David L. Phillips, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the deputy director of its Center for Preventive Action, visited Iran in December. On the basis of that trip and in the aftermath of the December 26 earthquake in Bam, he says that opportunities exist for a useful dialogue between Iran and the United States.
Surveying Iran’s political scene, Phillips says that Iranian feel disillusioned by the failure of President Mohammed Khatami’s government to produce results. He says that the best hope for change in Iran lies with what he calls “the reform-minded wing of the conservative camp.”
Phillips was interviewed on January 7, 2004, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.
The U.S. offer of aid— and Tehran’s acceptance of it— after the earthquake in Bam led to speculation about a new Iranian-U.S. dialogue. From what you learned in mid-December, how would you characterize the possibilities for U.S.-Iranian relations?
The Iranians are keen to have contact with Americans and explore common interests with the U.S. government.
This comes from the highest levels?
The people I have been interacting with are in the foreign ministry, in the civil society, and also from some of the more open-minded members of the conservative camp.
Are they looking in particular for contacts with the United States as a result of the agreement reached in October with Britain, France, and Germany, representing the European Union, on nuclear issues?
The Iranians had hoped that [in the wake of the] agreement with the Europeans on nuclear issues, the United States would drop its objections and would take a more positive approach on those questions. That didn’t happen in Vienna at [a meeting of] the International Atomic Energy Agency. So the idea of building on Iran’s decision to sign an additional protocol to the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allowing more intrusive inspections] and change the dynamic or the tone of U.S.-Iranian relations has not materialized. There’s still deep resentment in Iran about U.S. efforts to pressure Iran on its nuclear program and to embarrass it in the court of international public opinion.
What is the official U.S. position right now on Iran?
The Iranians violated their commitments under the non-proliferation treaty. They were essentially caught red-handed with enriched uranium and with technology, including laser technologies, to develop material that could be used for a nuclear weapons program. The amount of weapons-grade material was infinitesimal. The Iranians say that in 17 years, if they had wanted to initiate a weapons program, they could have. They claim that their nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. Some Washington circles do not believe Iran’s assertions. They believe that more robust inspections are needed to make sure that Iran does not violate its commitments.
Haven’t the Iranians signed the protocol?
They did sign it. It’s going now to the Majlis [Iranian parliament] for authorization. That’s a big step forward. Now the Iranians have to implement. If there is progress on the nuclear issue, a climate can be created for the United States and Iran to explore other areas for contact and cooperation.
In Washington, there is obviously a division over what to do about Iran. Can you describe that split?
There’s one camp that believes you should have discreet discussions, specifically on Iran’s role in neighboring Iraq. There’s another camp that believes Iran is ill-intentioned and would never fulfill any obligation that advances American interests. The latter point of view prevails. After the May 12  bombings in Saudi Arabia, which the United States [based on telephone intercepts] claims were linked to al Qaeda members in detention in Iran, the United States suspended its discreet contacts and there has been no official interaction since that time.
The Iranians deny this allegation [about the Saudi bombings]. The Iranians claim the al Qaeda detainees do not have cell phones and would have no way of pulling the trigger from their prison cells in Sistan-Baluchistan province. The truth remains to be seen.
What about these Qaeda people? Obviously, the United States would like to get hold of them.
The belief is that Iran has some “big fish” under detention, including Saif al-Adel, who was the operations chief for al Qaeda. The continuing presence of the MKO [the Mujahadeen Khalq Organization, an anti-Iranian government group also known as the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq and the People’s Mujahadeen] in Iraq represented a stumbling block impeding Iranian action concerning the Qaeda detainees. In early December, the governing council in Iraq issued an edict calling for the deportation of the People’s Mujahadeen members who are under American control.
Would that ease the whole question for U.S.-Iranian relations?
Nobody’s prepared to make a deal swapping MKO and al Qaeda. Both the U.S. and Iranian governments say they are not in the business of swapping terrorists. The fact of the matter is that, as long as the MKO was in Iraq, little chance existed for Iran to act on the al Qaeda detainees. There were reports of considerable cooperation between the Pentagon and the MKO. Apparently, the MKO was allowed to keep its weapons, convene press conferences, and travel internationally. If the governing council throws the MKO out of Iraq, that should create some space for Iran. What’s important is a uniform approach to the fight against terrorism. The Iranian government should get rid of the Qaeda detainees and send them to their countries of origin.
But in most cases, the countries of origin wouldn’t be enthusiastic about welcoming them back?
That’s been a problem. The countries, by and large, don’t want them.
Since you were in Iran, the earthquake occurred; the United States offered to send an aid delegation headed by Senator Elizabeth Dole [the former head of the American Red Cross]. The Iranians said “not now.” Is there a basis for a dialogue now?
I have studied the impact of the August 1999 earthquakes between Turkey and Greece on Greek-Turkish relations. An earthquake reminds people of their mortality. There are certain forces over which we have no control. The fact that the United States is prepared to provide assistance is a very positive sign. Lifting some Treasury Department prohibitions on the transfer of goods and services was a positive step. The Iranians didn’t refuse to accept the United States delegation. They just asked that it be kept in abeyance because their absorptive capacity right now is extremely limited. I think there are openings for both the United States and Iran to pursue their national interests and to find areas of convergence.
What would the United States want from Iran?
Signing the special nuclear protocol last fall was the first step as far as the United States was concerned. Implementing it in a verifiable manner must come next. Compliance is an important and legitimate expectation.
The United States also wants Iran to turn over the Qaeda detainees, either to U.S. custody, which is not likely, or return them to their country of origin. The United States also wants the Iranians to play a constructive role in Iraq. What the Iranians say is that the United States and Iran want the same things in Iraq— a democratic country, where the Arab Shiites have proportional representation. The recent plan for indirect caucuses [to choose delegates to a constitutional convention] is a step in that direction but doesn’t quite address the demand of Shiites for direct elections as integral to the democratization process.
There is also the issue of previous Iranian support for Hezbollah, and whether Iran is still a state sponsor of terrorism. Iran maintains it is not and that Hezbollah has [transformed] into a political party. It points to the presence of Hezbollah members in Iraq that have not been involved in any terrorist activity. This matter is also disputed.
And what does Iran want?
It wants recognition of its role as a regional power. Pride is very important to Iranians. The government has broader interests about lifting sanctions and unfreezing assets.
In February, there are elections for the Iranian Majlis. The reformers won big in previous elections, but there has recently been some disillusion among supporters of reform. What is your sense of the political scene?
The last three elections since 1997— for president, for parliament, and local government— have all been overwhelmingly won by reform candidates. This occurred despite the fact that the Guardian Council [made up of conservative clergy and laymen] maintains its prerogative to take candidates off the ballot if they are too controversial. The fact of the matter is the Iranian people— and I had a chance to interact with civil society when I was there— are deeply disaffected by President Mohammed Khatami’s inability to deliver reforms. They feel that the window of opportunity was opened briefly but that Khatami lacked the capacity to move forward. In the last local elections for town councils, only 12 percent to 15 percent [of eligible voters] participated. A similar turnout is expected for the upcoming Majlis elections. The conservatives have a core group of supporters that they know they can turn out, but many of the reformers are so deeply disaffected that they are unlikely to show up at the polls.
My estimate is that the Majlis is going to swing back into the conservative camp. If there is going to be progress in Iran, it is likely to come out of the reform-minded wing of the conservative camp that wants to take a slow and incremental approach. Nobody has an appetite for another major revolution or a showdown. The key Iranian leader who worked with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei on urging acceptance of the optional [nuclear] protocol was Hasan Rowhani, who is the chairman of Iran’s National Security Council. Rowhani, himself, may be in a position to run for president next year.
What does “reform” mean? What would “reformers” like to see happen?
A large part of that is normalizing Iran’s international relations and integrating Iran into the international community, so that Iran benefits more from increased political and economic contact. The economy in Iran has not done well. Iranians have high expectations but feel like they are being left behind. Reform is about political participation. It is also about getting into the global mainstream.
I notice Iran is about to restore relations with Egypt, ending Tehran’s isolation from the Arab world. Does that leave the United States as the main stumbling block to Iran’s emergence on the world scene?
The Iranians speak a lot about their sense of pride. They feel it is a defining characteristic of the Iranian people. In large measure, their problems with the United States result from the lack of respect they feel they are accorded as a regional and international. So while there are substantive issues, there are also issues of tone that have to be addressed. I personally don’t feel there is a huge divergence in U.S.-Iranian interests.
But the impression persists that Iran is backing terrorist groups. Is that not true?
Iran is on the United States government’s list of states that sponsor terrorist groups. Iran maintains it is no longer involved in supporting terrorism. Whether that is true today or was true in the past is to be determined.
The United States and Iran did have discussions before the Iraq war, didn’t they?
There was constructive contact between the United States and Iran leading up to the action in Afghanistan. And Iran played a central role at the Bonn loya jirga in November 2001 [where plans were laid for Afghanistan’s postwar government]. President Bush’s State of the Union speech in January 2002 labeling Iran as part of the “axis of evil” was regarded by Iranians as a betrayal. Those who had stretched out their hands to the United States felt their hands were chopped off. During the run-up to the Iraq war, there were also contacts between officials of the United States and Iran. There were agreements in place on search and rescue, about collaboration on humanitarian assistance. Iran feels the lack of a plan to hand over sovereignty to Iraq— and the failure to enlist Iran as a partner— poisoned the relationship even further.
After the United States accused Iran of abetting al Qaeda detainees in connection with the May 12 bombing in Saudi Arabia, contact was broken off. It is time for those discreet contacts to be resumed. If we were able to open up channels, find ways of working more closely together on Iraq, collaborate more closely in the fight against terrorism, then in time Iran might evolve into a country that is friendly to U.S. interests in the region.