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Iran's Nuclear Program Symposium: Iran's Motives and Strategy [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]

Speakers: Patrick Clawson, Deputy Director for Research, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Mahmood Sariolghalam, Professor of International Relations, School Of Economics and Political Science, National University of Iran, and Karim Sadjadpour, International Crisis Group
Presider: Deborah S. Amos, National Public Radio
April 5, 2006
Council on Foreign Relations New York, NY

Council on Foreign Relations
New York, NY

 

DEBORAH AMOS: It’s time—we have a lot to talk about. We have some very, very good panelists to do so.

Our brief for the next session is “Iran’s Motives and Strategies.”

A couple of housekeeping items. You have all been on break, so please check once again your cell phones—I’ve turned mine off—and any other wireless devices that you might have with you. I want to remind you that this session is on the record and participants around the nation and the world are viewing this meeting on a live webcast on the council’s website, and that is www.cfr.org.

We are not the technical panel, but we have the most technical challenge. One of our guests is in Washington on the big screen. This reminds me of MacNeil/Lehrer when they always have the big guy on one of the screens. And he is Karim Sadjadpour who is with the International Crisis Group. I thought I’d introduce you first, Karim, because there you are. And he is taking the place of Ray Takeyh who could not be here today, and we thank you very much for filling in. But he can hear us; he cannot see us. We can see you.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I see you actually.

AMOS: Oh you can, oh good. They figured that out for you.

I’m going to go through the introductions quickly, because you all have everybody’s bios in your packets, so that we can get to the questions and questions from the floor as quickly as possible.

We have Patrick Clawson, who’s the deputy director of research, Washington Institute for Near East Policy; and Mahmood Sariolghalam, who is a professor of international relations, School of Economics and Political Science, National University of Iran.

And we had a discussion the other day outlining what we would all talk about here and I didn’t realize until today that one of us was in Amman, Jordan, one of us was in Tehran, and the other was in London. And so now we are all together—and one in Washington—to discuss the internal dynamics of Iran. And we’ll try to go as deeply as possible into the details of that.

But I want to start with what may be an obvious question, and that is, does Iran want the bomb? And if they do, why do they?

And Patrick can we start with you?

PATRICK CLAWSON: Well, to answer a question like that, there’s two ways we could approach it. One’s the easy way and one’s the correct way. Not surprisingly, most people prefer the easy way, which is to say, if I were the Iranians, what would I do? And then we try and find the defensive reason why someone would want the bomb, because bombs—a nuclear bomb—really seems to make sense only as a doomsday device, as a last defense kind of device in the modern world. And it’s hard to come up with much of an explanation as to why Iran might want a bomb for those kinds of reasons, because while it’s often said Iran lives in a dangerous neighborhood, actually Iran is surrounded by troubled and failing states, not but countries that want to invade and overrun it. And so it’s harder to come up with an explanation as to why Iran would want such a bomb for defensive reasons.

The more correct approach is to say, what do Iran’s leaders’ actions and statements indicate about why they might want a bomb. And there, it seems to be pretty broad consensus among Iranian leaders that Iran should play more of an important role in the region and that Iran is, in many ways, not a status quo power. Iranians do think of themselves as a great power in the region and want to have more influence than they neighbors seem to be comfortable with. And Iran has certainly put a lot of effort into expanding its influence in lots of areas, such as into Hezbollah in Lebanon, which would suggest that the Iranians—many Iranians—do, indeed want to play a greater role in the region.

Now, there’s also this very troubling element of the current Iranian president and his own visions, which seem at times to be chiliastics with the idea that the way in which you can bring the end of days is by fighting God’s enemies. And he seems not to mind a confrontation with the West—think it may rekindle revolutionary fervor. And we don’t have a good idea how many people in the Iranian leadership share that vision. It doesn’t seem to go that deep, but it would seem that in general there is a big element of wanting to have bigger influence.

Plus, of course, there is this very strong feeling among many Iranians that their country should be a powerful and modern country and that powerful and modern countries have powerful and modern weapons.

AMOS: Mahmood, let’s put the question then this way: Does everybody want the bomb in Tehran?

MAHMOOD SARIOLGHALAM: I think what Iran and Iranians want is recognition, power, assertiveness and a return to the Iranian family—use this word, imperial days. Iranians of all political walks of life, I think from nationalist Islamists to secular people and so on, they do have an imperial mind-set. I think with or without the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iran would be seeking as much as power that it can produce at the regional level. Iranian size population, the academic capability in the country, the young population, human resources, historical identity of the country—all of these ingredients produce a situation where there’s an inclination for any political leadership in that country by any political orientation to pursue power relations at the national and at the regional level.

Perhaps the problem with the current situation in Iran over the last couple of decades has been that Iran has not had the political wisdom on how to pursue this objective. Perhaps we can also say that this is a revolutionary country still. Iranian government is still a revolutionary government. The Iranian society is not. If I were to make a comparison, I think were at the Brezhnev era of the Iranian revolution. It’s a status quo power, a defensive posturing state, that is trying to maintain itself. But the base of this power that the Iranian government is pursuing is more or less military and also defensive. I won’t say Iran is an offensive country anymore. I think in the 1980s, Iran was an offensive country, but not any longer.

So I think the maintenance of the political order is so significant for the top leadership that is pursuing kind of a military and a defensive strategy. If Iran were to become a country like Malaysia or Turkey, it should have followed a completely different path and a strategy. But I think Iran with the current political leadership cannot become Malaysia or Turkey because economic paradigm or economic development is not a priority for the current political leadership. And that also has to do with the fact that the first-generation revolutionaries of Iran are still pursuing an ideological or a kind of a defensive strategy to maintain the country and the revolution. Whereas the Iranian society, which is so complex, multilayered, differentiated, has all sorts of orientations. But I would say that the majority of the Iranians are interested in economic development and also trying to reorient the country towards becoming an economic power, a country recognized at the international level.

So there is some kind of perhaps discrepancy intellectually and conceptually between the priorities of the state of the priorities of the population at large.

AMOS: Let me ask Karim a little bit more about this. You have a revolutionary leadership and a nonrevolutionary street, a country that’s in a postwar climate. And I wanted to ask Karim if you can talk a little bit about that street, about is there a discrepancy in opinion in the population and do they have any affect on the leadership?

SADJADPOUR: Well, thank you for asking. It’s a very important question.

First, I wanted to send my best regards to Ray Takeyh and his wife, Suzanne.

You know, much has been written about the Iranian street being widely in favor of this nuclear program, that—you know, agreeing with their leader’s foreign policy. And I would argue that this perception has been exaggerated in the sense that, you know, as Professor Sariolghalam mentioned, is a nationalistic country—(inaudible)—civilization. So some people obviously do feel strongly about this nuclear issue. They say, you know, India, Pakistan, Israel can have this project, why can’t we, Iran?

At the same time, I would argue that, you know, this is a very young population—two-thirds under 30—and they’re still very much emerging from this postwar depression of the Iran-Iraq war. You know, this was the bloodiest war of the second half of the 20th century. And people don’t romanticize about the prospect of conflict, about the prospect of militarization in Iran. So while some people may feel nationalistic, I can count just as many people who are concerned about this project or are ambivalent.

And frankly, this is a very technical project—you know, the act of enriching uranium indigenously as opposed to importing enriched uranium from abroad. So the idea that your average Iranian waking up in the morning in Yazd or Shiraz says, you know, what’s missing from my life is enriched uranium. (Laughter.)

Now, are they relevant to the debate among the elite? I would argue that they’re not terribly relevant. This is an elite-driven project, as Professor Sariolghalam mentioned. There are intense debates taking place behind the scenes in Iran among, you know, the more pragmatic, among the reformists, among the more hard-liners. And I think the perception among the elites currently is that if we succumb to pressure, if we give in to outside pressure, this is not going to get us out of the hole, this is simply going to display weakness and invite further pressure from the outside. So I think there is one line of thinking, which perhaps currently prevails in Tehran that we need to hold tough on our line because, again, if we give in to pressure, it’s only going to invite more pressure.

AMOS: Let me ask you, Professor, we have now established that most Iranians want the bomb one way or the other, but the price they’re willing to pay is then the question. And so I wonder if you can give us some ideas of the different strains of thought—I mean, this is a very complicated society and a very complicated power structure. So do the businessmen see it the same way as the technocrats and the government? Are there different calculations among different parts of the elite society?

SARIOLGHALAM: I have not really observed any intellectual or media discussion in Iran about the inclination to have the bomb. I think there has been quite a bit of discussion on encouraging the state or supporting the state to pursue the nuclear option to diversify national energy resources. But I don’t think there is a public discussion on the whole question of the bomb. So at the university level, at the social level and some of the polling that has been done in Iran all defer to the public sentiment to make Iran as powerful as one can. And I think because Iran deserves to be a very powerful country in terms of its economy and its size and resources—and that has been a fundamental failure in the last two decades with declining per capita income in Iran—I think the average citizen in this country feels that they have been demonized over the last two decades, they’ve been degraded over time—whereas the country has quite a bit of talent and it can produce a major regional power. So I think there is a psychological, subjective interest on the part of the average citizen for Iran to become powerful.

The average person does not know the details of the nuclear program, but it’s been turned into a national pride issue or a national prosperity and recognition at the regional level. And also, one of the interesting lines in the Iranian media that if Iran becomes nuclear, Iran will be a member of a very exclusive club at the international level, and that feeds into the psychological need of the average person that is interested for Iran to become powerful. When Iranians go to Dubai or they go to Istanbul or maybe a little further and they see how the country has fallen behind, I think there is a convergence of a political interest on the part of the elites and a social and perhaps a subjective interest on the part of the average person that has fed into the national debate.

AMOS: Patrick, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the conflicts in societies that are faced with the possibility of sanctions—you know, the military option is said to be on the table—but no matter what, it’s trouble and it’s trouble with the West. And do all these groups inside Iran agree that the trouble with the West is worth it?

CLAWSON: Well, what’s particularly disturbing is that the president of Iran seems to feel that conflict with the West at the very least is nothing particularly to worry about and may indeed be a good thing because it may be a good way to rekindle the revolutionary fervor of the early years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And Ahmadinejad is quite an astute politician in some ways, recognizes that the banner of Islam is longer going to be the one that people rally behind, but on the other hand that nationalism could be that kind of a cause that could rally people to the revolutionary values that he upholds. It’s quite striking since that when this revolution came in, it was dubious thoughts about Iranian nationalism but has managed to reinvent itself as now a nationalist revolution.

For most ordinary Iranians and for an important part of the elite, especially in the business community, but also many technocrats, as Mahmood was saying, the interest is much more about economic prosperity and modernity. And their concern is much more how can the country modernize itself? How can the country be accepted as an important part of the outside world?

And so therefore, for them, the idea of sanctions and being cut off from the outside world grates. And if the sanctions were to be imposed in Iran in a way that hit the economy, it’s quite possible that the West would be blamed. But I certainly think that the Ahmadinejad government and hard-liners would get a lot of blame, a sense that why did they bring us into this conflict? What happened?

But at least so far, Ahmadinejad can argue quite convincingly that look, so far all that’s happened is talk. After all, what happens at the Security Council? They just talk and pass resolutions. And so his tough negotiating stance, if anything, has won a certain degree of respect that hey, we stood up to those guys and, in fact, we’re getting something. We haven’t had to give in and we haven’t had to pay a price. So as long as there’s no price to be paid, this plays pretty well. We’re standing up and we’re showing how important we are.

Yet, if there’s a price to be paid, then this could change rather sharply. And I would suspect that a lot of people in the governing circles, including the supreme leader, who have been prepared to let Ahmadinejad run with the ball so far have done it because he has been able to convincingly argue there’s no price to be paid. If there’s a price to be paid, then these technocrats and business types who are very nervous about what’s going on right now, then their criticism is going to be listened to rather carefully by the supreme leader and by senior clerics who, by nature, are rather conservative folk, not risking things, and they say well, let’s pull back here.

AMOS: Karim, that’s an interesting question and let’s about that because those discussions may begin soon. And I wondered if you could talk about the mechanics of who does that talking, who calls the shots. Are there people that get to walk into the president’s office and say, “Excuse me, Mr. President, but this is getting serious”? And does he listen?

CLAWSON: Or Mr. Supreme Leader.

AMOS: Or Mr. Supreme Leader. Does he listen to voices outside an inner circle? Can you talk about that mechanism?

SADJADPOUR: Sure. I think that, you know, as we all know, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is the person who’s steering this nuclear ship. Now, Khamenei ruled the country by consensus rather than decree. He is not a dictator like Saddam Hussein. I think he’s filled with a room full of advisers, much like the room I’m filled with now, and oftentimes, you know, converses with those on his right-hand side, those on his left-hand side, offering differing advice. But I think if we look at Ayatollah Khamenei’s track record the last 17 years that he’s been supreme leader, I would argue that he’s a leader who wants neither confrontation nor accommodation with the West. He doesn’t want an out and out crisis, but I think he is very wary and especially mistrustful of the United States.

As I mentioned earlier, I think there is a concern. There’s a great feeling of schizophrenia right now in Tehran. On one hand, the country feels very much emboldened, given, you know, the surging prices of oil. It has a $30 billion oil surplus. It’s doing very well. And Iraq—they believe that, quote-unquote, “Iranian soft power” is dominating U.S. hard power in Iraq. So on one hand, they do feel emboldened, but at the same time, they do very much feel vulnerable, they feel concern.

You know, I’ve had talks with Iranian officials where they say, you know, we’re not stupid. We look all around us; we’re surrounded by the United States, by U.S. troops. I think the danger right now is absent, you know, direct dialogue between the United States and Iran; each side doesn’t necessarily know what the other side’s red lines are, and so this has a danger of potentially escalating. I think this is the concern we should all be aware of now.

AMOS: Well, that direct dialogue may happen because of Iraq. There are talks about talks between the U.S. ambassador and Iranian officials—it’s supposed to be contained to Iraq. But let’s add to that question, if it stays contained, do you think in that meeting? And B, how does Iraq’s position and Iran’s powerful position inside Iraq—how does that play into the nuclear debate? Does that make the Iranians feel that now it’s time?

SARIOLGHALAM: I think it should be emphasized that the current power configuration in Iran, the way the power structure has been set up over the years and its ideological orientation—I believe it requires a low-scale, contained, nonmilitary confrontation with the West. I think resolution of problems of Iran with the West would cause serious difficulty for the Iranian government. So I think Iran has maintained some degree of conflict confrontation. It has many incentives internally in the country. So I think Iranian-Iraq policy, Iranian-Persian Gulf policy, Iranian-Afghanistan policy, Iranian-Lebanon policy or even Palestinian-Israeli policy, these are all ingredients of a general outlook on trying to have bargaining chips vis-a-vis the United States.

There was a time, perhaps in the 1980s, when the idea of exporting the revolution provided some degree of offensive posturing for Iran. Iran wanted to spread the idea, but today I think those elements of Iranian assertiveness reflect bargaining chips and maneuvering room vis-a-vis Iranian security policy with the United States.

We should keep in mind that from a security perspective, Iran is an isolated country. Perhaps from an economic point of view, from a cultural point of view, from a political point of view, Iran may not be that isolated. Iran is all over the world. But from a security perspective, this is a very indigenous state with its own indigenous perceptions of issues. So I think some degree of confrontation provides security for the top elites in Iran, and that’s why I think the nuclear issue also is added to that low-scale confrontation.

I think the policy is not to provoke the United States. The policy is not to intervene in the Iraqi landscape from an operational perspective. But the policy is to make sure that some degree of confrontation and conflict is maintained because that provides quite a bit of political incentive for the top elites to maintain the security apparatus, the military apparatus, the priorities of the state.

So that’s why I think a correlation with the Soviet Union and the Brezhnev era is so interesting and an interesting parallel to what’s happening inside Iran.

AMOS: But Karim, can they get it wrong? I mean, I understand what you’re saying that you need to keep that low boil going because it gives you the reason for why you do what you do internally.

SARIOLGHALAM: In other words, it’s the raison d’etre of the political system.

AMOS: But can you get it wrong? I mean, you’ve got two countries that don’t talk to each other, that have bad history, and can both of these capitals misjudge each other?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I think this is the great concern right now. You know, Professor Sariolghalam, I think, is really the cream of the crop of Iranian analysts and I agree with almost all of what he said, but I think there is a concern that, you know, given this lack of dialogue, this lack of communication between the two sides, and given—you know, essentially we have a dilemma right now where neither side—neither the United States nor Iran—the United States doesn’t believe that—(inaudible)—them to acquiesce on their current policy—neither the Europeans, you know. If we were still talking about the era of Mohammed Khatami, it’s one thing, but there’s a great concern, especially among European officials I speak to, that, you know, how can we put incentives on the table to—and Iran under Ahmadinejad—that we didn’t put on the table during the Khatami era. Essentially we’re sending the message to Tehran that a belligerent foreign policy reaps rewards.

But as I keep on mentioning, from the Iranian side as well there’s a perception that it doesn’t behoove us to acquiesce on our policy that if we give in to pressure, it’s only going to invite further pressure. So we’re in a game of chicken right now with both cars moving at each other, you know, full speed ahead and neither side believes it behooves them to get out of the way. So I think there is a danger for some type of a confrontation.

AMOS: Patrick, both of these analysts are talking about an Iran that needs some confrontation with the West for domestic purposes, but it almost suggests that the bomb is not the end of it, that what they want is to continue to have this confrontation. And if they get reined in a bit, that’s all right, just so long as they have this sort of revolutionary flag to wave around. Do you buy that, or do you think that it is a bigger issue for them than that?

CLAWSON: Look, I would largely accept your analysis, but I would draw out of it rather a different conclusion, which is to say that the use of intermediaries in this discussion and the use of the international community’s discussion and the advantage of the Russians being the ones who are making the offer, which the Iranians can accept, is magnified by precisely the need, as Mahmood put it, for there to be some kind of a low-level confrontation between Iran and the United States for this regime in Iran, and that therefore, involving the Europeans and now the Russians as the ones who are making the offer makes it much more acceptable for the leaders in Tehran to be accepting something which is being proposed by a broad international community, especially if someone like the Russians are at the spearhead of this, than it is to be accepting the American offer.

And if it’s seen that the Americans are reluctantly being dragged along by the Russians into accepting this, then the offer can be presented as well, see, the Americans had to compromise and we didn’t have to give in to the unreasonable American demands.

On the other hand, if the matter becomes an American-Iranian issue, then all the kinds of concerns Mahmood was raising come rack smack to the fore and make it extraordinary difficult to reach an agreement. Yet, if it’s something that can be fought at the level of the international community, much more acceptable for the Iranian government then to present what it’s doing as acquiescing to a request made by what are in many ways seen as non-antagonistic countries.

AMOS: And then it’s possible to have the kinds of agreements that our technical panel talked about in the first hour where you have hyper inspection teams and that would all be acceptable.

SARIOLGHALAM: If I can intervene on this—it may be a bit surprising to this audience to hear that the nuclear issue is not really the central issue in the mind-set of the top elites, I believe. I have great interest in political psychological and cognitive studies and sometimes I try with whatever data I have to get into the mind-set of the elites and see how they decide and how they shape policies.

I think there is a perception that is kind of leading the Iranian approach to the nuclear issue and that perception is that the ultimate American goal in these negotiations is not to stop Iran from becoming nuclear. The ultimate goal is to go further to talk about the Iranian constitution, human rights record, unelected officials and, ultimately, regime change. So what Karim was saying about the lack of communication between the two countries and perceptions—especially in Iran being shaped in an indigenous revolutionary kind of a framework—I think kind of leads to the conclusion that Iran should be firm. Iran should use the nuclear issue to stand up to its survival and to be able to maintain itself and to maintain its revolutionary and ideological and also national integrity. So I think that perception is so central as a (known ?) nuclear issue within the nuclear debates within the Iranian elites.

(Audio break)—the Iranian supreme leader has openly said that he supports negotiations with the United States on a functional issue, meaning the Iraqi issue. That is the first time at the official level Iran has, you know, announced that it’s willing to talk with the Americans directly. And I think that is also a reflection of the fact that Iran is thinking that by negotiation it can perhaps confine the issue to the Iraqi issue, to the nuclear issue, and so on, and that the larger American concerns and perhaps medium-term to long-term objectives could be postponed and delayed.

So I think both perceptions are very real. They may not be out in the open. Nobody discusses them openly, but I think they are deep inside the mind-set.

AMOS: And let’s just ask the other two panelists before we open it up to other questions. You begin to answer the question, does Iraq have something to do with the time line? Does Iran feel that this is the moment to move? Those issues were raised earlier today, that they are putting (facts ?) on the ground and they seem to be in a hurry.

CLAWSON: Look, Iran feels extraordinarily confident at the moment, as Karim and Mahmood have been saying, that between the combination of high oil prices, the United States being tied down in their perception in Iraq and Afghanistan, the sense that their kind of ideology is on a roll with the elections in Palestine as well as in Iraq, Iran feels extraordinarily self-confident at the moment. And Iran has a long history of overcalculating its position. It dates back to the confrontation with Alexander the Great. (Laughter.)

And I would just suggest that, on the other hand, there is this sense of vulnerability, that if we give in to pressure, that there will be more pressure and more pressure and more pressure. And that is inevitable in the relationship between the United States and Iran. That’s not characteristic of just the relationship with the Bush administration. It was very much the attitude with the Clinton administration.

And that suggests to me that that’s why it’s so wise to put somebody else in charge of this. If this is a U.S.-Iranian confrontation, it’s not going to get settled. If this is the United States in charge of coming up with a settlement to the nuclear issue, it ain’t gonna happen. It ain’t gonna happen.

And we are in the very frustrating and unnatural position of the indispensable superpower; that, in fact, it is indispensable for us to have somebody else the Iranians are more likely to trust, that they’ll be less fearful of, take charge of this matter. That’s the only way it’s going to get successfully settled diplomatically is if somebody else is in charge of this.

AMOS: I’m going to open it up to questions from the floor. Karim, I think that we’ve done that one.

Let me say a couple of things before we start. Wait for the microphone, please. Speak directly into it. I don’t think I have to tell you that. State your name and affiliation. And please limit your questions, and try not to make statements. I know that’s hard here, but please. And let’s start with you.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, hi. Ira Stoll from the New York Sun. A question for Patrick Clawson. You just finished talking about how it was necessary for someone else to take the lead if we were going to get a settlement with Iran. And I wonder if you were just talking about the nuclear issue or about the whole kind of expanding and collapsing basket of issues with Iran, including terrorism, Israel, internal human rights. And if all those issues can’t be settled, aren’t we just sort of postponing the inevitable reckoning?

CLAWSON: The United States and Iran have—excuse me—the United States and the Islamic republic, the Islamic revolution, have profoundly different policies on a whole variety of issues. The chances of resolving all those issues at once strikes me as being very low—very low, to the vanishing point.

And the nuclear matter is so important and so urgent that it would be in U.S. national interest to see that issue alone resolved. But that is not going to lead to even correct U.S.-Iranian relations, much less to good U.S.-Iranian relations. As you say, there are many other issues that are going to be on the table.

I don’t see much chance there’s going to be a Qadhafi moment in Iran where they decide—Khamenei decides that weapons of mass destruction and terrorism has not served Iran’s interest. I can’t see that happening. And I don’t see Iran having good relations with Europe until Iran addresses some of the human rights issues which so held up the trade cooperation agreement between the Europeans and Iran. So I don’t see Iran being able to have good relationships with either Europe or the United States anytime soon.

But, that said, it is quite possible that we could have a deal about the nuclear matter. I don’t think that the nuclear matter is being pursued as a matter of national existence against the worry of some overwhelming force that’s about to invade and conquer the country. It’s being pursued as what we were talking about here, as an expression of pride, as an expression of desire to have greater power in the region, as an expression of modernity. And I do think that it would be possible for somebody else, like the Russians and the Europeans, to persuade the Iranians to work out some kind of a deal on the nuclear issue while we continue to dispute these other matters.

AMOS: Karim and Mahmood, the implication of that question is that ultimately the United States will have a reckoning with Iran as it did with Iraq. Do you think that the Iranians see, in any way, that the nuclear issue is not the end of it but it’s a whole basket of issues and they have to do them all? Karim?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I will agree with Patrick that we shouldn’t have any illusions that it’s possible to resolve U.S.-Iran relations in one grand bargain currently. You know, the depth of mutual mistrust and ill will is so deep right now that I think we should take baby steps.

But I would argue at the same time we should have no illusions that the Russians as an interlocutor or the Europeans are going to make any strides in alleviating this problem. I think the Russians have the distinction of being one of the few countries that are both mistrusted by the Iranians and the Americans. (Laughter.)

There’s a deep sense of mistrust in Iran vis-a-vis the Russians, for historical reasons. I think they don’t even like working with the Russians. When you talk to senior Iranian officials, they would much prefer working with the Americans or the Europeans.

In my conversations with European officials from the very beginning, in 2003 at the commencement of these nuclear negotiations, they were cognizant of the fact that, absent a more prominent U.S. role, whether it’s a direct U.S. role in the negotiations or greater U.S. incentives, that neither the European stick on its own nor the European carrot on its own is going to be able to produce a binding resolution to this problem.

So I do see this as inevitable in resolving both the nuclear issue and obviously the greater issues concerning Iran, and also the domestic issue in Iran as prospects for domestic change.

I believe U.S.-Iran diplomatic accommodation is the prerequisite for resolving all of these issues.

SARIOLGHALAM: I think current and future negotiations between Iran and Russia are purely tactical. There is no strategic interest in Iran, whether within the government circles or outside of it, to enter into strategic relations with Russia, for historical reasons. And I think even the current momentum to continue negotiating with Moscow is a delaying tactic on the part of Iran.

The Europeans have an economic significance for Iran. They’re not important politically for Iran, strategic reasons and whatever. But Iranian-American negotiations, if they start, I think they would produce some degree of appeasement or containment. I think Iranian-American relations will not be even gradually resolved with the first-generation revolutionaries that are in power in Iran.

Their agenda is not conflict resolution with the United States. And I think it’s a tactical move to talk with the United States in Iraq. It’s a tactical move to propose to speak on the nuclear issue. For many reasons that I tried to substantiate before, I think any negotiation would only involve containment, delaying problems and appeasement for the United States.

AMOS: Excuse my pointing. Could you wait for the mike? Actually, this man and then that one.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Daniel Rose, Rose Associates. A question for Professor Sariolghalam.

The clock is ticking on the nuclear issue. In your opinion, is it feasible to hope that chess will replace poker as the negotiating stance and that some package of economic incentives, plus other guarantees, but economic incentives can be offered by the West to Iran to neutralize the atomic issue now, the nuclear issue, whether it’s membership in the World Trade Organization, whether it’s settling all kinds of outstanding issues, the shah’s holdings, ending of Iran’s economic isolation?

Is there any package of—I’m asking about carrots rather than sticks. Is there any possible combination of carrots that can bring the chess players to the fore rather than the poker players?

SARIOLGHALAM: Right. As you suggest, if we adopt a realist approach or a geopolitical approach to Iranian-American relations, perhaps one useful approach would be the Nixon doctrine towards China, where the U.S. accepted the structure of the Chinese government that is focused on changing Chinese policies towards many issues.

I believe that understanding the psychological mind-set of the top elites in Iran is so crucial. I think what they really want is recognition, political recognition. As an Iranian academic, as someone who lives there, as someone who has a great interest in Iranian culture—and I’m currently completing field research on Iranian political culture—I think with or without Islamic republic, the pursuit of democracy in Iran, for the time being, is an illusion, because the culture of accommodation, the culture of compromise, the culture of consensus building, for the most part is absent.

And besides that, perhaps a much more important reason to think that democracy is not about to come in Iran is that we have such a strong statist country where the government controls much of the economy, and some 80 to 90 percent of those who receive an income, they receive it from the state. This is contrary to the global trend.

So with such a strong hold of the state on the national economy, democratic hopes for Iran are nil, I think. So any ruling group in Iran that comes to power, whoever they might be, they’re going to have a great challenge of changing that structure. So no government with such a strong economic base is going to offer challenge and democratic change in Iran. So I think that’s going to happen perhaps a few decades down the road.

So for the U.S. policy, I think the time frame is very crucial—what to hope of a policy in Iran in the medium term or in the long term, whether the U.S. is interested to change the structure of the Iranian political system or it has an interest to change Iranian policies.

I believe that if the U.S. were to shift to Nixon approach and look at Iran like China and then focus on changing Iranian policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which I think is probable with Hamas victory now in Palestine, and changing Iranian policy towards its support of militant groups in the region, changing Iranian policy in Iraq, and also of the current concern, I think it is possible to change Iran’s nuclear policy with objective guarantees to a peaceful one if there was a political recognition of the current Iranian political system. And then you let history and the evolution of the Iranian society to decide how that system is going to change in the next couple of decades.

We should also keep in mind that the top elites in Iran are in their late 60s, early 70s, and there is going to be a generational shift in Iran in the next decade. So with the changes at the social level, I think Iranian national agenda and priorities are going to change.

So I think how the U.S. analyzes the changes within the Iranian political structure in the next decade is very crucial on kind of framing its nuclear policy towards Iran.

AMOS: We are dangerously coming into Richard’s panel. So if you can keep it from the Iran side, please.

CLAWSON: Sure. I would agree with Mahmood entirely that economic incentives won’t cut it. And he is arguing that political guarantees are going to be necessary. I’m not convinced. I happen to think that, in fact, security guarantees might be sufficient. And I certainly think it’s worth trying the security guarantees.

Political guarantees will be extraordinarily difficult for the United States government to offer in that what one hears from the Iranian leadership—and Ken Pollack is masterful describing this in his book—

AMOS: And he will in the next one.

CLAWSON: Right. But what he’s masterful at describing is how the Iranians resent any criticism that the United States offers of conditions in Iran as an indication that the Americans are pursuing a regime-change policy in Iran.

So long as the Iranian attitude remains that United States human rights reports and United States religious freedom reports and United States broadcasting to Iran in Persian represents an unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Islamic republic and refusal to accept the Islamic republic, we’ve got a real problem, because if that remains the Iranian attitude and this is the standard that will be used to judge whether or not the United States is accepting the Islamic republic, the fact of the matter is we do that with every other country in the world.

We criticize human rights practices in Germany. We’re not going to refrain from criticizing human rights practices in Iran. So if the Iranian standard is that any criticism by the United States government of Iranian policies on human rights issues, on religious freedom issues, any American broadcasting to Iran, constitutes unacceptable political interference that violates these political guarantees that they want, forget it; it’s hopeless.

AMOS: Trudy?

QUESTIONER: I’d like to ask Mahmood and Karim—

AMOS: (Off mike.)

QUESTIONER: Trudy Rubin from the Philadelphia Inquirer. There seems to be a certain disconnect between what Mahmood said about the need of the current government for a certain low level of conflict, for its own internal reasons, and the concept that there might be some kind of bargain; if not a grand one, then a realist one.

There has been so much talk of bargains over the years. We just had Flint Leverett’s argument that the Swiss ambassador was carrying messages. I remember being there at that time in ’03, and, yes, the Swiss government was saying there was a grand—the Swiss ambassador was saying there was a grand bargain to be had.

Was there ever a bargain? Let’s eliminate the word “grand.” And is there now any chance of a broader bargain which would basically involve American recognition of the structure of Iran? Is such a bargain just a fantasy?

AMOS: Karim?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I think it’s interesting that when we go back to 2003, around the time the Iraq war was prosecuted, this was actually when this overture was allegedly made by Iran. And I’ve spoken to senior officials, like Flint and others, as well as Tim Golding (sp), the Swiss ambassador, who said, in fact, there was an overture from Iran.

The concern, I believe, in Washington was they were not sure where this offer came from. Did it come from the senior levels in Teheran? Did it come from Ayatollah Khamenei’s desk? I think there was another perception in Washington at the same time that, you know, we have our hands full with Iraq; we don’t have time to deal with Iran. And I think there was a perception in the vice president’s office, and also the Department of Defense, that this regime in Teheran is going to implode on its own; why should we lift a hand to a drowning man?

Now, I think, as Professor Sariolghalam has said, and Dr. Clawson as well, is that Iran is in a different position than it was in the spring of 2003. It feels very much emboldened, given what’s going on in Iraq, given the high prices of oil. So I think, if it were such a bargain—I’m reluctant to believe they would put forward such a bargain today. And if they were, I think they will be asking for far more than they were asking in spring of 2003.

AMOS: Mahmood?

SARIOLGHALAM: I think—let’s just presume that we have normal relations between the two countries, for whatever reason. I think still Iranian-American relations, as I understand the Iranian society today, is going to be a “conflictual” relationship in the future. It will not be even of the type that the U.S. is now experiencing with China. I think it will be much more conflictual, because China’s economic interests are making the relationship perhaps a bit more smooth or more accommodating.

But I think as long as Iranian obsession with national sovereignty remains—and I do see many signs, even with the young generation in Iran, there is going to be a conflictual relationship. So, whether there is a bargain or not, whether some of the basic problems are going to be resolved, I think we should expect some degree of a conflictual relationship.

Even if Iranian society is kind of empowered in the future and we have more political organization in the Iranian society, we have competitive political parties in Iran perhaps emerging in the future, I think even at that time it’s going to be much more difficult to manage a normal relationship of the type between Iran and the United States, for different historical, nationalist and cultural reasons.

CLAWSON: Let me just make a quip on that regard. I’ve often said if our dear democratic reformer friends come to power in Iran, then dealing with them will be like dealing with Charles De Gaulle on his worst day. (Laughter.)

AMOS: Sir, in the back—(off mike).

QUESTIONER: My name is Khalal Haj from (Al-Arabiyah ?) TV. It seems, from what I’ve heard from Karim, for example, that the level of trust is very low between the United States and Iran, and Iranian leaders say they’re surrounded by the United States, Americans.

It seems like, to many in the Middle East, that the Iranians want a nuclear weapon to guarantee their sovereignty, first and foremost. I don’t know if that’s what the panel agree with or not, but it seems like Patrick doesn’t. But isn’t there a way to, besides offering enriched uranium from Russia to Iran, to give them solid guarantee for their security? Would that solve the issue? And what is the role of the fears of the Gulf states of the nuclear Iran imperial—(inaudible)—in the equation and Islamic, even, perception that there’s duplicity and double standard, looking at Israel’s nuclear arsenal in the equation?

AMOS: The security guarantees are a question for the next panel, but let’s talk about it from the Iranian viewpoint.

CLAWSON: Unfortunately, I don’t see much indications that Iran has been interested over the years in security guarantees. And its experience with the international community standing by when the country was invaded by Iraq, not surprisingly, has shaped the attitude of many decision-makers towards the idea of security guarantees as just being empty words.

And so while I am a big proponent of confidence- and stability-building measures with Iran and have written a great deal about what kinds of security guarantees we should be prepared—(inaudible)—confidence- and stability-building measures we should propose to Iran, I’ve often emphasized that I did not think that these were going to impress the Iranian leadership, and I thought we should do this primarily as a way of influencing European and Russian opinion.

I would be delighted if I saw any indications that Iran would be interested in these, but I have to tell you that I just don’t see that as the way in which the Iranian leadership thinks about their security situation. All their focus has been on finding ways to produce their weapons systems themselves so they can defend themselves, because they don’t believe that they have any external friends, allies, who are reliable enough that they count upon them in a crisis. As Mahmood said, it’s a country that, from a security point of view, is quite isolated.

AMOS: Mahmood?

SARIOLGHALAM: I would agree with Patrick. I’d just like to add that it’s interesting that one of the paradoxes of Iranian history is that none of Iran’s neighbors have ever been interested in Iran becoming a powerful country—none of the—and ironically, I believe, I think it can be substantiated. The only country in the world that has a strategic interest for Iran to become a powerful country is the United States—(laughter)—for the larger American geopolitical, geoeconomic interests, starting from Central Asia, Middle East—(inaudible)—and North Africa.

So I think the Iranian leadership has learned the hard way that none of the neighbors of Iran are interested in its empowerment and even its economic development. And many of them are so pleased that Iran has no relations with the United States, because I think many of them analytically do believe that more or less a normal relationship between Iran and the United States would bring back Iran into the mainstream of Middle Eastern politics. And again, the two important countries in the region will be Iran and Israel.

So I think none of these neighbors of Iran are interested. And so if Iran were to enter an economic paradigm of development, the U.S. is the only country that can come to Iran’s help and assistance to develop. And then it can also have a larger strategic geopolitical significance for the region.

So I think, beyond the nature of the government in Teheran, Iran and the United States have strategic reasons to cooperate with one another. And I think it will happen at some point.

AMOS: Karim, I wonder if you can extend that thought just one more step, which is, while Iran at the moment feels rather strong because of what’s happening next door in Iraq, the down side is, as Shi’as gain power in Iraq, the neighbors get more nervous.

I just came back from Amman, and people are plenty nervous there about the Iranian threat is how they see it, especially the tribal people from Al Anbar. Saudi Arabia sees it the same way. Is that also playing into their calculations, that that feeling of insecurity is also part of the Sunni-Shi’a divide, which is becoming a bit tense in the region?

SADJADPOUR: (Inaudible)—for Iran’s senior leadership, especially Ayatollah Khamenei, it’s very important the perception of Iran in the greater Muslim world. In fact, I would argue it’s even more important for them what the Muslim world at large thinks about them than what the Iranian domestic population thinks about them.

So I think there is a concern that there is this growing rift between the Sunnis and Shi’ites in the region. There’s a growing Sunni fear about Shi’ite ascendancy in the region. So I think they are trying to allay these concerns, and I think one way they—in my opinion, President Ahmadinejad’s comments about Israel were one way of trying to allay these Sunni concerns about playing the Israel card and projecting this pan-Islamist image.

To go back to the last question about security assurances, one thing I found very interesting in these negotiations was, you know, when I speak to the Europeans and they ask me, you know, what I think Iran is looking for, and I always mention security guarantees, they say, “Well, why doesn’t Iran articulate these security guarantees? They’ve never mentioned it once, especially security guarantees from the United States.”

And in talking to an Iranian friend who’s close to the negotiating team, I think there was a view in Teheran that if we insist on security guarantees in these nuclear discussions, we undermine our argument that our nuclear intentions are purely peaceful. So I think this was a dilemma in Iran’s negotiating strategy.

And just lastly to end, on the Gulf states, the neighboring countries—I think it’s a great dilemma for the Gulf countries. As Professor Sariolghalam said, they don’t want to see an Iran that is too powerful. They’re very wary of Iranian extracurricular activities in that country. They’re worried about Shi’ite ascendancy and they’re worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon.

But at the same, as opposed to the United States, they have to live with Iran. They’re stuck there. Iran is on their border. So they want neither a confrontational relationship with Iran; they want neither a confrontation with the U.S. in Iran. Neither, you know, do they want to see a powerful Iran.

AMOS: Wait for the microphone, if you don’t mind.

QUESTIONER: My name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer.

From the Iranian point of view—whichever panelist feels they can have an assumption about this—how deep and how extensive is the soft power that Iran has in Iraq? In other words, I’ve heard at least four divergent views—one similar to the one you mentioned, that it’s overwhelming coming from an Arab source; second, that they’re really afraid of an Islamic policy or a Shi’ite policy like Sistani has—his views are so different from Khamenei’s in theocracy—or—and several say, well, in the Iraq-Iranian war, the Shi’ites always fought for Saddam.

CLAWSON: I would say that in the first five months after Saddam’s overthrow, when there were hundreds of thousands of Iranians who were going to Najaf and Karbala and were in many ways grateful to the Americans for making it possible for them to go to Najaf and Karbala—and here we’re talking simple, ordinary folks in small towns and villages as well as in big cities.

There was some fear among the Iranian elite about what the future might hold for them from developments in Iraq. But with Iraq’s descent into chaos and effectively the ending of these pilgrimage visits, my sense is that the Iranian elite is supremely confident about their influence that they have in Iraq, quite satisfied about it and regard this as a real element of geostrategic and cultural success.

AMOS: We have about 10 minutes left and we have tons of hands. So I’m going to ask for hands again.

SARIOLGHALAM: Can I just—

AMOS: Yeah, yeah, if you have something.

SARIOLGHALAM: I think Iran’s influence in Iraq began in the 1990s after the first Persian Gulf War. Iran probably is the only country that has extensive (influence ?) in the north with the Kurds, even with the Sunni population, within the Shi’a population, and the diversity of groups of the Shi’a population, and even with the tribal groups in Iraq.

And as I mentioned in the beginning, I think Iran has tried to kind of outsource its power into Iraq so that it can manage its relations with the United States. There are fundamental differences between Iran and even the Iraqi Shi’as. I think we should not presume that there is a grand alliance between the two.

First of all, one of the grievances that Iran—Iranians have—Iranian officials—of the late Hakim, who was assassinated a couple of years ago in Iraq, was that he lived in Iran for more than 20 years as a sanctuary, but whenever he went to the Arab world—he said the Arab Gulf—his—and the conclusion was that they considered themselves as Arabs and Shi’a first, and then they have their any—whatever, allegiance to Iran.

So I think the so-called Shi’a crescent does not have any ground, because the Shi’a even in Bahrain, although they have Iranian origins, they’re so different than Iranians. And I think the Arabs in general, including Shi’a—they are far more religious than Iranians. If you do a sociological study of the two sides—perhaps Patrick knows a lot about this. So I think we should be careful about what we’re emphasizing—Iranian Shi’a influence—but I think Iran does have influence for its own purposes, not so much to construct or deconstruct what’s happening to Iraq.

AMOS: Let’s shift back to the nuclear issue. I know we all like to talk about Iraq, but we’ve got about 10 minutes. So let’s go quickly through questions from this side and that side of the room.

QUESTIONER: Thanks. Mark Fitzpatrick from the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The point was made that as long as Iran does not pay any price, Ahmadinejad wins some admiration for his policies. But I’m wondering if there’s any sense in Iran that there is any price already being paid, given the focus the panelists made earlier about pride—leadership in the region being such an important motivation. When Iran is put on the docket in the United Nations, when its neighbors—Egypt, Yemen, Oman—are voting against it in the IAEA board or in the U.N. Security Council, other nonalignment movement members all joining the rest of the world in opposing Iran—when investors are pulling out of Iran, when banks are not engaging in new operations, pulling expatriates out of Tehran. Is there any sense of a price actually being paid, even if the United Nations doesn’t impose any sanctions?

AMOS: Mahmood, you’ve just come from there.

SARIOLGHALAM: Yeah. I think that there’s one contrast between Iran and the Arab world. In the Arab world, the Israeli issue is an institutionalized issue; in Iran it is not. Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Iran is not an issue for the average person. It is an elitist issue. It is a revolutionary issue and it is the legacy of the Iranian revolution.

And I think as we enter into the second generation of leaders in Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not going to be on the agenda of the Iranian foreign policy anymore. And Iran may sympathize with the Palestinian cause, but it’s not going to be an important issue.

So I think at the regional level, there is recognition in Iran in the media, in the academic community, and I would say to a large degree within the government circles that if Iran wants to come back into the international community, if Iran wants to be recognized—even as the Islamic Republic of Iran—unless Iran changes its orientation towards Israel, in general, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, nothing is going to change at the global level.

And I think the Europeans and the Americans are not going to have the right incentives to approach differently. I think there is recognition of that in Iran. There are debates in Iran of that issues. And even Rafsanjani, as Iran’s president in 1992, he said that if the Palestinians agree to a peace agreement with the Israelis, then Iran will go along with it. And Khatami reiterated that in 1998. But those presidential stances never became state policy because of the divergence of views on the importance of the Palestinian cause for the revolutionary classes in Iran.

So I think Iran does recognize that even if the Iranian pride wants to be restored, Iranian return to the international community, the central issue is how Iran approaches Israel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

AMOS: On this side of the room, all the way in the back?

QUESTIONER: Frederick Levin (sp), the America China Forum.

The North Koreans violated their obligations under the NPT and withdrew. They’re getting more foreign investment from South Korea and have paid no price for their activities. The Indians stole their nuclear technology from the U.S. and Canada, led the charge against the NPT, threatened to use nukes against Pakistan. And we have proposed an agreement where we will furnish fuel for their reactors and no limit on their bomb building or fuel cycle or anything else.

Why should the Iranians take us seriously, since we don’t seem to have a very serious nonproliferation policy?

AMOS: Patrick?

CLAWSON: Well, look, we may have a problem in our nonproliferation policy that we discriminate among countries, but that’s not a problem in our Iran policy, because if the Iranians think that those who are nasty to the United States get stomped on, that those who are friends with the United States get away with whatever they want, guess which category the Iranians are in.

And so that while we may have a problem for our nonproliferation policy with the agreement that we just had with India, or for that matter with—people in the region often talk about double standards with Israel. It’s really not a big problem in our Iran policy, because it’s saying to the Iranians that your hostility to the United States is the source of your problems.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

CLAWSON: North Korea is more of a problem. Yeah, North Korea is more of a problem and they do pay more attention to North Korea. And it’s not clear to me how much, though, that that’s driving their attitudes. I think much more what’s driving their attitudes is their sense that the United States is tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore is not able to do anything about their situation—and that the Europeans are just talkers anyway. And that has been a constant theme that Ahmadinejad and his crowd use all the time. They don’t point all the time to the example of North Korea.

AMOS: All the way on that side.

QUESTIONER: Richard Murphy (sp).

Do you see any consistent motivation in Iran for its skittishness about opening a dialogue with the United States, looking back, say, over the last decade? Because there were overtures at one point from the Clinton administration, quite heavy ones, and no response. But for all of the reasons that—all the motivations that you’ve talked about—do you see any single, consistent reason for being skittish about opening a dialogue with us?

AMOS: Karim?

SADJADPOUR: I think the heart of the matter is this very deep and pervasive mutual mistrust between the United States and Iran. I think deep down, when I talk to Iranian officials, they don’t trust U.S. intentions, as Professor Sariolghalam mentioned. The sense is that nothing short of a change of regime is going to appease officials in Washington.

And I think the general problem over the last 10 years has been a lack of synchronization, meaning when the U.S.—when Iran feels vulnerable, as they did in 2003 and reached out to the U.S., at that time, the U.S. felt quite good about itself. There was this hubris about changing the political culture of the Middle East and the U.S. demurred.

In think in 2000, when there was a similar overture from the United States to Iran, I think then Iran demurred. So there’s been this lack of synchronization over the last 10 years.

AMOS: This is going to be our last question, so if either one of you want to jump in, we are at break time.

CLAWSON: I’m stamping on the territory of the next panel. There is also the history of unofficial representatives and, shall we say, lack of success in U.S.-Iranian contacts. I mean, lets remember that our first attempt to have official dialogue took place on September 30th, 1979, when President Carter’s national security adviser, Mr. Brzezinski, met with the Iranian prime minister and foreign minister in Algiers. The response to that was the seizure of the American embassy two days later, using that episode as the reason for this to take place.

And that history, where Mr. Brzezinski for 27 years suggested that we repeat the experience, is not everybody’s—you know, he saw that as a great success in American foreign policy. (Laughter.) And the next great U.S.-Iranian contact, after all, was the Iran-Contra affair, which again, not everybody saw as a great success in American foreign policy. (Laughter).

So to suggest let’s go down that route again can be tough.

AMOS: And that’s a very good note to end on. Lunch will be served upstairs, I am told to tell you. And we will have a lunch break and then back for panel number three. Thank you very much.

 

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Transcript

The Presidential Inbox: Iran's Nuclear Program

Speakers: James Dobbins, William J. Fallon, and Karim Sadjadpour
Presider: Carol A. Giacomo

Participants discuss possible U.S. policy approaches to Iran's nuclear program and the recently concluded talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan.