Staff: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
September 5, 2008 - 8:30 am to 1:30 pm
On September 5, 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations convened some of the country's top experts on Iran. Over the course of three sessions, the symposium sought to understand Iran as a global player and identify policy options for the next U.S. administration.
This symposium was made possible through the generous support of
the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
This page contains video, audio, and transcripts of the three sessions, as well as related readings.
Despite a sagging economy and a public that has grown weary of the ruling regime, Iran's conservative camps retain a firm grip on power nearly three decades after the Iranian Revolution. Farideh Farhi, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, said at a CFR symposium on U.S. policy toward Iran that the next U.S. president should prepare to negotiate with an increasingly fractious camp of conservative Iranian lawmakers. But Ali Ansari, professor and director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, said conservative infighting has not impacted the office of Iran's Supreme Leader ability to influence the domestic agenda. The last decade has seen "the exponential growth of the leadership office," Ansari said. "What you see is the growth of this shadow government, or this revolutionary government as oppsed to the orthodox republican organs of government, and they've started essentially to take over." An examination of Iran's budgets offers evidence. For instance, Ansari said, recent governmental spending on welfare organizations increased by 3.2 percent while spending on religious foundations more than doubled. "When you have that shift in financial wealth …it shows where the balance of power is going," he said. "The leader is now taking on the role essentially as a monarch."
The Bush administration has long-warned that an Iranian nuclear weapon would rank near the top of risks to national and global security. But after years of diplomatic efforts to derail Iran's nuclear program, Washington may have to come to grips with an inevitable fact: if Tehran wants a nuclear bomb, it will most likely get one. "I don't think we'll be able to talk them out of it," Gary Samore, Council on Foreign Relations Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, said during the second session of a CFR symposium on U.S. policy toward Iran. The best the United States can do, Samore said, "is create a package of incentives or disincentives to at least convince them to stop or at least slow down." Hawks within the Bush administration have hinted that military force could put a stop to Iranian nuclear ambitions. But Ashton B. Carter, codirector of the Preventive Defense Project at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said not even military action can solve the problem. "The only other option, of course, is to invade," Carter said. "We've had plans to invade Iran for as long as I've been associated with the Department of Defense. I just don't think we have the ground forces to do it." Additionally, Carter said he sees a "50-50" chance that Israel—a sworn enemy of Iran—will unilaterally attack Iran's nuclear facilities between the U.S. presidential election and Inauguration Day.
Unlike George W. Bush, whose administration focused exclusively on containing Iran's nuclear program, the next U.S. president should broaden its bilateral relations with Tehran to include talks on sanctions, regional stability, and energy security, experts said during the third session of a CFR symposium on U.S. policy toward Iran. "Iran can go down two roads: Japan of the 1930s, or the road of India, " said Vali R. Nasr, Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies. "Part of the use of aggressive diplomacy should be to interject ourselves into that debate, to have a say in which way they go," Nasr said. The need for a reversal in strategy toward Iran is evidenced in the Bush administration's flawed strategy of containment, the speakers said. Ray Takeyh, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, said the approach has left no regional Arab consensus on how to handle Iran, and attempting to craft a containment strategy similar to the one employed against the Soviets during the Cold War "is not practical. " The isolation approach has forced Tehran into closer ties with Europe and Asia, and especially China and Russia. "Iran is not a country that is isolated like North Korea," Takeyh said. "We might not have the keys to" isolate Iran with sanctions or economic pressure.
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