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Leverett: Bush Administration ‘Not Serious’ About Dealing With Iran

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Flynt Leverett
March 31, 2006

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Flynt L. Leverett, who served in senior posts at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, says that the United States has gotten itself into a diplomatic dilemma with Iran “because we essentially don’t have a strategy” for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. Asserting that the Bush administration rejected an invitation made by Iran in 2003 to open a strategic dialogue, Leverett says that Bush “is, on this issue, very, very resistant to the idea of doing a deal, even a deal that would solve the nuclear problem.”

Leverett, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, says President Bush considers the Iranian regime “fundamentally illegitimate.” As a result, he says, the administration is stuck with two choicesdealing within the UN Security Council, where Russia and China are effectively blocking serious punitive measures, and unilateral military action, which Washington is not in a position to undertake.

The Security Council has issued a document, criticizing Iran’s nuclear program, but there’s no teeth behind it and both Russia and China have indicated they’re opposed to any sanctions. So at the end of a month, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is supposed to report back to the Council, it does not look as if there is going to be any real incentive for Iran to comply. How did we get into this dilemma?

We got into this dilemma because we essentially don’t have a strategy for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. By “we” I mean the United States and the Bush administration. The Bush administration has deliberately ruled out direct negotiations with Iran either over the nuclear issue or over the broad range of strategic issues that you would need to talk to Iran about if you were going to get a real diplomatic settlement on the nuclear issue.

The administration has, literally for years, ruled out that kind of strategic dialogue with Iran. In the absence of that sort of approach, that sort of channel, the administration is left with two options, one of which is to try and get something done in the Security Council. It has been foreseeable literally for months, if not for longer, that Russia and China at a minimum were not going to be prepared to support serious multilateral sanctions or other serious multilateral punitive measures on Iran. This is not a surprise. As I said, it’s been foreseeable literally for months, but the administration, without a strategy, is going down this feckless road anyway.

The other option that the administration would have is unilateral military action. Right now the administration is not in a position to undertake that. The international outcry would, I think, be enormous. We would literally have no one on our side at this point supporting that kind of action. The administration certainly has many other challenges on its plate that it’s having to cope with right now. And frankly I don’t think a unilateral military strike would solve the problem any more than trying to deal with it through the Security Council. Because of the administration’s deliberate decision to rule out serious strategically grounded diplomacy with Iran on this issue, these are the only two options they’ve got, and neither is going to work.

Let’s go back a little bit in history. In an op-ed piece you wrote for the New York Times in January you referred to an offer made by the Iranian government—of course then headed by the reformist President Mohammed Khatami—to begin a sweeping diplomatic dialogue. Could you talk about that?

This was shortly before I left government, in the spring of 2003. The Swiss are our so-called “protecting power” in Iran; we, of course, have no diplomatic presence there. And the Swiss, in their role as our protecting power, also provided a channel through which the United States and Iran could communicate with one another. If the Iranians wanted to use this channel, they’d give a message or a document or some communication to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. He would pass that through his foreign ministry, it would come to the Swiss embassy here inWashington, and then the Swiss embassy would send it to the State Department. We could, at least in theory, use that channel going the other direction. In the spring of 2003 we received through this Swiss channel a one-page document, which basically laid out an agenda for a diplomatic process that was intended to resolve on a comprehensive basis all of the bilateral differences between the United States and Iran.

What prompted that statement?

Well, that’s a very good question. What prompted it on the Iranian side?

This was right after the Iraq invasion, right? This is the same time period?

Yes, it was. It was of course relatively early after the U.S. military operation in Iraq . It was really later in the summer that it became clear that the insurgency and post-conflict challenges were going to be a real problem for us, and I think at that point we were looking relatively strong in Iraq and the Iranians in particular were interested in—for both tactical and strategic reasons—trying to strike some sort of deal with us. The Iranians wanted us to turn over the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MEK) cadres that were in Iraq . The MEK, of course, is still listed by us as a foreign terrorist organization and we’d been pressing the Iranians over the presence of some al-Qaeda operatives in Iranian territory. And I think at the tactical level, the Iranians wanted to try and make a deal on the MEK for al-Qaeda. At a more strategic level, I think the Iranians were genuinely interested in trying to reach some sort of strategic understanding with the United States , particularly at a point when the U.S. strategic position in the region was looking relatively strong.

This wasn’t a new interest on the part of the Iranians; there was the whole experience after 9/11 of Iranian cooperation with us over Afghanistan, which I think at least some Iranian officials were hoping could get leveraged into a broader strategic dialogue, but that channel was effectively foreclosed when President Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address labeled Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” But in a sense I think the Iranians were trying again to see if there was some possibility for a broader strategic conversation with us and here they were actually in a way putting their cards on the table: “this is what we want, we want a broad strategic conversation with you.”

At that time you were working in the National Security Council?

I had just left the National Security Council but I was still in government, getting ready to leave.

I see. So this document pops up on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s desk. It was a very top-secret document, I suppose.

It wasn’t a classified document. What’s so remarkable about it, it was sent over by the Swiss embassy as an unclassified fax.

I see. That’s why you can talk about it so easily.

Yes, the document was never classified.

So the United States had to make a decision on what it wanted to do. Was there a big debate about this?

By this point I am out of government and I don’t really know how this played out within the bowels of the administration. What I do know happened is that the formal response of the administration to this was to complain to the Swiss foreign ministry that the Swiss ambassador in Tehran was exceeding his brief by talking with Iranians about a paper like this and passing it on.

Let’s then go to the essence. Is this one of these clichés that the neo-cons in the Bush administration wanted regime change and nothing else and didn’t want to talk to the Iranians?

I think you’re right. That’s the basic motivation, that you had a bunch of neo-cons, and even the president himself [against dialogue], it’s not just the neo-cons who wanted regime change and nothing else. Ultimately the president is, on this issue, very, very resistant to the idea of doing a deal, even a deal that would solve the nuclear problem. You don’t do a deal that would effectively legitimate this regime that he considers fundamentally illegitimate. I think that’s the real issue.

And he considers it illegitimate because of what? Because it overthrew the Shah in 1979?

No, in the president’s view you have this unelected set of clerical authorities, epitomized by the supreme leader, who are thwarting the clearly expressed will of the Iranian people for a more open, participatory political system, for more political, social, intellectual, and cultural freedomall this kind of thing. And so it’s a system that in Bush’s mind is fundamentally illegitimate. It’s a system that needs to change, and he is not going to do a deal that lets this regime off the hook, even if that deal would solve our problem with them over the nuclear issue.

Now we have agreed to talk—I don’t know if the talks have taken place yet—on Iraq with the Iranians.

Yes. I think this is going to be probably an even less productive replay of the tactical dialogue we had with Iran over Afghanistan. I think Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s talking points are probably not going to go beyond [telling the Iranians] ”you need to stop supporting and maintaining ties to proxies in the Shiite community, like the Badr brigade and various other political actors. You need to stop trying to protect your own interests in Iraq.”

I don’t think it’s going to get very far because we don’t really have anything to put on the table to make it interesting for Iran. I am very, very doubtful that, to the extent we do have a conversation with them about Iraq, that it’s going to allow us to broaden the conversation into the nuclear issue and these more strategic problems. I think if nothing else you’re going to have the wrong people in the room to do that. And beyond that, I think you still run up against the structural problem in the administration, that the president and other very powerful actors in this administration simply don’t want to do a deal [with] the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In your op-ed piece you seized on a proposal made by the Saudis? It would have a Gulf Security Council dealing with this. I haven’t heard anything more about that. Is that sort of dead in the water?

Yes. I thought it was a very, very interesting departure from the traditional Saudi formulation on a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. And I thought it was worth highlighting, but the administration didn’t pick up on it and as far as I can tell there’s nothing being done to pursue the possibility of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Gulf.

Most of the press that you read from Iran says that the Iranian public is pretty strongly behind their nuclear program, and that any interference from the outside amounts to gross interference by foreign powers. On the other hand, I’ve interviewed other observers who say, no, most Iranians really are very uncomfortable with this whole nuclear program. Do you have any sense of it?

I think my own assessment is closer to the first position you laid out than to the second. My sense is that there is a very broad consensus in Iran supporting full development of Iran’s civil nuclear capabilities, including the full range of nuclear fuel cycle capabilities. I mean that’s the way this issue is being presented to the Iranian public. It’s not really being presented as “should Iran have nuclear weapons or not?” On that issue I think you would get a pretty wide range of opinion among Iranian elites and maybe even in the population as a whole. But it’s being presented as “should Iran be able to exercise its rights under international treaties, like the NPT [non-proliferation treaty], to develop the full range of civilian nuclear technology that all kinds of other countries have, including countries that don’t have nuclear weapons?” And if it’s presented to Iranians like that, I’d say there’s almost a consensus across the Iranian political spectrum, in support of that.

Even Bush has said on some occasions that he has no problem with Iran having a peaceful nuclear program.

Yes, and I think the administration tried earlier basically to redefine the non-proliferation treaty on this issue and say that somehow Iran no longer had a right to develop fuel cycle technologies. This was a kind of interesting legal argument which I don’t think got very far. I noticed in November of last year, when the president was in Moscow, Stephen Hadley, the White House national security adviser, expressed the administration’s public support for the Russian compromise initiative for getting Iran to process uranium in Russia instead of in Iran. He actually said that Iran did have the right to develop enrichment capabilities, but in the interest of international security, stability, and so forth, we would ask the Iranians to agree not to exercise that right. So I think even the administration is acknowledging now that there isn’t a purely legal basis on which to say Iran can’t have enrichment capabilities.

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