Media Conference Call: Vali R. Nasr and Ray Takeyh on Iran (Audio)

Media Conference Call: Vali R. Nasr and Ray Takeyh on Iran (Audio)

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MIKE MORAN:  Well, welcome, everybody.  I'm Mike Moran, the executive editor of  And with me today are two of our distinguished CFR Iran experts, Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council, and Vali Nasr, who is also an adjunct professor -- adjunct fellow here at CFR.  And these are well-known personalities among those who cover Iran.

I won't go deeply into their backgrounds.  Obviously the people on this call are interested in this topic, and know who these folks are.  But very briefly, Vali is author of "Shi'a Revival," "Democracy in Iran" and "The Islamic Leviathan" and currently is in La Jolla out at the -- in Monterey.  Is that right still, Vali?

VALI NASR:  No, I'm now at the Fletcher School.

MORAN:  Ah, you've moved to the Fletcher School.  Look at that.  I'm behind the times here already.

RAY TAKEYH:  And he's not at La Jolla.  (Laughter.)

NASR:  I'm actually in Boston today.

MORAN:  I see.  And, of course, Ray Takeyh is author of -- I'm sorry; my clips here are all mixed up.  I don't want to get -- "The Hidden Iran" --


MORAN:  -- which is, you know, a look at the internal workings of the Islamic republic.  And Ray, as a senior fellow here, has been focusing particularly on U.S.-Iranian relations since the '79 revolution.

I want to start this by kind of going to the point, the kind of theme that you both explored jointly in the Foreign Affairs article that was pre-released yesterday ahead of the next issue.  And, you know, given the release of the National Intelligence Estimate, which appears to dramatically change the posture of the U.S. intelligence community, at least toward Iran in its nuclear program, looking at how -- what are the implications in terms of a grand strategy of the United States, at least.

And I wonder if I could start with Ray.  You know, President Ahmadinejad is declaring victory, of course.  That's his spin on this.  What is the -- you know, what are the longer-term implications for this report on the American effort to contain him?

TAKEYH:  Well, I mean, there is a U.S. policy in the Middle East today whose focal point was and remains, I think, containment of Iran.  The notion that Iran should be contained, hopefully with the assistance of mutual states, is not particularly new nor imaginative.  It has been, in essence, American foreign policy since 1979.

But I think the interesting and intriguing aspect of the administration's policy today is it perceives in that containment a number of advantages; namely that it seems to think that the rise of Iran will cause the Arab states to focus on resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a means of refocusing regional energies on Iran.  It may lead to further assistance in terms of stabilization of Iraq.  And therefore, it has a number of benefits.  It could lead to marginalization of Iran while dealing with some of the regional quandaries.

I'm not quite sure the NIE report actually fundamentally changes that, because there's some degree of regional receptivity rather to this particular idea.  NIE has much more of an implication for the administration's other policy toward Iran; namely, an attempt to have sort of an international consensus, partly enacted through the United Nations but partly outside the framework of the Security Council, to generate economic and diplomatic pressure on Iraq.  It has much more of an immediate effect on that European-Russian-United Nations audience than it does on the regional strategy of the United States, which was the part of -- which we contested in the article.

MORAN:  Vali, do you think that this is a dampening effect now on the administration's ability to rally support for sanctions and other things?

NASR:  I think so.  I think Iran has been doing what it has been doing all along.  What we found out yesterday was about a program that we didn't know about, that it had ceased before.  But it created a credibility gap for the administration in terms of what it was claiming about Iran and what is the reality of where Iran is at.

And in that sort of perception, Iran comes out on top.  And I think, as Ray also mentioned, it might think that the military option is off the table, that the United States really cannot make a case for war right now.  The likelihood of sanctions is now very difficult.  So Iran can basically continue doing what it's doing, maybe with a little bit more boldness and feeling that it has room to push.

I think the problem for the administration is that it has indicated that it does not want to change its policy towards Iran or its rhetoric towards Iran, even though the lay of the land has shifted.  And in that context, I think it would be very difficult for it to make a case that Iran is aggressively pursuing weapons with the objective of immediately launching them.

I mean, what is much more realistic is that Iran is trying to get nuclear capability, does not have necessarily an immediate weapons program.  It's not clear what it wants to do with that capability.  And therefore, there is a lot more imminent threat from Iran than the administration has been trying to use.

Now, if you don't have imminent threat, it's very difficult to hurdle the (caste ?) internationally and get everybody to follow the case.  And I think, in sum, I think the mistake of the Bush administration was that it overreached.  In overstating Iran's capability, in overstating Iran's threat, all of a sudden it created a house of cards that has now, all of a sudden, fallen down.  And in that context, obviously Iran comes out with a great deal more upside to it than the administration.

And I think the administration created the problem that it is now itself confronting.  There's been no change in Iranian behavior.  It is that the administration's strategy was fundamentally flawed, and it's now collapsed on top of it.  And I think the fact that the administration refuses to acknowledge that everybody crumbled around it and wants to persist is going to make it dig itself even deeper.

MORAN:  Well, let's stick with grand strategy for just a moment.  So is it safe to say at this point that we've moved to containment fully and away from regime change with regard to U.S. policy?  Regime change was very much on the tip of tongues for a while.

NASR:  Ray, why don't you go ahead?

TAKEYH:  Well, I mean, I'm not quite sure if they're mutually exclusive.  If you look at the Soviet Union, the idea of containment was to generate internal pressures that would eventually lead to a change of behavior, and hopefully down the line to change in the regime.  So containment is a long-term policy of affecting the domestic political arrangements of the targeted country.

But the focus of the administration's policy, we gather, was to essentially deal with the surge, if you would, of Iran's influence in the Middle East and trying to sort of contain that particular ascendance.  And the methods and the means that it was choosing to do so, we thought, was problematic.

MORAN:  I want to now turn toward domestic dynamics inside Iran.  How will this -- obviously now it's being spun as a great victory.  How will this affect the factional elements within Iran?  In particular, does this play particularly well into the hands of the kind of new right that's represented by Ahmadinejad?  Or will this actually also bolster other factions?

NASR:  If I may take a crack at that, I don't think so either way, because this whole NIE issue and the fact that this program was ceased in 2003 -- and probably the program was ceased in 2003 by a reformist president.  If anybody can take credit for having done something that is now embarrassing to the United States, it's not Ahmadinejad.

Secondly, there's nothing that Iran has done to change the context.  It is what the intelligence community in America has done that has changed the context.  What I think the impact might be is that there is elections coming up in Iran in March.  The Iranian president is in trouble at home.  The economy is not doing well.  He's under a lot of pressure for mismanagement of the economy.

And one of his hopes, I think, was that he would be able to use international crisis and fear of an imminent war with the United States to clamp down against his opponent on civil society groups and potentially create an environment in which people would not think about the economy where they're voting but rally to the flag and support him.  Every Iranian expert or Iranian you talk to would say that if it came to war, it would favor Ahmadinejad domestically.

Now, if war is off the table, it doesn't matter what Ahmadinejad says and how much bluster he puts out.  If war is off the table, the Iranian electorate may pay a lot more attention to issues that don't favor Ahmadinejad in the elections.  I think it might have a positive effect within Iran, ironically, of refocusing everybody on domestic issues at a time when elections are around the corner.

TAKEYH:  Let me just say one thing about this.  There was some degree of criticism -- rather intense, actually -- of Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy, that it was too provocative, that it was not particularly prone toward any compromise and concession.  And the response of the new right, the Ahmadinejad people, was that confrontation with diplomacy works.

Iran now is in the position of having a nuclear program.  It still has a nuclear program with enlarging enrichment capability that is essentially immune from American military attack.  So that, in and of itself, is a success for the nuclear strategy of the country.

All the headlines and so forth are saying that Iran doesn't have a weapons program and may not have a weaponization component to its program at the moment, but it certainly has an expansive enrichment capability.  So in one sense, this does constitute a victory for the country's nuclear strategy, which essentially, since 2005, has been to move forward with the program in conjunction with the IAEA.

And therefore, in essence, Iran can have a nuclear program that is elaborate, that is extensive, that can be converted for military purposes, and is legal.  It's under the purview of the IAEA and safeguards and so forth.  And now the program has taken a position and has reached a point where it's really no longer subject to being disabled by any sort of a military attack.  And the sort of economic pressure that the program generates through informal financial sanctions particularly, the banking sanctions, are likely to be lax at this point.  So it does constitute not an insignificant victory for Iran at this particular point.

MORAN:  Well, let me talk a bit about the wider Middle East.  One of the things that the NIE appears to have done, at least at first glance at the way the reactions are rolling in, is to unite both Israeli and Sunni Arab policymakers in some degree of discomfort.

I don't think it's unfair to say the Israelis, after Iraq initially really tore into it, have diplomatically stated their disagreement with it, with the assessment at least.  But in a much broader sense, the Sunni Arab world, which has been viewed as somewhat being courted by the United States as part of this containment scheme, can't be particularly happy to see that the U.S. seems to be essentially punting the issue to the next presidency.

What's going on there?  It's really two questions; first the Arab side.

NASR:  If I may, I think, you know, there are two things that are problematic for the Arabs, or a number of things.  One is that obviously they were kept in the dark.  In other words, the NIE would have had a very different impact on participation of even some Arab governments had it been released before Annapolis than afterwards.

Secondly, the Arab governments did not want war between Iran and the United States; I'm fairly sure of that.  But they like the fact that the threat of war may contain Iran or contain Iran's aggressive behavior, not just vis-a-vis the nuclear issue, but in Lebanon and the Palestinian issue.  And now they, all of a sudden, see, as Ray was saying, that the threat of war is now off the table in some ways, and therefore they are at a loss.  They're sort of standing naked without any credible strategy of how Iran may be contained.

Thirdly, I think it goes to a larger issue.  We're constantly telling Arab governments, "Follow our lead.  Follow our foreign policy.  Invest in us.  We're able to protect you, protect your policies."  And they get really worried when they find the United States to prove to be feeble and not doing what it's doing and to be found to be weak and incapable.  They had this feeling once before during the Carter years, where at that point the king of Saudi Arabia was extremely unhappy with the fact that the United States in the Middle East, the ally that the Saudis were relying on, was so ineffectual.

I think the sight of U.S. policy collapsing, the sight of U.S. strategy finding itself to be hollow -- as Ray said, Iran all of a sudden finding that it can have its cake and eat it too; it can now bulldoze through informal sanctions, resist or not face new sanctions, and all of a sudden it's off the hook with the threat of war -- does not give a great deal of confidence to all of these countries that we are trying to rally under an American umbrella, because they don't mistrust our intentions; they mistrust our capability.

MORAN:  Ray, do you want to try to tackle the Israeli side of that?

TAKEYH:  Yeah.  I think this particular news has a number of implications.  It is viewed with relief in Europe, because one of the reasons why the Europeans have gone along with some of these informal sanctions, I suspect, was to avert war.  Now, in absence of war, they may even be lax on those efforts.  But there's relief.  I mean, the Chinese have already declared that it's unnecessary to pursue other sanctions.

The one capital that is going to be particularly nervous and anxious about this is bound to be Jerusalem, because the Israeli definition of what constitutes nuclear danger is different from the NIE's.  For NIE to suggest that the weaponization aspect of the program has been suspended, that's essentially engineering designs to make sure that the nuclear fissile material is on a deliverable missile, while Israelis always identified Iran's progress on the enrichment track as a nuclear weapons danger.

And under the current circumstances, in light of the NIE, Iran is likely to continue with those enrichment efforts unabated, and therefore presents a really difficult security challenge for the Israelis.

The second aspect of Israeli policy that must be rather anxious today is that Israelis had always hoped, frankly, that somehow the international sanctions regime and international political isolation and diplomatic pressure could get Iran to suspend its enrichment program.

As those efforts evaporate, erode, that particular track of pressure on Iran is likely to lessen.  It might not evaporate altogether, but it certainly will lesson.

Second of all, the Israelis always hoped that if that doesn't work, there'll be some sort of a military solution to it, probably by the United States.  The president can talk about how the military option is on the table.  The military option is not just off the table; it's out the window.  So Israelis at this point have no particular Iran policy, because the Bush administration has no Iran policy.  McConnell sort of gutted that.

MORAN:  Well, I want to ask one more question before I turn it over to the many people on line.  Obviously there's a lot of speculation as to the discrepancies between the 2005 report and the current report, as to the timing of the release of this report, and as to the source, that suddenly it seems to have caused a change of heart.

One thing a lot of people are pointing to is the defection last March of an Iranian general, Ali Reza Asghari, into Turkey.  And there were all sorts of other theories as to what might have happened to change so drastically, or seemingly drastically, the assessment of the intelligence community.

Can either of you talk about that a little bit?

NASR:  Ray, why don't you go?

TAKEYH:  I really don't know how the intelligence community puts together its report, what methods and means that it chooses, or what evidence came into its possession that caused it to so radically alter its assessment.  However, if you look at the report, 2007 and 2005, there is some degree of continuity between them.  Strangely enough, both reports suggest that Iran will get a nuclear weapons capability, if not an actual weapon, between 2009 to 2015.  So the time line of the report doesn't change.

This news about the fact that the weaponization experiments may have been suspended, how they arrived at that judgment, my suspicion is through communication intercepts and so forth, because I don't think we have any human assets of any significance in Iran.  But, you know, beyond reading the papers, I just have no idea how they composed their assessments.

MORAN:  Vali, do you want to take a shot at that?

NASR:  No, I'm in agreement with what Ray was saying.  And I think there have also been talks of electronic intercepts.  It could have been the general who defected, although there was rumors that he defected to Israel initially, not to the United States.

But in many ways, I think the only thing we can read into the NIE is that -- (inaudible) -- certain degree of confidence suggests that it must be from more than one source.

MORAN:  Well, with that, I'd like to ask the conference leader to invite questions from our many journalists and others in queue.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  At this point, if you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the 1 key, on your telephone key pad now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they were received.  Any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, please press star 2.

The first question comes from Tala (sp) with Reporters Without Borders.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you very much.

As our colleagues mentioned, with the threat of war being off the table, and as our one colleague eloquently stated, Iran having its cake and eating it too, if we could refer back to the domestic issues that Michael also referred to, our organization issued a statement to Louise Arbour, the head of the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights, yesterday, really trying to enunciate the scores of journalists and civil society activists that have been detained, harassed, imprisoned, and in severe cases killed.

And I'm just wondering if there's any comment or commentary, with the elections coming up, on what can be done to put more pressure on the Iranian government to ensure the safety and protection of these journalists and civil society activists.

NASR:  I deal with a number of these journalists, and I've been aware of the papers that have been shut down and the kind of pressure that they're subject to.  And I think a lot of it has to do with the internal dynamics within Iran and the rivalries between the factions, with the elections coming up.

I think there's very little, in terms of international pressure, that the outside can do, first of all, because there's very little relationship with Iran.  Now, the usual levers of putting pressure on government for better behavior are absent here.  And unfortunately, we're not in a position to directly support civil society or journalists or activists, unions and labor union leaders.

And it is also a reality that under this current Iranian president, the environment has become a lot more difficult, with a lot more pressure on these groups.  But I think one of the most important issues is that this doesn't necessarily get reported adequately, partly because there are not enough people within Iran to cover it, and also partly because all the focus is on the nuclear issue and that crisis rather than the internal dynamics in it.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

The next question comes from Somam al-Dasari (sp) with Al Wassan (sp) Magazine.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  I want to know, since one of you -- I don't know if it's Ray or Vali -- mentioned the surge of influence.  We were shocked, you know, like Ahmadinejad was invited to the GCC summit in Doha, I mean, while we were talking here about the NIE.  I mean, what's the news there?  I mean, how come he was invited?  We've never seen Saddam Hussein being invited to GCC.  GCC, from its inception, was against Iran.  So what's happening here?  Is the Arab countries are yielding now to Iran, or what's happening?

TAKEYH:  Well, let me just address that briefly.  The notion that there was an Arab wall of solidarity against Iran was always more problematic as a perception.  Mainly the Arab governments would try to balance the relationship between the United States and Iran.

In my judgment -- I think we even mentioned it in the piece -- the Gulf states would never completely embrace America's punitive policy, nor would they completely acquiesce to Iran.  They would try to have a balanced relationship between the two.  And given the geographical position and the problems that they find themselves in, that is not an injudicious policy.

You're right.  Ahmadinejad was invited.  I mean, there's even a talk of naval maneuvers between Iranian and Omani navies and so forth, not to mention the level of economic relationship that takes place.  The idea that you can construct sort of a wall of containment around Iran in the Gulf, I suspect, is largely ineffective and untenable.

As far as GCC and Saddam's relationship, you should know that in the 1980s GCC and Saddam had a very intimate relationship, where the GCC countries did provide a substantial amount of funding for Iraq's war effort.

NASR:  I would also add -- I agree with Ray.  I also would add that there are actually explicit voices within GCC, notably Oman, which has been saying that the original mission of the GCC doesn't make sense and that you have to include Iran.  They actually think that Gulf security must be inclusive for Iran to have a seat at the table.  There are others, like Saudi Arabia, who have objected to this.

But also the role of the smaller Gulf states -- that's Qatar, Dubai, Oman -- because of their economic power in recent years, have become much more important.  And they are not as anti-Iran.  I mean, they do enormous amount of business with Iran, in particular Dubai and Oman.  And their relationship with Iran may be tense at the diplomatic or security level, but it's quite cozy economically.  So the idea of Iran basically being excluded from the Persian Gulf with an imaginary wall separating Iran from the rest of the Gulf is not credible to them.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

The next question comes from Andrew Schneider with the Kiplinger Letter.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  I just wanted to ask what the potential impact is likely to be on any cooperation the U.S. might hope to receive with regard to setting of the proposed missile shield in Europe.

NASR:  You go, Ray.

TAKEYH:  I'm just not sure, because I think the missile shield was always and was having problems in terms of it being accepted by the Eastern European countries, and it plays out in the larger relationship between Russia and the United States.

The notion that the administration was to justify the missile shield by pointing out to the immediacy of the Iranian danger, that obviously lessens some of the appetites for it.  But the other aspect of the missile defense program in Europe was the administration was always, I think, prone to trade that for a greater degree of Russian cooperation in terms of the sanctions policy toward Iran.  So it's another card that it no longer has in its possession, that it can play with the same degree of ease.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

The next question comes from Jeff Steinberg with EIR.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.

I'd like to ask whether either of you see a serious prospect of a fundamental shift in U.S. policy towards one of direct engagement with Iran, either with this administration leaving or the incoming, because from the Iranian standpoint, the exclusion policy goes all the way back at least to the fact that Iran was not invited to the Madrid conference.  And on Sunday, Senator Specter said that he thought it was a mistake that Iran was not invited to Annapolis.  Whether they would have attended or not is another question.

NASR:  And I'm skeptical as to whether this administration is willing to do a nuclear policy about Iran.  It has had plenty of opportunities to seriously engage Iran, and even yesterday had an opportunity to read the NIE report in a way that could have opened the door to a new policy.  But its policy continues to be of trying to force Iran to positions that it wants rather than trying to influence Iran's behavior through engagement.

At the same time also, it's looking increasingly weaker.  And elections are around the corner.  And the Iranians may also decide that it's pointless trying to engage this administration and may very well decide to wait it out until they know who they will be dealing with.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from James Kitfield with National Journal Magazine.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, thank you.  I haven't read your piece yet, but I gather you sort of take the Bush foreign policy -- the sort of Mideast strategy that puts Iran at the top of the level of priorities.  Could you briefly critique the present policy?  Even if the next president looks down the road in 2009, is going to find U.S. troops deeply engaged in Iraq, U.S. troops deeply engaged in Afghanistan, in Iran; capable of playing a spoiler in both those things, as well as the Middle East peace process in Lebanon.

What would you do for a strategy?  What would you recommend for the next president?

NASR:  Well, you know, I think Iraq and Afghanistan, you're correct -- they're likely to be continuously -- will be places of conflict.  But it's not a given that Iran's relationship or role in those countries need to stay the same.  I mean, you forget that in the past few months, in some ways General Petraeus has conducted his own foreign policy with Iran.  And it seems to have been much more fruitful than the one done in Washington.

I mean, whatever deal he made, according to which he released nine Iranian captives and in return got a lot better Iranian cooperation, according to the U.S. military itself, then that means that there is a very different approach to how you can work with Iran in these arenas of conflict, which would be to America's benefit and can reduce the conflict.  It's just that General Petraeus is not running American foreign policy.  But within the context of Iraq, he's shown that you can have a different relationship with Iran, at least in a very narrow sense in the past -- post-surge.

And we've had other opportunities.  In Afghanistan, U.S. and Iran had very good engagement in 2002, 2001 to 2002.  In Iraq, there were a lot of prospects and a potential for constructive engagement.  But the spoiler role that we see with Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq is because of lack of engagement, not because of engagement.  So it is quite possible that a different kind of foreign policy with Iran can yield very different results in these arenas and actually improve the situation.

TAKEYH:  The other aspect we argued in the third section of the piece is that the strategy of maintaining a balance of power within the region, the strategy of exclusion of Iran and containment of Iran and buttressing regional rivals and tenuous alliances, just doesn't work.  So what we argued for is more of a strategy of regional integration.  It's bringing Iran into the security system of the Middle East, bringing Iran into the security structure of the region, and essentially trying to minimize Iran's power -- regulate Iran's power through more of an integrated strategy.

Attempting to stabilize the Middle East, or at least the Gulf, by exclusion of Iran is just not tenable.  It's like trying to have an East Asian security system that doesn't include China, trying to have a Eurasian security structure that doesn't include Russia, trying to have a subcontinent security structure that doesn't include India.

Obviously Iran is not as powerful and significant as any of those states, but it does have that pivotal role in its immediate neighborhood.  So for that immediate neighborhood to be stabilized, we thought that you have to have a strategy that is more integration as opposed to trying to maintain a shattered balance of power that at this particular point can not only not be revived, but the attempt to revive it would cause further instability in Iraq and further radicalization of the region.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

The next question from Thomas Olmstead (sp) with U.S. News & World Report.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, thank you.

Really perhaps a question leaning more toward Vali, but it's really for both of you.  If I could get you both to sharpen your sense a little bit on -- tick off the factors that explain your general judgment that the new NIE has created conditions that essentially take the military option off of the table, at least for this administration.  Thank you.

NASR:  Well, the reason I say that's the case is because ultimately you have to sell a policy domestically.  We're a war-weary American public, and the only way in which you could sell the notion of a preemptive war -- and I'm not talking about if Iran did an attack and you respond, but a preemptive war -- is to show that there is imminent danger.  And the NIE's suggestion is that Iran is moving along the path of enrichment but is not an imminent danger.  There is time for diplomacy, et cetera, and there is no immediate investment in capabilities that would allow Iran to actually use a nuclear device.

And internationally as well, I mean, the United States, unless it wants to risk undertaking a major military action, invading a third Muslim country in a seven-year period, a country of 70 million people, which is, you know, much larger than Iraq, much bigger than Iraq -- its capital is 2,000 miles from the nearest port, with two mountain ranges in between -- unless it wants to do this without any kind of international support, it has to be able to sell its policy internationally.

And again, the policy -- you can only sell a policy of war, preemptive war, if you can argue imminent danger.  The fact that countries are on the wrong track, or that you don't like their policies, or potentially down the road you would like to deny them certain technologies, are valid positions to take, but they're not sufficient arguments for military action.

That does not mean that the chances of a military action is zero, but it just means that it is now that much harder for this administration to sell the case of war to its own people and to its allies.

TAKEYH:  Let me just say one more thing.  This is actually -- the NIE is an interesting part of a larger narrative; namely, how the formal institutions of government are now determined to resist the White House, which wasn't the case in 2002.

The head of the intelligence organization, McConnell, basically undermined the president's attempt to have a military option.  It's inconceivable that the United States of America can attack a country whose intelligence services say does not have a weapons program.

Second of all, the military uniformed services also will be in a position of resisting, as Admiral Fallon and others have said.  In many ways, this narrative suggests the irrelevance of the Bush White House, the irrelevance of the president himself.  This is not like it was -- these institutions are trying to tell the White House it isn't like 2002, when they were just going to roll over and accept the White House's judgments and the White House's exaggerations.  I mean, this is not George Tenet anymore.

And as Vali was saying, General Petraeus actually runs his own policy, not only toward Iran, but runs his own policy in Iraq, which he may or may not consult the White House with.  The actual military strategy of Iraq is not designed in the White House.  It's designed in Baghdad.  And, you know, once you say -- once the president says, "Caesar Petraeus is going to save us," and if he's doing whatever he wants to do, what are you going to do?

So what we see with this report and with the push-back of the uniformed military services, that has been obvious, is actually the marginalization of the president and a fundamental reversal of civil-military relations and intelligence and political relationships that were obvious in 2002.

QUESTIONER:  Follow-up on Israel?

TAKEYH:  I don't believe the Israelis will attack Iran without the consent of the United States, and I don't believe that consent will be proffered.

QUESTIONER:  All right, thank you.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Ann Lorado (sp) with the Baltimore Sun.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks very much.

I wanted to go back to the domestic issue involving Iran.  It seems to me that Mr. Nasr and Mr. Takeyh have opposing views on how the NIE report will play out there.  On one hand, it's a plus for the confrontation policy that Ahmadinejad has availed upon.  On the other hand, with war off the table, domestic interest is going to be more closely at hand on the failure of the -- of his economic policy.  So which is it?  Or is it a combination of all?

TAKEYH:  Let me just take that.  I don't think there's a contradiction between the two.


TAKEYH:  I think it's quite possible that -- and it is happening -- that the Iranian diplomacy has worked in the sense that Iran has maintained its program.  As Vali said, they have their cake and they're eating it.

But, as Vali also suggested, and I think correctly, the possibility of this international cloud being lifted may focus the domestic constituency toward other pressing needs and challenging the Iranian government on its deficiencies in terms of providing economic welfare, in terms of providing economic opportunity.  So a diplomatic success may not always lead to electoral advantage.  Just ask the elder George Bush.

QUESTIONER:  (Laughs.)  Can I have a follow-up on that?  What would you all suggest -- if we were to push that, or to help on the domestic front, what could the U.S. do, not itself but through its friends in Europe and elsewhere?

TAKEYH:  Vali may take this.

NASR:  Well, I think it's a great hazard for us to try to in any way influence the domestic politics in Iran.  We don't have a presence on the ground.  We don't know the players.  The system is not transparent to us.  Likely anybody who would try to embrace it is going to be tainted as being a stooge of America, as being unpatriotic. 

I think the best we can do is to try to create an environment in which Ahmadinejad would have to face his own record and stop giving him exit shots so that he can escape the consequences of his own disastrous economic policies, the consequences of his own repression against the population, the consequences of the unhappiness that he has generated in many segments of society.  And I think again, it's not the administration who is providing this respite to the anti-Ahmadinejad faction.  It's actually the NIE which is doing so by basically suggesting that things are not as dire as it has been made to be, that there may not be war right now.  And therefore, I think Iranians will not be thinking that they're in a situation of national crisis.

Ahmadinejad in the past few months has been trying to arrest his opponents and trying to undermine them by claiming that they are betraying Iran, selling information abroad, trying to follow a foreign policy that is going to undermine the government at a time of war.  Well, if the Iranians conclude that the stakes are not as high, that kind of a policy will not have traction in Iran and all we need to do is step out of the way and stop helping Ahmadinejad by ratcheting up the rhetoric.

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  Thank you very much.  Appreciate that.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Once again, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star one.

We have another question Ti Mum (sp) with Awaton (sp) Magazine.

Q    Yeah.  I would like to ask about Iran behavior, you know, in Syria.  I mean, everybody know about the 6th of September attack by Israel by on the so-called military or nuclear facility.  But also, what's happening on Hezbollah and the blocking of the election of the Lebanese president?  I mean, does that give it more leverage now?  Iran says now it is -- the military -- American military option off the table, give it more, you know, aggressiveness towards Syria and her presence in Syria and her influence through Hezbollah in Lebanon and also Hamas?

NASR:  If I may -- I think the bombing -- were you referring to the bombing by Israel in Syria?

QUESTIONER:  Yes, yes.

NASR:  We don't know.  I mean, that might end up being the subject of another NIE at another time in terms of what exactly happened there.  And again, because there is now a mistrust between what the administration might know and what it might say, and therefore we don't know whether there was anything there or not.

But as far as Iran and Hezbollah and Syria are concerned, right now Syria is in the driver's seat in that issue.  In fact, Iran and Saudi Arabia made a deal over Lebanon a number of months ago, which was undermined by Syria.  Iran has more distant goals in Lebanon.  Syria has much more immediate and much larger goals in Lebanon.  And Syria negotiated over these elections, I would assume, over its attendance at the Annapolis conference, which actually, Iran did not support.

Iran has also already said that it does not have a presidential candidate in these elections.  And Iran's interest with Hezbollah are more directed toward the Palestinian issue and Israel.  It does not have really interest in terms of domestic Lebanese politics.  When it comes to domestic Lebanese politics, Syria has much more interest -- and Hezbollah itself has much more interest.  I mean, whether Hezbollah gets one more seat in the parliament, two more seats in the cabinet -- it really doesn't have a bearing for Iran.  Iran cares much more about Hezbollah's long-range missiles, support for Hamas and security environment in southern Lebanon.

    So I think, you know, there are times when Iran is more important, but I don't think we're in one of those times.  I think Syria has a lot more to lose in Lebanon, has a lot more to gain and is much more directly involved.  And I think Syria's now negotiating directly about its participation in Annapolis and the peace process and moving away from Iran.  And it's going to negotiate over -- in large measure over its influence in Lebanon.

     QUESTIONER:  Can I have a follow up on that? 

Can -- you know, in Washington they talk about separating Iran from Syria and that Annapolis is the beginning.  Do you give any credibility that there is no strategic, really, alliance -- a factual one, you know, or what?

NASR:  No.  There is a strategic alliance, but to break a strategic alliance you have to pay the price.  And this administration -- the price that the administration has on the table for Syria I don't think is compelling.  For the longest time it didn't want to engage Syria, didn't have an ambassador in Damascus, was very hostile to Syria and then all of a sudden found itself in a position that it needed Syria, not Syria the United States.  So it actually had to give things to Syria to bring it to Annapolis.

I'm sure there is a price to bring Syria around, as one might say there is a price to bring Russia around.  But the question is, that price is quite high and I don't think Israel or the United States are willing to pay the price for Syria moving completely away from Iran.  The price would be, you know, giving up on severe criticism of Syria, no more regime change talk in Syria, accepting Syria's role in Lebanon, giving up on the Hariri investigation and getting serious about negotiations on the Golan.  If you're willing to do all of those, I'm sure the Syrian's will very quickly move away from Iran.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Our next question comes from Jeff Steinberg from EIR.

QUESTIONER:  I wonder if you could comment on the recent very proactive diplomacy by Russia towards Iran -- of course, the trip that President Putin made to Riyadh before his trip to Iran -- and how you see the Russian role.  President Bush, of course, said that one of the first people he called to brief on the NIE after it was released was President Putin.  They spoke for 40 minutes.  What's Russia's take and maybe some background on the historical Russian/Iranian relationship and how that might play in this current new diplomatic -- potentially new diplomatic environment?

TAKEYH:  The Russians are in sort of an interesting position, because they're in a pivotal position at this point, so long as this crisis remains within its current confines -- I mean, it doesn't explode into a military confrontation.  Because on the one hand, by virtue of their membership in the Security Council and so forth, they have -- a lot of American administration comes to them and be solicitous of them in hope of gaining their cooperation with Iran.  Yes, on the other hand, by watering down those resolutions and so forth, it gains favor from Iran.  So it's a nice position to be in, as far as the Russians are concerned.

Overall, I would say the Russians are less concerned about the Iranian danger or Iranian instability on the periphery than they are about Pakistan.  Pakistan has had much more of an intrusive presence in Central Asia in terms of provocation of its Islamist message, while Iran has remained largely hands off of trying to instigate the sort of Islamism in Central Asia. 

So you know, I think the Russians would prefer for Iran to outsource its enrichment activities and bring this crisis to an end -- especially if those enrichment activities takes place on Russian territory where they can stand to make money.  But you know, at this particular point, I think the Russians are quite at ease with the situation as it presents itself, because it's unlikely to explode into a military clash between United States and Iran.  And while this issue continues to play itself out in international forums where they have veto power, then they can use their leverage against both powers to gain advantage from both sides.

NASR:  If I may add, when you privately talk, neither the Russians like the Iranians a great deal nor the Iranians the Russians.  But it also is a fact that since 1992 when under Gorbachev, Iran has been very close to Russia on all regional issues.  You know, Iran supported not the United States or Turkey's position in Central Asia, but Russia's.  And in Chechnya, Georgia, in the Caucasus, Iran's policy is much more aligned with Russia.  And they have a broader, if you would, strategic map on which they cooperate than just a narrow nuclear issue.

But I also think that Ray put his finger on something that's quite important.  Russia is actually in the neighborhood and the United States or China are much further out.  And when you look at the neighborhood, actually, ironically, Iran is the only stable country.  I mean, years ago Jimmy Carter referred to Iran as an island of stability and it became a joke because the revolution happened.  Ironically, Pakistan is a mess near collapse; Afghanistan is in war; Iraq falling apart; and in the Persian Gulf, obviously, you have stability in the various countries, but it's in good measure by backing of U.S. troops and U.S. presence.  And therefore, the Russians would view instability in Iran as quite critical to what would happen to other areas that they care about, which is Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Once again, if you'd like to ask a question, please press star one.  And we are currently holding for more questions.

QUESTIONER:  Well, let me ask one.  It's Mike Moran (sp) again.

Vali and Ray, the Annapolis conference clearly had -- as you both referred to -- had behind it a kind of sense of urgency among Sunni Arab states that, you know, there was -- that they wanted to be engaged on some level in a conference that they saw as something of a positive check on Iranian power in the region.

Given that the Iranians are clearly claiming this latest twist in the story as a victory -- at least the Iranian government -- what's the next step for those who are trying to push forward with Annapolis?  Are the Saudis likely to drop out of the process now or are other states likely to show their -- are they going to feel somewhat taken for fools by what's happened?

NASR:  I would say that the Saudis were never really in the process.  At the last minute they made a show, merely as a favor more than as taking it seriously.  I think the Saudi expectation is that Annapolis will fail, that it will not be tenable to push forward for peace in the current environment, under this administration, with the weak governments in Jerusalem and in Ramallah.  And I think they will go back to trying to broker another peace process between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

I think there was some degree of hope that even if Annapolis does not succeed in producing peace, the appearance of a movement may take some of the wind of out of Iran and Hezbollah's sails.  I mean, ultimately the main problem for Arab governments in confronting Iran is also the fact that Iranian president and Hezbollah's leader are more popular than Arab leaders on the Arab street, and that's because of the anger in large measure towards the Palestinian issue, as well as towards Iraq.

I think -- I don't think that Annapolis will do enough to change the mood on the Arab street.  And at the same time, it's not going to be a real path to peace.  So I think very soon we're going to see that different Arab governments are going to follow their own path in terms of what's good for them.  And I think the Jordanians and Egyptians, for obvious reasons, will continue to support the American position.  But I think the Saudis will go back to being a peacemaker between Palestinians; and Syria, also, I think is going to basically negotiate for what it can get from the U.S. and Israel for its nominal participation.

OPERATOR:  Once again, star one if you'd like to ask a question.

And the next comes from Paul Merolli with Energy Intelligence Group.

MORAN:  And Paul, I think this will be the last question, so make it a good one.


I was hoping you could comment on the presidential candidates' positions on Iran and how this report could impact their positions going forward -- specifically if they would move towards a path of engagement with Iran.

NASR:  Go ahead, Ray.

TAKEYH:  Well, I think there's always been a sort of consensus -- despite all the rancor among presidential candidates.  On the Democratic side almost everyone emphasizes the need for greater degree of diplomacy, while maintaining the option of military -- but emphasis was on diplomacy.  On the Republican side the same equation applied:  diplomacy, but if it fails, use of military option, but the Republican candidates put more of an emphasis on the military and that just has to do with the different nature of the parties and where they are in the current political landscape.

I suspect now, given what has happened, there'll be greater emphasis on some degree of diplomatic resolution among the Democrats and some degree of skepticism and caution among the Republicans.

MORAN:  Well, I think that's going to be it for our conference call today.  And I'd like to thank everybody on the call, but in particular Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh for the time they've devoted to this. 

And I'd like to remind everybody that on, you can find the pre-released piece that is co-authored by them, "The Cost of Containing Iran:  Washington's Misguided New Middle East Policy."  And you can also find analysis and an interview with Ray on this topic on

With that I'll say goodbye to everybody.









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