in these countries. So it’s very much a realpolitik approach and has persisted. One can therefore assume it is a durable orientation, although with Iran, durability is a point of contention.

The question of Israel, I’ll let Ken deal with that.

SLAVIN: Iraq and Lebanon, though, are two cases where the Iranians have been much more active, and presumably would continue to be, and even more so if they were—

TAKEYH: In Iraq, the Shi’i population is the governing population, so it’s not that they’re siding with the Shi’is per se; they’re siding with the elected government. And Iranians have many balanced claims in Iraq. Number one, they’re interested in Iraq’s territorial cohesion because the fragmentation of it would present them with certain problems, particularly in terms of the Kurdish population.

Number two, they’re interested in an eventual expulsion and departure of the United States. I don’t believe in the argument that they like the Americans where they are, bleeding. I think they’d like to see the Americans leave. That’s been the historical policy of Iran going back to the shah; namely, the security of the Persian Gulf has to be met by indigenous actors.

Number three, they would also like the empowerment of the Shi’i community not as a gesture of solidarity with their co-religionists, but many of the leading Shi’i political parties have intimate, close relations with Iran.

And finally, they’d like to have some Iraq whereby it is a weak central government but strong provinces because such government will be unlikely to contest Iran’s predominance in the Gulf. And the question—the solution to all these competing demands, the way you get the Iraq that I just described is through a democratic process.

POLLACK: On Israel. Briefly, if we have some issues in terms of a military option against Iran, Israel has much bigger ones. In our case, it’s simply a matter of the repercussions and what do we need to deal with. In the case of Israel, there’s a big question mark as to what they can actually accomplish. We like to—we think about Israel as being this almost invincible force in the Middle East. Their military is limited by things like distance. In the case of Iran, distance is very important.

When you talk to Israelis from all stripes, they absolutely believe that the diplomatic approach on Iran is THE single best way to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. And they have been extremely supportive of the Bush administration’s participation. It’s one of the reasons that the Bush administration got into this process. And you’ll remember that up until 2005, they were not committed to this process. The Europeans were trying desperately to bring them along, and there was a lot of resistance in the administration. The Israelis saying, “We think this is the right way to handle it” was an important element in that change of heart in the Bush administration.

If this diplomatic track does play out—and Barbara was suggesting that we may be at the end of a string; that may well be the case—then I think the Israelis are going to have some very interesting choices to make. And you are going to get Israelis saying, “As bad as the military option is, it’s better than the alternatives. Let’s do it.”

You also are going to have Israelis saying, “As bad as Iran is with this capability, we can live with them.” And I have heard any number of high-ranking Israelis say something to that effect.

So the debate is not going to simply be open and shut. Once the diplomatic thread plays out, there will be a debate in Israel. But as I’ve suggested before, it’s a debate I’d really prefer that the Israelis not have.

SLAVIN: I think, on that note, we are at our time limit. And I want to thank everybody for coming and thank our guests very much. (Applause.) Very good discussion.

 

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