Iran Expert Sees Need for United States and Iran to Open Dialogue Because ’We Are Now Neighbors’

Iran Expert Sees Need for United States and Iran to Open Dialogue Because ’We Are Now Neighbors’

January 27, 2004 4:39 pm (EST)

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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Gary Sick, former director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, forecasts a convergence of views between the United States and Iran because they “are now neighbors” and must broaden their dialogue. He says Iran seeks a stable Iraq. Concerning domestic Iranian politics, Sick says that conservatives are determined to prevail in Iran’s upcoming parliamentary elections. But even if they win, he says, they are unlikely to try to restore the country’s rigid social code, which has been gradually easing.

Sick, who worked on Iranian affairs for the National Security Council during the Carter administration and the early days of the Reagan administration, says there is no sign that Iran cooperated with al Qaeda. “There was no love lost between these two,” he says. Sick was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on January 27, 2004.

Elections for the Majlis, the Iranian parliament, are scheduled for February 20. There has been considerable controversy over conservatives’ efforts to block many of the so-called “reformist” candidates from running. Can you give us an overview of what is happening in Iran politically?

The Majlis elections are very important because the Majlis over the past eight years has been dominated by the reform movement, and the conservatives are clearly determined to end that, and put a conservative Majlis back into power. The conservatives in recent years have had a hard time, in some respects, because the reformers keep trying to pass bills and the conservatives have to veto them. This is quite embarrassing to them because by doing so they demonstrate they are anti-democratic and anti-reform. They would like to change that, but to do so they need to have greater control over the parliament.

They are trying to do that using the tactic the conservatives have learned to use, to take advantage of the law and abuse it. The Guardian Council [made up of conservatives] has the right to review the preparations for elections. What [Guardian Council members] have decided to do is to intervene by disqualifying people in advance. There were about 8,000 candidates for only 290 seats in the Majlis, and they disqualified well over 3,000 of them, some 40 percent, including something like 80 reformers in the present Majlis, who have now been disqualified to run again. It was such a blatant abuse of their power and any kind of logic that the [current] Majlis basically went into a sit-in mode, and you’ve got perhaps 100 members of the parliament who are sitting in every day. The issue is now under lively discussion at the highest levels, and the reformers may or may not recover some ground.

The interesting thing about this is not that there is a battle that has come to a head, which it has, but that it has attracted very little attention in Iran. It’s covered in the newspapers. But there are no marches. There are no demonstrations. And basically, this indicates the quite important fact that in Iran today, there is a kind of exhaustion with this kind of politics and a real absence of any conviction that the reformers will be able to prevail. People are discouraged with the reformers. They’re tired of the reformers who came in, promising everything. The reformers have actually accomplished a number of things, but they haven’t accomplished anything close to what people had hoped. And people are tired of it and see them as having failed.

What does that mean for the long term? There has been a lot of talk about a gradual social liberalization. Is this going to set things back, if people drop their support for the reform movement?

Well, actually this is one of the things that the reformers have in fact accomplished. Very slowly, and without a lot of formal action or decisions or announcements, social restrictions have gradually been relaxed. Couples now walk together in the parks. Sometimes they even hold hands, which was completely forbidden before. The veil [hejab] is in many cases interpreted in such an idiosyncratic way that it’s hardly a hejab anymore. Women wear form-fitting coats instead of the big, loose chadoor. They let their scarf fall back and show their hair. A lot of these things have been taking place over the period of so-called reform and the question of course is, if the conservatives come back in— as they fully intend to do in the next election, leading up to the presidential election in 2005, which they also hope to take— will they crack down again?

Generally, the anticipated answer to that is, no. The conservatives discovered that cracking down on these social issues makes people angry and they identify the conservatives as the culprits. And so they are focusing on other areas. They obviously don’t want the social thing to run out of control, to their way of thinking. On the other hand, they discovered that by loosening up on the social side, they can gain ability to operate in the economy, for instance.

How is the economy performing?

Iran has been growing for the past seven years at a rate of some six to eight percent a year. Its gross domestic product growth has been extremely good. The privatization program has not really taken off, but, in fact, the regime is rather flush with cash. The price of oil has been up for the last number of years. The Iranians have a stabilization fund, so called, where excess oil profits above and beyond what they anticipated are put for use for special purposes. That fund is up this year some $6 billion above where it was last year. They floated a bond issue in Europe and it did extremely well, selling out almost immediately. So, economically, on the surface, the Iranians are doing pretty well. They have this huge unemployment problem, however. You have young people graduating from school— and they have good schools for the most part, where people can get a decent education— and then they can’t get a job. They can’t get married. They can’t afford to have their own place to live. A lot of them leave. So you have a brain drain that is really quite significant.

The Iranians say they are going to put on trial about a dozen al Qaeda people. What does this tell us about the relationship between the terrorists and the Iranians?

The Iranians were among the very earliest opponents of the Taliban in Afghanistan. They came very close to fighting a war with the Taliban. They were financing opposition to the Taliban and to Osama bin Laden and his group long before the United States got at all involved in Afghanistan. The Taliban and al Qaeda are extreme Wahhabist-type organizations [that follow a strict form of Islam], very much Sunni-oriented and very much opposed to Shiism. They regard Shiism, which is Iran’s branch of Islam, as heretical and basically anti-Islamic.

So, there was no love lost between these two. At the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, when al Qaeda and folks were scattering to the winds trying to escape, a lot of them came across the approximately 1,000-mile border between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. Some of them were probably given shelter by rogue elements in the intelligence community who saw this as a potential future bargaining chip. But others simply vanished into the wilderness on the Iranian side.

It appears that a number of these people have now been rounded up, and the Iranians, I think, have come to the conclusion that if people in the intelligence services were harboring any of these people, that was a very bad idea. At the same time, they’ve not decided what they want to do with them. On the one side, the Iranians are always tempted to bargain, to take these individuals— the Qaeda types whom they have captured— and use them as bargaining chips. At the same time, a lot of the countries do not want them back. The Iranians offered one senior Qaeda guy to Kuwait, and the Kuwaitis said he was no longer a Kuwaiti citizen and did not want him returned.

But the Saudis want them?

Yes, but that is very recent. Initially, a lot of countries were not so interested in getting them. About 500 people actually cycled through Iran who had some kind of al Qaeda associations and were sent back to their countries of origin. They were very low-level types, who had romantic ideas of going off and fighting the infidel and then found it was not so much fun. Iran now seems to have decided— but hasn’t released the names— to put some people on trial. There are many rumors that Osama’s son, Saad, is one of those, as is Saif al-Adel, the Egyptian who is said to have been al Qaeda’s security chief. There is no proof of these rumors.

The Iranians have handled all this in a way that has created a tremendous amount of suspicion. Unfortunately, on issues of national security, Iran’s natural tendency— as it is with other governments— is to clam up. And in many cases, that’s the worst thing they can do because then it raises suspicions that somehow they are in league with al Qaeda, which I have never believed and for which I really think there is no justification.

How will Iran get on with the new Iraq?

One of the interesting things about Iran right now is that despite what people might think, with sanctions and various other things, Iran is actually experiencing a period in which it feels both successful and confident.

On one hand, the United States has done a huge service for Iran. We removed the Taliban to the east and Saddam Hussein to the west, Iran’s two greatest enemies and its greatest security threats. So we have in fact given them a lot more room to operate on the international scene than they had before. Iran is quite active in Afghanistan. It is a big donor in building roads and other public projects. On the Iraqi side, the Iranians have been extremely helpful. They were the first country in the world to recognize the governing council set up by the United States. They are pursuing what they regard as a very enlightened policy in Iraq. They are offering petroleum products across the border, and they are opening their borders to trade. They’ve got 50,000 tourists in Iraq at any given time, coming in primarily to visit the holy sites at Najaf and Karbala, which were closed to Iranian pilgrims for many years.

Iran gets delegations almost weekly from the top leadership from Iraq. Kurds and others are consulting on future policy. Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader [and a member of the Iraqi Governing Council], said a few days ago in Washington that Iranians were being “very positive,” and he said they have the capacity to create mischief in Iraq but have not done so.

What about the United States and Iran? You have pointed out that the United States did these things for Iran and got nothing back for it.

Iran would look at it from the other side and say they have made offers at various times. For instance, they cooperated with the United States in setting up the government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan in 2001. They were also very helpful in establishing the governing council and getting the Shiites to cooperate in Iraq. What did they get for it— the axis of evil speech. So the United States has not been cooperative either.

The axis of evil speech, of course, was the January 2002 State of the Union, before the Iraq invasion.

It was right after the Afghan experience. The Iranians had just been meeting with the Americans in Bonn [at an international conference to help set] up the Karzai government. They were publicly praised by the United States for its role in Afghanistan. A month later, President Bush identified them as one of the three in the infamous axis. The Iranians felt they had been really betrayed when that happened. They feel they haven’t gotten a fair shake.

The real issue here is for the United States in particular. We are now a Middle Eastern power. We live in the Middle East. We have a presence in the Middle East. We’re going to be there for a very long time. And we are, for practical purposes, a neighbor of Iran. And basically, since we are now neighbors, we are beginning to realize, one way or the other, the need to talk to one another. We did it in the lead-up to the Afghan invasion. We did it again in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, when we needed to work out practical arrangements on the ground.

Lately, we’ve seen a breakthrough of sorts when the United States provided immediate assistance to victims of the Bam earthquake in Iran. The Iranians accepted the American help very gratefully and in fact treated the American helpers extremely well during the time they were there. The two sides, because of their side-by-side existence as neighbors, really do need to work with each other now. We have certain common interests and problems. And that, it seems to me, is the kind of pragmatic fact that over time is going to get the United States and Iran to talk to each other.

I don’t see any immediate or miraculous breakthrough, where Iran and the United States embrace or set up formal diplomatic relations. On the other hand, all it would really take for a very rapid movement in that direction would be an expression of will on the part of an Iranian or American leader. Up to now, that has not been present.

In Iraq, the leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is calling for elections. Can Iran mediate between Sistani and the United States?

This is of course one of the tremendous ironies of the situation. Iran is very much in support of Sistani’s call for free and open elections and so forth, at the same time that the conservatives in Iran are trying to close down free and open elections in their own country.

Sistani, first of all, is an Iranian citizen. He has lived in Iraq for some 50 years. As several people have noted, he has no political ambition because he can’t even vote in Iraq if elections are held. He is a senior religious leader who is widely admired and respected in Iran and Iraq. Certainly the Iranians have the capacity to talk to him directly in a way that very few other people do. Obviously, just as the United States has now decided it would like to have the United Nations intervene in this case and deal with Sistani in a legitimate way, so could Iran [deal with the cleric]. That’s another one of those areas in which Iran and the United States could work together.

The Iranians also want to see stability in Iraq. They don’t want to see Iraq descend into chaos and civil war. They have good relations with the Kurds in the north. That doesn’t mean they will come in and promote American control. But it does mean that they understand that security requires an American presence for the near term, and they also want to see the Shiites get their full share of political rights in Iraq and are determined to see that happen. From all I can tell, the United States is also determined to see that happen, so we really don’t oppose each other on that, and there is ground there to work together.

What’s happened recently?

Ambassador [Sir] Jeremy Greenstock, the British representative in Iraq, has been to Iran recently and conducted talks and so forth. He of course works directly with L. Paul Bremer [III], the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. So the British are in a position to play an intermediary role to encourage the Iranians to play a constructive role in the political process going on.

Where is the nuclear dispute headed? Is Iran committed to stopping its nascent, secret nuclear arms program?

The decision by Iran to sign the protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, asked for by the International Atomic Energy Agency, was regarded inside Iran as a triumph of Iranian foreign policy. The ideological hardliners in Iran said they did not want to be “pushed around” and should just ignore the international community. That is the view that a lot of people took at the beginning of the Iranian revolution in the years after 1979, and this decision late last year was in effect a nail in the coffin of that point of view. This was a major effort to reconcile Iran with the international community, to bring it back into the international fold, at some political cost inside Iran. But in the final analysis, that decision was taken not by the reform group, but by the whole senior Iranian elite, conservatives, reformists et al. They are agreed that this is the process Iran should go through.

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