Hunter: Time for U.S. to Offer Iran Security Guarantees for Concessions

A top national security expert, Robert E. Hunter, says it’s time for the United States to offer Iran security guarantees to win concessions on its nuclear program.

March 27, 2007

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

Robert E. Hunter, who served on President Carter’s National Security Council staff as chief of Middle East affairs, says the United States should be willing to offer Iran the same kind of security guarantees it has given North Korea in return for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program. Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who is Senior Advisor at the RAND Corporation, says the United States should tell Iran that “if you keep clean on the nuclear issues and we determine you are getting out of the terrorism business, we will be willing to give you security guarantees.”

There’s a lot of news from Iran—the latest UN Security Council sanctions, and at the same time the Iranian seizure of fifteen British sailors and marines in the disputed waters between Iraq and Iran. Why don’t you try to put the situation in a broader perspective?

One of the problems that we’re having, particularly in the United States, is we have not yet figured out what it is we really want from Iran. Obviously we don’t want it to weaponize its nuclear program. We don’t want it to support Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. We would like to have them not causing problems for us in Iraq, and also being supportive in Afghanistan, as indeed they were to a very high degree in 2001 and 2002. Those are all critical requirements for the United States, for the region, and for a lot of other countries.

Let’s talk about the discussions on getting the Iranians to suspend their nuclear enrichment program as a way of launching top-level negotiations, including the participation of the United States.

By requiring the Iranians to stop an enrichment program before the talks even start is really a poison pill to make it impossible for the Iranians to do it. Not only are they a proud country but they do believe that by mastering nuclear technology, it’s a way of showing they’re a grown-up nation and can compete in the world. What we want to do is make sure none of that goes toward building nuclear weapons, and a way of doing that is to demand total inspection of everything to make sure the Iranians are squeaky clean. By not putting that number one, we’re denying ourselves an opportunity to achieve the goal of no nuclear weapons, because the nuclear issue now seems a way to try to achieve the other changes in Iran, which I don’t think we can do short of war.

Any thoughts on what the United States should be doing?

One thing we have steadfastly refused to do with Iran over the last four years, which we evidently have not done with regard to North Korea, is to say,“If you behave yourself, if you keep clean on the nuclear issues and we determine you are getting out of the terrorism business, we will be willing to give you security guarantees.” If we refuse to give such a guarantee, then if I were an Iranian I would say, “Well, the United States is not serious.”

Talk a bit about the captured British sailors.

I have been warning for some time that given the way we’re aligned in the region, a single missile launched by a junior Iranian naval officer against an American ship could lead to extraordinary escalation. It may well be that’s what the Iranians did [in seizing British military personnel], to try to bargain for their folks who’d been picked up by the United States forces in Iraq, or two, to say to the Russians and the Chinese and the French and the British and Europe in advance of the Security Council resolution coming up the day following, “You guys have got to understand this has high risk.” But if so, it obviously didn’t work, and one reason it didn’t is that the resolution that was passed over the weekend was thin gruel. There isn’t much in there if you read it.

The foreign minister of the European Union, Javier Solana, says he’s very eager now to resume discussions with Ali Larijani, the Iranian negotiator. Do you think it is possible Iran might agree to a brief suspension of its enrichment to allow these talks to begin?

Solana’s got a cudgel in his hand. It may be a very, very small cudgel, but the most important thing about the UN resolution this weekend was that there was a UN resolution, that there was something greater than zero that, not only the Europeans would agree to with the United States, but also the Russians and Chinese. Let us note the Russians squabbled with Iran on the Bushehr reactor, which was not a matter of economics. It was a matter of the Russians trying to help dig out from a confrontation that is in nobody’s interest. Solana can now go and say, “Look, we have shown we can do ‘X ‘ together, maybe we could do ‘Y’ together,” and he could with a wink and a nod, say, “We Europeans are not quite sure we could control the United States or Israel from doing something militarily towards you. Here is an offer, it’s got some economic carrots, it’s got reentry into the international community in there. Can’t you and I find a way to finesse the thing the Americans are demanding, the suspension of enrichment, so we can get the talks at least started? And then we, the Europeans, will do our best to be helpful to see that this comes out in a positive way.” Solana is operating with the full approval of, if not of the full U.S. government, the State Department and it now looks like also the Defense Department.

If these talks begin, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has promised she would take part.

There was a huge battle in Washington between those led by the vice president and those in and out of government who still want to follow the idea that we can still eliminate Iran and its power and influence, and we can still do things that will change the regime, and a new regime will be quite different. They were trying to prevent any talks at all, hence the poison pill on the requirements of the suspending of enrichment. The other folks, led by Condi Rice with, I believe, the help of [National Security adviser] Steve Hadley, and now it appears the help of [Secretary of Defense] Bob [Robert] Gates got to a point where they were willing to accept Baghdad’s asking for multilateral talks on the future of Iraq, including Iran and the United States. We then had one round of talks.

Now, if indeed those talks do go forward, obviously the American negotiators and the Iranian negotiators will be able to go off in a corner and talk to one another, despite all the Sturm und Drang about whether they’re on track or not. The question now is, will the Iranians, under pressure—they’ve been under a lot of pressure, and they have been changing under pressure—say, “We are prepared to find a way to finesse this particular issue,” and whether Solana, acting for the United States, at least indirectly, will be able to come up with a formula for doing that as well. In my judgment the missing ingredient cries out, which is to say, as we said to North Korea, if Iran will behave, of course we wouldn’t attack it, of course we would prepare to give them assurances that we wouldn’t do that. That might be the thing to break this logjam apart, and if it didn’t, at least then we could go to the allies and everybody else and say at least we tried.

Do you think, in the administration, there still are people pushing in favor of some kind of military attack on Iran?

One of the striking things over the last six months is that there has been a major shift away from the idea of using military force. The reasons for this are obvious: The American people really don’t want another war. We’ve got our hands full with Iraq. We may end up risking a loss in Afghanistan, in part because our European allies are not pulling their weight. I think something else could have happened. It was last summer, when there was the war in Lebanon between Hezbollah and Israel. Israel did not prevail with the speed and the alacrity as it usually behaved in war. That underscored to people in this country and even with a lot of Israelis that war with Iran is unlikely to be a clean-cut thing.

Look what these ragtag guys did with missiles to cause pain for Israel and to cause pain to American assets in the region. The people who have been most concerned about Iran, about limiting its power and influence as well as everything else, have shifted ground to a higher emphasis on the nuclear thing, but secondly, have moved over toward the idea of permanent containment. We need a new security structure in the Middle East which will enable us, in time, not to be responsible for every pickpocket crime on every corner, like the local policemen. And that includes pursuing Arab-Israeli peacemaking in a serious way, stabilizing Lebanon, making these offers to Iran, having a realistic political scenario for Iraq, getting the Europeans to be more deeply engaged in Afghanistan, and then imposing a security structure for the Middle East over the fullness of time in which everybody can participate.