Negotiating Iran from the European and Russian Perspectives

Thursday, May 25, 2006
Senior Fellow and Director for Europe Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

RAY TAKEYH: By now the script is all too familiar.  There is a meeting between the United Statesand its allies and Russia and Germany, and usually the meeting ends with much platitudes about success and how the parties are coming close together.  And yet at the end there’s limited progress on issues of critical concern.

The Iran debate is sort of an interesting debate, because in many ways that’s transcended Iran.  In order to learn or know something about the Iran debate you have to be nuclear physicist, you have to understand the Russian foreign policy, you have to understand the Chinese foreign policy, and the European, and so on and so forth.

So today, in order to somehow clarify this issue, we focus on the role of the all too important ally in Russia and the role that they play in the Iranian nuclear conundrum as it proceeds forward, because there is unlikely to be a resolution of it in the absence of a greater degree of multilateral cohesion and perhaps multilateral pressure.

Two people are joining us today:  Charlie Kupchan, who is a senior fellow in charge of Europe, and has been rumored to teach at Georgetown.  That proposition I don’t think can be validated by Georgetown’s students or faculty.  (Laughter.)  But, nevertheless—

CHARLES A. KUPCHAN:  You’ll get me into trouble here, man.

TAKEYH:  And Steve Sestanovich, who does Russia, and does actually teach at Columbia.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH:  You validated it?

TAKEYH:  I validated it, because you’re actually present on the campus at Morningside—a privilege that Charlie doesn’t usually accord to Georgetown.  (Laughter.)

KUPCHAN:  I’m on sabbatical.  (Laughter.)

TAKEYH:  Perennially.

Let me just open it up with some questions.  I’ll start with Steve, and I’ll start with a very basic question, basic to me but I think it may be more complicated.  What are actual Russian objectives in this particular nuclear negotiations?  Are they concerned aboutIran’s proliferation?  Because sometimes on rare occasions when I talk to the Russian officials, and on rare occasions where they seem honest, they say, Well, you know, we lived around Pakistan for a long time, which is a nuclear state, is an unstable state, and in many ways it has a tense relationship with Russia—and it’s something that we have strategically learned to accommodate.  Is there a Russian concern about Iranian proliferation? And how acute is that concern?

SESTANOVICH:  I think if you had to look over the past 15 years to get an answer to that question, as suggested by Russian policy, you would have a tough time saying that the concern was very acute.  You would find a lot of statements that Russia is opposed toIranhaving a nuclear weapon.  And I think in the abstract, all other things being equal, that’s probably a fair and honest statement.  But other things aren’t equal, and the Russians find themselves having to reconcile that position with a lot of other conditions that they have and a lot of other interests.

They tend to be against sanctions as a tool for achieving this goal. They tend to have—they have a strong commercial relationship withIran.  The have other strategic calculations.  They’ve not thought of Iran as a difficult trouble-making state in their own problems with Islamism.  They have a domestic political environment in which looking as though you’re being led by the nose by the United StatesandEuropeis not a money-maker.

So the predictable result from that in policy terms is not a lot of activism to prevent Iran from—and not a lot of political risk taking or capital spending to preventIranfrom getting nuclear weapons.

TAKEYH:  Well, let me just play that out one step further.  So, therefore, how far are Russians prepared to go?  I mean, there’s a lot of procedural issues—Chapter VII resolution—


TAKEYH: —which essentially can brand Iran as a threat to international security—


TAKEYH: —but not necessarily entail punitive sanctions.  I mean, in this menu of options that the U.N. can contemplate or consider before it, how far is the Russian position likely to go?

SESTANOVICH:  If you take the 15 years that I was talking about, you would say the furthest they’re prepared to go is abstaining when it really comes to when the rubber meets the road.  However, over the past year and more Russian policy and policymakers have—and the situation—have tended to suggest to Western governments that Russia might be prepared to go further, for a variety of reasons.

One, Iran’s behavior has been more outrageous in both its words and deeds.  It’s easier for the Russians to say, We have been deceived.  These people are bad citizens of the NPT regime and the international community, and we don’t have to worry about some of the constraints that might have kept us from joining the U.S. and the EU in the past.

The U.S. and the EU are more unified.  That’s a further source of pressure for the Russians to go along.  The commercial incentives ought to be less at a time when the Russians are rolling in dough.  So that has made it seem plausible that they could go further.  And yet, instead of that, you’ve actually seen Russia moving back from and away from being part of a united U.S.-EU front.

TAKEYH:  So if there’s a Chapter VII resolution tabled by the British and the French, if you have to speculate, how would the Russians vote, assuming that all these conclaves—

SESTANOVICH:  Well, they’ve been—I don’t want to speculate.  I’ll just say what their statements lead you to expect.  They have said, We will not support a Chapter VII resolution.

TAKEYH:  Right.

SESTANOVICH:  So they’re looking for something else.  And, in fact, they’ve introduced new elements into the diplomacy.

TAKEYH:  Let me turn just briefly to you, Charlie.  The point that Steve made actually, there’s a surprising degree of U.S.-EU cohesion on this issue.  And part of that has to do with the fact that up to this point what the United States has asked the Europeans is for procedural concessions:  Can you vote with us at the IAEA? Can you vote with us at the U.N.?  We’re getting to a point where we have to ask the Europeans potentially for more dramatic steps:  commercial relationships, banking, financing, and so on and so forth.  Is that going to cause a divergence in U.S.-EU perspective, or are they going to march lockstep into not just criticizing and censuring, but now sanctioning Iran?

KUPCHAN:  I agree with you that the degree of U.S.-EU coordination and EU cohesion has been impressive—surprising in the wake of what happened over Iraq.  I would in fact say that it is in some ways a direct result of Iraq, that had it not been for the bust up caused in the lead-up to the war and the divisions across the Atlantic after the war, that we wouldn’t see the level of cohesion we see today, for reasons on both sides.

In the American case I think there’s been a clear move to back the EU and to get more involved in diplomacy generically in the second term as a result of Iraq, and that is I think the main reason that the U.S. decided to back the EU-3.

And on the Europe side I think there are two motivations.  One is that the don’t want to suffer the same level of internal division that they did over Iraq, and they’re bending over backwards to stay together, particularly the three—not to have the Franco-German coalition over here and the British over there.  And the other is that I think the U.S. legitimately criticized Europe in the lead-in to the Iraq war by saying, You are always telling us what not to do, but you’re never telling us what to do.  You have no proactive position.  And therefore the Europeans are bending over backwards not just to stay together, but to come forward with proposals.  And we’ve just seen a new one.

How long will it last?  I’m worried about it.  I would say that the cohesion across the Atlantic and cohesion within Europe will remain for the next couple of rounds.  And by that I mean through a new resolution in the Security Council and through the imposition of what you might want to call light sanctions—no visas for leaders and freezing of assets, no arms sales.  But I would guess that if it goes beyond that—and it may well—to the imposition of serious sanctions—the withdrawal of investments, economic embargo, trying to prevent the sale of Iranian oil or the import of gasoline—that the cohesiveness will disappear.

And just one final comment.  I think at the strategic level there is a very substantial divide between the United States and Europe on at least three different counts. One is the U.S. I think at the end of the day wants regime change.  The Europeans don’t.  They wouldn’t mind if it happened, but that’s not what their goal is.  Second is hard sanctions and whether they are going to work, especially given what Steve said about Russia—and we also have China.  And then finally war.  I find very difficult to find a European, whether an analyst or a policymaker, who thinks that war is better than a nuclear Iran.  Here in the United States it’s pretty much the opposite.

TAKEYH:  But let me just—because I want to draw the distinction, because the term “European” is a very generic term.  There’s European politicians and there’s the European public, and there’s a huge divide, as I understand it, between the two.  European politicians are still very strenuous in their opposition to Iran and its proliferation tendencies.  The European public is none of the above.  So who’s going to catch up to who?  Are the politicians going to catch up to the public, or is the public going to be more hawkish as this issue unfolds and as Iran’s behavior, as Steve said, may become more or less egregious—whether it stays at a certain level of unacceptable rhetoric.

KUPCHAN:  I think that you really have to talk country by country.  In the German case there is a surprising degree of public support for Merkel’s relatively hard-line approach, in part because of Ahmadinejad, and he’s playing right into the sensibilities of German public opinion by saying the Holocaust didn’t happen and we should wipe Israel off the face of the map.  That creates a moral outrage of the same sort that got the Greens to back the intervention in Kosovo.  That is to say human rights—this is ridiculous. This is an affront to what we stand for.  So public opinion in Germany, at least at this point, is generally supportive.

Between France and Britain, you’re actually seeing the French government in front of the British government, pushing on the question of Article VII, taking the lead in drafting resolutions.  That’s partly because Blair is as weak as he is and Blair is seen as having led Britain into the Iraq war with no apparent gain.

But, you know, I think that when you get to the question of either serious sanctions or the use of military force, that is when public opinion is going to pose a much greater problem to European policymakers.

TAKEYH:  Even on the issue of sanction?


TAKEYH:  Let me just turn to a different—sort of different subtext of this theme, Steve.  The question is:  What can the U.S. do to press the Russians one way or the other?  As I understand it, there are two schools of thought.  One says that the Russians aren’t going to be that helpful anyway on this issue, for whatever set of reasons, so why offer them any concessions, because they have a structural ceiling to how far they’re going to go, and no set of American concessions can affect that ceiling.

The second school of thought says if the United Statesoffers some concessions to Russian, whatever, they may be more forthcoming, and this international—not just European—cohesion can stay together.  Which of these two schools of thought are right and what type of concessions are we talking about?  What would the Russians want from America?

SESTANOVICH:  Yeah, it’s an important question.  I think the most of the incentives that people have imagined for getting the Russians on board the U.S.-EU position are kind of weak.  They tend to involve things like, Well, the Russians want to be members of the club and have a good G-8 meeting.  Or they want to develop a nuclear partnership in civil nuclear energy with the U.S.  They see that as an export leader and a diversifier in their economy.  Or they want WTO or less rhetoric about democracy.  Those tend to me—they seem to me to be—to probably fall short of actually involving the kind of leverage that would change the Russian policy.

The Russians I think are actually relatively clear about what it is they bring to this debate now, and it is something that – it’s different from what you and Charlie were talking about, because the U.S.-EU discussion so far has been about carrots and sticks, sort of what we threaten the Iranians with, what we offer them.  And the Russians are coming into this discussion in a slightly different way.  They’re saying we need to rethink what we are demanding of the Iranians, and not what price they’ll pay or what benefits they’ll gain.

The way in which they have defected from the U.S.-EU consensus is by saying essentially, We’re comfortable with the prospect over the long term of a renewed enrichment program, or continued enrichment program by Iran, if some questions can be answered.  And they say it’s absolutely right that the Iranians have to suspend enrichment now.  In that respect they haven’t defected.  Right now they want the Iranians to end—stop what they’re doing.  But they’ve held out the possibility of redemption.  They are bad citizens, they are sinners in the NPT, but they can be saved.  And that’s different I think from both the U.S. and the EU right now, that emphasis on giving the Iranians the prospect of, just to continue the metaphor of redemption and healing—you know, you can be welcomed back.  And that I think is read by the u.S. and the EU as so undermining the effectiveness of the restraints that they want to impose on Iran as not really to be worth talking about.  That’s what the Russians are saying.  If you want to take that approach to diplomacy, then maybe we can be with you.

TAKEYH:  But do you see the Europeans potentially joining the Russians on this, saying that if the choice is confrontation or having Iran have some type of limited uranium enrichment capability with some—the period of suspension can be negotiated, one year, two years—two years?  And when the Europeans – let’s say the Russian foreign minister goes to Iran, comes back saying, I’ve got an agreement where the Iranians will suspend for a year and a half while Mr. ElBaradei introduces new inspection processes, and after that they will have a right to a pilot enrichment program, but not necessarily industrial sized, for the next five years.  Lavrov comes back and says, peace in our time.

Are the Europeans are going to join the Russian proposal or are they going to continue to join the American more confrontational position?

KUPCHAN:  I think it would depend on the details:  What is the length of the suspension?  If the operation is moved to Russian territory; will Iranian scientists be involved?  But, in general, I think that the scenario that you’re spinning out is quite likely to happen, that the Iranians are going to be very shrewd.  They will do things like send a letter to Bush, agree to suspend, but leave the door open deliberately because they are trying to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, and withinEuropeas well.  And that particular proposal I think would be very difficult for theU.S.and the Europeans to agree on, because the Europeans would say, More or less we’re getting what we want—we know that it’s not perfect, we know we have to look downstream—but this is moving the ball forward.  And the U.S.may then say, Listen, it’s all or nothing.

The other piece of the puzzle that I think is going to be increasingly heated in the coming weeks is whether the United States talks to Iran, because the Europeans are jumping up and down telling the Bush administration, It’s time for you to engage.  They’re telling that directly to the president I think in private conversations—Merkel in particular.  And if that doesn’t happen, I think it will leave Europe in a position of saying, You didn’t try.  You didn’t move down the diplomatic route; therefore, the sort of—the reason to take the next step towards sanctions or use of military force isn’t there. You’ve got to exhaust all diplomatic options first.

My guess is that sooner or later the Bush administration will engage—

TAKEYH:  Right.

KUPCHAN: —if only because it realizes that the imperatives of alliance management require it.

TAKEYH:  Like March 2005 for WTO concessions.

SESTANOVICH:  I just have one little speculation here.

TAKEYH:  Sure.

SESTANOVICH: For the Europeans getting out from under, from this sort of central diplomatic role, is a relief.  Get the Americans in, and then we can retire to the secondary position in which we’re more comfortable anyway, and we don’t have to work out our unity at every turn.  For the Russians it’s not the same thing.  They like being front and center.  (Laughter.) Yes, that is—for the Europeans, getting the Americans in is a prime goal.  For the Russians—

TAKEYH:  Let me ask you before I turn it over to the audience, how is Russian diplomacy going to change after G-8?  There’s no imperative of having (late ?) nights or photo-ops.  I mean, what else—is it going to be different than what it is today, post-July, whenever the meeting is?

SESTANOVICH:  Hmm, no more Mr. Nice Guy?  Is that what you’re saying?

TAKEYH:  I’m just saying if that’s a leverage that has—is that a leverage that has tempered their behavior, first of all.  And if that leverage gone chronologically, is their behavior different?

SESTANOVICH:  I think the Russians are already—put a lot of daylight between themselves and the West on a lot of different issues, such that I wouldn’t really expect dropping of the mask after G-8.  I think  they’re already peeking out from behind the mask.  (Laughter.)  And, I’m sorry, I don’t know mean that to suggest that in a smart-alecky way.  I think they pretty much just find the positions that they want to take diplomatically, and you see that on Iran.

TAKEYH:  So let me just open it up for the audience, if you have any questions or comments.  Sir, could you please wait for the microphone, and identify yourself?

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Andrew Pierre, Georgetown University.  I’m not there much more frequently than Charlie—probably less frequently.  (Laughter.)  Quick question of each.

Steve, you’ll recall it wasn’t that long ago that the Russians were proposing that the spent fuel be brought back to Russia, reprocessed and so on.  My question about that is:  Do you see that as something that the Russians seriously thought that you could do, be willing to do and might be accepted by the Iranians?  Or do you see that as a kind of charade?  Do you think there’s some possibility in the future, as some people seem to feel, that there still could be a Russian role in the reprocessing cycle and so on?

And for Charlie, I’m a little less sanguine than you are that the United States will be willing to engage in serious bilateral diplomacy with Iran, because the vice president thinks that we should pursue regime change.

TAKEYH:  You’re going to say serious bilateral?  Still bilateral.

QUESTIONER:  But, but, but—

KUPCHAN: —didn’t even say bilateral.

QUESTIONER:  All right, direct talks between the United States and Iran.  All right?  And if we don’t get engaged in serious direct talks, don’t you think there’s a possibility of a serious rift once again between the leading European states and the United States?  And here European public opinion seems to me would support their governments’ view that without the United States, the United States isn’t being a full participant in trying to resolve the Iranian problem.

TAKEYH:  Steve?

SESTANOVICH:  I think the Russian proposal was very serious, and you saw that in the support that the U.S.and the EU gave it.  They were willing to see that, the scheme that the Russians had in mind, if very carefully hedged about with controls as a promising one. But the Iranians after a certain amount of coyness made clear they weren’t too interested in that.  And what happened next was I think kind of interesting.  The Russians then developed a modification of the proposal, which would have provided for the bulk of enrichment to take place in Russia, but with some low level enrichment—pilot projects, whatever you want to—research—could have been allowed to take place inIran.  And under—after consultations with the U.S. and EU they pulled that idea back.  But I think that is something that could happen now.

The position at this—the Russian position I think—I don’t know what’s happening in London, but I would say from what one can deduce from what Russian officials have said, the position now is a kind of modification of the first—what they did already.  That is to say no enrichment now, but the prospect of some Iranian opportunity to enrich in the future.  So there has to be a period in which questions are answered, Russia and the IAEA—I mean, Iran and the IAEA come to an agreement about what’s happened in the past and what the future arrangements will be. And then enrichment is permitted.

So in some ways it’s a renewal of their weakened position, but without the Iranians being able to take advantage of it right away.

KUPCHAN:  Andrew, I would say if the United States does not engage in some kind of direct negotiation—be it multilateral or bilateral—multilateral, i.e., the North Korea Contact Group model—the likelihood of a major bust-up across the Atlantic is very high.  And that’s not only because the Europeans would want us to do so; it’s also because, at least in my mind, American engagement is critical to the successful conclusion of this standoff without war.  And Ray may want to say something about this, but in my view this is not just about Iran’s enrichment capabilities and its desire for nuclear weapons.  It’s a much bigger ball of wax.  It’s about Iran’s security, it’s about its dignity, it’s about nationalism.  And only the United States can satisfy Iran on these bigger issues of regional security, of rapprochement, of reintegration into international community.  The Europeans know that.  So, in the end, if we don’t play ball, if there isn’t something along the lines of a grand bargain in which the United States engages not just on the question of enrichment but on the broader issues—Iraq, regional security, making the Iranians feel like they are being accorded a certain amount of respect—I don’t see it coming to a reasonable, peaceful conclusion.

TAKEYH:  How do you assess—maybe just open up—what type of American negotiations—if there are two types—one is what you talked about, is the sort of attempt to resolve the disputes between the two countries.  The other one is negotiations to check the box, because as you said you can’t get from here to where you want to go, whether it’s multilateral sanctions, whether it’s military reprisal, without exhausting that one last diplomatic avenue.  So if in either one of these cases it’s sort of difficult for the United States to do this.  On the one hand they might not have the capability of actually completely resolving tensions between these two countries. 

On the other hand, are these negotiations potentially a trap?  Let’s say the United Statesagrees to negotiate with Iran, whatever their modalities are, for a period of six months.  So they’re going to give diplomatic six months.  At the end of five and a half months of inconclusive negotiations, five months and 29 days, when an Iranian representative comes out and says, The latest proposal by Nick Burns was very good.  It was actually quite in technical aspects of it, in terms of its details, I think the two perspectives are becoming harmonizing.  We have to study this a little bit further.  We have to assess its practicalities and its technical feasibility.  Can the United States stop those negotiations at that time?  And what would the reaction of the allies be?  So, give it another six months?  So, you see, is this a trap that—how would you advise them to get into it?

KUPCHAN:  Yes, it is a trap in the sense that sort of once we go down that road there’s no question that the Iranians will weave and bob, and say one thing one day and do something other the next.

TAKEYH:  Who would the Europeans blame?

KUPCHAN:  Well, you know, again, I think it would depend upon the details.  But part of the reason I think that the United States has to engage is that Iran has a pretty good deck of cards, as you and I have discussed.  Right? They have a huge amount of influence in Iraq.  Oil is already $70 a barrel.  They have big influence over that.  And so the idea that we can just glare at them and have this come to a kind of conclusion seems to me naive.  And is the trap a possibility?  Yes.  Does that mean the alternative, not engaging, is better than taking that risk?  In my mind, no.

TAKEYH:  No, I’m assuming that theUnited States takes the risk.  I’m assuming that at the end of six months it doesn’t want to respond to the latest Iranian offer.  Who would the Europeans blame at that time for breakdown of those negotiations?  The Iranians or the Americans?

KUPCHAN:  Well, I would encourage the U.S. and the EU going into something along those lines to identify from the very beginning a set of red lines, and to say that in six months these red lines have to be observed, that it may be suspension of enrichment, it may be other details.  But at least then you go into this game with a clear set of standards by which to judge success.  That makes it easier after the six-month period, or whatever, for people to say, Are we there or are we not?

TAKEYH:  This might be a moot point, but would the Russians—(inaudible)?

SESTANOVICH:  Well, I actually don’t think your scenario is a very likely one.  I think that it’s much more likely that the Iranians will say, We’re getting nowhere, because the United States is so rigid, and Ambassador Burns has just come here saying exactly the same thing again and again, and we’re not going to have any breakthroughs unless you change your position.  And then the Russians—and maybe the EU—will say, yeah, there’s only one way out; you’ve got to—

TAKEYH:  Change your position.

SESTANOVICH: —you know, scale back what you’re after.

TAKEYH:  Sir, right here.

QUESTIONER:  Tom Omestad.  Steve, I wondered if you could tell us a little bit—give us your sense of this upcoming Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in which the Russians have apparently invited the Iranians to come.  Is that because the geometry has always anticipated Iran or is this a run off operation to create a discussion, negotiations, or whatever?

And, Charlie, for you, I’m just wondering if you see the possibility going forward that the United Statesand the European Union will, as you suggest, be under increasing tensions on how to move the process forward.  And I guess what I don’t know, you know, I’d like to get a better sense of, is how that breakdown would—is likely to occur, whether it’s going to be a temporary and kept in a one-issue box, or whether it will be a broader retrogression.

SESTANOVICH:  I could be wrong.  I think the Iranians have been observers at previous meetings, and the real issue is whether they will be upgraded to full membership in this organization.  And I think the Russians have been making encouraging noises about that.  This is an opportunity for the Russians in the run-up to the G-8 to do what I was suggesting to Ray earlier, which is keep themselves at the center of the diplomacy, to say yes, we’re going to be going in there eager to hear whether there are any new ideas from the Iranians and especially what their reactions are to our visionary and statesmanlike formulas for resolving this.  I don’t know whether the Iranians will make as effective use of that as they should.  You could imagine them, given the, you know, PR skills of Mr. Ahmadinejad to, you know, muck everything up with something that makes it a little hard for Putin to then go to St. Petersburg and say, you know, I really think we’re talking the same language here.  (Laughter.)

You know, there’s—actually, if I could add one thought to that—just this question of how the Iranians shape different countries’ reactions seems to me to be very important, because, you know, there has been for a long time this kind of sober, realist view in the United States—not always a majority and not always decisive in the case of potential proliferators—that the acquisition of nuclear weapons makes you more responsible, you know, that you can be counted on to, you know, use this new potentially dangerous power in a moderate way and, you know, that nuclear weapons don’t get used because they’re too destructive.  Iran is making it difficult for anybody to buy that these days.  They’re kind of a reminder that in fact the first 15 years of the Cold War involved rather sort of bizarre ideas on the part of many governments as to how they should be used. 

And you know, if the worst thing that Iran did was something—just imagine, mutatis mutandis, the Cuban missile crisis.  You know, it would be pretty scary for the world and wouldn’t necessarily, you know, have to involve a sneak attack on, you know, a major Western capital.  All it has to involve is completely nutty, provocative behavior of a kind that we have seen.  And that seems—that kind of confidence among Western governments that maybe there’s a way to handle this seems to me to be constantly eroded.

TAKEYH:  Charles, you want to—

KUPCHAN:  On the broader relationship, I’m surprised by the degree of repair that has taken place and the degree to which there really is a spirit of we want this relationship to work that wasn’t there at all in the first term over the last four years and I think Merkel’s election is very helpful in that respect.  I don’t think that Berlusconi’s demise and Prodi will make much difference.  Yes, Prodi was anti-war, but the people around him, and Prodi himself, are quite Atlanticists—Massimo D’Alema, Giuliano Amato.  This is not going to be a sort of Zapatero effect.  And in fact, I think the ascent of Prodi’s government is a good thing and that we will have in Europe a new government that is both very Atlanticist and very pro-European.  And we’ve tended to have governments that are either/or and it would be good for Europe and good for theU.S.if you have more governments that see the two as compatible. 

Now, that having been said, if the dialogue over Iran goes south, I think it will take with it the broader transatlantic relationship.  There are a lot of other things in play now, some of them quite delicate—the peace process, how to deal with Hamas, what do we do about Iraq, when are we getting out.  And I think if there is a serious divergence over Iraq—excuse me—over Iran, that that could well jeopardize many of the other issues that in play.

It also is in my mind going to be the centerpiece of the U.S.-European dialogue for the next several months—for the balance of this year, I would say—as we try to figure out what happens and pressure Tehran to back down.

TAKEYH:  Right there.  Yes—right—

QUESTIONER:   John Pike,  How do the Russians and Europeans estimate the probability of American military action against Iran?

And after the United States has bombed Iran’s WMD facilities, how are they going to respond?

TAKEYH:  These are hypotheticals.

SESTANOVICH:  I don’t think they have any real idea any more than we do.  You hear a lot of Russians saying well, it would be really great for us if you did—(laughter)—but I don’t think they really mean it.  It’s more to get our attention.  I think they’d be rather disturbed by the event.

KUPCHAN:  On the Europe front, as I mentioned, I don’t hear any support in Europe for a military strike.  And I think that the view from Europe would be that this is not just a setback on the Iran front, but likely to have repercussions throughout the Middle East.   And it would send Europeans back into the mode in which they were in soon after the war in Iraq, which is that the United States has kind of gone off the deep end.  I think that a unilateral war launched by the United States without any European backing—and I don’t think even the Brits would be there.  I think they would peel off before the war.  It would be difficult for me to imagine the restoration of a serious transatlantic alliance in the aftermath of such a war.

TAKEYH:  Allan, you go.

QUESTIONER:   Allan Gerson.

As you know, the United States State Department continues to list Iran as an ongoing state sponsor of terrorism.  I’m wondering if the panelists might comment on the potential European reaction to a potential statement by the administration that it would engage in direct talks with Iran, but only if they were to first renounce their support of terrorism.

TAKEYH:  If you introduce the idea of terrorism into nuclear negotiations—Europe and Russian response.  So it wouldn’t be a limited deal; it would be larger sort of discussions of concern for the United States.

SESTANOVICH:  I think the Russian view would be let’s focus on the problem at hand.  They’re—well, in the same way that I sort of jokingly suggested earlier the Russians would not want to kind of be edged away from the center of diplomacy, they like the idea that they can, you know, create the formula that resolves the problem.  I think they are—they have some unease about opening it up in a way that they don’t have much to contribute to.  I mean, you could get into a lot of—you know, the Russians could get into complicated and somewhat contradictory discussions of what they consider to be, you know, support of terrorism.  On the one hand, they don’t like the fact that, you know, there are Chechens who have been granted asylum in various west European countries and the United States.  On the other hand, they, you know, they had Hamas in Moscow to talk to Putin. 

Their view would be, you know, this is not, you know, not helpful.

KUPCHAN:  I think that the terrorism issue needs to be on the agenda, needs to be part of any dialogue that would take place with the United States.  Whether to make it a pre-condition or not is a separate issue.  But as I mentioned earlier, I think one has to approachIranand negotiations with Iran in a universal sense.  That is to say, this can’t just be about the nukes.  It’s got to be about the terrorism, about Iraq, about regional security, about reprochment about economic integration, and I think that’s especially true because of Israel.

And from what I can gather, the real concern in Israel is not that Iran is going to launch a nuclear strike, a preemptive nuclear strike against Tel Aviv, but that a nuclear Iran becomes emboldened, that it unleashes Hezbollah, that you have a new dimension, a new boldness in the Islamic camp that would end up making life in Israel much more difficult.

So it seems to me that if you’re going to get a resolution of these issues in a way that keeps Israel comfortable, which means that it keeps Washington comfortable, Iranian pulling back on the support for Hezbollah and backing, both politically and materially, terrorist groups in the Middle East is critical.

TAKEYH:  Go ahead.

QUESTIONER:   Thank you.  Dan Schorr, NPR.

Given that it would be very helpful to have Russian cooperation in trying to approach Iran, what purpose do you think it serves to be landing on Russia these days—as, for example, Cheney going to Vilnius and warning Russia that they’re backsliding on democracy and so on?  Do you think that at this point saying, however true it may be, to be doing this kind of denunciation of Moscow, I can’t understand, can you?

SESTANOVHICH:  You know, I think there’s no doubt that the Russians—Putin and his entourage would rather not hear this sort of thing.  (laughter).  They’d just as soon not hear it from Vilnius, and hearing it from Vilnius makes it easier to say, “ugh, that’s just siding with reflexive anti-Russian groups.”  Has it had a real effect? I don’t think so, really.  It’s not too clear to me that it’s really going to continue in a big way, but I think the administration’s view is that we have to address all the issues that’s part of our relationship, and I think, you know, going back to, you know, decades, that approach to dealing with Moscow has generally been the right one. You can’t decide you’ve got a one-issue only relationship, and I don’t really know an administration that has had that particular approach.  So I don’t see the signs that there’s been a particular price paid for this, so—

TAKEYH:  (In progress.)  Well how about the fact that there was a New York meeting between Lavarov, Rice and others, sort of a day after—(laughs)—the vice president.  Now you can argue that that meeting was bound to fail and the vice president’s comments made no material contribution to it, but—


QUESTIONER:   Is that your point?

SESTANOVICH: (Laughs.)  I think you’ve seen Russian policy developing well before this toward where it is now.  And I don’t think you’ve seen a real adjustment.  You know, I like to put it this way:  Putin is not saying we will help you on Iran if you just pretend we’re a democracy.

KUPCHAN:  Can I just make a quick comment here, because I have the same response that Dan has had on this and I don’t want to challenge the findings of a Council Task Force chaired by my esteemed colleague.  But it seems to me—

TAKEYH:  Directed by.

KUPCHAN: (Laughs.)  Directed by.  But it seems to me that we’re kind of losing the big picture here and that Russia can help us get our chestnuts out of the fire in Iran.  And then when it comes to the big geopolitical issues of the day—NATO enlargement that kind of rolled over, Ukraine and Georgia have left the fold; they’ve generally played ball on energy supplies, although, you know, they screw around every once in awhile. 


KUPCHAN:  They’ve helped with the war on terrorism—

SESTANOVICH:  (Inaudible)—those little exceptions.

KUPCHAN:—in the southern sphere.  But you know, on the big ticket issues, they’re still more or less helpful.  Yes, they’ve gone south on domestic politics, but it seems to me that we’re just going overboard in kind of saying, this relationship is tanking.  We need the Russians a lot on a lot of issues.

MR.SESTANOVICH: Mr. Chairman, I’m prepared to talk about this as long as you want, but I would expect you to pound your gavel on the table and say, this is not germane. 

TAKEYH:  If you want to respond to him, go ahead.  (Laughter.)

SESTANOVICH: No, I’ll just say what I said in response to Dan’s question. 

It’s a relationship with a lot of different issues.  It seems to me that on those where there’s a prospect of cooperation consistent with our interests, this administration should do what any administration does:  pursue that possibility of cooperation without being excessively fearful of addressing forthrightly problem areas in the relationship as well.

TAKEYH: So, let me just – I’m not going to belabor this at all, but the position that the United Statesis that Russias hould help us on issues of concern to us; that’s it.

SESTANOVICH: No, actually, I mean I can’t speak for the administration.  I don’t know—

TAKEYH:  Well, how about the task force?

SESTANOVICH: The task force’s view is Russian cooperation on Iran is possible because there are some important Russian interests at stake.  And if there is any solution that involves cooperation between Russia and the United States, it’s because they see their interests in the way that we do.  But the task force says, we don’t know that they do.

TAKEYH:  Okay.

Sir, you’ve been very patient.

QUESTIONER:   Henry Precht.  Traditionally in Iran, when two parties can’t possibly agree and there’s only hostilities between them, there’s a search for a trusted intermediary.  I think in Tehran they would reject the European 3 as running dogs of America, and Washington would not be satisfied with Russia.

Do you think there’s any chance that Spain, Norway, Malaysia—you name it—might come in and try to bridge the gap between us and the Iranians?  Is that a possibility? 

And then let me ask another question, if I may.  You said that if the Iran business falls apart, there could be consequences for Iraq and for Palestine.  What about the other way?  If it becomes really messy inPalestine—the Israelis announcing a unilateral solution, extending the wall and so forth—and Iraq becomes really messy with the U.S. pulling out some troops, could that disrupt the U.S.-European cooperation on Iran?

KUPCHAN: On the first question, I don’t see much likelihood for some third party swooping in the darkness of night and cutting a deal.  I think we’re probably a bit too far down the road in terms of the procedures and the negotiations that we have now.

I don’t, I mean, I don’t see Iraq and the Middle East peace process as entities that could in and of themselves create a fissure on Iran that’s already not there.  Will Iraq in how to deal with Hamas cause trouble and turmoil across the Atlantic in the months ahead?  Yeah, there will be disagreements on withdrawal, on how to deal with the collapse of Hamas, if that happens.  But I don’t think that the causal arrow runs as powerfully toIranas it does from Iran.

TAKEYH: Let me just—if I can derive this sort of conclusion from this, because on the record, people who are looking at this in Iran – it’s not likely to—is it fair to derive that the prospect of multilateral pressure being exerted on Iran is limited?  And the prospect of American unilateral military intervention is even more remote given the fact that there is no prevailing international consensus—or consensus among the great powers, if Russia’s still included in that club—on how to approach Iran.  So we don’t have a whole lot to worry about here.

SESTANOVICH: So I’d rather read, you know, the news reports out of London than a transcript of our meeting if I’m an Iranian official.  I want to find out what really happens rather than what is speculated at the Council on Foreign Relations.

However, I would say whatever happens in the P5 plus Germany meetings, the ingredients right now of a unified front putting pressure on Iran don’t seem to be there.  What you could get—I mean, many Russians say there’s no chance that Russia will veto a resolution that comes before the U.N. Security Council, whether it’s Chapter 7 or not.  You know, the view of many informed and sophisticated Russian observers is that Russia will abstain, even with that kind of U.N. resolution.

But that is the sort of a P5 result that you had in the ‘90s when resolutions were passed against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, without the support of the Russians and the Chinese or even the French.  You had abstentions that weakened the force of U.N. Security Council resolutions.  And I think that seems to me to be what comes out of this discussion, is that you could get some kind of weak multilateralism but not anything that looks as though it’s a, you know, a rising wave of pressure.

KUPCHAN: I would draw a somewhat different conclusion.  And that is that the view from both Tehran and Washingtonis not particularly rosy and it’s somewhat mirror-imaging in that, yes, from an Iranian perspective, the cohesion that we see today is unlikely to last as we move ahead through the coming months.  And if they just stand their ground, there should be cracks emerging on the other side.  I think that’s the case.

But I also believe that Iranians should be very—should not dismiss the possibility that the United States, should there not be a multilateral effort, goes it alone and may well resort to the use of force.  I mean, when you hear presidential candidates from both parties talking about going to war, about nothing worse than a nuclear Iran, nothing worse than war than a nuclear Iran, I think it’s by no means out of the question that if there is no deal that Iran will be hit with a military strike.

From Washington, I would say that the view of the coming months is an ugly one, that the splits across the Atlantic that we’re talking about are going to be very divisive, that the United States could well find itself alone.  That war, under the best of circumstances, would be ugly.  So the conclusion I would draw is, I’m going to do whatever I can now to give diplomacy a try, because if it doesn’t work, it’s going to be a very ugly scenario.

TAKEYH: On that note—(laughs) – I’ll just stop the meeting and thank our two presenters.  And we’ll stand disbanded.  (Applause.)

KUPCHAN:  Thank you. 







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