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Will Deal With Iran Be Worked Out?

Interviewee: Gary G. Sick, Executive Director, Gulf/2000 Project, Columbia University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 21, 2008

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Gary Sick, a longtime expert on Iran who served as the Iran officer in the National Security Councils of the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations, says there is pressure on both the Iranian and U.S. governments to accept a compromise to move negotiations forward on eventually halting Iran’s uranium-enrichment program. “Neither side wants to show that it is losing face, or that it is caving in or appeasing the other side, but both sides are interested in finding a way out of this conundrum,” he says.

There was considerable anticipation in advance of Saturday’s meeting in Geneva between the Security Council permanent five plus Germany and the Iranian nuclear negotiator. There had been reports of a softening in Iran's position, and the United States sent its third-ranking State Department official to sit in on these talks. Are we nearing some kind of breakthrough or are we just going to keep going more or less as we've been going?

It's really impossible to predict, and I don't like to make predictions about these things. It is clear that Iran is in a good bargaining position. It has been given an offer that they certainly have not rejected straight out of hand, [namely to] stop building new centrifuges and keep your production where it is and we'll then use that as the basis to talk. Thus far, they have not bought that, but they have shown great interest in it, and there is enough domestic pressure in Iran that it is going to be hard for them to reject it outright.

We’ll see what happens in the next two weeks. On the U.S. side, there has been a recognition that our sanctions, which have after all been in place for thirteen years and have increased in severity over that time, have not in fact stopped Iran from building centrifuges and expanding its nuclear capability. Probably something new has to be tried. The combination of the two makes for a very interesting situation. Neither side wants to show that it is losing face, or that it is caving in or appeasing the other side, but both sides are interested in finding a way out of this conundrum.

The Wall Street Journal has become the spokesman, through its op-ed pieces, of the neoconservative line. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and today Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute have both lashed out at the Bush administration for essentially “appeasing” the Iranians. What do you make of that?

The articles by Bolton and Rubin very clearly say that those hard-liners who have a very clear idea of what U.S. policy should be feel betrayed. They feel that the United States has taken an unacceptable position. That to me is the best indication that something real is going on here. There are people on the Iranian side, in a much more muted way, who are making arguments against the leadership for being too soft and not taking advantage of what they see as their advantageous position. You have hard-liners on both sides, in Iran and the United States, not for the first time, agreeing with each other, and, in fact, reinforcing each other.

The other aspect is the Israel position. Lately, the Israelis have been much more hawkish officially than the Americans on this whole question. In fact, a prominent Israeli historian, Benny Morris, had an op-ed piece saying Israel would “almost surely” attack Iran’s nuclear sites in the next four to seven months.

Benny Morris left no doubt whatsoever that Israel would attack. He is not alone. There are other hard-liners in Israel who feel that Israel has no choice but to attack, but they don't answer the fundamental question about what happens if you do attack. First of all, it is very clear that Israel cannot do the job by itself and would have to have American assistance not only to carry it out, but also to follow up. Clearly, one quick strike like the bombing of the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 cannot do it. Iran has spread these [sites] around over a wide range of territory and buried many of them deep underground. One bombing raid isn't going to do it.

And it's hard to believe that Israel could carry out multiple bombing raids, even if they decided to try to do it without U.S. assistance. Then what do you get at the end of your bombing raid? Iran can predictably be expected to resign from the Nonproliferation Treaty and to declare that it's going for a nuclear weapon built totally underground with no International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors present and probably make more progress than they have been making over the past twenty-odd years since they decided to go for a nuclear infrastructure. In fact, their progress has been very slow. So, in the end, you are probably making it more likely that Iran will get a nuclear weapon, perhaps even faster, and probably the Iranian people will gravitate around this hard-liner government that they don't particularly like out of national support.

It certainly seems there is not much support right now in Washington for an Israeli attack.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made it very clear during and right after his recent visit to Israel that he would not give them a green light to conduct such a strike. And he has made it clear since he returned that was not something the Israelis looked kindly on. Basically, if Israel did in fact use their submarine cruise missiles, or conducted some kind of sneak attack by air, without U.S. support, which wouldn't be easy to do, the world would not believe that the United States did not conspire with them, no matter whether it's true or not. And the retaliation would be very heavily against the United States, as well as Israel. We would find ourselves in a very untenable position, and would be almost forced to go to war. If you are the prime minister of Israel, and you decide that you are going to take the United States to war against its will, that is a very dangerous thing for any Israel politician to even think about doing. I find it very hard to believe that an Israel prime minister would in fact do that.

In addition, there has been a story floated that the United States was thinking of trying to open an interests section in Tehran—a step short of diplomatic relations. The Iranians already have one in Washington. Do you think the story is coming from the State Department?

Oh it must be. What's interesting is that the administration has certainly not denied the rumors. So it's accurate to say that this is under consideration.

And you have President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying he would welcome this.

This is also a little bit surprising, because that is in fact the first step toward diplomatic relations. It isn't diplomatic relations itself, but the United States, after all, is the country which broke relations with Iran in 1980 after the takeover of the U.S. embassy and the 444-day holding of American hostages. If relations are to be reestablished, the interest has to come from our side. That is the way international law works. This would be a very interesting first step in initiating that process. Now, we are very far away from formal diplomatic relations, but the fact that the United States has opened up this policy and that the Iranians have seemed to warm to it, is interesting in itself. And it does mark a change on both sides.

It is a little baffling. We’ve had people talking about possibly compromising, we've had hardliners talking about being tougher. Talks will resume in two weeks, but I guess there is no guarantee that anything will happen.

There really isn't. To me, the crucial point here is that the two sides are in fact bargaining. Each side is trying to look tough, and saying, "We're not giving away anything." Each side is being coy. But neither side is walking away, neither side is saying we're having nothing to do with this. Each side seems to be ready to continue to play the game, although I can imagine that the United States would stay away from the next talks in two weeks as a gesture to say that we are not going to be pushed around, but that is a negotiation strategy. A lot of what is going on, actually over the last six months or so, of threats and counterthreats and so forth, has been negotiation strategy. This is not so much to prepare the world for another major war in the Middle East, but that each side wants to portray itself as being in a position of strength so it can get the maximum amount of bargaining leverage.

I really see that as the driving force behind what has been going on, but we'll see where that ends. The Iranians are infuriating negotiators; they make suggestions, they walk up to the line, then they walk away. They pretend to be uninterested when they really are. They come back later on and give you half a loaf, when you were looking for a whole loaf.

The Iranians actually do want an agreement of some sort, if they can maintain their present infrastructure, those three thousand centrifuges that are there, with no uranium going through them, or inert gas. The centrifuges would be spinning, you can demonstrate that you have the capability to do this, but you aren't actually using them to create enriched uranium. That is one very significant possibility at some stage along the way. Up until now, the United States has taken a very hard-line position that we don't want a single centrifuge spinning. That is over. I don't believe that is an attainable position and judging from where we're at in negotiations, the United States has passively recognized that's probably not likely to happen. In the meantime, it's a losing game to pretend that it's going to happen.

Isn’t the “freeze for freeze” proposal just that?

Yes. They could keep their three thousand centrifuges. That was a very attractive idea to Iran and that part of the deal is what makes it possible that Iran will in fact accept it in one form or other before this game is over.

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