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Perkovich: U.S. Needs 'Conversation' With Putin on Iran Sanctions

Interviewee: George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 28, 2006

George Perkovich, a leading expert on nuclear issues in South Asia and Iran, says it is crucial that the UN Security Council follow through on its threat of sanctions against Iran if it does not suspend its uranium enrichment. To do that, he says, the United States may have to put aside its regime change policies toward Iran to get the cooperation of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"The first thing is to focus on Russia and to have a conversation I don't think we have had with Putin which says 'Look, the Iran nuclear issue is the single most important thing in our relationship. We need your cooperation. What is it going to take?'" says Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He says Washington will need to address the widespread belief that it is intent on regime change in Iran, a policy the Russians find objectionable. "If they think what you are trying to do in Iran is exercise a strategy they find threatening to themselves, why would they help?" Perkovich said.

Iran has finally responded to Security Council Resolution 1696 which calls for it to suspend its nuclear reprocessing by August 31. What's your understanding of what's in the response?

Basically, it says "no" to the Security Council's key demand for now, but says "We're willing to hear more details about the positive inducements you're prepared to offer." The key Security Council demand had been that Iran agree immediately to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment, and inducements would follow. The wording of that resolution was legally binding. The Iranian argument—which a number of people have bought—that "We have the legal right to continue enriching uranium," and so on, is in fact not correct. Resolution 1696 is legally binding and supersedes whatever Iran wants to do about enrichment. So the Iranians have basically given the back of their hand to the Council and said "Make us stop."

And the reaction in the capitals so far is what?

The main capitals that have reacted are the six that have been involved in putting together the offer to the Iranians—the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany. The Western members of that group are uniform in their view that the Iranian reaction deflects what was the major operational demand and is therefore completely insufficient. So now they are trying to figure out what they will do in response to show the Security Council meant it and is not a completely toothless enterprise.

And the Russians and Chinese, the other two veto-wielding members?

It's hard to tell, at least from any public display, or what you hear from diplomatic channels. In part this is because Russia is pretty much on vacation in August. Neither Russia nor China is an open polity, of course. Both are tightly controlled from the top. In the case of Russia, which is key, actually, you really need to know what [President Vladimir] Putin thinks. I don't think there is any indication we know what he is thinking.

The United States has been fairly reticent.

The United States since March 2005, for the most part, has been following a strategy which I think is fairly astute. Around that time, when President Bush visited Europe, following his reelection, the United States realized the biggest problem it had was convinc[ing] the rest of the world to be more afraid of Iran than they were of the United States. We couldn't get the international pressure we needed on Iran if people were more afraid of the Bush administration. Since then, we have actually had very careful, moderate rhetoric for the most part, have worked very closely with the Europeans, and been very patient.

The president, in a way, reveals this almost like he is reading cue cards. Sometimes at press conferences, when he says "These things require patience," or "Diplomacy requires patience," he's actually telling you what our strategy is. This has continued in the last week. The administration has responded quite mildly and quickly. The idea in part is again to let Iran's behavior and rhetoric alarm the rest of the world and for us to be reassuring that we are not crazy and looking for another war. The calculation is that will make it easier for other people to work with us and to put pressure on Iran.

If you were called into a strategy session in the next week, what would be your advice?

It would be twofold. At this point, the Iranians—the Revolutionary Guards, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and others—are feeling emboldened. They feel their strategy of defiance has really worked, that the United States has exhausted its power and is so unpopular around the world that it can't make them stop. What you have to try to do is to create enough international isolation and cost on Iran that you can at least start a debate among the Iranian elite that perhaps Iran has gone too far, maybe it ought to consolidate its gains.

The way to get that debate started is for Iran to look as if it might [face serious international economic penalties]. This is impossible without Russia's cooperation because the measures need to be from the Security Council. So the first thing is to focus on Russia and to have a conversation I don't think we have had with Putin which says "Look, the Iran nuclear issue is the single most important thing in our relationship. We need your cooperation. What is it going to take?"

My guess is that Putin might say "Well, I don't want Ukraine joining NATO," something the vice president and others have advocated. He might say "I want you to stop messing around in Georgia." These are issues that go to the core of the United States democracy agenda, which are the issues Putin finds the most troublesome. When Vice President Cheney went to Vilnius in May and gave the speech denouncing the lack of democracy in Russia, on the same day, [Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice was in New York negotiating with the Russian foreign minister and other diplomats on Iran. Clearly the Russians didn't cooperate in that negotiation, partly because Cheney was in their backyard bashing them on democracy. You have to have that discussion with the Russians, and it may be—and I think it is likely—the democracy agenda and the idea of pushing regime change, which everyone thinks is the United States' strategy in Iran, is something the Russians find very objectionable. The strategy of regime change and democratization is threatening to a Russian autocratic regime, just as it is to a Chinese regime. If they think what you are trying to do in Iran is exercise a strategy they find threatening, why would they help?

We have to clarify that in our own minds. This by the way is the argument [former Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger and [former National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft have made—the classical, realist argument. You have the foreign behavior of Iran, how it deals in Lebanon, its nuclear program. That's what you should focus on. Don't focus so much on the character of the regime there. You need to focus on the group making decisions regarding the behavior you want to change. Therefore you have to deal with them. So this is the core set of issues Washington finally has to come to terms with. What would it take to get the Russians and Chinese aboard? That may include convincing them we're not going to pursue the regime change and democratization strategy at their expense.

So the United States needs to get a Security Council resolution on sanctions if the Iranian position remains the same after August 31?

There supposedly was an agreement worked out in negotiations with the Russians that if the Iranians rejected the resolution, we would move to sanctions. Now, there is in a sense a rubric or matrix of sanctions in which there are softer sanctions first and then more serious gradations. There was agreement that the first group of sanctions would be to ban travel by certain Iranian officials. There was talk about not allowing Iranian sports teams to travel and compete abroad. There is some stuff you could do with foreign banks not investing in Iran. This is being done secretly already. There are UN resolutions against supporting terrorism and there is one on proliferation. The United States has quietly gone to banks and asked "Are you sure the money you are lending to these Iranian entities in no way could result in those entities being involved in terrorism or nuclear proliferation? If you are not sure we could nail you for violating Security Council resolutions." So a number of Swiss and other European banks have stopped lending to Iran. This has not been announced. But the Iranians certainly know it.

You are warning them there are potential liabilities here they don't want to risk. The sanctions we ought to focus on now and that ought to be achievable are: No arms sales to Iran when it is in violation of a Security Council resolution on its nuclear activities. The idea of selling it more arms should be sanctionable. That would affect primarily Russia, which goes back to a conversation you need to have with Putin. Then there is also cutting off nuclear cooperation. You are promising nuclear cooperation if Iran comes clean about its past violations and satisfies the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that all of its doubts about Iran's program have been resolved.

But given that Iran is not satisfying the international community's demands, not answering the IAEA's questions, and in fact, is not even allowing inspections, then you should cut off cooperation and all of that should be ideally in the first stack of sanctions. Some of them are serious enough to give some in Iran pause to have an internal debate.

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