U.S.-Iranian Relations at an Impasse, Says Iran Expert Gary Sick

November 22, 2002

Interview
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, the director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute, says that any warming trend in U.S.-Iranian relations has stalled. Despite “widespread dissent and dissatisfaction” with Iran’s ruling clerics, President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech was “a terrible mistake” that put Iranian reformers on the defensive. Meanwhile, their hard-line foes remain capable of cracking down at any time. “The U.S. has a limited role in this process,” Sick says. “And I think we should, to the best of our ability, stay out of it and let the Iranians resolve it themselves.”

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Sick, who was a National Security Council staffer handling Iran during the Carter administration, made these comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for the Council’s website, cfr.org, on November 22, 2002.

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Q. Iran’s been in the news lately. There have been new student protests over a death sentence imposed on a reformist academic, Hashem Aghajari. What’s happening? Is there a lot of unrest, or is this upsetting only a very isolated part of the population?

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A. There is very widespread dissent and dissatisfaction with the clerical government on the grounds that they have failed to provide the kind of economic, political, or social performance that have been promised at various times. People are also disappointed with President Khatami for failing to deliver on promised reforms. There are lots of people very dissatisfied with the government. But this has been true for some time. Periodically, things arrive at a certain boiling point, and this seems to be one of those. There is a very sharp debate going on currently about what the real meaning of this is.

First of all, the numbers of people involved in this are quite small. They’re primarily students in a number of universities. But they have not reached out to a mass base of people. There aren’t huge demonstrations in the streets involving working people and the like. The regime has sort of stood back and let this happen, and not tried to interfere. At this stage, this indicates that they believe it is controllable and that they would rather not intervene. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has tried to calm things down by calling for a review of the sentence on Aghajari, and it has not had the quite the effect he intended. It did not stop the demonstrations. On the other hand, the demonstrations have not grown at all.

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There really is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the hard-liners— the conservatives who dominate the security services— could intervene at any point that they wanted to, break up the demonstrations, throw people in jail, crank up the persecution level another notch. They have done it before. They did it in 1999 in the face of student protests, and it is pretty clear they can do it again.

Q. Today, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the student protests were the work of pro-U.S. enemies. And he warned that the protests would be suppressed if they continued.

A. This is the kind of rationale that the conservatives have been using to attack the reform-minded elements in Iran, and it does in fact define the dilemma for the United States. Because on the one hand, I think, there is no real doubt that the U.S. would like to see reform in Iran. I think most Americans would like to see Iran progress to a more open society.

And the U.S. would like to see a freer press without the crackdowns. They would like to see freer elections. Elections today are relatively free when you get to the voting, but the Council of Guardians is able to weed out the candidates before the election, which is anything but democratic. This process has been abused, like many other parts of the system, to try to keep reformers and secularists out of office. But so far, they have only partly succeeded.

The United States appreciates the fact that there is great opposition building in Iran and would like more transparency. But if the U.S. comes out and announces what we want to see in Iran, it’s like the kiss of death for the individuals involved in the process. It makes them look like U.S. lackeys. So the U.S. has been to-ing and fro-ing on this, occasionally making statements in support of freer society in Iran but trying to avoid going too far— simply because it works against those very people who are sacrificing to introduce some reforms.

The main thing I would stress is that this is very much a domestic Iranian process— a difference of views between people who really feel the revolution has gone off track, that it has turned more and more into an authoritarian system, that increasingly the clerical and religious side of the government has been used to clamp down on the rights of the people. And the constitution itself is quite ambiguous. It is not clear whether sovereignty comes primarily from the people or from God. That very fundamental issue is not resolved, and that’s what a lot of this dispute is about. It really is between Iranians. The U.S. has a limited role in this process. And I think we should, to the best of our ability, stay out of it and let the Iranians resolve it themselves.

Q. Of course, President Bush in his State of the Union speech earlier this year included Iran in the “axis of evil,” which was not well received in Iran. What has happened since then, and what is Iran’s reaction to the confrontation between the U.S. and the Security Council and Iraq?

A. Two things. First of all, on the “axis of evil,” regardless of what you think of the overall policy on Iran, a lot of people felt that wording was a terrible mistake. In fact, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran are not an axis of anything. They may be evil, but there is no axis there. The president was using some very flamboyant language to identify potential proliferators. That’s a legitimate issue, and it really should be addressed, but the choice of words complicated things and drove away people who otherwise would have agreed with the objective. If the president had described them, accurately, as countries that are actively in danger of proliferating and misusing weapons of mass destruction, nobody would have raised an eyebrow, and we would have had a lot of support around the world. But by calling it an axis of evil, we actually drove people away and made it harder. Plus, we made it very much harder as far as the reformers in Iran were concerned because they could now be identified with a government that was calling them an axis of evil. So that was a mistake.

Since that time, as the administration has gotten closer to making a decision on Iraq, I think President Bush has deliberately decided that it really might be quite useful to have Iran, if not on our side, at least not opposed to us. His language has tempered quite a lot. He hasn’t used the words “axis of evil” for months now. When he spoke to the U.N., whenever he mentioned Iran, it was in a positive way. He was talking about Iran as a victim of terrorism, not as a sponsor of terrorism.

Q. I missed that altogether.

A. It’s very subtle. It’s basically what he didn’t say. Go back and look at the speech. Iran is mentioned four or five times, and not once negatively. It wasn’t lumped together with Iraq. Instead it was identified as a victim of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons and terrorism. Bush acknowledged that Iran had grievances against Iraq as well. This may be nothing more than a tactical move. You don’t want to offend Iran any more than you have to if you are getting ready to fight next door. But it has been noticed, especially in Iran. They were aware of the subtle change of tone.

Iran, for its part, has decided it is going to practice what they call “active neutrality.” The “active” means that Iran will indeed protect its own interests and act as necessary to see that its interests are preserved. But in the event of an actual war with Iraq, they will not attempt to intervene or interfere in any way.

That is not very different from what they did in the first Gulf War after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. They do that not to please us or anyone else, but because it is the only sensible policy that they have. They detest Saddam Hussein. They would love to see him gone. They believe, quite rightly, that if he has weapons of mass destruction, they are likely to be number one on the target list, not Israel. They would like to see him disarmed and his regime gone.

Q. Would the Iranians like to carve up Iraq?

A. No. And they have reiterated, over and over again—together with Syria and Turkey— that they absolutely support the territorial integrity of Iraq and do not want to see it split up into parts. They would like to see the Shia population, which is the majority of the Iraqi population, given an appropriate voice in the affairs of Iraq. So if we get to a “day after” scenario where there is a more democratic government in Iraq, Iran would be quite active in lobbying to make sure the Shia population is not cut out somehow, that their voices are not silenced. On the other hand, I don’t think they have any illusions that somehow Iraq is going to be turned over to Shia domination. They know it has to be a shared power. Their primary interest is to make sure that it is really a shared power, and that the Shia interests are not dismissed.

Q. What were Iran’s relations with the United States like after 9/11?

A. This is kind of an interesting story. Iran initially cooperated very closely with the United States. For instance, at the Bonn conference that set up the interim government for Afghanistan and identified Hamid Karzai as its next leader, Iran was present and worked very closely with the United States. In fact, the new Iranian ambassador to the U.N., Javad Zarif, was the Iranian representative in Bonn and worked closely with the Americans— not on a bilateral U.S.-Iran basis but as part of the U.N. “Six Plus Two” group which worked on Afghanistan. That provided the context in which the U.S. and Iran could work together, and the Iranians won praise from Washington.

But at the end of last year, the Israelis captured a ship, the Karine-A, on its way to Palestine with a tremendous amount of weaponry, and Iran was accused of complicity. The U.S. was outraged by this, and that’s when the era of good feelings turned. Suddenly, the U.S. announced that al-Qaeda were hiding in Iran and that Iran was meddling in Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter we got the axis of evil speech.

The Iranians were dumbfounded. They dismissed the charges, and the official Iranian government probably had little or nothing to do with it. I compare the ship with the Iran-contra events here, when you have a secretive, high-level group of people operating on their own with a hare-brained idea of what they were going to do in foreign policy. They get caught, and this makes everyone look dumb. This was painful and dumb. The ship incident was very harmful in U.S.-Iranian relations.

Q. What are the current state-to-state relations like?

A. They basically doesn’t exist. We each have an interests sections, and it is possible to exchange messages. But there has not been an official meeting between Iranian and U.S. officials since the hostage crisis. The one exception was the presence of Oliver North in the Iranian-U.S. secret talks in the 1980s.

This is very intensely a function of domestic politics on the two sides. In this country, there are no votes to be gained by saying anything nice about Iran. That has governed U.S. activity. Bill Clinton came close to some sort of reconciliation with Iran, but he ran out of time.

And Iran was not cooperative. The whole initiative went by the board. Of course, this subject is also affected by domestic policy in Iran. The U.S. is still “the Great Satan,” and anti-U.S. slogans are some of the few things remaining from the revolution. A recent poll in Iran, which outraged the hard-line leadership, showed that 75 percent of the Iranians would favor direct talks with the United States. I suspect the American people also would not object. But the leaderships have not done it. It is at an impasse right now.

The Afghan campaign brought the U.S. and Iran into closer contact, simply out of necessity and mutual interest. It remains to be seen if something similar will happen during the crisis with Iraq.

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