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Sick: Iranian Leader Sees Trip to New York as ‘Successful’

Interviewee: Gary G. Sick, executive director of the Gulf/2000 Project, Columbia University
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 26, 2007

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Gary G. Sick, a longtime Iranian expert who served on the Ford, Carter, and Reagan National Security Councils, says that he believes President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regards his visit to the United Nations and New York City as "successful" because it allowed him to get his views out to a wide audience, and particularly to "people in the Islamic world and the Middle East, especially Arabs." Sick says an opportunity for a dialogue between Iran and the United States may have to wait until 2009 when there will be a new U.S. president, and possibly a new Iranian president. He does not think the United States will attack Iran militarily.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is winding up another highly controversial trip to the United Nations and New York, his third in as many years. How do you think it went for him? He certainly was attacked, particularly in the New York tabloid press and also by the president of Columbia University which had invited him to speak there.

Along with a group of academics, think tank people, and some media folks, I had an opportunity for a second meeting with him Tuesday night, after having watched him at Columbia the day before. I would say, based on his discussion on Tuesday night, that he feels this was a successful visit. He sees it as having vindicated him—allowing him to get his views out to a wide audience. He feels that the audience he was aiming at, primarily people in the Islamic world and the Middle East, especially Arabs, heard his message and this will probably burnish his reputation with them. That’s what he cared about, and from his point of view, he probably succeeded.

Do you think President Lee Bollinger of Columbia overdid it with his opening remarks, which most people regarded as very defamatory?

Yes. As an academic and as someone who takes some pride in academic discourse, I would much have preferred to see President Bollinger use some wit and factual analysis, and a tough but polite position that wasn’t just talking to the president of Iran, but was aimed at getting some answers. Asking rhetorical questions and saying “I don’t think you have the courage to answer this,” is not in fact a way that you get an answer out of somebody.

Now Ahmadinejad is not an easy guy to get an answer out of. He basically responds with fixed talking points when he’s asked about certain subjects and refuses to actually engage in serious dialogue. In some ways he actually thinks he is engaging, because he feels that he understands the issue and that the people who ask the questions really don’t understand the issue, but that’s not true. He doesn’t respond well to these kinds of questions, which raise questions about him, and his own psyche.

But the way President Bollinger approached the issue was almost certain not to produce any kind of reasonable dialogue or even something of value. There was almost nothing new of value produced during the course of that meeting. He was asked mostly the usual questions and he gave most of the usual answers.

Some of the things he did say, he has said many times before, but they really do deserve to get some attention. He made it very clear that, whether he is talking about “wiping Israel off the map,” or “erased from the pages of time,” or whatever the quote is, what he means is that there should be a free referendum among the peoples of the Palestine that existed to the partition in 1948 to vote about the kind of a government they should have. He is confident that, in a free vote, Israel and Israelis would lose that vote and it would turn out to be something else: a unitary state, probably run by the Palestinians.

He knows, and we all know, that’s probably not going to happen. It’s also not flattering, as far as Israel is concerned. But it is different from a nuclear holocaust, which is the way these words usually get used.

He does not make Iranian security or nuclear policy. So, even if he wanted to launch a nuclear missile, one, he doesn’t have one to launch and, two, he would be the last person in the decision-making process and probably would not prevail. There are other people who really run the security policy in Iran, and for the most part he merely reflects it. He conveys that message in such a confrontational way that it scares people to death, and in that sense he has done immense damage to his own country.

So for readers who are not terribly conversant with Iranian politics, how is foreign policy promulgated in Iran right now?

Iran is not Iraq. There is no Saddam Hussein who determines everything. In Iran, the chief decision maker is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is the supreme leader. He is simply the first among equals, because there are four or five different areas of decision-making power. Other groups have to be consulted. One of those is certainly the parliament, the president is one, but also the National Security Council, which is a collective leadership body that brings all of these people together in one place to make nuclear policy and is actually dominated by professionals and people who have had a tremendous amount of experience over the years. Ahmadinejad’s voice is really one of the least effective in that system.

He does have the right to appoint members of the cabinet, but the Majlis [parliament] has been so upset by the people he appoints, and regarded many as incompetent, that it has actually impeached or refused to accept many. As a result he had to find other people.

His record on the economy has been simply dreadful and the Iranian people know that he has not kept promises that he made before his election. The visit to the UN is very important to him because it is the one venue where he really speaks directly to a world audience and is able to get this kind of attention, which is in fact rather difficult for him to get at home. When President Bollinger basically challenged him about the situation on campuses in Iran, I think he wasn’t aware of the fact that the last time Ahmadinejad spoke to a university group in Iran he was booed. The students let him know in no uncertain terms that they disagreed with him totally.

He is not gaining favor, and that to me is an indication that if you’re thinking of Iran launching a nuclear strike against the world and thereby committing suicide, which is not very likely, then there is a very real possibility that Iran could possibly not have a nuclear weapon before Mr. Ahmadinejad leaves office, which is likely to be in early 2009.

Interestingly, in the spring of 2009 the United States will have a new president and that actually would be an interesting starting point for a dialogue. Since Ahmadinejad doesn’t seem to be interested in promoting real dialogue and our current president doesn’t seem to be interested in doing that, it’s hard to see how we’re going to make huge progress between now and then.

Now in his UN speech, aside from his not unexpected denunciations of the United States and Israel, he did talk about the nuclear situation. He said the issue “was closed” but on the other hand he said it was now in the hands of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA]. Can you just review where we are on that?

The sanctions that the UN Security Council passed earlier really bothered Iran. And the fact that there may be another round of sanctions that would tighten or expand the previous ones is something Iran was really concerned about. I attribute that concern to the fact that they have done a separate negotiation with the IAEA and made the offer they should have made several years ago, which is “Let’s clean up all unanswered questions the IAEA has about our performance.” This is largely about their performance in the past: where they got their centrifuges, about traces of highly enriched uranium that were discovered, about plutonium and where it came from. We forget that those concerns about those unanswered questions were in fact grounds for the IAEA calling for sanctions against Iran.

Iran says it is now prepared to answer all of those in detail. That does move us forward. Some people think this is a stalling tactic and perhaps it is. But it’s a stalling tactic that has specific benchmarks that they have to reach. We have to remind ourselves that Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, was also at the time of the invasion of Iraq a sort of lonely voice saying Iraq had no nuclear weapons program. The world was so convinced that Iraq did that ElBaradei was disregarded totally. He turned out to be right and everyone else turned out to be wrong.

He is now in effect speaking on the same issue and it is at our peril that we dismiss his efforts out of hand. The biggest thing we have going for us in the Iranian nuclear business, whether we like it or not, is the fact that IAEA inspectors are there watching the centrifuges, testing their output, moving around the country—not with full access but with a lot of access. They’re talking to all the people who run the program; they’re getting documents; and they’re checking on the backgrounds of things, comparing outputs to what was promised. That is invaluable. That is better information than you could conceivably get from any intelligence organization and we should not lightly risk giving that up. This process will certainly be done by the end of the year. Iran has certain responsibilities. If in fact Iran has proved that this is a stalling tactic and they are not serious about it, another round of much tougher sanctions are inevitable and they will universally be accepted by Russia, China, and everybody else. Iran knows that.

Although it’s easy to say they’re stalling, the reality is they can’t stall indefinitely without actually dealing with these issues. If they do clear away all those unanswered questions, that does in fact put Iranin a different category than it was before.

Let me conclude by asking the question that is on the minds of many people. Do you think the United States is going to attack Iran?

My short answer is no. I could give you an hour-long set of reasons why I think that is true, but my very strong feeling is that we are past the point where that can happen. Basically it is due to the fact that no simple strike is going to solve the problem of Iran’s nuclear capability—it will simply drive them underground. Secondly, Iran is inevitably going to retaliate if we do that and that will lead to more escalation and ultimately we have to be prepared to put troops on the ground in Iran. That’s the end game you’d face, and a lot of people in Washington, having gained four years of Iraqi experience, have looked down that road and have had some doubts about whether that’s a good way to go, whether that will solve our problems or only make our problems monumentally worse.

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