The following is an edited transcript of the twenty-third in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on December 12, 2000, in the Hart Senate Office Building with Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., moderating.
CHAS. W. FREEMAN, JR., president, Middle East Policy Council
We’re here to discuss a country with which the United States has, in a very brief span of time, had relationships of vastly different characters. A quarter century ago, Iran was the preferred American “gendarme” of what we then called the Persian Gulf. Now it is, officially, no longer a “rogue state” but a “state of concern,” whatever that is, in the Arabian Gulf. The transformation in this relationship reflects deep grievances on the part of both Americans and Iranians against each other. On the American side, the relationship has been characterized by a sense of grievance at the post-revolutionary Iranian hostility to the United States. There is concern about Iranian support of Hizballah and opposition to the now-defunct U.S.-led peace process between Israelis and their Arab neighbors; anger about deaths and abductions in Lebanon, in particular, where Iran seemed to have a hand; and a continuing series of issues arising from Iranian efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. We also have a very significant Iranian-American population, which is always quick to raise issues of human rights whenever discussion of an improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations comes up.
On the Iranian side, the grievances are equally complex, although quite different. They begin with the U.S. role in the Iran-Iraq War, where the United States, in the interest of maintaining a balance of power, offered limited support to Iraq at various points. They continue with Iranian anger and sorrow over the loss of 300 people on an Iran Air flight, shot down in 1988 by the USS Vincennes. They continue, importantly, with Iranian frustration that responsible behavior during the Gulf War, when Iran had many opportunities to thwart U.S. strategy and did not, was met with U.S. ingratitude or indifference. Obviously American sanctions, which many argue isolate the United States from Iran rather than Iran from the world, are another point of Iranian anxiety and anger, as is U.S. opposition to oil swaps, pipeline and gas deals involving Iran. We have a continuing litany of congressional posturing against Iran, including gestures like the creation of Radio Free Iran and others that are interpreted as efforts to overthrow the Islamic Republic. And, finally, we haven’t yet solved the issue of Iranian frozen assets. So there is a lot of accumulated anger, frustration and concern on both sides.
We are now in a situation where the allies and friends of the United States, without exception, even including Great Britain and Saudi Arabia, have warily normalized their relations with Tehran. And the sanctions that we impose are demonstrably not effective in constraining Iranian behavior or the relations of other states with Iran. In fact, we see in the Gulf at present a very significant erosion, not just in attitudes toward Iran, but toward Iraq.
I would note, finally, that when we conceived of this topic for today’s discussion, we imagined a very different context in the Levant, between Israel and its neighbors, than now exists. It’s clear that Israeli attitudes toward Iran bear heavily on the possibilities of American rapprochement with Iran. We are political realists, and that is a fact. It is not clear, with Israel now mired in mounting low-intensity conflict with the Palestinians, and in an increasing state of hostility with its other Arab neighbors, whether Israel will, as it seemed to be doing in an earlier era, rethink its own posture and reevaluate its own analysis of Iran. That will have some bearing on the posture of the new administration in the United States.
RICHARD ALLAN ROTH, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs
More than 20 years after its revolution, Iran continues to surprise, intrigue, infuriate and compel the attention of Americans. There has been a great deal of continuity in our policies over these 20 years. Many of the same problems continue to complicate our relations. But obviously the Iran of today is not the same as the Iran of ten or even five years ago, and there have been discernible internal changes to which we need to respond as a government. They include a series of increasingly free and fair elections, more social freedoms and a general trend to strengthening Iran’s civil society.
The hesitant and uncertain nature of those changes has become all too clear to us over the past six months, and most Iran-watchers agree that there is no easy way to predict Iran’s shortand medium-term political future. Iran has also moderated its foreign policies in some areas, particularly in seeking rapprochement with Europe and the Gulf Arab countries. In other areas of great concern to the United States, though, such as opposing the peace process and supporting terrorist groups dedicated to undermining that process, as well as the development of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and longrange missiles, there has been no positive change and, in fact, a trend toward increased efforts in each of these areas by the government of Iran.
Several core issues have driven U.S. policy toward Iran since the revolution: Iran’s implacable opposition to the peace process, particularly its overt and covert support for groups advocating and using terrorism and other violent means to oppose the peace process; Iran’s aggressive pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missile technology; and less-than-full Iranian respect for human rights within Iran, especially the treatment of religious minorities.
These core issues and our assessment of their importance has not changed. However, we have not failed to recognize that changes are occurring, particularly in Iranian domestic policies. We, like our European allies, have tried to view these developments as an opportunity to explore ways to engage Iran on issues of mutual interest and as a new means to pursue longstanding objectives. We have also been able to broaden the way we see our interests with Iran. We have sought to increase the nonofficial and semiofficial people-to-people exchanges between Iran and the United States. We have initiated some adjustments in our sanctions regime to reach out to the Iranian people in areas where the economic and other benefits of trade can most directly affect them. We have supported certain Iranian diplomatic initiatives, such as the Dialogue Among Civilizations and Iran’s constructive participation in the Six-Plus-Two Dialogue on Afghanistan.
We have also looked for opportunities to begin addressing the historical issues that hinder understanding on both sides. On this, I would refer you to the secretary of state’s speech of last March. We have offered to explore a global settlement of all outstanding legal claims between our two countries, often misleadingly termed “frozen assets,” and we have sought unambiguously a direct government-to-government dialogue with Iran, without preconditions, to explore how our two countries can push this further. While the differences between the United States and Iran on policy issues are fairly clear, there are areas where we could have or should have common interests, and these get much less attention. These areas potentially include policies toward Iraq, the implications for stability in the Gulf, Afghanistan, the security and independence of the states of Central Asia, and global issues such as narcotics trafficking and the environment.
If the United States and Iran ever arrive successfully at direct diplomatic engagement, each side could be expected, at least initially, to defend its own national interests. However, in addition, each side might find a more creative approach to addressing our common interests. We do not believe that this can be accomplished through competing press statements or intermediaries, no matter how sincere or well-intentioned.
Let me review some of the criticism we hear from the opposing sides of the Iran policy debate. There are those who argue that the United States should lift all economic sanctions on Iran, even if gradually, because in addition to causing some damage to Iran, they harm American businesses. These critics hope that progress on the economic front will open the way for the flag and for productive political relations. In an ideologically driven regime like the current one in Iran, this formula may not produce results. Nevertheless, we are well aware of the opportunity costs of economic sanctions to ourselves, and the new administration should carefully review a package of economic measures that could be identified as incentives to encourage greater political dialogue. While a worthy goal, our European allies too have found this a very difficult path to pursue with much success.
On the other hand, we continue to be painfully conscious these days of the active Iranian opposition to fundamental U.S. interests in the region, namely, the stability of our friends and the success of the Middle East peace process. We believe Iran has pursued a provocative policy aimed at derailing the peace process and consequently, threatening regional stability. Also, Iran’s aggressive WMD programs are potentially destabilizing. Our policies, including our economic sanctions, are designed to directly challenge Iran on this ground and to encourage a change in its policies.
From the other side of the debate, there are those who claim the United States has been fooled by a sort of phony reform, that we have jumped to support a reformist president who has little real power. I would like to say for the record that we have no favored political leader or faction in Iran. We have undertaken a series of very carefully calibrated and minimalist steps in response to clear political and foreign-policy changes in Iran at the macro level. Some of these changes began to develop under a previous leadership, and many of the positive social changes in Iran, such as the yet-to-mature trends toward greater openness and transparency, have been driven from the bottom up by the Iranian people. What we are still waiting for is for these trends to be adopted by Iran’s ruling elite and to be implemented throughout Iran’s key institutions. Who rules Iran is not nearly so important to us as what rules Iran will be governed by.
As the situation evolves within Iran, I expect the new administration to try to be responsive to what rules emerge from the Iranian leadership, as one basis for improved relations.
SUZANNE MALONEY, research associate, The Brookings Institution
Let’s reflect on Iranian domestic politics and events of the past six to eight months, since the parliamentary elections that took place beginning in February of 1999. It began with an election that was very bitterly fought, with those who lost at the polls actually contesting the results of the election. Recounts of the votes went on for weeks and actually even into months, with the courts and the judiciary tainted by accusations of partisanship, fears of a crisis of legitimacy, and in the aftermath, a presidency paralyzed by factional conflict. Politics in Iran are very peculiar, aren’t they?
It has been a very tumultuous year in Iran and for those of us in the Iran-watcher community here in Washington. President Khatami was elected three years ago in a surprise upset of the conservative heir apparent that not only revealed a profound public yearning for change, but also helped to energize and institutionalize it. Today the date of his victory, the second of the month of Khordad, by the Iranian calendar, has become shorthand for a wide-ranging agenda of political and cultural reforms whose proponents now have a majority in the parliament and dominate the apparatus of government on a provincial and local level. However, the reformist trend has not prevailed over some of the most powerful instruments of state power in Iran, including the military, the state television and radio, vast semi-governmental economic conglomerates, and the religious councils that must approve any parliamentary legislation. And, in fact, since the February 1999 parliamentary elections, which delivered Iran’s relatively powerful legislative body into the hands of ardent reformists, the Islamic Republic has not reached the turning point that many of us here believed and hoped that it had.
Since August, in particular, with most of the reformist newspapers shuttered, with the political leadership of the reform movement largely jailed or otherwise silenced, and the parliament effectively stymied from effecting any meaningful change by the explicit intervention of the supreme religious leader, many people here in Washington declared the reform movement dead in its tracks. I would argue, though, that reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. This has been demonstrated in the past weeks by some of the statements of President Mohammed Khatami.
The president has been the victim of what many in Iran have called a sort of Khatami fatigue. The halo surrounding the hero of the reform movement has been somewhat tarnished by his inability or ineffectiveness in preventing the conservative backlash. About two weeks ago, however, he spoke up and said, “I must admit that after three and a half years in the presidency, I’m aware that the head of state does not have the adequate prerogatives to do his job. I am the guarantor of the Constitution, and to ensure its application, I must have the necessary means.”
Through these statements, Khatami effectively shifted the debate away from the failures of his administration and his allies to implement reforms and focused attention the systematic failings which obstruct the democratic process itself. This has sparked an intense debate over the need for structural, and possibly constitutional, changes to the Islamic Republic. Moreover, by acknowledging the popular frustration over the slow pace of reform, Khatami somewhat mitigates this criticism and sends a strong signal that he remains committed to the fight for reform.
What does this all mean for the reform movement, and what are the implications for U.S. policy toward Iran? I would argue that U.S. policy should not be based on the domestic politics of Iran. In fact, it should be largely independent of that. We have a national interest in pursuing in a policy of limited engagement toward Iran that is irrespective of politics.
What the past six months demonstrate, particularly for U.S.-Iran relations, is that the catharsis that many of us hoped for – the turning point, the watershed – is not looming on the horizon. We have not passed the point at which Iranian politics have irrevocably changed. The reform movement is deeply divided and has been largely thwarted in its efforts. This is partly because it was bifurcated from the beginning. It was both a topdown and a bottom-up movement from the start, and its progenitors undertook dual strategies. The strategy for the first year or two was one that they described as pressure from below, popular pressure, and negotiation from above.
Reform has always been a relatively amorphous concept that expanded and contracted to fit a given set of circumstances. So in the past six months, we’ve seen a real clash within the movement itself, with some advocating bypassing Khatami and going beyond some of the things that he’s argued for, and others preferring to stay within the strategy of negotiating at the top. It’s a version of inside baseball. To some extent, this reflected concerns about how powerful Khatami could be as an advocate of reform. He seems wearied by his position, and in fact there are many in the population who are beginning to grow frustrated by the fact that reform has not impacted their daily lives at all.
I’d also argue that the stalemate we see in Iran is a product of a very successful strategy by the conservatives. Those of us who counted the conservatives down and out after their defeat at the polls in February 1999 have been surprised to see how successfully they have utilized a threeor four-pronged strategy. This strategy has involved keeping the reform movement on the defensive through a period of what they call chain crises, featuring trials and political persecution of some key reform leaders. They have also been more effective at making an economic argument that the reform movement is too concerned with the abstract political concerns of its elites rather than with the day-today issues that affect the average Iranian’s life.
In recent months, the conservatives have also engaged in a concerted effort to persuade Khatami that it would be best for the nation for him to step aside. And finally, through their control of some of the key instruments of state power, they’ve been able to block any efforts by the parliament to change the press law in order to put most of the reform newspapers, which have been closed since April of this year, back into publication.
While we see this stalemate, most of the momentum remains with the reform effort. In talking to Iranians on the streets when I visit there, I sense that as long as the balance of hope remains on the side of the reformers, most Iranians are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. In fact, Khatami’s recent statements tell us that he is not prepared to go beyond the parameters of the system as it exists today. He has insisted that democracy and freedom can be realized if all respect the constitution. And while many Iranians, including many of those within the reform movement itself, have doubts about that possibility, most are willing to continue to give him the benefit of the doubt so long as they see that there is some progress. We have seen this in the parliament. Since June, the Majlis has managed to accomplish a number of things, albeit on the margins of the key issues that concern most Iranians. They’ve called a number of hearings into the issues that are most politically sensitive; they’ve begun to restructure the administrative bureaucracy of the state; and they’ve also more recently demonstrated some dexterity in dealing with some of the more fundamental issues, such as the establishment of a framework for political parties to operate. This step would probably be more powerful and more effective in institutionalizing a freer and more open system in Iran than the simple issue of reopening the newspapers.
The reformers have been in power a relatively short period of time. Their learning curve was bound to be steep. They appear to have decelerated on some of the more ambitious items on their original agenda, and yet they also appear to be trying to build greater consensus with the conservatives themselves. I would argue that Iran is likely to remain in a situation of stasis. Many here in Washington have been concerned about the possibilities for chaos in Iran, and I think that that is always within the realm of possibility.
However, I was in Iran during July 1999, and I saw the reaction to the protests both from people on the streets and from some key politicians on both sides of the fence. And it was evident to all parties that violence served very little purpose for either the conservatives or the reformists. The demonstration effect of the violence in Palestine and Israel is also sure to condition much of the response. There are small groups of people who will continue to try to provoke chaos. But, in fact, both sides have exerted great pressure on most partisan extremists to avoid any provocations.
I’m going to jump ahead to prospects for the future. There are presidential elections coming up in May 2001, which will likely provoke fierce partisanship among some of the political factions within Iran. There’s already some doubt that President Khatami will choose to contest those elections. If that were the case, there would be a great deal of uncertainty in the Iranian political system. However, I’d argue that President Khatami’s declining to commit himself 100 percent to running in those elections represents a strategy on his part to put the conservatives back on the defensive themselves. I expect President Khatami to run, barring, of course, unforeseen circumstances. And I think that there’s very little doubt that he will win with something close to the mandate of the 20 million votes he was able to garner in 1997. The bigger question is what the third of Khordad, the date of the elections by the Iranian calendar this coming May, means for the reform movement and for the Iranian-U.S. relationship.
We’ve also seen a process by which the conservatives are retooling their stance on the issue. One of the key conservative politicians said recently that U.S.-Iran rapprochement was not outside the bounds of what the conservatives were willing to envision. His comment was: “For our national interests, we can even negotiate with Satan at the bottom of hell.” How willing are we to negotiate with the Iranians? American policy has always stated that we have no preconditions and that we’re prepared for an authoritative dialogue at any time in any place. Yet there is certainly doubt in the minds of many Iranians about the signals that they have received. That’s why I would argue that it’s time for the end of signal diplomacy.
For the past three years, signal diplomacy has been very effective, beginning with President Khatami’s CNN address, in which he talked about his respect for the American people and the American democratic system. Since then, there have been a series of overtures back and forth. Occasionally these can be very elegant and efficient, as they were in President Clinton’s remarks in April 1999, when he expressed some concern for Iranian grievances. This was a quote which made the newspapers for a month or two in Iran on a daily basis, but which received very little attention here. This is the power of subtle and effective signal diplomacy.
However, I think we’ve reached the end of the line in terms of what we can actually accomplish through oblique signaling; the dangers of misinterpretation on both sides are unfortunate. There have been a number of incidents in which Iranian policies or overtures have backfired or been misinterpreted here, and I think the same could be said of some of the statements from the American government, including Secretary Albright’s speech in March of 1999. The argument is made that sometimes we shouldn’t involve ourselves in Iranian domestic politics. I agree with that wholeheartedly. A conservative government may be less ideologically akin to American values, but in fact it may be more capable of controlling those institutions and affecting those issues that concern us. Our policy should not be based on which faction controls the Iranian government, and we should be equally prepared to sit down with a conservative as with a reformist. We should recognize that in fact the political stalemate within Iran makes reciprocity very difficult in the near term and makes the long-term effort that much more important. For that, I would argue that a policy based on our national interest would proactively pursue opportunities rather than simply adopt a reactive approach to overtures and to potential changes within Iranian domestic politics.
RAY TAKEYH, Soref fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Whenever you talk about Iran, most people talk about the dynamic internal changes that are taking place, but there is an equally compelling international approach. What Iranian reformers are trying to do is not just liberalize the theocracy, but inject a measure of pragmatism into Iran’s approach to the international community. This is a trend that didn’t begin with Mohammed Khatami. One of the more important dates in Iran’s modern history was 1989, the year of Ayatollah Khomeini’s death. In its aftermath we see the clerical community lapse into a fundamental debate regarding the direction of the revolution. It’s a debate that remains unsettled in terms of Iran’s domestic policy.
But a rough consensus does emerge in terms of Iran’s international approach. Both pragmatists and hard-liners recognize that Khomeini’s conduct, as divisive as it was, only isolated Iran, and that it was time for a change of approach and a change of strategy. Khomeini’s successors, therefore, abandoned the mission of exporting the revolution and began to replace it with a more conventional one: national interest. Tehran’s path would be gradual. It would seek to advance its interests and aspirations less through confrontation than accommodation with its neighbors.
This trend reached its apex with the inauguration of President Khatami in 1997. During the presidential election of ’97, and maybe in the next one, most people focused on Khatami’s internal proposals neglecting his equally compelling call for peace abroad. Khatami’s advocacy of civil society and rule of law necessarily entails a different concept of international relations. The president’s “dialogue among civilizations” was not a mere slogan but an appreciation of the interdependence of societies, economies and political systems. This recognition is bound to affect Iran’s approach to international relations in respect to three specific areas: Iran’s policy in the Gulf, the Arab-Israeli conflict and the United States.
From Iran’s perspective, the most important set of relationships it can have are those in the Persian Gulf. There Iran faces its most fundamental security concern: the unresolved nature of its relationship with Iraq, the fact that the war has ended but the peace has not come about. It is unlikely, as some people suggest, that Iran and Iraq will form a tactical front, given the Iraqi destruction of Iranian cities, employment of chemical weapons and continued border tensions. But from Iran’s perspective, its two geopolitical concerns are the potential rehabilitation of Iraq and the presence of U.S. naval forces in the Gulf.
While Iran’s relations with Iraq remain problematic and a long-term source of concern, Iraq has uniquely provided Iran an avenue in Gulf politics. I would argue that Khatami’s most spectacular diplomatic success abroad has come in the Persian Gulf area. Under Khomeini’s leadership, Iran vilified the Gulf rulers, the Saudi rulers, and called on opposition groups to overthrow the Gulf leaders and institute an authentic Islamic polity. Khatami’s election has fostered a perceptible shift in Iran’s Gulf policy. Iran is not trying to overthrow the Gulf rulers, but is appealing to them, suggesting that forming an indigenous alliance network would be the best way of ensuring Gulf stability and the containment of Iraq. The message is you don’t have to rely on American naval forces; we can do this on our own, locally and indigenously.
Khatami is very cleverly appealing to the accomodationist instinct of the Gulf rulers and their historic aversion to relying for their security completely and categorically on Western powers. This policy has already paid dividends. Iran and Saudi Arabia have, to an extent, harmonized their oil policies and expanded diplomatic trade and cultural relations. Since Khatami’s momentous visit to Riyadh in 1999, Iran and Saudi Arabia have instituted low-level defense cooperation. However, in my opinion, Gulf rulers are unlikely to accept any regional defense network in place of the U.S. naval presence, since such confidence-building measures could further project Iran’s power and influence in the Gulf.
Khatami’s approach to Israel is characterized more by continuity than change. For a generation of Iranian leaders, Israel is not only a strategic competitor but an agent of a pernicious ideology. Khatami’s approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process reflects his concern that, should the peace process succeed, it would only enhance Israel’s ability to influence the regional state system and, therefore, isolate Iran. The Turkish-Israeli alliance, from Iran’s perspective, is an ominous indicator of such possibilities, should the peace process succeed.
Therefore, Iran’s opposition to the peace process plays out on two different fronts. On the strategic front, any effort that obstructs Israel’s peace with its neighbors and polarizes Israel’s domestic politics is viewed as advantageous. On the political front, through active support for Hizballah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and so on, Iran can still claim its Islamic credentials and present itself as a pillar of Muslim resistance to the so-called Zionist entity. The recent mayhem in the West Bank and Gaza has reinforced Iran’s strategy and seemingly validated its claim. The troubling aspect of Iran’s rhetoric in the recent crisis is to define Israel as an agent of attack on Islam’s domain. The transformation of the Arab-Israeli conflict from a nationalist one to a confessional one can only exacerbate an already inflamed situation. Therefore, from Iran’s perspective, it is unlikely, given its ideological predispositions and its strategic concerns, to acquiesce to the process formerly known as the Oslo process.
Having stipulated Iran’s unhelpful conduct, it is important to note that the current impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is not due to Iran’s diplomacy. The peace process will succeed or fail based upon what Israelis and Palestinians do as opposed to what Iranians say they ought to do. Iran will vigorously oppose the peace process, but it will grudgingly, reluctantly, passively accept a peace treaty. The ultimate arbiters of what is an acceptable, equitable peace between Israelis and Palestinians will be Israelis and Palestinians.
U.S.-Iran relations are by far the most peculiar of Iran’s international relationships. The issue of U.S.-Iran relations has always transcended the strategic plan and somehow is always based on emotion. The ayatollahs routinely castigated the United States as evil and satanic, and, to Americans, the ayatollahs were not just misguided, but irrational. At its core the U.S.-Iranian conflict is a struggle between a superpower with global pretensions and a local power with regional ambitions. But somehow Iran-U.S. relations have always transcended this strategic claim and have taken place in a distinct cultural terrain. Ayatollah Khomeini, and many other members of the Iranian clerical class, anguish not only about the American armada in the Persian Gulf, but about an American social order that purportedly inflicts Islam’s domains with cultural dislocation, moral equivalence and distorted values. The election of Mohammed Khatami has ended a very specific phase in U.S.-Iranian confrontation: the cultural phase. As a scholar with an understanding and appreciation of Western political heritage and philosophy, Khatami has suggested that civilizations can not only interact but learn from one another.
Although the phase of cultural confrontation may have ended, Iran’s policies are at odds with those of the United States in some very important respects. As with his predecessors, Khatami insists that Iran, by virtue of its location, size, demography and history, has earned the right to become the dominant power in the Gulf. But it is not the dominant power in the Gulf, because the Americans insist on incorporating the Gulf into their own strategic framework. A lessened American presence in the Gulf is a goal that Iran’s reformers endorse, press and actively advance.
What’s the way out of the impasse? I have always felt that U.S.-Iranian relations should be modeled on Sino-American relations. The United States and China disagree in some important respects, but also have certain common objectives. Washington and Beijing actively attempt to reach consensus on some of those issues. Iran and the United States have certain important objectives in common. They both have an interest in the continued marginalization of Iraq, in the stabilization of Afghanistan, in stopping the drug traffic, the free passage of commerce through the Gulf. These are the goals that they can accede to. Iran and the United States should move toward a new paradigm whereby they compete and cooperate at the same time.
This is a policy neither of containment nor alliance, but of selective partnership on a limited range of issues. For this policy to succeed, there must be diplomatic dialogue and economic interaction between the two states. Should the United States move to modify its economic-sanctions policy, it could perhaps resume the long-suspended dialogue with Iran.
At the end of the day, in this post-Cold War period, the United States will face not a single global threat but a series of regional challenges. Iraq is such a challenge, a medium-sized power that seeks to determine the political trends in its immediate environment. The best way of dealing with such a challenge is to use a broad array of diplomatic, political and economic tools. Should Iran become further integrated into the global economy and actively included in the community of nations, it might voluntarily suppress some of its most intemperate impulses and moderate some of its more problematic conduct.
GEOFFREY KEMP, director of regional strategic programs, The Nixon Center
Iran is the only country in the world that refuses to have formal contact with U.S. officials. The North Koreans do; the Cubans do; the Soviet Union did throughout the Cold War. This is a unique situation, yet I think we all realize that if the relationship improved, both sides would reap considerable benefits. My basic thesis is that the political crisis in Iran is not going away any time soon. Until the bitterness between the reformists and the conservatives is muted, there is unlikely to be any dramatic change in Iran’s willingness to talk and deal with the United States, because it remains the third rail of Iranian politics.
Once we are able to talk to each other, several “red-button issues” will have to be addressed: historical grievances, terrorism, the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, Iran’s opposition to the peace process, and U.S. energy and sanctions policy, an extremely serious issue for the Iranians. It may well be that because these issues are so difficult that when we ultimately do formally talk to the Iranians, it may be better to start with what one might call “green-button issues,” where we have more in common and which are less likely to be divisive from day one. I think we all know what that list consists of: narcotics traffic, Afghanistan, Pakistan’s evolution and its relationship with the Taliban, even Iraq, though I wouldn’t overdo that commonality.
From the Iranian point of view, the grievances go back beyond the Iran-Iraq War and the revolution. The literature that has come out in Iran in the past few months about our role in the 1953 coup is still a lightning rod for all Iranians. Iran’s grievances are shared by moderates as well as conservatives, so that even if the “moderates” do prevail in the power struggle, the grievances are still going to be there and are still going to have to be addressed.
The one grievance that does separate out the moderates from the hard-liners is the United States itself. From what one hears and reads, there are groups within the conservative faction who truly do regard the United States itself as an existential threat. The arrogant superpower, the great Satan, is the problem. For that reason, the concept of restoring diplomatic relations with Iran now and sending an American ambassador or even a junior diplomat back to Tehran is unthinkable.
There are also other issues that I hope Suzanne Maloney can talk more about in the Q & A such as the corruption managed by many of the conservatives. Political reform would undermine and challenge a lot of conservative financial interests.
As long as the conservatives control the key instruments of power in Iran – the judiciary, the armed forces and the intelligence services – and as long as the conservatives believe that they would be losers if they had better relationships with the United States, they’re going to do whatever it takes to put off the day when the great Satan comes back to Tehran. We have to hope that conditions will change in the region and in Iran so that the conservatives do not feel that it is a zero-sum game.
My present perspective is quite pessimistic, whether viewed from Tehran or from Washington. I do not believe the new administration will institute major changes toward Iran until after the Iranian elections in May because we do not want to be seen as meddling. In addition, the Iranians must actually agree to talk to us formally. Third, they have to mute their opposition to the peace process and their deliberate efforts to torpedo it, because, if the United States is the third rail of Iranian politics, Israel is the third rail of American politics. I would argue that hostility to Israel has done more to harm Iran’s image in this country, especially on Capitol Hill, than any issue since the hostage crisis of 1979-80.
The Iranians have said that they are prepared, perhaps, to talk to us formally if we would only offer them some gesture, such as unfreezing their assets, which they believe number in the billions of dollars. I don’t believe any new administration, particularly one that comes to power on a narrow margin of victory, would be prepared, at least early on, to make any gestures before talks with the Iranian administration. But this does not mean to say that nothing can be done.
There are a number of things a new administration can do to improve the environment for eventual rapprochement, especially if Iraq becomes the most serious Middle East challenge for the new administration. There is a desire to break away from the concept that was fashionable in the early days of the Clinton administration – dual containment of Iraq and Iran, two rogues out there to be isolated. Today there is much more nuanced understanding of the fact that there have been major changes in Iran for the better and in Iraq for the worse. Therefore, if Iraq becomes a more prominent issue, there may be more willingness to rethink some of the policies toward Iran.
Even without that, there are things that can be done. The style of U.S. diplomacy can be changed. From what I hear from Iranians and from the remarks that Mr. Khatami himself made on his trip to Germany earlier this year, we have a tendency to announce our policy through formal speeches of the secretary of state, which are not conveyed in advance to the Iranians. We make a few gestures, and then we expect the Iranians to reciprocate within hours or days. If they don’t, we say, “They’re not listening to us.” It does not help when we constantly inject into these policy statements praise for Khatami and the reformers and criticism of Khamenei and the conservatives. This becomes a divisive issue that the Iranians resent. The reformers tell us this hampers dialogue. So while I understand that we have to distinguish between the groups that we can “work with” and those we can’t, doing it in speeches by the secretary of state is not productive.
We have legitimate concerns that we have to discuss with any Iranian regime, particularly WMD and terrorism. The WMD problem – the nuclear, biological, chemical and missile issues – are extremely important. But I think we have to have a more complex and nuanced policy in discussing them.
What we are saying right now, both on the Hill and in the executive branch, is that Iran has to get rid of its WMD. It’s not going to; let’s face it. Even if the moderates win, they will have genuine national-security concerns from Iraq, Pakistan, India and Israel, all nuclear or potential nuclear powers. The one problem the Iranians face is that they are bound by international agreements they’ve signed. Therefore, breaking out of those international agreements, such as the Non-proliferation Treaty, is going to be very, very difficult for them. One way they could reduce suspicions about their WMD activity would be to agree to new protocols that the IAEA has come up with for inspecting nuclear facilities, the so-called Program 93 Plus 2. But they say they won’t do this unless they are given access to civilian nuclear technology, which we will refuse to go along with.
When it comes to their missile program, the only thing the United States can do is slow down Russian and Korean aid, and possibly Chinese aid at some point in the future. We can’t stop the Iranians; they’re not bound by any treaty not to build missiles. Those missiles are going to go ahead and we’re going to have to live with them.
One final point: I think the one place a Bush administration will take a new look is Caspian policy. Both the Iranians and the Russians have condemned our efforts to exclude them from projects in that part of the world. I think you’re all familiar with the arguments the administration has made on why we are insisting on East-West pipelines for both oil and gas coming out of Central Asia and the Caucasus (see Middle East Policy, Vol. III, No.4, October 2000). There are disagreements with this policy not only in the region, but also in the boardrooms of many of our oil companies. The bottom line is that the Caspian and Central Asia are important to American interests, but they’re not as vital as the Persian Gulf, whereas for Russia and Iran the Caspian and Central Asia are vital. So there is a case for reviewing our whole policy in the Caspian with the objective of being more flexible about energy projects and Iran’s eventual participation in them. This would help us in two ways. First, it would help defuse the growing rapprochement between Russia and Iran. Second, in the context of world energy, we have a lot of reasons for wanting to see Iranian energy resources developed to the full.
I don’t believe a new administration will end oil sanctions with Iran unilaterally unless the Iranians reciprocate in some clear way. The important thing, I think, from the point of view of the Congress and a new administration would be more muted Iranian behavior concerning Israel. But I doubt if that will happen. Nevertheless, ultimately, we have to consider dealing with the conservatives. They are not a monolithic group; some have shown extraordinary pragmatism in the past. It was, after all, the Ayatollah Khomeini who made the deal with Israel during the Iran-Iraq War to get arms. There are other things we can do. We can stop fingerprinting Iranians coming to the United States. This would, perhaps, make it easier for us to visit Iran.
AMB. FREEMAN: If we had had this discussion a year ago, it would have been a very different discussion. This demonstrates the extent to which the question is now open. In that regard, Geoff, I can’t help remarking that if I were an Iranian, I would see a certain difficulty with your prescription that I mute my opposition to something that no longer exists, namely the peace process. But perhaps if whatever replaces the peace process involves actors like Europeans in addition to Americans – that is, if the American monopoly, as many speculate, will have to cease – that may itself have an impact on Iranian willingness to mute its opposition.
One point that came through in several of the presentations is the Iranian sense that the cultural identity of Iran is somehow in jeopardy when Iran deals with the United States. The supreme interest of any country is its national independence and its identity, and there has been a sense that somehow our global reach constitutes an existential threat to Iran. The question is, what can we, as Americans, possibly do about that?
What specific actions might replace signal diplomacy? Geoff has suggested a review of Caspian policy, which many in the region would agree is overdue. Others might see oil and gas projects, or relaxation in elements of American sanctions, or, for example, resumption of civilian-aircraft sales, as the sort of step that might lead to introducing some of those elements of cooperation into the competition that has been proposed here. Others might look at military measures, disentangling naval operations in the Gulf, for example, as an option. I hope in the succeeding discussion period we can get down to some specific proposals.
Q: I take the point about the Khatami change in policy toward the southern Gulf states. There are much-improved security relationships, especially with Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. One fly in the ointment seems to be standing in the way of a similar rapprochement with the UAE, and it’s to the three islands (Abu Musa and the two Tunbs) in the middle of the Gulf that I address your attention.
DR. TAKEYH: I have never understood Iran’s preoccupation with those three islands. But I also don’t think that they hinder Iran’s fundamental relationship in the Gulf, which is with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have intimated that Iran’s peculiar fascination with them is not going to impede the more fundamental relationship. One would hope that Iran would reach some sort of consensus with the UAE, perhaps within the framework of the GCC. I don’t think this particular issue is going to impede more fundamental relationships on the entire range of issues which they both find advantageous, not just petroleum policy, passage reform and so on, but also the forces in Baghdad.
DR. MALONEY: The dispute over these three pieces of rock has not in fact impeded the very important economic relationship between the port of Dubai and Iran throughout the past 20 years, which overrides the political differences.
AMB. FREEMAN: This does not impede the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular, but it is a constraint on Saudi policy. The Saudis will always defer to the United Arab Emirates on the extent to which they should normalize relations with Iran. But it is in practice a minor constraint, not a fundamental impediment.
Q: I don’t see any mention in this equation of the Iranian people and Iranian public opinion, which is strongly affected by the student movement in Iran. They have been a vocal and courageous opposition to the regime. How this can be brought into the equation?
DR. MALONEY: I always shudder at the notion of Americans trying to interpret Iranian public opinion. We haven’t done the best job of that over the past 50 years. Even with the opportunity occasionally to get over and speak to Iranians, we don’t fully understand the wide range of different opinions both on their own political system and on the future of U.S.-Iran relations. Iran has a disproportionately young population, three-quarters of whom are under the age of 25. Those people were born and educated since the revolution and are highly literate, but face limited and frustrated economic opportunities. It’s an issue of a great deal of concern for anyone who is looking at what the United States should do with respect to its Iran policy.
I’d also like to point out that, as unsettling as the protests were in July 1999, and as clear as it was that so many young people in Iran are frustrated with the position of the government, particularly on cultural issues, on their ability to move freely in society and intermingle the sexes, I think that what was more interesting was that about a year and a half earlier there was a much larger demonstration of sorts. That was the reaction when Iran qualified to play in the World Cup soccer tournament. About a million Iranians came out into the streets of Tehran, and more in a number of other large provincial cities, to celebrate and to dance. What this says to me is that young Iranians are frustrated, but they’re not ready to turn out in large numbers to oppose the regime. They’re eager for opportunities to engage with their counterparts, and they’re eager to make their voices heard. But 15,000 people protesting in July 1999 versus a million coming out to celebrate a soccer match tells you something about the state of mind of young Iranians. But I take your point. We should be talking to Iranians.
DR. TAKEYH: This gives me an opportunity to dissent from the other panelists. One of the things that was said is that we should deal with Iran irrespective of their leadership. I disagree with that. We do have an interest in who prevails in Iran. We get a better deal on all issues of concern – weapons, terrorism and Israel – from the reformers, who are more pragmatic than the hard-liners. The notion that we should deal with any Iranians – there are no reformers, there are no conservatives, there are just Iranians; we can deal with – any of them, at any point – I actually dissent from that. There are some factions and people within Iran that we can get a better deal from than others. So Iran is not an undifferentiated concept. There are factions within it that I think are more appealing, and we can deal with them more than with others. Should there be conservative backlash and takeover of power in Iran, U.S. policy toward Iran is going to be measurably altered. If it’s not altered, that’s malpractice.
DR. KEMP: I don’t disagree with that. I said that we may have to be prepared to deal with pragmatists on both sides because, after all, U.S. interests are important. I would agree that what sort of government you have in Iran is very important for the people of Iran, and younger Iranians I talk to are worried that we will sell out aspirations for reform if we can deal with some pragmatic conservative who lays off Israel but cracks down on reform. To that extent, the analogy with China, which you were the first one to bring up, Ray, is a very ominous one for a lot of young Iranians. For the young reformers, the students one meets, improving relations with the United States is not even their second, third or fourth priority. Their priorities are domestic, political and economic reform. We come way down the list.
Q: If the next administration does abandon a policy of containment and tries to move closer to Iran, is it possible that that could be used as leverage with the Europeans to get greater containment of Iraq?
MR. ROTH: It’s hard to imagine what greater containment of Iraq would amount to at this point. The sanctions on Iraq are very, very tight. The only flights going in are humanitarian and some quasi-commercial flights. But the resources that have been generated by the food-for-oil program are controlled by the United Nations; who gets the contracts is controlled by the United Nations. There are lots of stories in the press about changes on the margins in our Iraq sanctions policy, but to try and get the Europeans to somehow tighten sanctions on Iraq in exchange for an easing of containment on Iran, there’s not much there to deal with.
I’d also like to comment on engagement with Iran. It’s such a hot-button issue that whether we engage with the moderates or the conservatives, it greatly taints them domestically. To the extent that there is some reciprocity on the part of the conservatives, as we engage with them, this will have domestic consequences, I believe, particularly in their relationship with the moderates. Therefore, they have been very, very reluctant to engage with us up to this point. I think we’re going to have to put a lot more on the table that’s attractive to make it worth their while.
Q: China and North Korea are the major suppliers of missile technology, and increasingly both countries have indicated a willingness to stop such exports to Iran. Is there any analysis that you could reveal to us as to how this will affect Iran’s missile-development program?
MR. ROTH: China and North Korea see it very much in their own interests, in their relationship with us, to modify their policies toward the export of missile technology to the region. However, with respect to the Iranian missile program, the major assistance is coming and continues to come from Russia. Most of the technical support still continues to come from Russia, and that’s been a subject of a lot of bilateral discussions with the Russians. So with respect to the decrease or elimination of aid from China and North Korea, it may slow down some aspects of the Iranian missile program, but the continuation toward achievement of Shahab-3, -4, -5, is still very much on track, thanks to Russian assistance.
DR. KEMP: Yes, it is the Russians that are the real problem. Although I would not rule out that if our relations with China were to deteriorate, particularly over the issue of Taiwan, China is quite capable of reversing itself on the missile-export issue or, indeed, on the export of nuclear materials. They’ve been cooperative with us because it’s in their interest, but U.S.-China relations are going to be a red-button issue for the coming administration, and China has growing interests and energy needs in the Middle East. So this is a sleeper issue that we should bear in mind for the future.
AMB. FREEMAN: This past summer, the Chinese moved to link their nonproliferation policies much more closely to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan than they had in the past. And many believe that this issue will indeed become a matter of confrontation and difficulty for the incoming administration.
Q: Several speakers referred to the potential for cooperation on common interests. On several of those issues, third countries also share an interest. Afghanistan, for instance, where recently Russia and the United States have been cooperating at the United Nations in preparing a Security Council resolution to sanction the Taliban. At the same time, Russia has quite a good relationship with Iran. What is the potential for asking third-party countries to help improve U.S.-Iranian dialogue on these issues of prominent concern?
Does Russia have an interest in seeing U.S.-Iranian relations improve, and is it prepared to do anything about it? Does the European Union actually have any interest in seeing U.S.-Iranian relations improve, given the present commercial advantage to European companies in Iran? Are European nations prepared to do anything to help improve U.S.Iranian relations?
MR. ROTH: As I said in my previous remarks, we don’t believe intermediaries can have quite the same impact on state-to-state relations as direct contacts. There have been some small, quiet, private efforts, sometimes through the United Nations, to find a way to initiate the kind of dialogue referred to, particularly on issues of common interest such as Afghanistan, in particular. That’s why the secretary participated in the 6-plus-2 meeting on Afghanistan with the Russians and the Iranians back in September. We do have an interest in finding common policy areas of interest, but at this point we prefer very much to do it directly rather than by using third parties, believing that we can communicate our message much more directly to the government in Iran as a means of initiating that dialogue.
DR. TAKEYH: One of the things that you always hear is “direct U.S.-Iranian official dialogue.” I’m not quite sure what we’re going to say to them if we meet them at a hotel room in Zurich. They know what our position is and we know what their position is. It seems to me that direct official dialogue is not helpful unless there is some degree of revision of our policy and some degree of revision of their policy. If an Iranian diplomat and an American diplomat get together in Paris what are they going to say to each other? The Iranian will say, “We have these objections,” and we know what they are, and the American will say, “Peace process, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.” Third parties can help in one sense. We could say to Iran, for instance, that we will lift our objections to their participation in multilateral financial institutions if they modify their assistance to Hizballah. There has to be some degree of prearrangement before this mythical dialogue, which is one of the accepted axioms, and I’m not quite sure what purpose it would serve in the absence of some degree of revision in our stances.
AMB. FREEMAN: As the Afghan example demonstrates, finding issues where we have common concerns and conducting a dialogue in the presence of others who, to some extent, share those concerns does have the effect of drawing Iran out and offering a less contentious atmosphere in which the two sides can indirectly explore our common interests. It might be that such a dialogue with regard to the Caspian or the Caucasus or Central Asia could also engage Iranian interest in not terribly contentious ways.
DR. KEMP: Perhaps because I was born in Europe I have a reluctance to lump all Europeans together. I will guarantee you that there are nuanced differences between France, Germany, Britain, Italy and Denmark regarding Iran, although there are some common EU concerns. But, as our chairman pointed out, if the Europeans do become more involved in the peace process, which I think is probably inevitable, they’re going to have a greater stake in curbing excessive Iranian behavior and rhetoric. Whether this will include the French, I’m not sure, but I do think one has to be more subtle when discussing the cynicism and commercialism of Europe. There are other factors at work here as well.
DR. MALONEY: This cynicism is probably echoed in Tehran, where many people still believe that the British engineered the entire revolution and have continued to manipulate events to their own commercial advantage. But we have to acknowledge that we don’t necessarily have identical ultimate interests in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in some of the other areas where both the United States and Iran could potentially work together. Both the United States and Iran are looking for a more stable Afghanistan, yet our ideas of what ultimate stability looks like are probably quite different. Moreover, I think that the Iranians could conceivably benefit from a situation in which Afghanistan is not available as a potential transit route for Central Asian or Caspian gas to South Asia. So we have to acknowledge that there are some common interests that create some opportunities for discussion, but we should not necessarily presume that our end goals are identical.
Q: Most of the 2,800 claims involving the United States and Iran have been satisfactorily resolved, except for some of the very large intergovernmental claims, such as those involving foreign military sales. What is the role of this in the overall relationship? And why could it not serve as a useful vehicle at the margins since there are ongoing relationships on a daily basis?
MR. ROTH: We have been looking at the claims tribunal as an issue that perhaps could be on the new administration’s list of first issues to address. The question that the new administration will have to deal with is not the piecemeal kind of approach, case-by-case, that we’ve been practicing, but a global settlement, which could have tremendous political implications for both sides. And whether the new administration would be prepared to enter into a global settlement or even raise that as a prospect with the regime in Iran as an issue to be discussed could have some promise for opening other avenues of dialogue. We’re not there yet, but it is under consideration.
AMB. FREEMAN: Since you have introduced it I’d like to ask other members of the panel to comment on the concept of global settlement, that is, a large package as opposed to an incremental approach. Is this realistic?
DR. MALONEY: There has been a lot of focus on this, particularly since the secretary’s comments in March 2000 in which she talked about the need to expedite a settlement. Obviously there are political constraints from both sides. From the U.S. side, any appropriation for such a settlement is going to be politically controversial. It’s going to evoke some of the lawsuits filed by the families of victims of terrorism in Israel and some of the former hostages’ families. I presume that there are more of these sorts of lawsuits coming. And as we continue to see what is being called by some in the administration “diplomacy by trial,” I think that we’re going to find that this is fairly complicated to enact from our side.
From the Iranian side, the difficulty is going to be that there are very inflated notions of what this settlement might entail. I’ve heard numbers as large as $32 billion as potential sums that are owed to Iran – and that’s if you’re calculating interest, which, of course, in an Islamic economic system, you might not. But the numbers that have been floated from this end have been as low as a couple of hundred million dollars. Inevitably this is one of the issues that the Iranians perceive as a bargaining chip in their hands, that when they accept any kind of settlement, it makes it more difficult for them to raise this issue as a potential complaint against the United States and it opens them up to criticism from factions within Iran. So I suspect there will be some continued stalemate. But, as Mr. Roth said, any resolution would certainly move both parties forward. It would have a tremendous impact in Iran, where the issue itself is not fully understood and the continuing financial claims provoke a great deal of resentment publicly.
Q: I have a question concerning the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). It’s scheduled to expire next year. Is that legislation likely to be renewed? Secondly, when that legislation expires, will there be an eventual melting away of direct U.S. sanctions against Iran concerning the oil and gas industry?
MR. ROTH: Legislation is still the prerogative of the legislative branch. The administration, as of today, has not given consideration to whether to extend or to seek the cessation of this legislation. In the executive branch, we are in the process of carrying it out to the letter. The Hill has not begun to think about this yet, as far as I know, other than to say that it’s coming up in August of next year. They haven’t even decided who’s going to be on what committees yet in the Congress. Clearly, there will be a tremendous amount of consultation between the Hill and the new administration on this issue and how it plays into our overall policy on Iran and to the region as a whole.
DR. TAKEYH: I never thought that ILSA was helpful legislation. And I don’t think all the lawsuits that are being filed against Libya and Iran are helpful in terms of expediting relations with these two states. Having said that, I think most of the problems in Iran-U.S. economic relations have to do with executive orders. I’m not quite sure if they’re going to continue. Given the fact that the issue of Iran is so mired in domestic politics, you may see ILSA lapse. The proponents of ILSA, who never really wanted Iran and Libya lumped together, have more targeted sanctions against Iran and Libya separately. It’s unfortunate legislation, but most unfortunate things persist in some form.
Q: For the last three years I’ve had this image that what happened to the shah many years ago was being reenacted in the opposite direction with the advent of President Khatami. But it looks like the movement doesn’t have the same strength or fervor. What is the balance of power; how strong is the opposition within the Iranian population?
DR. MALONEY: There was some attention drawn to the parallels with 1978-79 in July 1999, when the protests spilled over into Tehran and also Tabriz University and some of the other smaller university campuses. I think that we could envision a scenario by which several relatively minor incidents build up a cycle of mourning, a cycle of violence that escalates and engages the political elites at an intense level. In terms of a concerted movement, there are some parallels between what’s been happening in the past three years and what happened in the mid to late ’70s. But the clergy had a very different role. In the late ’70s, they took advantage of a movement begun by students and pioneered by people with probably a bit more liberal bias and intentions than what inevitably occurred in the creation of the state itself. They were well-positioned to do so because they were the only people who were in a position to talk to all the population. There was not a great deal of independent associational life at that point.
Now you have an enormous generational change in Iran. Most of the population look at the world with a very different set of understandings of both their own lives and the way that their country ought to be dealing in the world. Most young Iranians believe that they should have some say in their government; that they should be able to walk freely on the streets without being harassed by religious police or self-appointed guards who tell them what to wear and who they can walk with.
In terms of the political movement, I’ve been impressed with how tactically wise the reform movement has been. Obviously, they are completely flummoxed by the well-planned backlash by the conservatives in the past six months. What you’ve seen over the past few weeks in some of the statements of President Khatami is the attempt to draw attention to the constitutional problems and the need for some systemic reform, as opposed to mere legislative or political reform. This demonstrates that the reform movement is learning from its mistakes. They’re being a bit more judicious in the way that they approach some of the political issues. They went after this press law in August full force recognizing that in fact the conservatives were never going to allow them to pass such a law.
What you’re seeing now, particularly on some of the legislation that’s being considered, is that they’re going at a much slower pace. They’re trying to work with the Expediency Council, with the Guardians Council, some of these bodies that can stymie the legislation. They’re trying to work with conservatives to build consensus on some of the political crimes and some of the other issues, the ban on law enforcement going into university dorms. This is a long-term phenomenon in Iran. It’s very difficult to compare it with what went on before.
DR. TAKEYH: In Iran’s domestic politics you have a very peculiar impasse. The reformers have electoral legitimacy and a popular mandate, yet the conservatives have institutional dominance. I’m not quite sure how long this impasse can persist, how long the young Iranian population is going to invest its hopes in a democratic process that doesn’t produce palpable results. A reelection of Khatami is another mandate for incremental reform and more of the same – one paper opens, 14 close. I’m not quite sure how long this process can persist. Eventually, I fear it can only end in civil strife. Everybody says that Iranians don’t have an appetite for that, but you have a situation where the popular will is actively obstructed by institutions. This resolution could come through some sort of a midwife, or it could be violent.
Q: You mentioned that despite major American efforts, the flow of missile technology from Russia to Iran continues. Do you think the key reason that the Russians have been doing it in the face of strong American opposition was because the Iranians have agreed not to challenge what the Russians are doing in Chechnya? They’ve killed many more Muslims there than the Israelis have killed in Palestine.
MR. ROTH: There’s been a great deal of effort, as you say, on the part of our Russia experts within the administration to persuade the Russians that it’s in their own self-interest to stop providing this technology. Why the Russians continue to do it I don’t know. For example, the Russians are not particularly sensitive to international criticism of their policy on Chechnya. The Europeans have voiced tough criticism and threatened to impose sanctions because of their actions in Chechnya – but this has not modified Russian actions.
DR. KEMP: There are three issues that the Russians are extremely angry with the Clinton administration about. One was NATO enlargement, which is still going ahead. The second was Kosovo, and the third is always the Caspian. This is the third-most-serious concern of Russian policy; Mr. Putin is making a deliberate effort to restore Russia’s power and prestige in the greater Caspian region. Their strategy toward Iran is perfectly geared to doing just this, so when we go into Moscow and put missiles to Iran at the top of the agenda, we are in a very weak position, given all the other things we’re doing that they don’t like. When the new administration comes to grips with national missile defense, that will add a fourth item to the Russian agenda. So we have to give them something. It may well be that backing off some of our more strident postures in the Caspian, while perhaps not an ideal policy, is preferable to giving way on either NATO or Bosnia or missile defense.
AMB. FREEMAN: At the risk of offending powerful domestic lobbies, I would note that Russia and Iran have found common cause in the southern Caucasus, in a parallel approach to the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. So it is not the case that they are completely divided, however different they may be ideologically and however different their historical roles in the region between them may have been.
Q: Are Iran’s nuclear power and weapons programs a problem or an opportunity? Is Iran prepared to do what North Korea does, sell the same nuclear power to the United States once a month? Finally, what about conventional armaments and more particularly, how does that issue relate to efforts to contain Iraq under Saddam Hussein?
DR. KEMP: I’ve already mentioned my position on the Caspian, so I won’t elaborate on that. The nuclear issue is rather complicated. If the Iranians are honest and really want Bushehr for electricity production because they are concerned about the depletion of their fossil-fuel reserves, then the sort of deal with the North Koreans is quite feasible. However there is a belief in the intelligence community that the Iranians are interested in nuclear weapons and are not going to be influenced by a deal like this. The one circumstance where they could be influenced is if there were a real economic downturn – if social conditions got much worse, with riots in the streets and bread supplies falling short. A year or so ago there was a Middle East Policy Council forum where we were discussing the destabilizing impact of lower oil prices. So things can go round in a different direction, and under those circumstances, an Iranian regime might be willing to consider that type of deal as a way out of its dilemma.
I have argued for years that we should be more laid back about Iran’s purchases of advanced weapons for their army. It costs a lot of money that takes away from other things they could be doing, and they have a genuine national-security need to rebuild their conventional forces. I would not want them to be able to buy open-ended numbers of advanced Russian fighters, particularly long-range fighters and maritime capabilities that threaten us in the Gulf. But I’d be more laid back about tanks and artillery.
DR. TAKEYH: I’m not quite sure if the North Korean model is healthy – creating another tributary state for the United States.
On the issue of nuclear weapons, we need to understand that the nuclear status quo is unlikely to prevail. In the next 10 years or so, other powers are going to join the nuclear club that began with the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Britain. It has just expanded. We have to understand the fact that eventually we have to go from prevention to containment of additional nuclear-power states. It seems to me Iran is in a strategic neighborhood where nuclear deterrence makes perfect sense. A United States that contained Stalin and Chairman Mao with nuclear weapons can contain Iran with nuclear weapons. In the future there will be more states added to the nuclear club; that’s just the reality of the situation.
Q: Would it be the job of the next administration to reach out, or should we just wait for another message from Iran that they might be ready? Is it dangerous for Iran to be dictating the terms of a relationship with the United States?
MR. ROTH: In diplomacy, the ball is always in everybody’s court. There are clearly people within the administration who also would like to do more than what we have been doing to initiate such a dialogue, and I suspect a similar sentiment exists within Iran. One could take a minimalist approach and deal with some of the irritants in the lead-up to a dialogue, some of which have been referred to by previous speakers, such as the requirement for fingerprinting, cooperation on drug-trafficking, additional cooperation on the 6-plus-2 dialogue on Afghanistan. And then, beyond the minimalist approach, one could even look at a more ambitious menu that would include some kind of adjustment in our sanctions on U.S. energy companies, an expansion of people-to-people contacts and renewal of trade in non-sensitive consumer goods and services. We might even entertain the idea of Iranian membership in the WTO. Clearly that would be a far more ambitious agenda, particularly in the first six months of the administration. How those get initiated I think will depend a lot upon the personalities who come into the new administration and their willingness to use, at least in the first instance, private channels to initiate contacts.
AMB. FREEMAN: President Clinton waited until December 2000, a month and a half before it went out of office, to give a speech saying that foreign policy was important. But even this administration, with its general lack of interest in foreign policy except in crises, was willing to entertain the notion of a rapprochement with Iran. And, notwithstanding the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and other acts of sabotage up here on Capitol Hill, it has to be said that the opposition to an opening to Iran was not very impressive. What seems to be the legacy of the Clinton administration in its regard is the demonstration that the price of doing sensible things with Iran that are in the American interest is not likely to be politically very high. That suggests to me that the next administration will have an opening for the kind of incrementalist approach that was implicit in Richard Roth’s answer.
DR. KEMP: I agree with that, and I think it’s important also to look at the timelines. The new administration will take months to get its act together, to do reviews, to get a team in place that’s confirmed. This is useful because, in the context of Iran, there’s no immediate crisis to deal with. Furthermore, as we’ve all said, we should not really expect to do anything productive as long as their election campaign is underway. So next summer, when ILSA has to be discussed, this would be a very good time for a new administration with a new Iranian leadership, or perhaps Khatami reelected, to consider bold initiatives, but not any time sooner.
Q: Iran argues that the United States destabilizes the region by its presence, which is the exact opposite to what the United States argues. How would you comment on the Iranian side of this argument? My second question has to do with the economic setup of Iran today and how that affects political change.
DR. TAKEYH: The problem with Iran’s economy, as I see it, is that it is one of the last places where an anachronistic socialist ideology still has some value. What’s most disturbing is that it has value among the reformers. They are the ones who propound a concept of social justice and tend to be dubious of privatization efforts. So those who are, ironically, for political liberalization are most insistent on a command economy as the means of maintaining their concept of social justice. Among Khatami’s most ardent supporters are the same people who want to maintain their allegiance to this ideology, which everywhere else has been repudiated. There are hard-liners in the conservative political camp who are actually more lenient on economic issues.
Does the United States destabilize the Middle East? I would say, no. But I don’t have a foreign armada hanging around 60 miles from where I live.
DR. MALONEY: The way the economy goes is very much connected to the political future of Iran. It’s a complicated and heavily state-dominated economy. As Dr. Takeyh indicated, there is still a profound commitment to ideas of social justice that have roots in a kind of Marxist ideology, infused with Islamism, that dates back to the 1970s. These ideas had some roots in traditional interpretations of Islamic doctrine. There is a countervailing tendency from Iran’s traditional private sector found in the bazaar, the market. Islam is probably as explicit and protective of any religious doctrine toward the private sector and the operation of a free capitalistic economy. So, for at least the first 10 years of the revolution this was a major ideological debate that frustrated the parliament and the government as a whole.
The way that the economy has evolved, however, is perhaps less akin to anything you might find in a classical Islamic situation than to a devolving command economy. I would draw your attention to the parallels with Russia, where there is a kind of state elite and a privatization process that has enriched the class of crony capitalists. The same thing has occurred in Iran with the limited privatization that has taken place to the benefit of an entrenched number of individuals and institutions. I would not associate them strictly with the conservatives, although they’re people who have a long history with the Islamic Republic, and so might be considered a bit more conservative. But they’re also pragmatists who have been, from Washington’s viewpoint, some of the people we considered potential interlocutors in some sort of dialogue. These are individuals who have very pragmatic notions of what is in Iran’s national interest: their own personal financial interest.
One of the most profound difficulties in the reform process is that any political reforms are dependent upon economic reforms. No economic reforms can be undertaken without a commitment to the rule of law and to some transparency in government. The difficulty is that the economic reforms are perhaps more sensitive and painful than even some of the political reforms that get into religious doctrine. How does one raise the price of bread and gasoline, two commodities that are heavily subsidized and consume billions of dollars of the Iranian budget each year, without provoking popular unrest? This is the dilemma of Khatami and the other reformers, whatever their economic ideology. If people can’t afford to buy bread, if gasoline doubles in price, it makes their day-to-day lives very difficult.
We need to abandon our notions that reform is simply a process of creating a democracy and snapping our fingers and seeing a new Iran overnight. It’s going to be a very long and slow process. That is why a more ambitious American approach might pay dividends.