- 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.
Gary G. Sick, a former National Security Council adviser on Iran, says an “emerging strategy” is developing that brings the United States, Israel, and Sunni Arab states in an informal alliance against Iran. He does not believe the United States would launch a military attack on Iran at this time because it lacks the military ability to be in Iraq and Iran at the same time.
Sick, founder and executive director of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project that conducts research on Persian Gulf countries, also says a “very serious opposition” to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is developing in Iran. Because of this, he says the Iranians will soon be willing to seek a deal on their nuclear program.
Professor Sick, you were quoted in an interview on National Public Radio as saying there’s a kind of informal alliance among the United States, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states all worried about Iran. Does this amount to a new American policy for the Middle East?
I don’t know if you can call it a policy, but I really think it is a strategy that is being adopted. It has several very real advantages. First, all three parties—the Sunni states in the Gulf, plus Jordan and Egypt—are very worried about Iranian expansion in the region and of Shiite expansion in the Middle East. And of course Israel is very worried about Iran and makes no bones about it quite openly. For the United States, I think there’s a perception that by focusing on Iran, you can remove some of the emphasis on Iraq, which of course is a catastrophe. So there are some advantages to all sides and there also have been real contacts among all of the parties, which I think go beyond just casual talk.
Talk about the contacts. We know of public contacts—Vice President Dick Cheney was in Saudi Arabia, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been in Egypt, Israel, and Jordan as well as in the Gulf States recently. There have been rumors of the Saudis meeting with the Israelis. Have you been able to confirm that?
They obviously have released no data about what the conversations included. But there was a report in the Israeli papers that was never denied. It was simply dismissed by the Israelis as not something to be talked about that did talk about senior Saudi officials—who might in fact be Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who’s a former ambassador to the United States—meeting with very high-level people in [Israeli] Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government. I can’t absolutely confirm that, but I’ve seen no firm denials from the Saudis, despite the fact that you would think they would have an interest in doing so.
And, of course, we’re seeing this problem in action right now in Lebanon, where there’s a major confrontation going on between the Shiite Hezbollah and the Sunni-led government.
I do believe the whole Lebanese situation was the galvanizing moment for this emerging strategy. The action by Hezbollah in attacking Israel [last summer] was seen as an extension of Iranian power and an extension of its influence in the region. And the outcome of this, which is taking the form of Hezbollah challenging the Christian/Sunni government of [Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora, I think, is also perceived as an Iranian plot. I personally think that’s an exaggeration, at least in terms of Iranian direct control or involvement in this. But if you look at Hezbollah as an Iranian creature—which I don’t, but many people do—you come to the conclusion this is a battle between Israel and Iran or even, by extension, the United States and Iran, and that Lebanon is the battlefield where this is being fought out.
Of course when you look at this, when you talk about this kind of strategic alliance, or whatever you call it, then the Iraq invasion was a total mistake, right, because it empowered Shiites?
I think it was. And I think it was by almost any consideration that you want to take. Certainly the way it’s played out has been a complete disaster for, I think, just about everyone involved. The big issue here, however, and one of the indicators that something really is going on is not only that Bush talked about Iran quite a lot during his [January 10] speech that was supposed to be about Iraqi strategy, including the surge in forces and so forth.
He identified Iran as a very important aspect of U.S. policy in the region. And that was followed almost immediately by the arrest of Iranian officials in Iraq in various places, including Kurdistan. That sent, I think, quite a strong signal that, if nothing else, there is a shift in focus here and that perhaps Iran is being set up as the excuse for why the Iraq policy is not working very well.
And much has been made of the fact that Secretary Rice on her recent visit, particularly to Egypt, did not get into any discussion about democratization, whereas last year she was very outspoken on the need for more democratization in the Middle East.
Well, if there is a new strategy emerging, as I have postulated, I think the United States has a couple of important things that it must do for the parties to this coalition, if you like. One is that the United States is going to have to shut up about democratization—that this has put our authoritarian Sunni allies in the region on the defense and it complicated their lives. I think the days of pushing democratization in the Middle East are probably over, at least for the time being. And also, I think it requires the United States to take a more active role in promoting an Arab-Israel settlement of some sort. The Arabs—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan—if they’re going to cooperate with the United States on Iran and if that involves at least an implicit cooperation with Israel, they need some political cover.
And the obvious political cover for them would be that they can claim that there’s an invigorated effort to find peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and I think to that extent they need to have some demonstration of progress. I note that Condoleezza Rice, in her trip to all of these Arab countries, has in fact been stressing there’s going to be a vigorous push on the Palestinian issue.
The United States has also announced it’s increasing its naval strength in the Persian Gulf. Another aircraft carrier is going out there, making two aircraft carriers on station. What do you think the likelihood is of any military action against Iran?
In addition to sending the aircraft carrier, the United States is placing Patriot missiles in the Gulf. You’ve got to remember that in the event of a real or threatened military strike against Iran, the big concern is how Iran might retaliate. And one way they could is to use their existing, relatively short-range missiles to attack, for instance, oil loading on the Gulf. So I think the Patriot missiles are there to demonstrate that the United States is prepared to defend those countries if it comes to that. It’s also clear the Iranians have been actively building an infrastructure that would give them the capability to retaliate against American forces in Iraq.
I’m not at all convinced they’re in fact doing that currently. I think they’re preparing the way to be able to do it and I think the U.S. arrests of Iranian officials in Iraq are related to that process. As to the likelihood of an actual military campaign against Iran, I continue to believe that’s not going to happen. And I think the logic of the thing is that if you think you can do it with a quick air strike, you’re kidding yourself. Basically any strike that the United States would undertake against Iran would have a series of effects: one is to strengthen the current government [and] President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But it will also lead to severe Iranian retaliation somewhere, against somebody, somehow, whether it’s U.S. forces or U.S. allies.
And I think the end result would be that if the United States really wants to deal with the problem, it can’t stop at an air strike, it’s going to have to go on and put boots on the ground. And the reality is, we don’t have those boots right now. Iran is a huge country. It’s far more nationalistic than Iraq. And it would actually make the Iraqi campaign look simple by comparison. So I personally think that the U.S. administration is going to talk about it as the Israelis are talking about it, very openly, but not in fact do it.
What do you think is going on in Iran now? There have been a number of reports now of vocal opposition to Ahmadinejad, including from the dissident Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. Do you think there’s a possibility of any change in internal Iranian policy?
The Iranian internal political scene is always more complicated and actually more interesting than it’s made to be in the sort of stereotypes basically in the Western media. There is very serious opposition building up to Mr. Ahmadinejad in Iran. Basically the entire political elite are coming together in opposition to him. They see him as really a disaster as far as Iran’s policy is concerned.
If I’m correct about this emerging strategy on the part of the U.S., the Arabs and Israel, he bears a lot of responsibility for making that happen. He has made it easy for people to be afraid of Iran and to act against it. But I think it would be very dangerous to suppose that there’s going to be a sudden overthrow of him or something of the sort. I do think there’s a major effort on the part of the political leadership in Iran, apart from Mr. Ahmadinejad, to isolate him and to reduce his influence over events. That’s very hard to do with somebody who loves publicity the way he does and who is constantly making ill-considered remarks of all kinds.
But I think that’s part of the game. I do believe, for instance, that Iran in the next five or six weeks is probably going to celebrate the completion of a series of linked cascades of centrifuges as part of their uranium enrichment program. This is a very small achievement actually, but they will make a big thing of it and have a national celebration that they have become, in effect, a nuclear power.
At that point, I do believe that the Europeans, in particular, have an opening that if they wanted to say, "Okay, let’s go back now to the bargaining table. You’ve proved your point. Now let’s stop and talk about this," Iran would probably be in a situation where it could possibly make concessions. I hope that opportunity isn’t lost, because I do believe that if a reasonable offer is put on the table and raised with Iran under those circumstances, there’s a very real chance that the political elite in Iran will in fact use that as a rallying point and try to outflank Mr. Ahmadinejad.
You think there’s a possibility at that point that Iran might agree to a temporary suspension of its enrichment?
I think that is a very real possibility. And I’ve been hearing this from some Iranians who are quite well-plugged-in to their nation’s policies.
That would open the door to U.S.-Iranian talks.
That’s right. And I think that after the celebration is going to be the moment when that idea can be tested. And my guess is that Iran will actually be willing to consider a suspension of testing at that point.