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Overview of Middle East Policy—Question and Answer Session

Moderator: Leslie H. Gelb, president, Council on Foreign Relations
Speaker: Martin S. Indyk, Assistant Secretary of State, Near Eastern Affairs, U.S. Department of State
April 22, 1999
Council on Foreign Relations


Dr. LESLIE H. GELB (President, Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you very much, Martin, for that very well formed and important statement, and for giving it here. Let me ask you the first question on Iran-Iraq, and we’ll do that for about 15 minutes or so. Do you have to break promptly at two? Why don’t we agree that we’ll go on to ten past or maybe a quarter past two? Those who have to leave at two, we will understand. Please do so, but we’ll continue until about 2:15 p.m.

We’ll start with Iran-Iraq and then we’ll move to the Arab-Israeli negotiations. Let me begin by asking you the first easy question. I would like to get rid of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in Iran and Iraq. In fact, I’d like France to give up its nuclear weapons. But why do we think that Iran and Iraq are going to do this? They live in a very tough neighborhood. There are deep mutual suspicions. Each will always believe the other’s got some program like this going. There are real conflicts of interest there. But why isn’t this a situation much like India and Pakistan, where it certainly is in our interests to see that they get rid of the weapons of mass destruction, but they may not see it in their interests? And if we tie our whole policy toward their eliminating weapons of mass destruction, we won’t get very far.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Assistant Secretary of State, Near Eastern Affairs): I think you’re right. The Gulf is a strategic neighborhood and the powers that inhabit that part of the region—of the Middle East not only look West, but they also look East to India and Pakistan. And that’s why, while there may be argument within Iraq over many issues, domestic and international, we don’t see an argument in Iraq of the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and these ballistic missiles. There seems to be a consensus in that regard, and I dare say if the shah of Iran was still around today, he’d be pursuing it as well.

That said, it is our aspiration, as I said, to have a nuclear-free Middle East, a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free Middle East. But we’re realistic enough to know that that is unlikely. In fact, what I was pointing out in the speech is that there’s a very real danger now that the next decade—the first decade of the 21st century, we’ll see an arms race take off in the region in ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. We haven’t seen that in the Middle East. We haven’t seen what we’re seeing now in India and Pakistan. But the trends are clear. Part of the reason we haven’t seen it is that we dealt with the major proliferator, Iraq. And I think that we have continued ability to deal with that problem in Iraq, although it’s more difficult without UNSCOM.

But in the case of Iran, the same does not apply. And, therefore, we have to try do address these issues while seeking to prevent this arms race from taking off, while seeking a nuclear-free zone, a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone. We’ve got to start preparing now—and we are, in fact, doing this—to work with our friends and allies in the region who are going—who are already feeling threatened by these developments, to develop their ability to defend against ballistic missiles, to look at ways to enhance their ability to deter the use of these weapons, to do what we can through multilateral nonproliferation efforts, to slow down the acquisition of these capabilities, because buying time is worth something.

But as I said in the last point about trying to moderate the policies of those who are likely to have their fingers on the trigger, it is, in a sense, a recognition that the barn door is open, and it’s extremely difficult to close it. And, therefore, we have to think, also, about new security structures for the region that will provide for stability in the context of the possibility that by the end of the first decade of the 21st century, there are going to be a number of countries in the region that actually possess these capabilities.

Dr. GELB: So just to clarify what you say—there’re a lot of other questions on this—commitments to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, allowing us to assure ourselves that those commitments are being fulfilled, will not be a precondition for going forward with other dimensions with Iran and Iraq.

Mr. INDYK: Oh, well...

Dr. GELB: Because you said it’s an aspiration for...

Mr. INDYK: Yeah, yeah, I understand the idea.

Dr. GELB: All right.

Mr. INDYK: You put me on the spot, as usual.

Dr. GELB: I just didn’t—I didn’t want to misunderstand.

Mr. INDYK: Let me put it this way. What we have made clear in the case of Iran is that we want to engage in a dialogue, and in that dialogue this issue will be an issue of concern to us that we want to discuss.

In the case of Iraq, the U.N. Security Council has set the standard. The standard is that Iraq shall not have weapons of mass destruction, period. And that’s for special reasons, because they developed them clandestinely and they used them. And they’ve acted—Saddam Hussein has acted aggressively against Kuwait. And, therefore, a special standard was established. And Iraq is not disarmed now, as the latest disarmament panel has reported to the U.N. Security Council, and, therefore, it must be disarmed and we will hold Iraq to that very clear standard.

Dr. GELB: Thank you, Martin.

QUESTIONER: I had a question on streamlining in Iraq—a question on streamlining. Are you satisfied, as far as the U.N. programs go, on delivery of food and medicine with the efficiency of the operation, as far as the U.N. is able to take it, that is, outside of northern Iraq where they can deliver down to the grass roots, so to speak.

And second, what are the limits? When you say streamlining, what are the limits? Take the energy sector: pipelines, yes; refineries, no? I mean, is that sort of detail that’s—I’d be interested in your comments.

Mr. INDYK: Yeah. We’re not satisfied with the delivery system. In fact, one of the interesting things about the humanitarian panel’s report to the Security Council was that it made clear that there is an important discrepancy between the delivery of food and medicines to the people of northern Iraq, where the U.N. has that responsibility, and where the residents of northern Iraq where the Iraqi government is not in control are now relatively doing quite well.

The discrepancy between that situation and the situation in central and southern Iraq where the government of Iraq is responsible for the distribution of the food and medicines, not the United Nations—and there there’s been a significant hold-up in the delivery, particularly of medicines, and one can only assume that this is for the purpose of exploiting the misery of the Iraqi people for propaganda purposes. And that is why in the draft resolution that the British and Dutch have circulated in the Security Council last week there is a specific reference to the need for the United Nations to adopt the role of distribution in central and southern Iraq.

Sorry, your second question was...

Mr. MURPHY: What are your limits?

Mr. INDYK: Oh, limits. Yes, yes. Limits to streamline. Look, one of the issues here is how to generate enough revenues to meet the needs—the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people. And we have made clear that we are prepared to lift the limits on export of Iraqi oil revenues to meet those needs—to the extent necessary to meet those needs. The drop in the price of oil has made it very difficult for the Iraqis to produce and export enough oil to meet even the ceilings that have already been set of $5.2 billion every six months. And, therefore, the humanitarian panel looked at other suggestions for ways of increasing the revenues available for humanitarian purposes.

They basically had three suggestions: One was to borrow from the Compensation Commission. Thirty percent of the revenues go to the Compensation Commission. The second was production sharing arrangements with foreign companies in which the foreign companies would assume the costs of development of Iraq’s oil industry. And the third was, actually, foreign investment in Iraq’s oil industries.

A lot of these issues have now—some may become moot. Because of the rise in the price of oil, our predictions now, our experts estimate, that at a level of around $14 a barrel, Iraq will be able to meet the $5.2 billion ceiling in its next phase and, after that, will be able to raise its revenues to $6.1 billion in the phase after that—six-month phase after that. So although the Security Council’s grappling with that at the moment, we’re not at all sure that there’s a need for any of those things to go forward.

One thing I want to emphasize, again, in terms of our limits—our red lines, something that I said in my formal remarks, which is we will not accept a situation where Saddam Hussein, who is in defiance of the Security Council resolutions, who is not disarmed of his WMD, gets control of Iraqi oil revenues. So whatever happens, that is an absolute red line for us. That money must be escrowed and controlled by the United Nations.

QUESTIONER: A couple of points. I think—you made a couple of statements. You said that Iran is on a sharp drive to create weapons of mass destruction and you focused, particularly, on nuclear, because I think you’re very well aware that over the last five, six years of the dual containment policy, or before, that Iran has actually made very little progress toward the actual development of a nuclear weapon, and they’re open to inspections and the like. And so there is, in fact, something to work with here that is more than—I mean, the implication that you left was that they’re hell bent on getting this immediately. If they were, they would be a lot further along now than they are.

You also said that there’s no con—that there seems to be a complete consensus inside Iran on building nuclear weapons. You have every reason to know that that isn’t true, that there, in fact, is no consensus inside Iran about this. The real question is: Is the United States’ series of sanctions that we’re imposing, in fact…(technical difficulty).

Mr. INDYK:…(Technical difficulty) there are ways of working with Iran to deal with this. The IAA is trying to get Iran to agree to, in 93 plus two, enhance safeguard’s regime, which would help to deal with this situation. The Iranians have not accepted that yet. So the short answer is, yes, there are ways of doing it. It’s very difficult for us to deal with those kinds of issues if we can’t engage with them. And I think you know that that’s at the heart of the problem.

QUESTIONER. My question has to do with Iraq. I was pleased, Martin, to hear that, after six long years, the president seems to have abandoned the notion he expressed shortly after his election that as a Baptist he believed in the possibilities of redemption and that he hoped that Saddam might be...

Mr. INDYK: I think it was deathbed redemptions.

QUESTIONER:…redeemed. But I have to confess to a real confusion about what our Iraq policy is. As I understand it, the administration—and you’ve reaffirmed it today—has, in effect, embraced the Iraq Liberation Act as a means to the achievement of our ends, yet the general in charge of south—of CENTCOM has publicly debunked the premise upon which that policy has been based. Someone has been appointed to the staff for the NSC who’s supposed to be responsible for dealing with this policy.

Dr. GELB: Say what the premise is so everyone can follow.

Mr. SOLARZ: Yeah, the premise is that in order to bring about—to achieve American objectives in Iraq, Saddam and his regime need to be brought down. And the way to bring it down is to provide assistance to the Iraqi opposition. You have someone on the NSC who has publicly denounced the policy in the pages of foreign affairs. Now—and you yourself just said that the administration has no intention, at least in the short run, of making available any of the weapons that the Iraq Liberation Act said should be made available to the Iraqi opposition.

So my question is this: How, exactly, do you propose to bring him down? As I see it, there are one of three ways. He can be assassinated, but we’re precluded by law from encouraging or supporting that. There can be an indigenous uprising, but we don’t seem to be supporting that. Or there could be a kind of Desert Storm II where U.S. and other forces were mobilized and sent in to bring him down, but there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for that. So you’ve made it clear the objective is to bring about a change in the regime. What are the precise ways in which you hope to achieve that within a time frame that would be compatible with our interests in the region?

Mr. INDYK: Thank you. I think what I tried to do in my opening remarks was to make clear the way that we see as pressing forward. It obviously wasn’t clear enough. I think that the basic idea behind the Iraq Liberation Act by those that drafted it was to arm an exiled opposition, insert them in Iraq and then, with our support, have them somehow move on Baghdad. General Zinni, having looked at that, thinks that that’s a bad idea, and we agree with him. We don’t believe that that is a way to achieve the objective.

And what we’ve tried to make clear, and I’ve tried to make clear again today, that we do see a very important role for the Iraqi exiled opposition, but it is fundamentally a political role. There are people and organizations in Iraq today who are resisting Saddam—more in the south than in the north, but continues day by day. In fact, in the south at the moment he’s very much on the defensive with daily insurgency operations, it seems. And, as I said before, we have two principles: one, that change must come from within, and that the territory and integrity of Iraq must be maintained. So I think it becomes clear what we have in mind. That is, it has to come internally, and it internally can come either from a coup or from an insurrection or from an insurgency—internal insurgency campaign. So there are three different ways.

We cannot be effective in supporting any of those unless we have the support of Iraq’s neighbors. And one of the things that we’ve been doing, actively, in the last few months, is going around and trying to calm them down after they read the Iraq Liberation Act and work with them. Try to take their considerations into account so that we can get their cooperation. There was no liberation of Afghanistan without Pakistan. That’s an obvious point. And we have to build a more credible Iraqi opposition externally.

So I think that all of those things are going to take a little time. We are working very actively to put the pieces in place now. I believe we are making progress. And in terms of Desert Storm II or our role, that is another factor that is going to be very important and it takes planning. So we have put all that together. We are in the process of implementing an effort to get change. How long will it take? I can’t tell you. Sooner or later, he’s going to go, and I believe it’s going to be sooner than you or I think. But, you know, it’s not an easy endeavor, and just putting the objective out there doesn’t achieve it. And pursuing a scheme that is bound to fail does—on the backs of various other schemes that have been pursued that also failed does not seem to me to be wise or a responsible policy.

So I understand that there are people out there who are very impatient and very skeptical and want to know why we haven’t gotten rid of Saddam yesterday, and all I can say to you is it’s going to take a little bit of time. But the president has declared the policy and the national security agencies of the U.S. government are now mobilizing to implement the policy.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, Les. There’s confusion of the policy on Iraq, and it’s rather clear, particularly from what you said today. And you say we don’t know how long, the time element, but it’s not only the United States who’s operating on this. It’s the Security Council. There are other members who are saying, “OK, we’ve given this new policy since December. That was the space. Show us what you can accomplish. You have not done it. Let’s see what else we can do.”

But your policy, Martin, right now, this administration’s policy is really defying the very principle you’re declaring as your priority, that is, to have someone, somebody there in Iraq looking over what’s happening in the weapons of mass destruction. This policy has eliminated that presence. Thirdly, the dire—you say you have engaged the Iranians in order to see what to do about their weapons of mass destruction, but you’re not willing to engage the Iraqis. And you make a promise...

Mr. INDYK: Engage the Iraqis.

QUESTIONER: Iraq and its present government. After all, he is there. So how else do you propose to go about eliminating some of this confusion to make it more coherent, the policy?

Mr. INDYK: Well, I came here to try to eliminate the confusion, but I’ll try again. We didn’t eliminate UNSCOM. Saddam Hussein did. And he went about it systematically over a year and a half, in which he had basically rendered UNSCOM ineffective and unable to do its job. The effort that is now under way at the Security Council is an effort to rebuild a consensus of the remaining requirements of the Security Council resolutions when it comes to the disarmament of Iraq, and to its—to the ongoing monitoring of its dual-use facilities.

The disarmament panel made clear, as you know, that Iraq is not disarmed. And it made various recommendations about the mechanism that should be established for dealing with this that would involve intrusive inspections, just like UNSCOM, as well as a robust, ongoing monitoring regime. There are various efforts under way in the Security Council now to see if it’s possible to build a consensus around establishing a new system for investigation and monitoring. And I think that it may take some time to work that out, but I believe that it is possible, since there is a consensus that Iraq is not disarmed, and that it must comply with the Security Council resolutions, to build on that a basis for re-establishing an inspection system. Now will Saddam accept it or not? It’s hard to say. I suspect that he won’t, at least not at first. But it’ll be clear who’s defying the international community.

And then we had the same situation with the oil for food. Took him a year and a half to come around to accepting it, but in the end he accepted it. So we will just have to see. In the meantime, as I made clear, we will enforce our red line so that if he reconstitutes his weapons of mass destruction, or deploys them in ways that we detect, we will act to remove them. And as an interim measure, I believe that that can work quite effectively.

On top of that, the denial of resources to his regime and the constant pressure upon him that is now operating, I think, puts him in a defensive posture in which it’s difficult for him to engage in this effort to try reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction. So it’s not a perfect system, but it can protect our interests in the interim.

As for not talking to them, I think I made very clear that we regard this regime as irredeemable and that he’s never going to, in the end, comply with the Security Council resolutions and enough is enough. I think that everybody in the region basically agrees with us, even though they won’t say it to you publicly. And that it’s time to find ways to change the government there, and that that would be the most effective nonproliferation policy that we can pursue.

Dr. GELB: Thank you, Martin. OK, let’s go on to the Middle East—the Arab-Israeli negotiations. I don’t want to impose on Martin any more than we have, so we’ll end promptly at 2:15. And I’d appreciate it if the questions were right to the point.

QUESTIONER: Marty, this is a question on Syria. Briefly, before posing the question, I want to take this occasion to thank you for your important participation and contributions to our annual consultations on U.S. Middle East policy and European Middle East policy.

Mr. INDYK: That’s all right.

QUESTIONER: On Syria, as we speak, the Syrian prime minister is visiting Israel, and he does so against the back...

Mr. INDYK: The Russian prime minister.

QUESTIOER: I’m sorry?

Mr. INDYK: The Russian prime minister.

QUESTIONER: Russian prime minister. Forgive me.

Mr. INDYK: Right, I thought I missed something here.

QUESTIONER: I jumped the gun there. That’s next week. And he does so against the background of a very intense controversy generated by an article—a series of columns by the most respected Israeli journalist, Ze’ev Schiff saying that Israel has proposed to the Russians that they take over from the United States the mediating role in the Israeli-Syrian conversations. I will not ask you to confirm this.

Dr. GELB: Remember, you’re setting a high standard for shortness.

QUESTIONER: Yes. Right. Well, for me, it is, yes. The question is: Is it true, as Schiff reported—can you confirm that the Syrians have asked the United States if this initiative is a serious initiative?

Mr. INDYK: Well, as far as I know, the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman for Foreign Minister Sharon said that this was all a pack of lies. I can’t confirm any of Ze’ev’s stories. And as far as what the Syrians say to us or do with us, it’s also not something that I can talk about publicly. What I would say, in order to avoid answering the question, is that I do believe that there is an interest on the part of both the Syrian government and any likely Israeli government, by which I mean that the three main prime ministerial candidates are all in agreement that pursuit of a negotiated final status deal with the Syrians is in the interest of both sides here. And I do believe there is a ripeness that has developed after three years of nothing going on, at least nothing publicly going on, that would lead me to believe that after the Israeli elections, whoever happens to win them, there will be an effort to get the Syrian negotiations going.

And then, if we’re able to do both, the implementation of why and the resumption of final status negotiation on the Palestinian trek and resumption of negotiations on the Syrian trek, then we will have, in effect, recreated the very positive circumstances that we had from Madrid on, in which it was possible to create a kind of symbiotic relationship between the treks of the negotiations. And progress on one could help produce progress on the other. So that ideal situation is one that we’re very much committed to trying to bring about. And I think that, for a number of reasons that I won’t go into, the Syrians and the Israelis see it in their interests, see an advantage of trying to do that now, after the elections.

Dr. GELB: Microphone over here, please.

QUESTIONER: There are a number of people who look at the Israeli election, Martin, think that in the last analysis there’s not serious difference among any of the candidates in terms of the amount of land that they would give up. To be sure, Barak has spoken about a state and Netanyahu hasn’t, but in terms of the amount of land that they would give up—and that all of them are talking about something around 50 percent, 60 percent. Do you think a final status resolution could be accomplished, if that were the case, given what you’ve heard from the parties and the discussions heretofore, or is that any one of them is really doomed to not to have a settlement that would work out?

Mr. INDYK: Do you mean is a 50 percent to 60 percent settlement acceptable to the Palestinians?

QUESTIONER: Would it fly in the end? Is it anywhere near the area that could fly? And am I reading correctly what the candidates are said to be saying?

Mr. INDYK: Yeah, I don’t think there’s a great deal of difference between the candidates when it comes to the territorial solution. Both candidates have committed, in effect, to territorial compromise. Prime Minister Netanyahu committed to that in the Wye agreements, which were passed by the cabinet, passed by Knesset, enjoy the support of the vast majority of Israelis. So there isn’t an argument anymore about territorial compromise.

I have no doubt there will be an argument about the extent of territorial compromise, and I think there is a difference between the two candidates, which I thought was rather well developed in a piece in The New York Times a few days ago in which they have a different vision of what it means to make peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s vision has been, you know, very well articulated by him based on the notion that you can’t negotiate peace with countries that aren’t democracies, and, therefore, you’ve got to have other kinds of arrangements with them.

And Barak’s view, which is not so much focused on that and more focused on how you build a partnership with your adversaries, regardless of what their domestic political makeup may be. So I think there’s a difference in kind of world views and how they approach it. But the differences between them on substance when it comes to territory, I don’t think is that great. As to whether a 50 percent or 60 percent solution can fly, you know, in a sense, it’s not the right question. Because the answer will come from the negotiating process itself. You’ll remember that 13 percent was absolutely impossible up until the time that the government of Israel accepted it. So, you know, I really think it depends on the nature of the arrangements that are put in place and the kinds of compromises that can develop which make it possible to yield more territory rather than less.

Dr. GELB: Time for one quick, easy question. Is there an easy question? Right over here.

Mr. INDYK: Why didn’t you ask for the easy questions first?

QUESTIONER: This has to do with the Kurds in the north. We favor territorial integrity of Iraq. Do they, or are they more interested in Kurdish self-government?

Mr. INDYK: That is an easy question. I noted in my remarks that we’ve made progress in terms of reconciliation between the KDP and the PUK, the two major Kurdish parties in the north. And as an express part of that agreement—I mean, it’s written there; they both signed up to maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq. So they’re formally committed to that. And we’ve made clear to them that our support for them depends, in part, on their continued reconciliation, their continued fulfillment of their commitments that they entered into in this agreement, and the maintenance of the territorial integrity of Iraq.

I think that they have learned, over a long period of time, that regardless of their druthers, of their aspirations, the reality is that in order for them to thrive and prosper and achieve some of the basic aspirations for their people, they need to attenuate their demands for independence, because they know that that will not be supported either by the Turks, their other major patron, or the United States.

Dr. GELB: On behalf of all here, let me thank and congratulate you, Martin. You have really done what our members like best. That is come here to engage with us seriously about substance. It was terrific. Thank you.

Mr. INDYK: Thank you very much. Thank you.

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