THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL OF THE UNITED STATES
“STRATEGICALLY LONELY” IRAN EXPLOITS OPPORTUNITIES
FOR REGIONAL INFLUENCE
EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT,
THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL
THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL
AMBASSADOR STUART EIZENSTAT,
CO-CHAIR, IRAN TASKFORCE,
THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL
DIRECTOR, IRAN TASKFORCE,
THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL
SENIOR FELLOW, SOUTH ASIA CENTER,
THE ATLANTIC COUNCIL
FRIDAY, MARCH 25, 2011
Federal News Service
DAMON WILSON: Thank you very much. Welcome, this afternoon, to the Atlantic Council. My name’s Damon Wilson. I’m the executive vice president here at the Atlantic Council and welcome you to joining us. I want to thank you for being at this public event of the Atlantic Council’s Iran taskforce. This is where we will, today, launch our issue brief report on, “Strategically Lonely Iran Exploits Opportunities for Regional Influence,” written by our senior fellow and Iran expert, Barbara Slavin.
This issue brief looks at Iran vis-à-vis its neighbors, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Arab nations across the Persian Gulf. Most notably, given the recent events in recent months, it considers the impact of unsettled Arab politics on Iran and, of course, the implications on U.S.-Iran relations and U.S.-European engagement elsewhere in the region.
This Atlantic Council Iran taskforce was launched a year ago under the chairmanship of Senator Chuck Hagel and Ambassador Stu Eizenstat, with Mark Brzezinski serving as its executive director. It was launched with the goal of building a comprehensive understanding of U.S.-Iran relations, Iran’s role in the region and its internal political and economic dynamics within the country.
Since its launch last spring, the taskforce has hosted four working sessions with key experts and released a previous issue brief on the Iran stalemate and the need for strategic patience. When the council undertook this project, we, of course, had no idea of the events that were about to ensue across the region. But the upheaval in the Middle East makes the work, I believe, all that more important to understanding Iran.
The questions the taskforce will be facing: Do similar uprisings have a chance of succeeding in Iran? What are the implications of unrest in Arab states on U.S.-Iran relations? Is there a regional role for Iran as this unfolds? These are all critical questions that need to be addressed by U.S. and global policymakers as they determine what their next strategic steps are in the region. Before passing the mic to our co-chairs, I’d like to take a moment to thank the Ploughshares Fund, which has generally funded this important project.
And with that, I want to turn it over to our chairman, Senator Chuck Hagel, who has served as co-chair of this Iran taskforce, but also chairman of the Atlantic Council, drawing on his time in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he oversaw foreign policy in the Middle East at a very historic and critical moment. Senator Hagel?
CHUCK HAGEL: Welcome. We are pleased you are here. We appreciate you spending some time with us today, recognizing this is a Friday afternoon. And so we know the supreme sacrifice that you have made. (Laughter.) I think over the next hour-and-a-half, we will have an opportunity for some substantive exchange, based on a great deal that the taskforce has learned over the last few months.
And that effort, as already has been noted by Damon, has been led by Barbara and Mark. And we’ve been fortunate to have the wise and experienced counsel of many, many individuals who’ve had years of experience with the Iranian-American issue, as well as the entire region. Damon noted that when we started this effort, as is probably the only one clear constant about the world today, and that is the great uncertainty about the world – and that really plays into much of the theme, I think, in this relationship between Iran and the United States – the great uncertainty.
When you really put a scope on this and you look at the very significant arc, beginning in North Africa – what happened there, beginning in North Africa 60 days ago, what is currently underway – and you take that arc all the way across the Middle East, the Caspian, down into Central Asia, East Asia, it covers a tremendous amount of interests for the world.
When you look at the geopolitical dynamics of this, the energy interests, you can extrapolate out, from that region, from that large arc and everything that comprises inside that arc, and you quickly come to, at least the realization, if not the conclusion, that this is a vital, vital part of the world, certainly for the United States interests.
Iran plays a significant part in this. Their role – not just where they are located; their size, their culture, their history. They are a very significant part of this scenario that is yet to play out. We are, in fact, seeing a new order being built in this part of the world, as we are, I believe, across the globe. A new world order is underway. And this general region is a great manifestation – a clear manifestation – of what’s happening around the world.
I don’t think there’s any question, among all who know about this area and may have varying opinions about how we deal with this part of the world – little question about whether we’re ever going to see a world again like we have seen this last few years, especially within this large arc. We won’t.
What is underway is going to transform how we do business, relationships, geopolitical relationships and the common interests that anchor those relationships, that always have anchored those relationships. Barbara will get into some detail on this and it is, I think, much of the centerpiece of what this taskforce has tried to grapple with and work along those lines. And I know Stu’s had a lot to say about this, as well.
But it has been my opinion, over the years, that if nations forsake the opportunities and the possibilities to anchor relationships, their own sovereign, national interests – and every nation will respond in their own sovereign national interests – but if you defer the common interests that must anchor relationships, those parallel, common interests, then there’s very little likelihood that anything positive will come from that because you will never get to the differences.
You will never be able to even close in on the boundaries of trying to resolve differences or living with each other, or living with those differences. So the common interests, here, become a central, core fact of what we are about. With that, again, thank you. And I now turn to my esteemed colleague and very good friend, who, he and I worked together on many projects over many years and I can’t think of anyone more qualified to be part of this. And for your leadership, Stu, thank you very much.
AMBASSADOR STUART EIZENSTAT: Thank you, Senator. We embarked on this whole Iran project through the Atlantic Council because we felt that the relationship between the United States and Iran was going to be formative for this whole region and, indeed, for world peace. We have focused on various aspects over the last year or so with specific papers that have reflected the best views of experts inside and outside the government, with whom we’ve met extensively.
We’ve had papers on the nuclear program and where it’s going and ways in which to potentially stop it. We’ve looked at their internal political forces. And here, we’re trying to take a look at the regional role that we want to play and that we think Iran wants to play. We saw three goals for the United States, which Barbara Slavin, who has done, really, an excellent job and will be our main presenter, will elucidate.
One is to stabilize the region in a sustainable way. The second is to prepare for an eventual 2014 withdrawal of at least most combat troops from the United States and NATO in Afghanistan. And third is to encourage Iran to be less confrontational toward the United States and our allies in the region.
The balance that we’ve dealt with in this excellent presentation that you’ll hear from Barbara is how, on the one hand, to keep maximum pressure – and if anything, in my opinion, the need for enhanced pressure as Iran finds ways in which to avoid the fourth round of U.N. sanctions and the unilateral sanctions that have followed it – how to keep pressure on the Iranian nuclear program so it does not develop further into a weaponized program, on the one hand, and on the other, to try to find areas regionally, particularly with respect to Afghanistan, in which there may be a coincidence of interests and on which we can cooperate.
And one of the tensions, again, that we’ve struggled with is that, as we try to find those areas, whether or not Iran is interested in engaging or not, there is always the risk that you send a signal, with respect to the nuclear program, that somehow, you’re letting up the pressure. That is certainly not our intention, quite the contrary.
And as we mention in the paper, that certain precedent for that is that for decades, we had a very strong confrontational relationship with the Soviet Union with its expansionist role throughout the globe with its own nuclear program while, at the same time, we did try to find areas of cooperation on arms control and other areas where there happened to be a coincidence of interests, without in any way sending a false signal to our allies or to the world that we were letting up on the confrontation. And that’s the effort we are trying to reach here.
We think that this comes at a very opportune time because of the upheavals in the Middle East, which, initially, I think Iran felt, somehow, were to its liking because some of the pro-Western regimes were toppling. But as we’ve seen democratic forces assert themselves in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere, the whole Iranian, autocratic, Islamic radical model may itself be a victim.
And so they may recognize that they’re not necessarily playing from a position of strength and that cooperation in some of these regional areas, particularly Afghanistan, may be opportune at this time and may fit the interests of both the United States and Iran. So with that as an introduction, Barbara, again, has done, really, a superb job with this. We appreciate everything you’ve done.
And I think we’ll let Barbara talk. But first, Mark has really pulled this whole effort together for a year. He’s been the one that’s found the experts all around the world – and we really have searched all around the world to get the best views – and he has been the glue that’s really held this entire project together.
And I know I speak for the center when I say that Mark, we’re much in your debt. We appreciate the tremendous intellectual effort you’ve put into this and the time effort and I think it shows in some of the papers that we’ve had, including this one today. So let me turn it to you and then you can speak and turn it over to Barbara.
MR. HAGEL: We should also note that he has just arrived from Mongolia, Korea, China, the Yellow Sea, wherever else you’ve been. So we really do appreciate you coming, truly, right from the airport to do this.
MARK BRZEZINSKI: Thank you, Senator. Thank you, Ambassador Eizenstat. And let me join the co-chairs in welcoming everyone to this rollout of the Iran taskforce’s second issue brief, this one focusing on Iran and the region. It’s obvious that things are fluid with respect to Iran and a number of uncertainties are going to influence how things turn out – as stated, the upheavals across the Middle East. And I should note that the protests are now spreading into Syria, an Iranian ally.
But also, developments in Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian situation, the future of Iraq, and of course, developments we don’t even know of – these are all going to influence direction, when it comes to America’s relationship with Iran. As stated, I’ve just come back from China and Korea and there’s a strong perspective there, correct or not, that with the upheavals in the Middle East, Iran is gaining influence in the region.
I definitely picked up the sense that the populist regimes emerging in the Arab states will be less accommodating to the United States. They will be vaguely nationalistic. They won’t be pro-Iranian but what’s driving the upheavals is a sense of emancipation, that this is the process of finally ending colonialism. That’s how folks I met with in Korea and China read the situation.
This issues brief considers what kind of regional role the Iranian leadership is seeking, how that role fits with the aspirations of the emerging leadership of the Arab states in the Gulf and how American interests are affected. And to talk about this, we have the principal author of the issues brief, Barbara Slavin.
Barbara has been to Iran seven times. She is a journalist, an author – most recently, of the book, “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” She’s also the author of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s reports on Iranian regional influence, entitled “Mullahs, Money and Militias: How Iran Exerts its Influence in the Middle East.” The process we will follow today is, we will hear from Barbara for the next 20 minutes or so and then we’ll take Q&A from the audience. So without further ado, Barbara Slavin.
BARBARA SLAVIN: Thank you. Thank you, everybody – Senator Hagel, Ambassador Eizenstat, Mark. I want to also thank Shika (Batnagar ?) and Alex (Boley ?), who did the excellent map and chart, which you’ll find at the end of the issue brief and maybe will give you a better sense of how Iran sits, literally, in the middle of this region between the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and of course, the Indian Ocean. It’s a very pivotal country.
We are, of course, clairvoyant here at the Atlantic Council. We decided to do this brief long before Ben Ali and Mubarak fell. But of course, I think it’s much more timely now, given the events. And because all of these intifadas are in train, this is very much a snapshot of where we are now. We can’t give you the whole movie.
Still, I think that the narrative that one hears, most prominently from Tehran, but from others, that Iran is necessarily the victor in all of these uprisings is far too simplistic. Instead, I think what we really are seeing is a continuation of a pattern that goes back to the beginnings of the Islamic Republic, in which Iran takes advantage of opportunities presented by external events and, at the same time remains what author Shireen Hunter has called a, quote, “strategically lonely,” unquote nation.
Let me go explain what I mean by strategically lonely. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran was the U.S.-backed hegemon in the Persian Gulf. It had terrific relations with the United States, Western powers, major Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and even ties with Israel. Since 1979, Iran has had its most successful relationship with a non-state actor, Hezbollah. For years, Iran’s closest relations with a neighbor were with Armenia, which, with all due respect to Armenians, is a strategically not-very-important country.
Over the past three decades, Iran has not become a member of any major defense alliance. There is no major country that would go to war on Iran’s behalf. Iran has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Council, which groups Russia, China and four Central Asian ‘Stans. This is a relatively recent development.
But last year, when Iran tried to become a member, full-fledged, of this council, its membership application was rejected because the rules forbid any country that has been sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council from becoming a member. And Iran has been sanctioned repeatedly since 2006 because of its nuclear program.
Now, in the brief, there is detail about Iran’s ties with Iraq and Afghanistan, which have certainly improved over the last decade because of the actions of others, primarily the United States. But these relationships are far from trouble-free. There’s also a section on Iran and Lebanon, Iran and the Arabs across the Persian Gulf, and also, the blowback of the Arab intifadas on Iran’s own democracy movement.
And then finally, there are a few very modest recommendations. I always have trouble making recommendations. As a journalist, I don’t like to give advice. But since I’m now a semi-pundit, we have a few modest recommendations that involve Afghanistan, which is the one country where the United States and Iran do have overlapping interests, to some degree. I’ll give just a brief overview. I’m not going to go into all the topics in depth. For that, you have the report in front of you and online.
Looking first at Afghanistan, Iran has clearly benefited from U.S. regime change. Since 2001, Iranian exports to Afghanistan have gone up twentyfold. The city of Herat in the western part of the country is now the most peaceful and prosperous in Afghanistan, primarily because of the actions of Iranian businessmen who have set up shop there. Iran is benefiting from new transit corridors from Central Asia in Afghanistan that go through Iran to a port at Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman. This is a port that the Indians helped construct.
Although Iran could do much better, if not for sanctions. Sanctions are still an impediment, particularly to energy trade going through Iran. But at the same time, there are irritants in this relationship. They stem from history. The two peoples were both part of the same Persian empire for centuries and both Afghans and Iranians see themselves as the origins of high Persian culture.
Afghans resent being treated as second-class citizens. Millions of Afghans have fled to Iran over the last 20, 30 years as refugees and often not met with very good treatment there. There have been more recent irritants. It’s a pattern with Iran that, when it goes into a country, it tends to try to put bets on too many different forces. This has translated in Afghanistan to aid, and even cash payments, if we’re to believe the New York Times, to Hamid Karzai and members of his cabinet, but also Iranian support for some elements of the Taliban, even reports that some Taliban have been brought into Iran for training.
This winter, Iran held up 2,500 fuel trucks that were bound for Afghanistan with fuel from Iraq. The motivation for this still remains somewhat mysterious. I’ve heard a lot of different accounts. Some say that Iran thought the fuel was bound for NATO forces, which isn’t true. Some say it was purely a mercenary decision to jack up the price. Other say it was a message to Hamid Karzai not to ignore Iran as he begins a peace process with the Taliban. The result was a 70 percent increase in fuel prices in Afghanistan and demonstrations against Iran in front of Iranian missions in Kabul and Herat.
When we look at Iraq, we see a similar pattern. Iran has obviously benefited from the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Iraq was the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic and that threat is not going to be there for the foreseeable future. Iran is the most powerful foreign actor in Iraq, no matter what the Obama administration says, and it’s going to become even more powerful as the remaining U.S. troops leave the country.
But once again, Iran has shot itself in the foot repeatedly with its support for a variety of factions. It had an initial proxy, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was a group that was formed in Iran of Iraqi exiles in the early 1980s. It’s since changed its name to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
But when this group became entrenched in the Iraqi government, then the Iranians started supporting Muqtada al-Sadr, the rabble-rousing Shiite cleric, and then splinter groups from Sadr’s Mahdi army, so-called special groups, which attacked Sunnis, other Shiites and of course, American troops. Sadr is a very interesting case-in-point. Is he a made man, as some have argued, by Iran, or not? He spent more than three years in Iran, supposedly studying to be an ayatollah.
He returned briefly to Iraq in January, but then left after 15 days, reportedly after he was the object of assassination threats from the League of the Righteous, which is another one of these Iranian-backed factions. More recently, he came back. He appeared alongside Iyad Allawi, who is a secular Shiite and foe of Iran, and Sadr threatened to remove his support from Prime Minister Maliki if public services don’t improve within the next six months. So is he – maybe Iran is renting him, but will he stay bought? That’s, I think, an important question.
We also have to ask some questions about this relationship. If Iran-Iraq ties are so close, why is there still no peace treaty between these two countries for the 1980-to-’88 Iran-Iraq war? Why hasn’t Iraq paid reparations to Iran for this war, which Iraq started? Why is Iran still holding onto some aging Iraqi fighter jets that were flown into Iran during the 1991 Gulf War? Why is Iran dumping consumer goods on Iraq and hurting Iraqi production?
One of the complaints I heard from Iraqis is that, if you go to a butcher in Iran, particularly in the south, the butcher will ask you whether you want a Sunni chicken or a Shiite chicken. (Laughter.) And the Shiite chicken comes from Iran and it’s blessed by an ayatollah in Qom. (Laughter.) So this is quite a racket for the Iranians. Nevertheless, despite these obvious irritants in the relationship, we have seen a panic spread through the Sunni Arab world about Iran’s rising profile in Iraq.
And this panic about the Shia wave has only gotten worse with the events, particularly, in Bahrain and also in eastern Saudi Arabia in the last weeks and months. But if we look at Iran’s relations with these Arab Shia in these countries, I think it’s cynical and incorrect to say that Iran is somehow the instigator of these intifadas. We know very well that there are longstanding grievances, particularly on the part of the Shia in Bahrain. They make up 70 percent of the population and they’ve historically been discriminated against by the Sunni monarchy.
It’s interesting, also, given, again, the hysteria of some of the Saudi propaganda we see, that until last week, Iranian state media, Persian media, was barely devoting any attention to the events in Bahrain. Afshin Molavi, who some of you may know as a good Iran scholar, brought this to my attention recently.
It was only the Iranian Arabic-language media, Al-Aalam, that was paying attention, not the Iranian state media. This changed after the Saudis and other GCC members sent troops into Bahrain recently. Then Iranian state media suddenly picked up the cause, which they’ve done it – I don’t know if it’s terribly helpful to the people in Bahrain.
Ahmad Jannati, the head of the guardian council, which is a body that supervises Iranian elections – he’s also the chief Friday prayer leader right now in Tehran – he gave a sermon the other week in which he said that Bahrainis should, quote, “resist against the enemy until you die or win,” unquote. And this is the Iranian pattern. They are perfectly happy to fight to the last Arab but they will not put their own lives on the line unless Iran is directly attacked. So this is a cheap propaganda victory for them. I’m not sure that it’s really anything more.
When we look at Iran’s relations with the Arab Gulf, we see – sorry, with the Arab nations across the Persian Gulf, please; I would never call it the Arab Gulf. I apologize to all my Iranian friends. When we look at these relations, we see that there’s a fair amount of variation.
While Iran has long had very tense relations with Saudi Arabia, and more recently, now, with Bahrain, it actually has quite good ties with Qatar, with which it shares a mammoth gas field, and also with Oman, which has mediated between Iran and the United States on several occasions. Most recently, they helped get one of the American hikers that’s in jail in Iran – Sarah Shourd – got her freed from jail in Iran.
Iran also, historically, has had good ties with Dubai, which has a large Iranian expatriate population. And the UAE is still the largest source of Iranian imports. In 2009, it was about $9 billion worth. That figure is coming down a bit. Turkey is not taking over a lot of their re-export trade. But it’s still substantial. I think it’s about $6 billion worth of re-exports from the UAE to Iran just this last year.
Is Iran the winner from all of these intifadas? Well, obviously, Iran is benefiting from the increase in oil prices. This is a tremendous boon. It allows it to pay off its loyal supporters, pay off its basij, its Revolutionary Guard corps. But it’s still far too soon to say that Iran is somehow the great victor of this. In the brief, I compare Iran to a porcupine, which tries to project an image of bristling strength, in large part to hide the internal vulnerabilities – the soft inner core of the country.
The protests in the Arab world have boomeranged back to Iran. We don’t see much of this in the media, in part because there are so few foreign correspondents in Iran now and those who are working there are under tremendous restrictions. But there have been demonstrations in Iran every week, now, since February the 14th. And the new slogan is, quote, “Ben Ali, Mubarak – now it’s Seyed Ali’s turn.” Seyed Ali is Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran.
So the Green movement – you know, it never died. It was dormant, perhaps, for a year. But it is very much there and Iranians are extremely well-aware of what’s happening in the rest of the region. And the government is so terrified of this movement that they have been executing people at a record rate. They recently hauled off the two nominal leaders of the Green movement, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi, into detention at an undisclosed location with their wives. And in a further, sort of, cannibalization of the Iranian political elite, they have now removed Rafsanjani – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president, the pillar of the revolution – from a very important post as head of the assembly of experts, which is the body that’s supposed to choose the next supreme leader.
These actions narrow the base of support for the government. And as scholars of Iran –and there are several in this room – know, the more one faction appears to consolidate power in the country, the more it splinters and the more opposition it eventually faces. I think we should look forward to a lot of infighting as we approach parliamentary elections next year in Iran and also, presidential elections in 2013. I would watch out, also, for Rafsanjani, who has now been completely forced off the fence and definitively, really, into the opposition.
And he could have been a mediator between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei and the reformist opposition and now, I doubt that, that is going to happen. In terms of winners and losers, this isn’t in the issue brief but I thought I would mention it because we are seeing new developments in the region – I think Israel is a bit of a loser.
Clearly, it is now going to have to be more careful in terms of its behavior because, as Mark mentioned, these new governments that are going to be coming into power in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere are not going to be as accommodating to Israel if it tries to mount massive attacks on Palestinians or Lebanese. And this puts Israel in quite a quandary as it tries to deal with new terrorist attacks, which have happened just recently.
Still, I think in the longer term, we should be optimistic. A more democratic Egypt is likely to be a more reliable peace partner than Mubarak was with his extremely cold peace You remember, he went to Israel once, and that was only for Rabin’s funeral. A more democratic Egypt will be a more self-confident Egypt. It can reassume a leadership role in the region, which it has largely given up under Mubarak.
It may be in a better position to mediate Arab-Israeli peace or to mediate between Palestinian factions. And in talking about winners and losers, I think Mark mentioned Syria, where we’re seeing growing disturbances. Obviously, if the Assad regime is destabilized, that is not a win for Iran, which counts on Syria as its conduit to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The only real winner I see right now from all of this is Turkey, which is truly the indispensable nation. It has good ties, or at least ties, with everyone in the region and internationally, as well, and just recently got four New York Times journalists out of captivity in Libya. So it’s playing a very important role in this and I would expect that it would continue to.
Now, when it comes to dealing with the United States, all of this uncertainty is likely to make Iran even more risk averse. This is the unfortunate pattern that we’ve seen over the last few months, and actually, last few years. Iran was unable to complete a confidence-building nuclear deal with the United States back in 2009, I think, because of the domestic opposition to Ahmadinejad. That was a major reason for it.
But there’s still one area – Afghanistan – where there are some overlapping interests and where I think the United States can be more proactive than it has been. You know, Obama has really pivoted entirely from engagement, now, to containment and sanctions. And I think the U.S. can be a little bit more creative in this area.
Iran has four main goals in Afghanistan. One is to keep the Taliban from completely taking over again. Even though it plays a double or triple game and gives some support to Taliban, it doesn’t want Taliban in control of the country again. Second is to stem the flow of drugs, which has made Iran one of the most addicted countries in the world.
A third is to do something about the Sunni militancy in the Baluch – ethnic Baluch – areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, which feeds a Sunni intifada in Iran’s own Baluch area. And finally, Iran wants the United States to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, although I think they would be prepared to accept some limited continued American military presence, provided that there was assurance that this would not be used as a base from which the United States could attack Iran.
Now, some of these issues are already being explored. There was a recent track two meeting in Sweden that had American and Iranian representatives. And the Iranian participants said they wanted to see an increased role for the United Nations and the establishment of a core group to discuss Afghanistan, similar to the Bonn group that helped set up the first government in Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban, and also the 6-plus-2 meetings that were held in the 1990s among Iran’s neighbors, plus Russia and the United States.
I think it’s also worth remembering that these types of discussions provided cover for bilateral U.S.-Iran talks when Mohammad Khatami was the president of Iran. The top U.N. representative in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, has convened ambassadors from the United States, Iran and other regional players in what he calls the Silk Road initiative. He did this, this year. There have been a couple of meetings.
These are the first such meetings, in Kabul, of ambassadors since 2005, and the first time the American representative in Kabul has sat in the same room with the Iranian diplomat in Kabul. De Mistura spoke in Washington earlier this week and he says that he hopes to continue this initiative. He’d like to have a meeting in Istanbul – Turkey again – later this year. And then there’s supposed to be a meeting in Bonn to mark the 10th anniversary of the Bonn conference, which gave us the Karzai government.
The U.N. is also facilitating talks among Afghans by Karzai’s high peace council. And these are all good initiatives. Finally, I will just mention there’s a new report that’s come out from the Century Fund on negotiations for Afghanistan, the way forward. And in addition to recommending the selection of an international facilitator for peace talks among Afghans, it also recommends regional diplomacy and it recommends bilateral U.S.-Iran dialogue on Afghanistan.
If Iran is going to be playing a more constructive role in Afghanistan, it’s going to expect something in return. And this is the tricky part that Ambassador Eizenstat mentioned. Can the United States continue to put pressure on Iran over its nuclear program and still offer Iran something to behave in a more constructive manner in Afghanistan?
I think one of the answers is transit trade through Iran from Afghanistan and Central Asia. This should be encouraged; it shouldn’t be discouraged. And there’s also the question of energy pipelines through Iran. This is a controversial topic in Afghanistan. In Washington, this is something that’s been discouraged. But if we want to help the Central Asian countries, want to help Turkmenistan, want to help Afghanistan, it would seem that the more routes from Central Asia to the sea, the more ways in which trade can go to India, Thailand, other countries, the better. And this is a dilemma the United States is going to have to deal with and it’s going to have to reconcile.
Pakistan, right now, is far more unstable than Iran is. And if you want to benefit the Central Asians, I think you should keep that in mind. As Ambassador Eizenstat mentioned, we are in a somewhat similar situation to the situation we had with the old Soviet Union. Engagement doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game for every issue with Iran. Iran will change. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the Middle East over the last few weeks, it’s that governments can change.
And I think it’s important to begin to lay the groundwork for a better relationship with Iran because Iran will change. And if we can make some progress on this issue of Afghanistan, it may be easier to talk to Iran about the nuclear issue, about human rights, about other issues that we care about in the region. So I will stop there and we will be happy to take your questions.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Thank you, Barbara. That was excellent and let’s now open up to questions from the audience. And let me kind of exercise the moderator’s prerogative by asking the first question, based on what’s happening now in Libya and implications for what’s happening in Libya for Iran. I would think that the regionally backed NATO operations would give Iran pause. Is that a fair assessment?
MS. SLAVIN: You know, this is an interesting case because Iran, actually, has had a relationship with Gadhafi. Most people probably don’t remember this but when Libya brought down Pan-Am 103, there was a theory that this was actually a hit against the United States in retaliation for bringing down the Iranian airliner during the Iran-Iraq war, with the loss of many Iranian lives.
Originally, the Iranians asked a Palestinian faction to do it and they were discovered by the Germans. I believe it was the PFLPGC. And so it was then subcontracted to Muammar Gadhafi, that great lover of all terrorist groups. So Iran and Gadhafi have had a relationship, over time.
I think this cuts both ways. They’re obviously not happy to see a NATO-led intervention against a dictator in the Middle East. This is a frightening prospect for them. At the same time, I’m afraid it may make them redouble their efforts to get nuclear weapons. There’s been a lot of commentary, recently, the North Koreans most prominently, saying that Gadhafi was a fool to give up his nukes in 2003 because, of course, that’s made him vulnerable now.
I think that goes a bit – I don’t think Gadhafi could ever have put together a bomb. When those nuclear materials were turned over, they were still in their crates. You know, they hadn’t even figured out how to take them out of the box. (Chuckles.) But there is a point there. So it’s part of an unsettled picture that has to make the Iranians, you know, worry. I mean, if it comes out well – if Gadhafi is overthrown and peace is restored, I think it actually works to the U.S. and the Western advantage and it may help those in Iran who would like to see a negotiated resolution of differences with the United States and the international community.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Okay, thank you. Yes, sir?
Q: Thank you very much, Mark, for the taskforce and thank you very much, also, for an update on this evolving situation. Probably perfect to have a journalist doing it since you’ve got deadlines, week by week, I would think, in the region. My question relates to a conclusion that the taskforce drew in the first paper, which I think was in November. And it was that Iran might have the best chance in the region to be a durable democracy. And I’m wondering if you could provide a little color, Barbara, or any of the taskforce, on that. What led to those conclusions, or that conclusion?
MS. SLAVIN: Actually I just came from an event at the Carnegie Endowment where Roberto Toscano who was the Iranian ambassador – sorry, the Italian ambassador in Iran for five years – spoke and also an Iranian dissident named Ramin Jahanbegloo. And they both pointed this out. Iran, yes – you know, when the day comes that the regime changes in Iran, I think Iran will be much better positioned, frankly, to become a stable democracy than a lot of the Arab countries where we’re seeing regime change right now.
Why do I say that? It’s because of the educational level of the country – more than 80 percent literacy, which far exceeds that certainly in Egypt. It’s a history of seeking representative democracy that goes back more than a hundred years. Iran had a constitutional revolution in 1906 that brought about the first parliament in the Middle East. The revolution in 1979 had a lot of democratic elements but it was hijacked by the religious extremists.
And many Iranians certainly would like to see a change in that. We’ve also had the fact that we’ve had these – this sort of democratic evolution. If you look at Iran, the evolution of civil society in that country really began after Khomeini died in 1989.
All of these different interesting philosophers – I mentioned Ramin Jahanbegloo, Abdolkarim Soroush – in the 1990s who were putting forward very interesting documents on reconciling Islam and democracy. We had Mohammad Khatami’s upset election in 1997. He eased the hand of the state on the Iranian people.
And what we’ve seen really since 2005, and especially since 2009, has been a reversion to a more authoritarian kind of system. And I just don’t think it’s sustainable in Iran. So yes, democracy I think could work in Iran perhaps better than anywhere else in the region.
Q: Thank you.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Yes, sir?
Q: Thank you – (inaudible) – Senator Hagel and Barbara and great panel to see you. My question is that now – I just came from the press briefing from the State Department and White House and a lot of things are going on, as you know, Senator, in the White House and State Department as this critical tsunami and earthquake is going on in the Middle East. Where is going to stop?
You think it’s going to go towards China because China’s people are also waiting for the waves of this tsunami to reach on their homeland for a better life and human rights and rule of law and democracy and religious freedom, so on, and press – of course the press freedom. Also NATO is now going to play a role in Libya and now they’re fighting in Afghanistan. Can they do this without humans on the ground in – or the forces on the ground in Libya?
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Thank you.
MR. HAGEL: Well, I will begin and hand it off very quickly. I think your question – your last question about essentially boots on the ground is an area that to some extent Secretary Gates covered two weeks ago in testimony on Capitol Hill.
But I would go back to a more basic question than that. What’s the objective? What’s the point? What’s the purpose? Over-flight, okay – then with Gaddafi still in power or with him out of power? There seems to be some confusion about that.
The Washington Post led with a headline today about clarity. Clarity is a pretty critical dimension for any democracy when you commit troops. And essentially, as Secretary Gates said in his testimony, we are engaged in an act of war, not just the United States but the nations who have participated in NATO with us are engaged in war.
Now, then what is the essential objective of that? Is it regime change? Is it to live with Gaddafi? Is it to divide Libya? And I think that’s where you have to start before you can get to the next set of questions.
You mentioned China. And I’ll let Professor Brzezinski handle that since he has just arrived fresh from an analysis and he noted a couple of observations about that and I think the ambassador will probably have a comment or two and Barbara. So let me – if it’s okay, let me ask Mark to respond and then anyone else obviously here.
MR. EIZENSTAT: Can I suggest that we not diverge into China? We’ve got a very clear focus. Let’s spend the time on this. Otherwise we’ll end up –
MR. HAGEL: Well, but I think though that it does connect into what you were saying about China thinking – the thoughts that they have about what’s going on. I agree that this is about Iran. But I think that your question is relevant to it.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: And as Stu said, I won’t – I’ll be very quick and brief here. I would say China is worried about two things. First of all, any kind of contagion in the form of popular upheaval transferring from the Middle East to China and you could see stories in the papers showing the steps the Chinese government is taking to control any step toward popular dissent.
But secondly, and what I picked up both in China and Korea is that there is a real worry about an explosion in the Middle East, not so much because from what I heard there is a deep care over in China and Korea about the democratic movement in the Middle East but it’s because where they get their energy resources. Iran is the third largest supplier of oil to China. And that’s the concern. They want a continuity in terms of their own economy and they want stability in the global economy. Barbara?
MS. SLAVIN: I think I’ll pass on that and just stick to Iran.
Q: Can I just point out quickly – (off mic).
MR. BRZEZINSKI: One quick, quick question.
Q: Yes, Secretary Gates is saying something different than what you said. But Secretary Clinton and also President Obama clearly said today and yesterday and ever since that Mr. Gaddafi must leave.
MR. HAGEL: Well, I think as the ambassador noted, we’re here to talk about Iran and not Gaddafi. I mean, how he fits into the larger scope is okay. But I think we should go on to some other questions.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Okay, yes, sir. Right there?
Q: My name is Walter Jurasicz (sp), Atlantic Council member. Chuck Hagel mentioned – Senator Chuck Hagel – you mentioned a very important word which is that understanding the difference and apparently we have the problem today friends become tomorrow enemy because of misunderstanding of the difference.
In order in the diplomatic corps or anywhere, there are diplomacies capable or able to turn your friends into – I mean, to turn enemy into your friends. And I read a very interesting book which father of Mark wrote it, “Between Two Ages.” This book, if anybody can read, can really give you the idea what is the problem in the world. It is fascinating book to read, explanation the situation between Communist and free market economy – (cross talk).
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Walter? Walter – (cross talk).
Q: Thank you very much.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: We’ll need a good question.
MS. SLAVIN: Is there a question? Yeah?
Q: The question is what can be done so we can understand the differences between culture, religion and political between Iran and United States.
MS. SLAVIN: (Chuckles.) That’s a small question. I think that could be an entire issue brief on its own. I think we have a lot of affinities with Iran. It’s one of the reasons I wrote a book about it. And anybody who’s gone to the country knows that Americans are more popular there than they are anywhere else in the Middle East or probably South Asia because of those affinities. Iran is a deeply religious country, spiritual country. But it’s not a very theocratic one. Thirty-two years of religious rule has made most Iranians quite sick of theocratic government.
And there is, as I mentioned, this real base for democracy. I didn’t mention the women’s movement which has been very strong there. You know, women have been at the forefront of a lot of these demonstrations and of civil society. It is absolutely primed to go in a different direction. But the two governments, you know, have been fighting each other for 32 years.
And unfortunately the current government appears to see enmity with the United States as a pillar of its survival. It has to have an enemy. It has to have a scapegoat. And that is a big problem and it’s going to be very, very difficult to overcome.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Thank you. Yeah, right next, yeah.
Q: Thank you very much. My name is Mark Rajevski (sp). I came from Poland just today I realized that there is a meeting. So thank you very much. I am very glad to be here and to listen to this wonderful presentation. And I’ve got two very brief questions regarding Iran.
The first one is you’ve mentioned about the possible spreading of the revolutions in the Middle East to Iran. But when I think about what I call – or maybe somebody called before me – the Facebook revolutions and Facebook and YouTube revolutions, they indeed – in fact they started in Iran after the last elections. So do you think we should find the beginning of those revolutions in these protests during the last presidential elections in Iran?
And the second question is concerned with the change in balance of power in Arab League. Do you think that those revolutions that take place now in the region, they will affect the balance of power in the Arab League and their attitude toward Iran in the future? Thank you very much.
MS. SLAVIN: Very good questions, both of them. Yeah, I have written actually that 2009 and the demonstrations that took place after the disputed presidential elections in Iran – really if you want to trace back, that’s the beginning. The Iranian government tries to say that all these intifadas are 1979 all over again, which is ridiculous. 2009 was Facebook. It was cellphone cameras, you know, catching the demonstrators and people being beaten and killed on the streets of Tehran.
And in fact some of the organizers of the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt have said that they communicated through Facebook with Iranians and learned some techniques from them in terms of how to organize Facebook pages and so on to get some of these intifadas started. So you’re absolutely right.
On – I hadn’t thought really about the realignment in the Arab League. But it will be interesting to see. I mean, this has really not been a very strong organization for years. It’s been kind of a joke. If you have more democratic, stronger governments, that could mean a more vigorous Arab League. I was really surprised actually that they all agreed on this intervention in Libya. I thought that was really something because you might not have seen that in the past.
And in terms of relationships with Iran, this is, again – you know, some people are very worried about Egypt. Egypt may restore diplomatic relations with Iran. Well, that’s possible. Egypt let two Iranian ships go through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years – a lot of concern on the Israeli side that there will be more smuggling through Sinai of weapons into Gaza.
And these are certainly legitimate concerns. At the same time, we have the Saudi and GCC intervention in Bahrain. So there’s no way they’re going to let Iran spread its influence across the Persian Gulf. We have the 5th Fleet. We have the United States with all its myriad military installations. The U.S. is not retreating east of Suez like the British did.
So I think basically the Arab countries are going to remain oriented toward the west for the foreseeable future. I don’t think we should be concerned that Iran is suddenly going to have great friends in the region. We have the Sunni-Shia divide. We have the Arab-Persian divide. So I think that’s an exaggerated concern.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: David?
Q: Yes. One comment and one question. The comment is that I believe that Iran is going to be the loser in all of this turmoil, primarily because of Egypt. Egypt has sort of not existed on the international scene for 30 years.
And that’s not going to be the case no matter who is involved in running the government there. If it’s at all representative, it also will provide an alternative place to focus discontent in the sense that they did it, they got there, we don’t want to go like the Iranians did to get mullahs. That’s the comment.
The question is we just completed a study of the opposition in Iran. And what emerges is that it’s an indelible part of the society. It is in fact part of the social structure and goes back all the way to the revolution where they were democrats and they were urban and all the rest. That’s not going to go away. At the same time, they’re not going to be strong enough to overthrow the government.
And any real change that takes place has got to come from some insider who can reach out to them. And I’d be interested in your comment on that.
MS. SLAVIN: Well, I certainly agree with the fact that the opposition has been a permanent feature of Iran, not to say the Islamic Republic, for a very long time. I’m not so sure how the change will come. I think there’s a tremendous power in the Green Movement and the fact that it is in a sense leaderless because you can’t decapitate it. Every Iranian is potentially a member of the Green Movement.
A lot will depend on whether the members of the military – particularly the IRGC and the Basij – remain loyal to the regime. There are going to be transition points. There will be a new president. There will be a new supreme leader at some point. A lot of people had tremendous hopes invested in Khatami. But it was really the supreme leader who prevented Khatami from becoming an ayatollah Gorbachev.
You need an ayatollah Gorbachev perhaps and that could come with the next supreme leader. I just think that given the demographics – 70 percent of the population under the age of 30. They don’t remember the shah, given the educational level and so on.
Eventually, you know, this is just going to have to evolve. For Iranians’ sake, I hope it can be peaceful. I think it probably will be. But this regime is not going to remain in power for another 20 years. I would venture that within the next five to 10 years we will see a change.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Yes, sir? Actually the man in front of you and then we’ll go to you. Yeah?
Q: Thank you. Bob Kubichek (sp). Barbara, I particularly enjoyed your comments. But I have to take issue. As someone who was summoned back to Washington by my boss – then boss – Bill Richardson for being misquoted at Chatham House by an Iranian stringer who said that the United States government wanted pipelines to go through Iran, I take issue with the idea that we should encourage multiple pipeline routes through Iran. I really think that that attitude has not changed.
I’m giving a talk next week on Turkey as an energy bridge and the need to reduce dependence on Russia is the key to the pipelines going through Turkey, for example. I’d be interested in your reaction.
MS. SLAVIN: yeah. Well, you know, we’ve been through this back in the ’90s and I go with Shireen Hunter on this. She’s written a really excellent book that I recommend to everybody on Iranian foreign policy – recent foreign policy. And if you want a country not to be an outlier in the international system, you have to give them assets that they’re loathe to jeopardize.
I believe that U.S. administrations, successive administrations – Democratic and Republican – have made a big mistake by giving Iran no assets to jeopardize. if the United States had been willing to allow Iran to have pipelines back in the 1990s, if the United States had been willing to allow Conoco to take that deal with Iran back in the 1990s, I don’t think we would have the hostile relationship that we have with Iran today.
So should we continue this pattern because of the nuclear issue? If we want to get – to end the Russian monopoly, if we want Central Asia to be prosperous, if we want Afghanistan to be prosperous, I think we do have to end this policy of blocking Iran from having pipelines, trying to discourage transit trade. You know, the late Richard Holbrook was so proud of the fact that he had gotten a transit agreement that goes from Afghanistan through Pakistan to India.
Well, there should be routes that go from Iran to Pakistan to India. It’s in everybody’s interest. And I would refer people to Fred Star at Johns Hopkins Nitze who’s written extensively about the Silk Road, the old Silk Road. Everybody can benefit. Turkey can benefit, all of the countries along the old Silk Road.
MR. EIZENSTAT: I have to say this is one area where –
MS. SLAVIN: We disagree.
MR. EIZENSTAT: The task force is not unanimous. (Laughter.) I mean, I have a great respect for Barbara and the work she’s done here. I think this would be absolutely the wrong time to send that signal. Iran is doing everything it can now to try to find ways around the increasingly effective sanctions that are starting to bite.
This is where, as I said in my opening remarks, there’s a tension between the need to engage with Iran, find areas of cooperation like Afghanistan and still keep up a very strong front. I think if we were to send a signal now that we want to encourage pipelines to Iran, it would send exactly the wrong signal.
Q: (Off mic) – are we going to subsidize it?
MS. SLAVIN: No, no. I’m not talking about encouraging. I’m just talking about no longer blocking others from doing this. You know, India for example, Pakistan – obviously the United States. We have laws that forbid it now – very, very strict laws on the books. But we should stop, you know, discouraging others and making this impediment.
MR. EIZENSTAT: Well, I just think we can’t have it both ways on the nuclear issue. And you know, we really, in my opinion, are facing – and I think the opinion of others – a real crossroads, a question of whether or not the sanctions will be effective enough and send a strong enough signal and hurt enough to deter Iran from progressing on its program.
You know, we face a potential threat then of either accepting a nuclear program and going to a deterrent mode or having a military confrontation either with ourselves or with the Israelis. And I think between now and whenever that time is that we have to hopefully avoid that – but may face it – we need to have the strongest front possible with our allies, with other countries, with India and others who are finding ways in which to engage on oil and get around some of the sanctions.
So again, maybe this is a good long-term policy but until we have, you know, a more definitive cooperative relationship on imposing sanctions and seeing if they work, I guess I’m sorry for in one area I would disagree.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Yeah.
MR. HAGEL: I would just offer one additional point on this. I’m not sure that we should be struck in an either/or kind of situation here. I don’t now really – I speak only for myself obviously here. But I don’t know when we’ve had real strategic thinking in our United States government foreign policy. Now, that may sound a little harsh for some. But why aren’t we broadening the framework here of options and creativity and taking advantage of the realities as they are?
I think one of the possibilities could fall out of this new dynamic in the North Africa, Middle East, Central Asia that’s occurring which by the way I think is a very clear early 21st century example – manifesting – of Great Power limitations. I mean, if it isn’t happening now I don’t know when it’s ever happened in history. The Great Powers have limitations and this is a pretty good example.
Something’s going to happen here. It’s happening now. And there will be fallout here and there will start to be some stabilizing at some point here. It won’t be perfect. It won’t be everywhere. We should be creative in our thinking and our strategic interest and connecting different ways, different thinking that maybe we haven’t thought about.
And I think we do a great disservice to our country, our people, who we are because I think we’re biter than this when we lock ourselves down into either this or either this. And I don’t think the world’s that simple today. I don’t know if it ever has been. But the world is complicated, interconnected, combustible and I think adjustments are going to be required like never before in human history.
MR. SLAVIN: Here, here.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Yeah. Yes, sir?
Q: I’m Joel Rayburn from National Defense University. Barbara, concerning your thought about perhaps overlapping interests between U.S. and Iran in Afghanistan – you know, before 2007, there were a lot of analysts in this city who used to talk about our perceived overlapping of interests in Iraq and particularly in Iraqi stability.
But on the ground in 2007 and ’08 we found out that actually the Iranians’ goal of expelling us from Iraq trumped all other interests. And in fact they were willing to risk instability in Iraq in order to accomplish that and to break up Shia unity.
So I’m wondering now as I look at your list of four Iranian interests in Afghanistan, it seems to me – and having just recently come from being on the ground in Afghanistan – that, again, their interest in expelling us from Afghanistan trump these other three and trump them quite dramatically.
So why would we think then that we can come to some sort of meeting of the minds on these other three when they are – it seems to me – on the track of willing to back a militant faction for the purpose of expelling us? Thanks.
MS. SLAVIN: Joel, thanks very much for that question. Look, the United States wants to get out of Afghanistan. In July, if President Obama is to be believed, we’re going to start bringing back some of the combat troops that were part of the surge. There is a process. This is a year for a diplomatic surge as well. Secretary of State Clinton has said so. There is going to be a political settlement among Afghans and there is going to be a wider regional and international framework for that settlement.
So yes, the Iranians will do – will always remind us that they can do a great deal of harm. But I think in a sense they’re pushing on an open door. The United States doesn’t want to keep 100,000 troops in Afghanistan forever any more than it wanted to keep 100,000 troops in Iraq forever. So I think it’s possible to work with them on this. And some of these other goals are important.
I would note that the U.S. hasn’t been doing much on the counternarcotics front lately. And the Iranians are very resentful of that because that’s where a lot of the drugs are winding up. So I would see –and also we mentioned – I mentioned Baluchistan. I would say that there’s some quid pro quos there if, you know, the United States is willing to be a little bit creative.
We have all these demands that we always place on Iran. It’s always Iran’s fault and we never look at our own actions. I mean, we have –we are now surrounding Iran. We have toppled two governments. We have America n troops on either side of them. We have American troops in the Persian Gulf.
And you know, we act as though Iran is not supposed to be alarmed or concerned or to do anything to hedge its bets. So I think we need to look at it a little bit through their eyes as well and if we want a relatively stable Afghanistan, if we want to be able to get out of there, then we need to address Iranian interests also.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Yes, in the way back?
Q: Hi. Hello, I’m Ash Jain with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I also have a question about the recommendation regarding engaging the Iranians in a discussion about Afghanistan for you, Barbara.
And that is that with the Green Movement, you know, just now hoping to benefit from these uprisings, what do you have to say about the timing of trying to engage the Iranians in some kind of diplomatic initiative in Afghanistan? Wouldn’t that run the risk of undermining the movement, you know, which we’re trying to encourage?
MS. SLAVIN: Yeah, thanks for the question. I don’t think so at all. I mean, with the old Soviet Union, you know, President Reagan met with dissidents. He called to bring down the Berlin Wall and all the rest. And we negotiated at the same time with the Russians over arms control. Absolutely not. What we have to do at the same time and what Obama and Clinton and others are doing is we have to stress human rights constantly in regard to Iran.
I frankly think human rights is more important in some ways than the nuclear issue right now because Iran is not going to give up its nuclear program probably. But you can really make them embarrassed. The U.N. has now named a special rapporteur on human rights which is terrific. President Obama gave a Nowruz message to Iranians in which he named political prisoners by name and talked about human rights.
We can walk and chew gum at the same time. There’s absolutely no problem in doing both.
MR. HAGEL: Let me also add another dimension to this which is the dimension of reality. You all saw the latest Gallop poll on where the American people are in Afghanistan. I don’t think that’s going to be reversed. I think those numbers are going to continue to go in the direction of get out, for a lot of reasons – budget, so on.
It seems to me that we’re going to have to continue to play all these factors into the reality of what we want, focusing on our strengths, focusing on where we have something to use as diplomatic leverage, factoring all our instruments of power into some common purpose, allies, relationships, the political reality of budgets of what we’ve done to our force structure in the Pentagon over 10 years of war, so on and so on.
Now, regardless of what your position is – did we go in, was it the right thing to go into Iraq or not – that’s past. The reality is we are where we are. And the only question is where do we go from here, just like in Libya or anywhere else. And I think within the context of all of this there are some real possibilities, some new possibilities that’s going to force us into some new areas of thinking.
Last point I’d make here and this is a raging debate always and it should be debated. But I’ve always believed that engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not weakness. How else are you going to get to – again, what’s the objective? You want to go to war with Iran? That’s certainly an option. I’m not so sure how much stomach the American people for that or any of our allies have for that. It may be that’s the only resolution.
I mean, I don’t know. But it seems to me we’ve got to think down the road what happens next, what happens next, where are we going, what’s the point of this. Can’t we be a little smarter than how we’re doing some of these things? And I think we’ve got to go back and question every past frame of reference, every past reference point in dealing with the Iranians or any of these issues. And again, I don’t see that as a weakness where a lot of people do. The political reality is going to dictate a certain amount of this, a certain amount of it.
And anyone who really believes that the Republican nomination for president – those debates that are actually starting now – you saw what Haley Barbour said the other day and Mitch Daniels, that this is now going to be a central piece of the Republican presidential primary. It isn’t going to be budgets.
I mean, what Republican presidential candidate disagrees about the budget? Let’s cut spending. Let’s get this deficit under control. Let’s have a smaller government. Yes, yes, yes. But where the differences are is foreign policy and we’re going to get a very thorough airing of this and we haven’t had that in this country for a long time. We’ve got to get out in front of this. And we have the capacity to do that.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Yes?
Q: Greg Thielmann, Arms Control Association. Gaining nuclear capability has been a central aspiration of the Iranians for a long time, also before the ’79 revolution. Do you have an impression, Barbara, about how news of Japan sinks into one of the most seismically active countries in the world?
MS. SLAVIN: (Chuckles.) Yeah, it’s a good question. You know, a lot of my Iranian friends have been very afraid about the Bushehr reactor opening up for a long time. This is even before what happened in Japan. I had one friend tell me that, you know, it’s such a hodgepodge of technologies. The Germans started it in the ’70s and then you have Chinese bits, Russian bits, that they’re afraid if you finally plug it in, you know, the whole thing’s going to blow up anyway. And now we have Japan.
I think it’s a very cautionary tale for the Iranians. You notice that Bushehr has not opened. There was a problem with h fuel rods. Some people suggest there’s been sabotage of the pumps. I would bet that it’s going to be a while before that reactor starts up if it ever does. And of course if they don’t have a functioning nuclear power plant, what do they need all this low-enriched uranium for?
So I think that’s definitely a point in favor as well as all the other things that have gone on and the other problems that they’ve had in terms of the Stuxnet worm and the assassinations of nuclear scientists and so on.
It definitely could be a factor in suggesting that they might slow down. I don’t think that they’re going to give up their determination, though, to have a program and to say that they have a right to the program. That’s a nationalistic issue. That’s not going to go away.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: But that’s a lesson not just for Iran but for the entire Middle East, the discussion on proliferation of civilian nuclear activity.
MS. SLAVIN: It could really be a great counterproliferation – I mean, it’s a horrible cost and one feels terrible for the Japanese. But it could be really good in terms of all these other countries that supposedly want nuclear power.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Yeah, there was a question? Yes, sir? Right there. Yes?
Q: Yes, my question is for you, Ms. Slavin. With Afghanistan being a majority Pashtun population versus the Tajiks and the Hazaras from the western side, don’t you think Pakistan would have more influence in Afghanistan versus Iran and Iran, being more sympathetic to Palestinian causes, wouldn’t Iran have more support in those areas – Syria, Lebanon and Palestine – than, say, Gulf Arab countries, even though they’re both Arab?
MS. SLAVIN: Yes, definitely Pakistan has, I would say, more of an influence certainly over the Taliban. As we know, they’ve given safe haven to the Afghan Taliban. But Iran has a considerable influence as well. Something like 20 percent of Afghans speak Dari which is a version of Farsi.
You have a substantial Shia population – the Hazaras – in Iran as well – a lot of cultural links and even among the Pashtuns. I mean, this goes all the way through Pakistan and India – you know, the poets that one thinks of as native somehow – even all the way to Turkey really – think of somebody like Rumi or Hafez. You know, Afghans of all stripes, Pakistanis will quote Hafez to you. So I think that the do have an important influence.
And of course, as Joel Rayburn pointed out, the spoiler role – you know, Iran has historically been a spoiler. That’s how it gets back at the rest of the world for isolating it since the revolution and you want to minimize their motivation to play the spoiler in Afghanistan. In terms of the Palestinian issue, you know, the Gulf states also – certainly they give lip service to the Palestinian cause, sometimes more than that.
No, again this is Iran’s way of exerting asymmetric power. Part of it is through the co-religionist ties with Hezbollah. But it’s a way to show that you can’t ignore Iran, that if you ignore Iran, they’re going to get back at you through Hezbollah in Lebanon, through their support for Hamas. If the Arab states now become more supportive of the Palestinians – Egypt in particular- then perhaps Iran will become less relevant to the Palestinian cause.
That’s another way to look at it because I don’t think Hamas – this is a true marriage of convenience. Hamas is Sunni. They don’t love Iran. No Arabs love Iran. But they take its money. They use each other, you know, and, I mean, that’s just natural.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Well, Barbara, following up on that, given what you just said about Iran’s role in its neighborhood, could you talk a little bit more about how what’s happening in Bahrain intersects with the Iranians? Because of course there you have a popular movement on the Shiite island of Bahrain being repressed by the Saudis, which is helping the Bahraini ruling family. If you could talk a little bit more about what’s happening there, that would be great.
MS. SLAVIN: Yeah. You know, in the ’80s, there were definite Iranian efforts to subvert the situation in Bahrain and Kuwait, eastern Saudi Arabia. Iran was still very much in a revolutionary mode and it was also a way to get back at these countries because of the Iran-Iraq War since all the Arabs were supporting Saddam Hussein.
But in more recent years that hasn’t been the case and I think that the Bahraini Shias have gone out of their way to insist that they are – they are patriotic Bahrainis. They don’t want Iran on their side. They don’t want an Iranian system. They want a democracy. They want a parliament that functions that represents their views and it is absolutely cynical for the Bahrainis and the Saudis and others to call this somehow an Iranian plot. Will Iran take advantage of it now? Yes, of course.
But I mentioned the sermon of Ahmad Jannati. Yeah, he’ll fight to the last Arab. He’ll encourage the Bahrainis to die, you know, if they can’t win. But you’re not going to see a single Iranian soldier. You’ll see Iranian intelligence agents and so on perhaps. There is a very big divide between the Arab Shia and the Persian Shia. People should understand that this is a – this is an ethnic clash that goes back centuries.
And if you’ve ever met Arabs in Iran and asked them about their treatment – do you know there are no Sunni mosques in Iran? It’s not allowed. If you talk to the Shia Arabs in Iran – if you talk to the ethnic Arabs in Khuzestan – they are treated very poorly.
So this is a – this is not a relationship that is made in heaven by any chance, even though there may be some Shia who follow some ayatollahs who are based in Qom. Most Bahraini Shia follow Ayatollah Sistani who is an ethnic Persian but of course is in Iraq and has been in Iraq for more than 50 years.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: And we’ll take one more question, if there was – if there is one from the audience. And let me close with this final question. The administration is wrestling with how to channel the popular will that’s been expressed in the Middle East in a democratic direction.
And in certain ways, despite the reference to models elsewhere in the world, it really is a case of first impression. What advice would you offer the administration as it wrestles with that question. And two, how should it develop policies that is consistent with that goal and our goals in terms of change in Iran?
MS. SLAVIN: Wow. (Chuckles.) In terms of Iran, again, I mentioned human rights – emphasize human rights very, very strongly. But also continue to reach out to the Iranian government over the nuclear issue, over Afghanistan. Put the onus on Iran to reject negotiations. Don’t, you know, totally pivot to sanctions and containment. We’ve done very well on that front.
But I think that the U.S. should also be constantly looking for possible avenues for dialogue with Iran, especially as we see all of these developments in the region. They’re going to be people in the Iranian government who will be looking for – if not a resolution of the differences with the United States – at least to lay the groundwork for the day when that regime changes. And it will change.
MR. BRZEZINSKI: Thank you. Thank you, Barbara. That was excellent. And thank you, Senator Hagel and Ambassador Eizenstat for your leadership of this Iran Task Force. (Applause.)