Iran Expert Sick Advocates U.S.-Iran Dialogue on Nuclear Issues, Iraq

Iran Expert Sick Advocates U.S.-Iran Dialogue on Nuclear Issues, Iraq

September 23, 2005 9:51 am (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, a former National Security Council adviser on Iran during the Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan administrations, says he thinks the time is coming when Iran and the United States may find it useful to hold a dialogue to discuss directly their differences on a range of issues, including nuclear production and Iran’s involvement in Iraq.

“I think what has to happen is for both parties to come to the conclusion at roughly the same time that things are not going to get better unless they have some degree of contact with each other,” says Sick, former director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute and currently the founder and executive director of the Gulf/2000 Project that conducts research on Persian Gulf countries. “I think we might be not far from such a point. I hate to be optimistic, and I’m certainly not making any predictions here, but it seems to me the Iranians at this point have a degree of confidence” to have a dialogue.

“As a result of what’s happened in Iraq, the U.S. government realizes that a military invasion of Iran is not the answer, and they just might come to the conclusion that talking to Iran is a cheaper and more effective way of dealing with the problem than dealing with them in military or sanctions terms,” he says. Sick suggests a country like South Africa might serve as a useful mediator in a U.S.-Iran dialogue, playing a role similar to that of Algeria, which mediated the Iranian embassy hostage crisis of 1979-80.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on September 22, 2005.

Could you explain the broad areas of disagreement between Iran and the European Union, the United States, and their allies on the nuclear question?

Well, just today I looked up a copy of the U.S.-EU bill of particulars against Iran, which they circulated at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting in Vienna. It’s pretty weak, actually. But, in effect, what the United States is really trying to do with EU cooperation is create a sort of Iranian “exception” to the Non-Proliferation Treaty where basically the rules of the game, as defined in the treaty, are modified. This is because basically, as [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice said the other day, nobody trusts Iran.

I think that really is the issue. So, if you have a Non-Proliferation Treaty that says a country is entitled to a full nuclear fuel cycle for instance, if used for peaceful purposes, then that can be modified in the case of a country nobody trusts, and you can then enforce a different set of rules. Now, nobody is actually saying that, of course, but it seems to me that is what is going on and that’s why the United States and the EU are running into very severe difficulties with the IAEA board.

Can you discuss these difficulties?

First of all, you have the Chinese and the Russians, who are cooperating with Iran. They don’t want to see that cooperation end, and they believe there is a lot more to be done through diplomacy. But beyond that, you have the Third World countries and other members of the board who think, “Well, what if they suddenly decide they don’t trust me and I’m suddenly subject to a different set of rules?” I think one of the things we really have to remember in this whole process is that we have some positive things going on here.

One of the positive things is Iran’s own performance. The Iranians have accepted the so-called additional protocols that permit expanded inspections and the like. They’ve had a lot of inspections in the country. As [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, the president, said in his United Nations speech the other day, they’ve got cameras everywhere on the nuclear facilities. The United States and Israel have changed their estimate on Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons. In the last ten years or more they’ve been estimating that Iran could have an operative nuclear weapon in two to five years. Just this year, they changed that to ten years. That is due, to a very considerable degree, to the fact that Iran is permitting inspectors to look at its facilities, and I think they have quietly persuaded the United States and others that there is no covert policy going on. I am also slightly encouraged by what I see as a real change in U.S. policy. Originally, U.S. policy—starting way back with the Clinton administration and earlier—was total opposition to Iran having any access to nuclear capability at all. Even a nuclear power plant was unacceptable, civilian nuclear stuff was too dangerous to let them have access to. In effect, that implied Iran [had to] commit national amnesia and forget how to operate these scientific processes.

We’ve given up on that, and we’ve moved now to a position where we are basically moving to accept the idea that they can have peaceful nuclear power plants, for instance, under very tight inspections. But we don’t want them to have enrichment or a full nuclear fuel cycle. The reason for that is very clear: If Iran basically gets the fuel cycle with enrichment and reprocessing, it will be in a position where it could build a bomb rather quickly, and I think everybody is concerned about that.

Talk about the distress factor you mentioned earlier. Does the United States’ distress come from problems it had with Iran going back to the 1979 hostage crisis?

Well, Iran’s behavior overall has caused the whole world to regard it with great suspicion. The hostage crisis [when members of the U.S. embassy in Tehran were seized and held captive for 444 days] was a huge turning point for the United States and I think it left a permanent psychological scar on the United States. A whole generation was brought up with pictures of Iranians in their living room, waving their fists at the camera in front of the American embassy.

That crisis went on for far too long; Iran let it go on far too long. That sort of set the tone [for U.S.-Iran relations]. But also, people forget that in the early days of the revolution [the Shah was overthrown in 1979], Iran was sponsoring subversion, was trying to overthrow governments in its region, was supporting opposition groups to virtually every country in its neighborhood. They have been involved in a number of very dubious schemes over the years and there are a lot of other reports of Iran’s activities, such as permitting al-Qaeda people to pass through Iran after the attack on Afghanistan and the so-called Karine-A incident, where a ship carrying Iranian weaponry [in December 2003] was discovered on its way to Palestine and was confiscated.

All of that, plus a number of other smaller things, have really combined to create a level of distrust of Iran that Tehran can’t simply dismiss as irrelevant. Basically, that started to change when President [Mohammed] Khatami came in 1997. He began to put a very different face on Iran. And I think he made a lot of progress, and some of that progress is now being reflected in the IAEA board’s unwillingness to basically make the judgment call against Iran. But the game isn’t over and Iran is only partly rehabilitated, and I think that is their ultimate problem. I hope the leadership in Iran really understands the key factor in this: It is trust on the part of the world community, and not just the United States, that really counts.

I think the other issue really bothering the United States is Iran’s involvement in Iraq. We’ve had here at the Council a number of speakers, including Foreign Minister Saud [al-Faisal] of Saudi Arabia earlier this week, who said Iran is essentially running the southern part of Iraq with its payments and supports for the Shiite militias. What do you think is Iran’s game in Iraq?

Well that, I think, is a very big question and I think Iran is following multiple tracks. At the highest level, Iran is in favor of Iraq remaining a united country held together in either a federal or some other kind of structure where the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites all coexist in a unified state. Iran is very supportive of the idea of Shiite voices being heard in Iraq for the very first time as a major political power. And in that sense, their views and their attitudes are not all that different from our own.

But they’ve also hedged their bets in case things go wrong, by developing support privately—and in some cases, through intelligence channels—with a lot of little dissident groups all over the country. They have good relations with the Kurds, and they have in the past had good relations with some of the Sunni leadership that is causing some of the trouble today. They’re in contact with people like Muqtada al-Sadr, the dissident Shiite cleric who has a base of operations in Baghdad and of course, with the Badr brigades and those militias in the South.

In the south, I think their performance has been really deplorable. They have supported these militias that are quite vicious and totally ruthless in imposing their will and a kind of theocratic control that doesn’t even exist in Iran today. They have been far worse about attacking people in the street, women for the way they dress, and just brutally asserting their own power and wiping out anybody who gets in their way, including, of course, a New York Times reporter who was blowing the whistle on this operation when they killed him. At least, that’s my assumption.

I think that is very similar to the kind of things we’ve seen happen in the past. So, Iran has a lot to answer for, especially in the Basra area and the south of Iraq, and Foreign Minister Saud is absolutely correct that Iran is more responsible than anybody else for what is happening there. Increasingly, what is happening in the south of Iraq doesn’t look good at all. I think the Iranians have to make up their minds about which policy they care most about: one, holding Iraq together and coming up with a unified system that in fact reflects the whole of Iraq; or a system in which they develop their own ties to individual groups and regions and then use that to influence what goes on there. At the moment, they’re trying to do both, and I think they’re looking bad because of it.

For traditional diplomats, I guess, this whole situation—the nuclear problems as well as the situation in Iraq—seems to call for a dialogue between the United States and Iran. What is the thinking in Washington and Tehran?

Actually, there have been a few moments in our history with Iran over the last fifteen to twenty years when some kind of contact appeared possible. One of those, as it turned out, was with a conservative administration in Washington—that of President Ronald Reagan, who set up the Iran/Contra deal with Iran [in 1985]. Those contacts were an effort to open up U.S. contacts with Iran through the former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, who headed the team for the talks. [The arrangement was for the United States to secretly sell missiles to Iran for its use in the Iran-Iraq war, in return for Iran’s help in releasing American hostages in Lebanon. The money was then used to secretly help the anti-Communist fighters, the so-called Contras in Nicaragua, in violation of U.S. law].

The deal broke down, and it was a scandal in both the United States and Iran, but it actually was an effort to break through. There was nothing after that for a very long time. After the Iranians elected Khatami, [President Bill] Clinton began to think maybe it was possible to work something out with Iran. His administration made a couple of overtures through speeches by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, which the Iranians unfortunately turned down. That was a terrible mistake on their part, and I think a lot of Iranians today recognize that.

There has really been nothing since that time, except when the United States and Iran directly cooperated with each other in Afghanistan after the Afghan invasion [in 2001] to put in place the government of [President] Hamid Karzai. Javad Zarif, who is currently the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, and Zalmay Khalilzad, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Iraq and was previously ambassador to Afghanistan, worked together personally. They tried to put together a new government headed by Karzai, and they succeeded. That cooperation broke down after a while, but the reality is that the United States and Iran have worked together in various formats over the years. But it’s been a very uneasy relationship.

So what needs to happen?

Basically, I think what has to happen is for both parties to come to the conclusion at roughly the same time that things are not going to get better unless they have some degree of contact with each other. I think we might be not far from such a point. I hate to be optimistic and I’m certainly not making any predictions here, but it seems to me the Iranians at this point have a degree of confidence—they just elected a new president, and their conservatives are really in control.

They hold all of the elements of power, and they’re in a position where they could bargain effectively. As a result of what’s happened in Iraq, the United States government realizes a military invasion of Iran is not the answer, and they just might come to the conclusion that talking to Iran is a cheaper and more effective way of dealing with the problem than dealing with them in military or sanctions terms.

If that should happen to be the case—and I have no hard evidence that it is—I think both sides might be in a position where they could begin to talk to each other. I think that’s precisely the way things should go. I don’t think all of our problems with Iran would disappear overnight, but I do think that a number of issues like the nuclear one, terrorism, and Iraq are policies that really need to be addressed directly. They can’t be dealt with by shouting at each other through the newspapers.

I hope people in Washington and Tehran will come to the conclusion that this is really essential and begin to find a way. I thought Ahmadinejad had an interesting idea in his speech to the United Nations [September 17]. He said there were other countries that might be brought into the nuclear negotiations, and specifically mentioned South Africa.

Now, for me, as somebody who was around during the hostage crisis days, I remember very well that the Iranians brought in the Algerians to act as intermediaries between themselves and the United States, and ultimately the situation was in fact resolved, and the negotiations were successful for bringing the hostages out—much too late , but it worked. It’s not impossible that a country like South Africa—which has real credibility, at least in Iran—might in fact be able to act in an intermediary role

Why would Iran suggest South Africa? Seems like a bizarre choice.

Actually, I think because first [former President] Nelson Mandela and now [current President] Thabo Mbeki have in fact expressed a degree of support for Iran. They were not prepared to go with the United States and others with their attacks, and I think Iran appreciates that. On the other hand, South Africa does have good contacts with the West as well.

Now, South Africa gave up their nuclear program.

They gave up their nuclear [capability in the early 1990s], they’ve been through this process. So there’s something to be said for it. As far as I can tell, the idea got almost no attention at all in the press, and it might be a non-starter. But it provides a way for the two countries to talk to each other without sitting down at the same table, and there’s something to be said for that.

What did you think of the speech in general? In the American press, all the quotes were shrill, hostile, and very antagonistic. On the other hand, some of the Iran experts have been saying it was a rather soft speech, and not bad.

I guess I come down somewhere in the middle. His proposals were in fact relatively mild in terms of his attacks and the like. And what he’s repeating in many cases is just standard rhetoric—and of course, much of it was designed for an audience in Iran, not the international community. I was taken with the fact that Ahmadinejad is an engineer with no foreign experience at all, who has only been president for about a month. I think he learned his brief pretty well. He handled himself well not only in the speech but also in his discussions with CNN and Time magazine and others who had interviews with him. I think he came through with some constructive ideas. But he’s a very stiff-necked guy, very sure that Iran is right and that people are going to have to take Iran very seriously. He’s a very prideful man, and I think that sense of Iranian pride is one that may be very difficult for the West—and the United States in particular—to deal with.

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