U.S.-Iran Relations After the Iranian Election

Jul 6, 2009

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How should the United States proceed in its relations with Iran during this turbulent time—and beyond? Should we launch direct, high-level talks between a U.S. envoy and a significant player, or continue on the same course?


JOANNE MYERS: Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to thank you all for turning out in such large numbers for the last event of this program year.

The timely subject chosen for this season's final lecture is Iran. With a growing sense of uncertainty of where Iran is headed and what America's response should be to the results of this recent election, I am confident that our speaker this morning, Ambassador Tom Pickering, will lay the foundation for an interesting and insightful discussion on U.S.-Iran relations.

On June 12, millions of Iranians went to the polls hoping for change. Although the reelection of Ahmadinejad was not inconceivable by any means and no one doubted that he had support among radicals and the lower-income segment of the population, still the results, when announced by the Supreme Leader Khamenei, indicating a record turnout of 85 percent of the population with 63 percent of the vote going to the incumbent, defied belief.

Amid allegations that Ahmadinejad was arbitrarily awarded his election victory, the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's challenger, immediately began to gather in cities all over Iran to protest these results. Now, with the government using the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij military to crack down on protesters and threats of execution if the protestors continue, public demonstrations are fewer and seem to have lost some of their steam.

This has left Moussavi with the choice between acknowledging his defeat and brokering some sort of reconciliation, or continuing to resist Ahmadinejad's rule and risking imprisonment. On the other hand, Ahmadinejad has begun to transition his efforts from addressing the opposition to consolidating power and hardening Iran's stance internationally.

President Obama has said that Tehran's outrageous hounding of protesters raised questions about Washington's push to establish bilateral contacts with the Islamic republic. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told President Obama on Thursday to avoid interfering in Iran's affairs and demanded an apology from the American leader for striking the same critical tone as his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Even so, President Obama said that international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program would continue. At a time of profound differences between the United States and Iran over issues, such as Iran's nuclear program, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Ahmadinejad's sharp words offered no prospect of easing tensions between Washington and Tehran.

In the past, our approach to Iran—a combination of mixed signals and failed policies—has failed to achieve our goals. Therefore, as we move forward, we may want to ask our speaker, who just so happens to be one of our country's most seasoned diplomats and excels at creating open dialogue in order to improve cooperation between governments, how he views the situation.

Since you have a copy of Ambassador Pickering's résumé, I will not recite all of his postings nor his positions in and outside of government, nor will you hear about all his honors and awards.

But what you will hear is something I have heard said about him before, which is that throughout his career Ambassador Pickering has set the gold standard for American diplomacy. As a diplomat's diplomat, his contributions have helped to build bridges with countries around the world, and we hope that he will continue to do so.

Although we don't know how this election is going to play out, we do know one thing, which is that the Iran of yesterday is no longer. With this in mind, Ambassador Pickering, we look forward to listening to your ideas and benefiting from your experience.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our very wise and distinguished guest, Ambassador Pickering.


THOMAS PICKERING: Good morning to you all, and thank you, Joanne, for a kind, generous, even flattering, maybe hyperbolic, introduction.

I'm delighted to be here and back in New York. It's always a pleasure to come up, particularly to see so many old friends and to meet so many new ones around these tables, and to see people who are young, vigorous, and ready to get up early in the morning to hear some kind of swoop-in visitor from Washington pontificate on some of the thoughts that now challenge all of us in the international community and beyond.

I'd like to begin by taking a leaf out of those who would like to speak truth before they speak policy. I am not and never have pretended to be an Iran expert. I've had the opportunity of listening to many over the last couple of weeks, and obviously will present you my best synthesis of what I have been hearing and seeing along with all of you.

I also want to tell you that I accepted this task some months ago, when U.S.-Iranian relations were an infinitely complex and very difficult subject. And you will all notice that things haven't become easier in terms of dealing with this question and this issue.

Joanne asked me a moment ago how it was all going to come out. I had to say, in all honesty, I don't think any of us really knows yet. But I will attempt in my talk this morning to present you with some views on some of the possibilities and those that I think are perhaps more likely than less likely as we go ahead.

My talk today is really in two parts that come together: one is to discuss the elections and some of the impact and effects of the elections as we see them on U.S.-Iranian relations; and then to try to talk in a little more optimistic vein about where that set of relationships might go if, as, and when it gets going. I think that's the kind of bottom line that I have here.

I would say that the conclusion is that we have two very important countries deeply enmeshed in a very important region of the world that affects all of what the world sees and does. And so it is, I think, certainly clear that we ought to be talking frequently together among ourselves and I hope more frequently in the future with Iranians about our relationship, about their region, our interest in it, and about how that affects the rest of the world.

I'd like to do my talk this morning along the lines of a Socratic dialogue in which I will play both questioner and responder. It's a little easier, I think, to organize a messy series of difficult topics by doing it that way.

So I'd like to begin with the question of: Who really won the Iranian presidential election?

My answer to that is that we will probably never know for sure, but that the bulk of the evidence, and certainly the weight of conclusions, is that what we have seen so far is something of a fraud.

The early evidence of that is that results appeared within hours of the closing of the polling booths. Even with electronic means of counting and communications, it would seem to us highly unlikely that in Iran one could have produced a valid answer with that degree of rapidity.

It was also seeming in the results to have low-balled the counting of the three opposition candidates—Moussavi, [Mohsen] Rezaie, and [Mehdi] Karroubi—and Moussavi and Karroubi particularly in areas from which they came, from the Azeri-speaking area for Moussavi and from the Lur area for Karroubi, two individuals that had some popularity domestically but seemingly produced as a result of the counting—or the non-counting—very low results.

There were also, I think, some reports early on that the results province by province were uncannily close together in terms of their general outcome, all within a few tenth percentage points of each other. Possibly, but not likely to be believable.

There certainly have been public admissions, through the Guardian Council and otherwise, that in fact in 50 cities the vote result was larger than the number of voters.

Now, in Iran that's possible, because people are allowed to vote outside their districts, but 50 cities, that's a little large. There were 3 million votes that seemed somehow or other to be questionable. That's a significant number of votes. Although, because of the outstandingly wonderful results for Ahmadinejad, that's not going to affect the total from at least the point of view of the official counters.

The apologists—and there are a few—also say the following, and you ought to have their point of view. They say samples of the 10 percent of the ballot boxes that have been counted so far by the Iranians show no evidence of fraud, and that both fingerprinting and ID checks tended to assure that those who voted were identified and that people did not vote multiple times.

In addition to that, people claim, at least, that the results of this election run pretty close to the run-off election four years ago between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad.

Now, admittedly there are two other candidates this time, and one wonders whether that was indeed the real result or only the pattern that justified the government's report of what the results should be. In any event, that's something that has been argued on the other side.

On the other side, while Tehran had a big vote against Ahmadinejad and that was reported, over the years—and this is probably true—he spent a lot of time cultivating the rural areas, not as a farmer but as a vote catcher. To some extent, the very wide turnout of popularity for Ahmadinejad perhaps reflects this and adds a note, if I could put it, of verisimilitude to the results.

In any event, those are the arguments.

The Guardian Council decided yesterday that the results were the results and were going to stay the results, there isn't going to be any change, and that its recount of the votes in a couple of ballot boxes produced more votes, believe it or not, for Ahmadinejad than the original estimation. So you can take that, folks, and keep it.

The next question, of course, is the big one: What will happen next on the election front?

It appears as if Khamenei, his creature the Guardian Council, and all the leaders that he has carefully placed around in the leadership positions in Tehran have linked two facets of the Iranian situation closely together.

One, observed carefully by my old friend Karim Sadjadpour, who is a very careful and cogent observer of the Iranian scene, comes from Iran, speaks Farsi (or Persian), and says, in fact, that one of the principal conclusions that you have to reach about Khamenei is that he is not a compromiser, that he understands in fact that compromise is a slippery slope—my diplomatic friends will understand that argument—that once you begin, you don't know where you end, and so he isn't going to give way.

The other is that he has placed a number of his people in significant positions in and around the leadership of that part of Iran which carries the guns, the Revolutionary Guard, the police, the military, the intelligence community, that they are solidly with him, and therefore there will not be any change. I think that that is probably the answer that we have now.

That's not the answer, I think, to the problem of Iran, but it is, I think, the answer to the elections, that there will be no further recount, that there will be no further change in the government position. That's where they are, and they're going to stick there.

That doesn't mean, however, that things necessarily will stay the way they have been or that they haven't changed radically, as I think all of you have observed.

So the next question, of course, is: What is going to happen to the crowds and what meaning do they have for the future of Iran?

Well, certainly we have seen over the last five or six days the unleashing of the military, of the Basij, the local Islamic militia composed of the unemployed, the partially employed, and the thugs, among other things, against the crowds. It resulted in 17 deaths, it resulted in the bloody and, indeed, frightening for all of us pictures of Neda Agha-Soltan dying in the streets in Tehran, and it produced, obviously, an extreme revulsion on the part of those people who had objected to the elections and beyond.

We are now, I think, seeing as a result of the Guardian Council's results reported yesterday, outburst on the streets, but, unfortunately, quickly put down with large muscle, if I can put it that way. I think, unfortunately, that will continue to be the approach.

What we are seeing, however, is several other things that I think we ought to keep in mind.

From the beginning, and now increasingly, we see night demonstrations. In Tehran they take the form of people on their roofs chanting, sometimes with leaders. The two favorite chants are "Allahu Akbar," which is of course a religious honorific to God, which certifies their credentials; but the other is "Marg bar Dictator," which means "Death to the Dictator."

So in fact, we have now seen the movement away from or beyond the election question to a fundamental question for the regime. That fundamental question for the regime relates not only to the leadership of the regime and those who participate in it, but sometimes, for some at least, to the question of the whole regime and the stability itself of the Islamic government. So in fact, those who would say things haven't changed and they aren't going to change haven't really caught up with what we've got.

It is possible, certainly from my personal experience. I had the opportunity as a tourist to visit Iran in 2004. One saw in the population, because they were frequently interested in coming to speak to tourists, a kind of underlying feeling one got that (a) they were interested in Americans; (b) they wondered why relations between Americans and Iranians were not better—prisoners, I suspect, of government media; and they also indicated, both in their demeanor and their questions, and sometimes in their humor, a sense of at least disdain for the mullah leadership of their country. Interesting.

This may now have become mashed up, particularly in Tehran. I think we have to be careful not to generalize what we see mainly from Tehran to the country as a whole and the rural areas. But I think it is true that we now see, in fact, the growth of what we would call a much more carefully organized, self-organized undercurrent of unhappiness with, and indeed objection to, and in some cases reviling of, the regime itself.

Will this die down and will it die out? I don't know. I don't know that anybody has a real, clear projection.

The Iranian experts that I talk to believe it will continue, but that may be for them a triumph of hope over reality. We have to be careful, obviously, not to overwork this question, and particularly the question of regime change, a huge and very difficult dispute within our own bureaucracy.

But there are certainly clear and strong feelings in Tehran of what is going on. The government's opposition to this, of course, has taken several forms.

One is that it is all the work of foreign inspiration. The British have come in for the majority of what I would call focused criticism. They had nine of their Irani employees from the embassy arrested. Five have been released and four are still in custody. Obviously, we worry about that.

There is no question at all that President Obama has come under personal attack from President Ahmadinejad, as Joanne told you.

There is no question at all that, in my view, the Basiji and the police and the military will respond to demonstrations in the streets as long as they feel it will take to keep that from happening. I don't know yet what they have been able to do about the night calling.

And to some extent they have tried to interfere with the modern media, which has had an enormous amount of influence, I think, both in facilitating communications and coordination and getting information out of Iran so that all of us on the outside can hear it.

There is another point, too. There is an extremely good article in The Times this morning that you all ought to take a look at that rounds things up very well. They make the case—and I think it is the right case—that Iran is replete with anniversaries, anniversaries of almost everything, and anniversaries provide opportunities for crowds. So crowds will exploit what I would call the calendar in Iran to continue to show on the streets what it is they feel and demonstrate at nights from the rooftops.

What does this mean for the opposition, essentially, for Moussavi and Rafsanjani? They are still hanging tough, Moussavi out front and Rafsanjani where he always prefers to be, behind the scenes, a man who believes that money, manipulation, influence, and taking advantage of changes, and indeed adverse circumstances, is important.

If you set your heart on Rafsanjani being the new independent, bright, reformist leader of Iran, you have somehow missed the history. Something of the same can be said for Moussavi, whose own feelings, and indeed in his own campaign, much of it obviously engendered by the notion of what is politically correct in Iran, has required, or at least demanded, a strong sense of support for the regime, absence of radical changes, a sense that the West and the United States still remain enemies.

So we who like to play football and baseball have always trouble figuring out who are the white hats and who are the black hats. The truth is in Iran that particular simile has no real relevance at the present time. We have people who want to change and people who want to hold on to power. But it isn't necessarily true that that translates into pro-U.S. policy and anti-U.S. policy. It is, of course, an action of continued hubris on our part to believe that the world revolves around that particular axis. Galileo 400 years ago suffered for a similar conclusion.

What we can say, I think, is for us the next question is most important: What will be happening inside and how will it affect things outside the country?

There is no question at all that Khamenei, not a brilliant individual necessarily but a tough guy who seems at least to understand how to maintain power in the short term, will continue to try to do that.

But it is accepted that there will continue to be pressure, if only mounted by the crowds from the rooftops, toward things like changes in leadership and perhaps further disdain for the ruling pattern of the government based on a concept that Khomeini promulgated, called velayat-e-faqih, which is basically the rule or the decision-making of the wise jurist theologian. I have to put all those names in because, in effect, if you could take papal infallibility and apply it to the political world, you might have something approaching this kind of sense of where the government comes. It is not exercised always and every day, but on critical questions it is a resort.

So whether the Iranian regime can continue to do that, with the sense of opposition that Khamenei has introduced into the problem, remains an uncertain question for me. We have to look at that.

Over time, new opportunities may come up for change. We can always hope for that. It's not certain, obviously, that that will be the case, and it is not certain that the present opposition will necessarily be the leadership in the future, particularly if the present case doesn't seem to move things forward.

There is certainly change in Iran. Most of my expert friends say this is not enghelabe, which is the Persian word for "revolution." But it is something of radical evolution in affairs in the country and among big pieces of the population, while in fact the leadership, the military establishment, has attempted to conserve and remain in charge of what they have got.

Would in fact change have to break the alliance between the mullahs and the guns? I don't know. But that's one possible way that change would come. The pessimists would not see that as coming very rapidly or unrolling very quickly. Although we will all remember that we saw suppressed by the communists East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia in 1953 and in 1956 and in 1968. Later, of course, that suppression came home to roost when it was clear in the late 1980s that things were changing rapidly in the center and that local forces would no longer point weapons at their people to try to enforce a system that was coming apart.

Is Iran coming apart? I think it's hard to know.

There's no question at all they have economic adversity, but they have had for some time. And there's no question at all that oil price declines have not helped them.

The rises that we all see at the gas pump probably are not yet sufficient to create a salvation for them, but they have certainly helped in the short term. Those who believe that sanctions will end the regime and change fundamentally its outlook have the doleful experience of the last ten years to go by to see indeed whether that will happen.

What does this mean for the United States? Here is where we transition into U.S.-Iranian relations, in case you didn't get it.

This means, of course, two things to the United States. You have a new administration in the United States, which I think quite wisely had come to power believing that it was important to open talks, particularly with enemies, and that diplomacy represented a wave of the future, not the use of force.

This very much translated itself into several early steps by the President you will recall, one of the most significant being his first foreign interview with Al Arabiya, a Saudi Arabic-language television station, in January, followed by his Nowruz message, followed by his Cairo speech. In each of these the general theme was that we need to get along together, we have much to do together, the conflict between us and Islam is not written in stone, that we have many things in common, and that talking to Iran and others, which has not been the watchword of the past, is something for the future.

The election itself, if I can put it this way, in classic diplomatic understatement, threw a hand grenade into the middle of that particular approach and made it very difficult. It made it difficult because, on one hand, we saw in fact the crowds rising to protest an unfair election and being brutally suppressed and people killed. People were certainly radically being denied their human rights in Iran. The President increasingly had to speak about that, while he had the almost impossible task of trying to keep the door open to eventual future talks with whomever might emerge inside Iran.

He has walked that line, in my view, with great care. Certainly, he has had to move, as he should have moved in my view, in the direction of criticizing the actions of the Iranian government. He has in return received the special attention of President Ahmadinejad, which in a way is a kind of endorsement, if I could put it this way, of his good credentials on this issue. But at the same time, I believe he has tried to keep the door open, in part by not closing it and in part by not forcing the Iranians to come forward themselves and try to close it.

The truth is that in the short term the Administration will have to continue, if I could put it in terms of another simile, to climb two ladders at one time in a very careful way: one to deal with what is going on inside Iran, and the other trying at the same time to keep the door open when the time comes to begin a process of discussion. Not that necessarily the President wants to condition with great friendliness the character of those discussions, but he does, I think, believe—and I hope this is right—that keeping the door open is important even if it costs him something—and it probably has, although I think, as I said, the balance has been pretty well handled so far.

The truth is, of course, that the door won't open until Iran is ready to open the door. Many experts have looked at this. There are some who believe that, because Iran has had a fundamental change, has made a huge mess of its elections, this has had a broad reaction in the world. I think often one tends to underestimate it, but I think a serious reaction in the Muslim world, which used to look at Iran with something of a kind of Fidel Castro/Hugo Chavez admiration, because it stood up, if I could put it that way, now has begun to question that. I don't know how far that goes. It will be interesting to see when the polls come how important that is. But I think that has helped to undermine it.

So Iran is in some ways struggling. And indeed, the view in Iran as I detected it prior to the election was one of an overestimate of their own success in dealing with problems around the world and at home, and indeed a sense of hubris. And indeed, it is reported that Iranians here in New York close to the regime spent the day before the elections telling people what a glorious and wonderful experience this election was going to be and what a model it was going to be for the rest of the world. On Saturday evening, of course, they were not to be found.

But nevertheless, the change in the view of some people means that Iran must rush forward now to secure the legitimacy of the United States by, in effect, beginning talks. That's one view.

The other view, which I think has the preponderance of right on its side, is that you have a very conservative leader who has never felt that his future or Iran's future could be determined totally by the United States, brought up in the notion of the Great Satan and the United States as an implacable enemy, who over the years had seen in fact the whole experience with the United States being one of when they were ready to talk—and I think he was clearly on that side—the United States was not, and when the United States was ready to talk, of course, Iran was not. And he doesn't see those two curves crossing any time in the future, particularly at a period when Iran is seen by many as having become much weaker, rather than stronger.

There are two philosophies in diplomacy: you can talk when you're strong because everything is going your way; or you can obviously talk when you're weak because you need the talks to gain ground. I think the latter thesis is slightly less applicable to Iran than the former is at the present time, but we will have to see.

When the time comes, what is it that we can talk about? The answer to that is simple: almost everything. It's totally unknown what that will be like and where it will go.

There are some who believe that it has to start from the top and then trickle its way down, a little bit like the Kissinger-in-China visit, set up at the highest levels and then brought together in a way that opens the door.

Others believe that probably you will have to get the Iranians comfortable with the idea of talking. We have talked, of course, at lower levels. Indeed, we have continued to talk from time to time in both Kabul and Baghdad, without much success.

But one of the things that I think those continuing relationships have shown is that when the time comes the issue that will be least attractive to Iran to talk about will be the nuclear question, and the issue for the Americans that will be most attractive to talk about will be the nuclear question.

So I think we will have to split and begin by certainly talking about Afghanistan and Iran. The United States will not be able to wait forever to open the nuclear question, and whether that in itself will become a deal-breaker or not I don't know. A lot depends upon how each side comes to the table and how each side is prepared to condition the environment.

Up until now, I think that things couldn't be worse. But the only thing I have to tell you is wait awhile and see where things go inside Iran. They may indeed become worse.

In terms of deciding what we will talk about, I think it is also important to talk about the question of how will each side come to the table, what will they bring.

The Administration so far seems to be very careful about changing its position on Iran and seems, I think, certainly at the moment, to be un-inclined to do so in light of the circumstances that have taken place around the Iranian elections.

The approach that I think is most likely from the Administration, certainly on the nuclear question, will be "freeze for freeze"—that is, "You, Iran, will not increase the amount of enrichment you are accomplishing by centrifuges and we will not increase the number of sanctions we put on you while we are talking." That will probably have to be an approach, if it is successful, that will last for a small period of time, because Iran doesn't seem to be inclined in any way at all to stop its enrichment; and, if it does feel weaker, I think it would be un-inclined to show in fact its weakness by making a deal along those lines if in fact it cannot realize something much more significant than no new sanctions. But we'll have to wait and see. In any event, this has been the view of the United States for some time and the Administration does not seem inclined at this moment to change it.

The view in Europe is to support the United States. But, interestingly enough, over the last four years, even while Europe has been doing the negotiation for the United States, because the last Administration was not interested in direct talks without preconditions—the precondition being that there be no future enrichment—that Europe and the United States still have differed, not in the short term, on what to do about Iran, but, interestingly enough, in the long term. It is something we ought to be aware of.

The European view has been that if Iran can be brought to behave for the next ten years, there is no reason at all why Iran cannot enrich uranium after ten years. The U.S. view has been that we understand the European view, but I think, certainly in our heart of hearts, we have always believed that no enrichment should take place, if we could find a way to avoid that happening. So that remains a difference out there.

As many of you know, I happen to be of a different persuasion on a personal basis, a persuasion, like a lot of my ideas, that has never been accepted, but certainly one that I think is worth looking at at this particular time.

I and a few colleagues have believed for some time that we ought to have a three-part approach to Iran on the nuclear question: direct talks certainly, without preconditions; that we could and should probably try to get a freeze for a freeze, but that only conditions the environment; that what is most important, in my view, has been that we work with Iran in a way that makes it clear that we have done everything possible to draw a line between Iran and a nuclear weapon.

The first imperative, in my view, is knowing what goes on in Iran now and in the future with respect to their nuclear program. That means, in my view, inspections, very strong inspections, if I can put it that way, and that the way to get there, because the Iranians already know how to enrich, is in fact to accept the notion that they will enrich, but to do under multilateral or multinational auspices, and to use that as the trade card, if I can put it that way, for getting the inspection that we need now, that we should have had years ago, but we will certainly need in the future, if in fact we are going to deal with the question of Iran either misusing its civil facilities for military purposes, on the one hand, or indeed clandestinely replicating its civil facilities somewhere else for purely military purposes.

This is an area of some dispute, although, interestingly enough, over the last year most of my friends in the Administration who don't accept this view outright have said it's a great fallback position. I'm not sure, in fact, that we aren't ready for a fallback at some point.

I have suggested one way to move in this direction—but at the same time without radically changing our policy for the moment—is to begin with two other approaches.

One is, once again, to revive a Russian proposal, that Iran become a partner in a Russian multinational enrichment facility in Angarsk in Siberia as a way of dealing with its civil needs. This would accept the notion of multinationality as a feature of the Iranian program.

But secondly, another jump, which is a big jump but I think ultimately a very important jump for the whole question of nonproliferation, that we propose that all civil enrichers in fact go to multinationality and go to inspection systems that will deal with the principal question that is before the House with respect to each. For the nuclear states, it is that they will not use their civil facilities to take the material for military purposes. The five recognized nuclear powers at the moment have all self-imposed moratoriums against doing this.

The multinational approach, in my view, will be helpful in dealing with Iran, and states which in fact are not nuclear powers will insist on the kind of inspection that we would like to impose on Iran, that they will not misuse their civil facilities for military purposes nor will they clandestinely reproduce those facilities. This ought to become the international standard.

It would do two things for the international community. One, it would be the first step toward a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which we are now engaged in beginning to negotiate. Secondly, it will help to close the loophole that currently exists in the nonproliferation treaty for enrichment, which, if not carefully controlled in the way I suggest—and there may be better ways—will in itself become a danger for proliferation around the world.

Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I think that probably that's as much of Iran as anyone can take this early in the morning here in New York.

Let me close by saying that my conclusions are it's a terribly difficult problem and it hasn't gotten better; that we ought to keep the door open for talks while at the same time speak as frankly as we can, consistent with that, about Iranian abuses; that when the time comes we need to be ready to talk. When we're ready to talk, all items should be on the table. We cannot discard or lowball the nuclear question, but we ought not raise it as the first issue. And, when we get to the nuclear question, we should find innovative and creative solutions, because the other alternatives, which I haven't discussed—military actions and additional sanctions—at the moment do not seem to offer us great refuge, although I for one would not be opposed to additional sanctions if we put a negotiating proposal on the table that I thought would have real legs in getting an answer.

In the end, my view is that we will have to sooner or later come to something that, while it accepts Iranian enrichment, will create the strongest possible firewall that we can between that particular proposal and the Iranian move into nuclear weapons, which I think we are all deeply concerned about, even if in fact we don't have an absolutely ironclad proof yet that that is their objective.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: The one time I've been to Tehran was in 2006 when I was covering Kofi Annanand he made a trip there. We went through a dance you had to do in those days, which was to visit one former shah palace after another to meet different members of the six-, seven-, or eight-member leadership of Iran.

I wanted to ask you about what appears to be at least public fractiousness in that leadership that I can't remember ever seeing before. You mentioned Rafsanjani, Moussavi to the extent that he was once a member of the leadership. There's a name you didn't mention, the person that Kofi Annan had to deal with in the public face, Ali Larijani, who was then the nuclear negotiator. He also has made it clear that he is not onboard with Ahmadinejad. In fact, I think he has pretensions at the presidency himself.

My question is: Of the people you've been talking to and from your own knowledge, has there always been fractiousness in that leadership and we're just hearing about it publicly for the first time now, or is the fact that we're hearing about it a significant development which might produce an opening at some point?

THOMAS PICKERING: To the best of my knowledge there has always been fractiousness. I don't think we've been deceived about it. We may have been deceived about the extent. But it is also true that maybe the current question over the elections has increased the fractiousness and fissiparousness in the Iranian leadership and body politik.

I didn't go into it—I had it in my notes; you can come and look at them afterwards—but one of the things that has been going on, interestingly enough, throughout this whole period has been a small movement at least to try to find compromise. Compromise might well be the disappearance of some of the people. Certainly, Khomeini has shown an infinite capacity to sacrifice his friends and minions to stay in power, whether it's in particular leadership positions or on some of the councils. People think that might be a way of going ahead.

Larijani now runs the Parliament. The Parliament has adopted a view of creating an investigating commission—certainly bad ideas learned from Washington never stop—but they will look at it. And there has been talk that both Velayati, the former foreign minister, and Larijani are somewhat in the matchmaking mode and will try to find a way to put things together out of all of this. This certainly remains a possibility.

The truth is, however, I think that will be matchmaking within the closed circle of the leadership and will not, in my view, necessarily buy off the public and what happens with the public. I think in the short term they may consider it to be just another possible excuse for repression, but in the long term may have some salient consequences we at this stage haven't figured out.

QUESTION: You had very good tea leaves about Iran, but I'd like to ask some tea leaves about Washington. There was no question, even before the election, that there was a division of opinion within the Administration, and some of that came to the fore with the visit of Bibi Netanyahu, who, as I understand it, of the two hours with the President spent one hour on Iran.

One question: What significance does Dennis Ross's movement from the State Department to the White House have? And what do you see about the President's decision, which I think was a mistake, to go along with Bibi's request and set up a working group of two people? I know the Israeli, who is a very hard-liner. Frankly, I don't even know who the American is.

THOMAS PICKERING: I don't remember either.

QUESTIONER: But they are going to look at the issue again together by year-end. What does that import?

THOMAS PICKERING: I think that this obviously reflects the President's desire, if I can put it that way, not to take Bibi on on all issues. But at the same time, certainly the President is an accomplished diplomat. While he is reported as saying that he will make a decision at the end of the year, if you read carefully, his words are that we hope to have some signs of progress by the end of the year. That's a little bit different.

I think the President may have in an unwise point agreed to some commission. On the other hand, there is nothing chiseled in stone. You know this, and I do, that commissions all have to agree at the end of the day.

The interesting point has been that over the years there has been a serious long-running, longstanding disagreement between Israel and the United States, beginning with the question of when will Iran have nuclear capability. Some of this has been a definitional problem, about what "nuclear capability" might mean—on the one hand, having the capacity to enrich uranium; on the other, having enough fissionable material to put in a bomb, and having the design and all the other pieces that have to go together, and maybe even have something you can put on the head of a missile, all of which are different stages.

I can remember visiting Israel in 2004, talking to the chief of military intelligence, hearing then, as we've heard ever since, that Iran is only a year away from a nuclear weapon. The good news is that it is now five years later. The bad news is that they are obviously getting closer.

I tend to be guided in this by Dennis Blair and John Negroponte before him. They put it smack in the middle of the period between 2010 and 2015. If that's the case, then we have time.

My own feeling is that, despite the fact that Israel has talked on various sides from time to time about military action, I don't think that in fact there is a universal support for that kind of activity, particularly given what I think we all sense, which is the clear lack of effectiveness of that kind of activity on the one hand, uncertainty about the target list; and the other about the multiple ways that Iran could respond to our disadvantage.

So my hope is that, at least for the moment, what went on in Washington, if you're an optimist, means that while the two have disagreed, at least for the moment the United States will have a chance to try diplomacy.

And of course, the bad news is two weeks after Bibi's visit the whole election thing blows up and the talk and diplomacy timescale are now under a big question mark.

QUESTIONER: What about Dennis?

THOMAS PICKERING: I used to dote on Kremlinology.

My own view has been that Jim Jones had not a coordinating figure for his troops in the Middle East and that, to some extent, the story was that Dennis was not feeling fully useful in the State Department. So that was a kind of marriage of convenience, if not made in heaven. But we don't know where the contract will go and who will do what to whom.

The great value for this Administration of appointing a number of really very accomplished figures, all of considerable ego in one way or another, to deal with our major problems in the Middle East is, in my view, a stroke of genius. The real problem, of course, is that we don't yet know who is going to coordinate and strategize for them.

So the question as it goes ahead will be whether their congeniality and mutual accommodation, as each of them competes to solve some of the most difficult problems we have before us, are going to be sufficient to make that happen, or whether the President or somebody else will have to be called in to make it happen.

I will have to leave you to guess—I'm a great admirer of Dennis and his capabilities—as to whether Dennis is that person, or whether in fact it will have to go higher up the value chain.

QUESTION: Under what circumstances do the world democracies, the European Union and the United States, use force to stop the Iranians from building a nuclear weapon, or are there any circumstances in which this should be done?

THOMAS PICKERING: I can tell you the ideal circumstances, but they will never occur: when we have no other alternative left and we are absolutely certain that military force will solve the problem. That's a definition of a circumstance which will never arise.

The real answer to that question, of course, is when the President and his closest advisors feel that is the next and most important, most reliable course of action for them to take. That may become never. I don't think it will be sooner rather than later. Our experience in Iraq has not necessarily demonstrated that military force is the answer to all of these problems.

If we look back at history, we will, unfortunately for the nonproliferators, never have used military force to try to block a country from acquiring nuclear weapons.

QUESTION: In terms of Iran's future, looking out ten to 20 years from now, many would say that the future lies with two large segments of the population, which for shorthand purposes are generally described in the press as the mullahs and the bazaar. There is some evidence that there is a fair amount of sophisticated theological thinking going on in Iran that seeks a disengagement from politics or a new kind of conversation between politics and religion in Iran. And also, we just don't know—or I haven't seen anything—about what's going on in the bazaar. Can you tell us about these two factions?

THOMAS PICKERING: I think it's a very good question, and it's a question I have asked Iranian experts myself.

Let me begin with the bazaaris, because I think that is easier. I think the regime has not promoted the bazaaris as the third pillar to the stool that holds it up. There are really two pillars to the stool: the "mullahcracy," if we want to call it that, or the mullah-based leadership, which is not all entirely in agreement as we have seen, and what I would call the gun carriers—the military, security, intelligence, police people—who seem at the moment to be united, although there are signs from time to time that the Revolutionary Guard, which is close to the top of that pyramid, is itself having difficulties.

There are reports—you will see this morning in The Times again—that there are cash flows moving out of Iran, reportedly from Revolutionary Guard accounts. I have no idea whether this is true or not. It's an interesting report. It would show more uncertainty perhaps than the question really deserves. I just don't know.

I have spent a certain amount of my time in the last four or five years with others, meeting with Iranians, some official and some nonofficial. One of the approaches was always to compare notes on each side at the beginning of these meetings about what was going on in each country.

The Iranians all began roughly on the same note, but after each made their presentation they ended up in totally different places. I don't think this was a conspiracy to deceive, although some have said the Iranians are marvelous negotiators and to watch out, that one of the tactics is a conspiracy to deceive. I don't really think so.

I think in fact there were grave uncertainties because there are serious uncertainties in Iran about who is moving where and at what particular time, with what degree of capacity. And to some extent these are unrolling events, not foreordained in any particular way, and they recognize different power centers operating in different ways over different periods of time.

I think one thing that probably is true is that Khamenei has perhaps moved in the present period of weakness into a stronger position himself, because he feels the uncertainties and has put enough people around and enough supporters around to try to bolster that.

But I don't think that includes the bazaaris. I think the bazaaris were very important in the regime change that took place in 1978 because they had been neglected and in some ways pushed down under the Shah regime. But I don't think that they necessarily occupy the same place today. They, too, struggle to stay alive in Iran and to continue to operate in their area of activities, rather than necessarily having been blessed with favored positions.

QUESTION: You are so enlightening and you've asked a lot of good questions. Here's another one. You haven't had a chance to deal yet with the Shia-Sunni split.

You've spent time in posts in the Middle East, in Israel and Jordan and so forth. Do you see a regional realignment now where the Saudis and Jordanians and other Sunni countries are very concerned about the Iranian nuclear situation and they're not very happy about Shia power? And there seems to be some perhaps quiet negotiations with Israel. Please discuss these little issues.

THOMAS PICKERING: Yes and no. I think that we could make the mistake of overemphasizing this, and to some extent I think some analyses and reports do.

I think, to begin with Shiism, there is no question at all that the Iranians have to be happy that the United States overthrew the Sunni leader of Iraq and as a result have allowed a Shia majority to come to power. The real problem is that if you look at the Shia majority, in Iraq at least, you cannot take great satisfaction that it is very monolithic. It is riven with divisions itself. And probably that will stay.

The Shia in Iraq, because they have been on the bottom for so long, will stay together long enough that they don't go back to the bottom, I think, but they will not necessarily be in total agreement on policy.

Secondly, I for one don't accept the notion that because Iran is the largest Shia state, the Iraqi Shia owe some kind of special allegiance. I think in times of adversity they will look to Iran for help, but I think in times of prosperity they will not take orders from Iran necessarily.

There is no question at all that there is, not just the Shia solidarity question, there is the Arab-Persian divide. One has to look carefully as to which is the most important factor.

The other point that you make is that even if Iran could take some satisfaction in adding a new Shia Iraq to its growing empire, that's a very limited question. And there is no question at all that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan have concerns about some new Shia ascendancy. Those concerns, I think, are at the moment more in the conversational realm than they are in the action-taking realm.

Certainly, Hezbollah in south Lebanon is the one area where one could see potentially some Iranian inroads into perhaps Sunni hegemony in most of the Arab Middle East. But I don't think that people see that as frightening. The recent elections in Lebanon, if you want to allow Lebanese elections to determine your political views—and that's always a danger—should relieve us a little bit.

Finally, with all respect, I think it is a triumph of hope over reality that this will bring a new alliance between the Sunnis and the Israelis, that all of the differences will be forgotten or submerged, and that the new monster, Iran, will somehow glue those countries together in ways that will be inseparable and make all their differences disappear.

QUESTION: I wonder if you could say something more about the Iranian military. There was an interesting article in The New York Times in the middle of last week that said that the real change over the last several years has been the growth in the influence and power of the military. Then it went on to speculate as to whether the military would stay behind the clerics. So instead of focusing on these relationships among these clerics, maybe the deeper question is whether the military will stay aligned with them or not. Remembering how the Shah was toppled, it was when the military gave up on him and joined the public.

I wonder if you could comment on how much the United States knows about whether the military is completely behind Khamenei and so on, or whether you see possible fissures there.

THOMAS PICKERING: Because I come from Washington this morning doesn't mean I know what the U.S. government knows. So I have to tell you first I don't know the answer to what the U.S. government knows.

Secondly, I really don't know the answer to your question. It's a great question, one that may not at this stage really have a clear answer.

What I can say, however, is that the Iranian approach has been not to trust the military but to create two other militaries to make sure that "the military" is not necessarily always the dominant impulse, the volunteers, the Basiji, and the Revolutionary Guard, who are really the shock troops and the strike corps. Keeping those two around and under its wing means that it has some guard against what happened to the Shah, which, after all, they know very well.

So all I can tell you is that it is still a confused picture. But I wouldn't expect that a shift in the military would necessarily either not happen or be determinative if it did.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you so very much.

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