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Takeyh: Managing U.S.-Iran Relations

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies
September 8, 2004


Ray Takeyh, the Council’s expert on Iran, says it seems clear Tehran is intent on building nuclear weapons and fomenting trouble in Iraq. In advance of next week’s meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United States is pressuring the IAEA to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. Takeyh says that is pointless; the only sanction Iran will take seriously is an oil embargo, but the Security Council will not impose one. “The Security Council,” he says, “is a gun without a bullet.”

Takeyh, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council, says “there will always be tensions in [the U.S.-Iranian] relationship. Iran is not a riddle to be solved; it is a problem to be managed.” He suggests following the example of U.S.-Sino relations. “Ultimately, you are not going to have a sort of alliance or partnership with Iran, but maybe you can have selective cooperation on an evolving chain of issues and continued disagreement on a range of other issues.”

Takeyh, a member of a Council-sponsored independent task force that recently produced a report on Iran, was interviewed on September 8, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for

There is wide suspicion that Iran is using its civilian nuclear power industry to cover up its pursuit of nuclear weapons, which would violate the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Should the United States be worried about Iran? And how does its nuclear program affect its relations with the West?

Yes, it appears that Iran is trying to pursue a nuclear weapons program under the auspices of a civilian research program. You can go through a series of strategic reasons why Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and whether that makes sense for it or not. But that it is seeking the ability to make weapons seems to be the case.

I don’t believe that Iranians have actually made the decision to cross the threshold and make weapons. But I do think there is a consensus within Tehran about the need to have a robust nuclear research program that in due course will offer Iran the options of assembling a weapon or of staying in the ambiguous zone where it has the capability but is not necessarily constructing a bomb. It is very difficult to read the tea leaves because, as you can imagine, there is a considerable degree of opacity surrounding the subject.

In terms of Iran’s relationships with the West, you really have to split those up. The relationship with the European Union [EU] countries, France, Britain, and so on, is relatively good. The nuclear issue has been a problem and an obstacle to further expansion of commercial relationships. About 30 percent of Iran’s foreign trade is with EU countries, so there is a considerable degree of investment and exchange between the two sides.

The relationship with the United States, of course, has remained perennially tense. That has persisted throughout President Bush’s tenure. That’s not new. That relationship has even become aggravated, because there is a massive presence of U.S. forces on Iran’s peripheries that wasn’t there before. That enhances and gives some currency to Iranian claims of being encircled by American power even though you can make the case that the American “power” is entangled in a quagmire next door. But from the Iranian perspective, there are still 135,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, a robust presence in the Gulf, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and so forth.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said September 7 that, when the IAEA meets next week, it should refer Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. The Europeans have not agreed, and Iranians seem to be looking to bargain their way around such a development.

The American position has always been that this issue needs to be taken to the Security Council, where there is a possibility of multilateral sanctions. The European position has always been less than that. Part of the reason why all this has taken place is that the actual IAEA report on Iran is still rather ambiguous, in that the IAEA suggests that there is really no evidence that Iran is manufacturing nuclear weapons but there are areas of inconsistency in Iran’s reporting and there are certain activities that lend suspicion to claims about Iran’s intentions. So the IAEA report and the inspection process have not produced the unequivocal determination that Iran is actually seeking to produce nuclear weapons.

Now, that’s a very difficult judgment to make, given that the technology to make nuclear weapons and the technology to create a civilian program are not all that dissimilar, up to a point. As long as the IAEA does not make a definitive claim, the Europeans are also not making that claim, and the United States remains the actor pressing for this issue to go to the Security Council.

But let me say two things about the Security Council. First, even if the issue was sent to the Security Council, I am not sure you would get a consensus within the Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran, declaring Iran in violation of its NPT agreements. Second, even if there is an agreement on sanctions, the one sanction that would make an impression on Iran, namely an oil embargo, has no possibility of being enacted by the Security Council.

American officials continually say, “We are going to go to the Security Council,” as if that’s a great threat. The Security Council is a gun without a bullet. Even if it passed sanctions, they would be similar to the past Libyan sanctions, which were secondary and not particularly onerous and intrusive. The international community is just not going to stop buying Iranian oil, and that’s the only sanction that would have a material impact on Iran’s decision-making.

The IAEA process culminates in the Security Council, and the Security Council itself, in my opinion, is incapable of reaching a consensus and, in particular, any sanctions that would materially affect Iran’s nuclear deliberations. I don’t think this is a pronounced threat. I don’t know why we keep invoking it. I guess the threat of going to the Security Council is ultimately more viable than actually going there.

In a recent article you co-authored with Nikolas K. Gvosdev in The Washington Quarterly, you advocate that the United States sit down with Iran to discuss problems and work things out. Can you elaborate?

The IAEA process, in this case, is not only ineffective but ultimately counter-productive. The IAEA is a watchdog organization. It looks at the evidence and threatens the country with sanctions for documented transgressions. The IAEA deals with the supply side: how to stop Iran from acquiring proscribed technologies; how to slow down the process of nuclear armament buildup. It doesn’t deal with the demand side. It doesn’t deal with the question of, “Why does Iran want nuclear weapons, and is there anything we can do to alter that strategic calculus?” By invoking multilateral sanctions, by invoking threats, it further empowers Iranian domestic constituencies that claim to need nuclear weapons to fend off external threats. I understand the administration’s renewed desire for a multilateral process, but in this particular context, what you need is a degree of bilateralism. Ultimately, a deal between the United States and Iran may not work out, and as Iran’s nuclear program matures and crosses successive demarcations, a deal will be much more difficult to get.

In August 2002, before all this became public, you could have crafted a deal in which the Iranians would have relinquished the right to enrich uranium. There is no chance in hell you are going to get that today. As the program matures, as it becomes more sophisticated, more technologically advanced, more technologically capable, the parameters of a deal narrow. That’s the problem with the IAEA process, because it goes on for years and years. Time is not necessarily on the side of a bargain.

Is a deal possible today? Perhaps. But the deal that is possible today won’t be possible six months from now, and the deal that is possible six months from now will not be possible a year from now. That’s the problem. It is a dynamic picture. It keeps moving forward. The IAEA process assumes everything is sort of static.

An article in the September 8 Wall Street Journal says that Iran is fuelling unrest in the Shiite areas of Iraq. Is there evidence of that?

Based upon what I have read, it makes sense. Increasingly, I think there will be a divergence between Iranian, American, and Iraqi perspectives on the future of Iraq. Americans will want a stable Iraq that is not a threat to its neighbors. Iraqis will want a strong Iraq that once again has historic aspirations of dominating the Gulf. And what the Iranians want is a weak, decentralized, unstable Iraq that is too preoccupied with its internal squabbles to be able to project power outside. The way the Iranians are trying to deal with that is by having as many constituencies and clients as possible in Iraq, infiltrating men, supplies, intelligence officers, and so on as sort of assets in place. They are handing out money to everybody. They are not just buying Shiites. They are paying Kurds, Sunnis, whatever.

Another flashpoint in Iranian-United States relations is going to be the differing perspectives on the evolution of Iraq. The Iraqi defense minister [Hazim Shalan] has been very strident in his condemnation of Iran and even called Iran, in effect, public enemy No. 1. You are going to see more of that come about. The historic tension between Iran and Iraq transcended Saddam Hussein. He was not the first Iraqi leader who sought hegemony in the Gulf. I suspect he won’t be the last.

With tensions over Iraq, nuclear issues, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any chance for improved U.S.-Iranian relations seems rather remote.

It is a daunting picture; there are a lot of complexities. There is a structural tension in U.S.-Iranian relations. Most of the time, when people in the West look at Iran, they seem to think of it as a sort of riddle: if you put in the right combination of numbers in a lock, it opens up and you have normalization, harmony, and an epoch of bliss. There will always be tensions in this relationship. Iran is not a riddle to be solved; it is a problem to be managed. It can be managed more adroitly, but ultimately, going back to the days of President Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, you are going to have to deal with this country in the same way you dealt with Sino-American relations. When Nixon went to China and signed the Shanghai Communique in 1972, there were a lot of differences between the two sides, over Vietnam, over Taiwan, over this, over that. But unlike the Nixon-Kissinger policy of linkage of issues, with Iran you have to delink all these [issues] and deal with them individually. And maybe then this relationship can be stabilized and managed more adroitly.

Ultimately, you are not going to have a sort of alliance or partnership with Iran, but maybe you can have selective cooperation on an evolving chain of issues and continued disagreement on a range of other issues. But right now, everything is linked. We can’t deal with Iran on the nuclear issue because of the [Mideast] peace process problems; you can’t deal with Iran on peace process issues because of Iraq. So as long as everything is linked, linkage in this context leads to immobility and paralysis, and paralysis means the nuclear clock is running.

In your article, you refer to conservative pragmatists in Iran as people ready to do business with the West.

I should be a bit more precise. There is no such thing as a pragmatic conservative. There are conservatives who are pragmatic on some issues, dogmatic on other issues. When we say pragmatic conservatives, the implication is that there are [Iranian] conservatives who are pragmatic on every set of issues. There is no such person. There are conservatives willing to have some sort of approach to the international community and are willing to restrain their nuclear ambitions because of countervailing and counterbalancing sets of issues, whether they be commercial ties with Europe, a potential security dialogue with the United States, or oil sales to Japan.

There will be a change in the Iranian presidency next May. Who is the likely new president?

The Iranian elections are not like the American. They don’t start running two years ahead of time. There are some figures beginning to emerge. Within the right, the figure emerging is Mohammed Ali Larijani a conservative, formerly head of Iranian TV, who in the past has talked about more of a relationship with the United States. I don’t know if Hassan Rouhani, the national security chief, has as much of a prospect as many people seem to think he does. He is a cleric and, ironically enough, that’s beginning to count against you in the theocracy. I think the next president of Iran is likely to be a non-cleric. There is a segment within the hard right in Iran that does not really trust Rouhani. And Rouhani’s increasing argument for claiming the presidency would be foreign policy success, which would mean a nuclear deal. The nuclear deal is very contentious in Iran. There is a lot of criticism of it in Iran.

He is criticized by those who do not want nuclear weapons? Or do?

They don’t want a deal. There are people in the right who just want to get out of the NPT and get on with it. For a variety of reasons, they are unhappy with him. He has to worry about his right flank. All this may change. Iranian elections are usually decided in the last three weeks. But I don’t think the next president can change much.

Do you think there is a better chance of a U.S.-Iranian dialogue if Democrat John Kerry wins, or doesn’t it matter?

The president has largely ruled out dialogue, so by elimination it means Kerry would have a better chance for one. But the specific Kerry/Edwards deal for Iran— that the international community would provide Iran with fuel and Iran would relinquish indigenous uranium enrichment— has absolutely no chance of being accepted in Iran. There are very few things I can be unequivocal about in terms of Iran. But this is one of them. What you might get at best is that they would want a lot of concessions up front, including economic and security agreements and you might get them to agree to a uranium moratorium, But it would be very difficult for a Kerry/Edwards administration to come back with significant concessions up front. Iranians will not accept a Libyan-style deal in which Libya agreed to give up its [nuclear] programs right away. Maybe a Kerry administration would end up where the Bush administration is, namely, confronted with an extraordinary series of bad options.

If Bush is re-elected, will he try to bring more pressure for a regime change in Iran?

He might. But I don’t know how you change that regime internally. There is a political passivity now in Iran. The hard-line politicians are seeking political stagnation and achieving that. I don’t see Iran as a revolutionary state at this time.