Iran Debate Event Transcript
Iran Debate Event
- Frederick Kempe, President and CEO, Atlantic Council
- David Ignatius, Columnist, Washington Post
- Michael Ledeen, Freedom Scholar, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
- Flynt Leverett, Senior Research Fellow, New American Foundation
March 3, 2010
FREDERICK KEMPE: Welcome. I’m Fred Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council. It’s a particular personal pleasure for me to introduce today’s event. And it’s not only because of the importance of the subject or the brilliance of the speakers or the platform of the relatively new South Asia Center. In the space of one year, I think that Shuja as director and his staff have turned it into an intellectual center for this kind of conversation and Shuja himself has set himself apart I think as one of this town’s – or perhaps beyond this town’s – leading experts on the region.
For me, however, it’s a particular personal pleasure to introduce the moderator. You all know David Ignatius is a uniquely talented columnist and novelist. His children know him as the person who got a movie made from one of his books where they got to meet Leonardo Dicaprio. You also know that in the noise that is U.S. commentary these days he is consistently wise, well-informed and ahead of the curve. And as a novelist he is consistently readable.
What you probably don’t know is that, as a friend, he is equally as gifted and as durable. And so I want to thank him for that as well.
But, with that, let me turn over to David, who has some practice in dealing with people who don’t entirely agree with each other. (Laughter.)
DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I am delighted to be moderating this panel, especially after that wonderful introduction from Fred. People in Washington always refer to each other as my good friend, my dear friend. Fred and I actually are good and dear friends; we go back to the early 1980s. We’ve seen each other through more life crises than you’d imagine. Anybody who wants some really good stories about Fred Kempe, you can call me, but I won’t tell you. (Laughter.)
Another Washington is to advertise debates that aren’t really debates. As we all know, the range of permissible opinion in Washington normally stretches from A to B, maybe to C. This morning we’re going to give you the whole alphabet. We have a genuine disagreement about what the United States should do on arguably our most important foreign policy priority.
And we have two people to argue the opposing points of view who don’t mind controversy, who don’t want to round off the edges of what they have to say so as to fit the conventional Washington structure of the debate. If anything they’re going to probably push it a little to extremes. Somebody asked me if I had a flak jacket ready. I, knowing both of these gentlemen, I know that that’s not necessary but I do think that we’re going to get something that’s unusual for Washington, which is, as I say, a real debate about something that matters.
Let me introduce them briefly. On my left, Flynt Leverett, as you know, is now with the New America Foundation, a director of one of their initiatives. He is known to us as somebody who was very active in foreign policy and policy analysis first with the CIA in the 1990s – he served as an analyst in the directorate of intelligence from 1992 to 2001; then went in 2001 to the policy planning staff at the State Department; and then in 2002 went to the National Security Council where he was involved in policy questions for the Near East and South Asia – and in that role observed the possibilities for openings to Iran that he then has discussed in some important articles that I’m sure you’re familiar with and that we’ll talk about today.
He has just returned from a trip to the Middle East which took him, I believe, to Iran.
FLYNT LEVERETT: It did, yes.
MR. IGNATIUS: So he is that rare man who can talk about Iran with a real close-up appreciation of what’s going on.
Michael Ledeen I’ve known almost as long as I’ve known Fred Kempe. Michael and I go back to the 1980s. I scandalized my friends when I was editing the Outlook section of the Washington Post by extending an invitation to somebody who had been involved in the Iran-Contra process, as you’ll remember, as a point of connection between an Iranian gentleman who thought he could define an opening in Tehran in the U.S. government; this was at a time when he was a consultant to the National Security Council. It was an excellent article. My colleagues have never forgiven me for running it.
Michael today is a Freedom Scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He writes many books. I have a particular favor and have cribbed from it – which is, as we all know, the highest compliment we can pay in Washington – is steal other people’s ideas. And that was a book about Machiavelli.
I should – anybody who knows Michael knows this, but when I asked him what I should mention about him, he instantly answered that he was just national bridge champion. He is a superb bridge player. He is a man who I can imagine on the boulevards of his beloved Rome a hundred years ago, 200 years ago – as far back as you want to go, basically – being a raconteur playing the card game of the day and managing to write books on the side.
So those are our two discussants. Because we have structured this as a debate in which one gentleman will go first; then the other will make his opening statement and then each will respond to the other, I have decided I’m going to flip a coin. And so I’m going to say that if it’s heads, we’ll ask Flynt Leverett to speak first; if it’s tails, we’ll ask Michael Ledeen to speak first. Drum roll, please.
Oh, here it is! I do see it. And it is tails. So I’m going to ask Michael Ledeen to take the podium and lead us off. Just so you know the structure beyond that, we’ll have a period of – their presentations: 10 minutes opening, 10 minutes opening, 10 minutes response, 10 minutes response, I’ll then ask some questions and then we’ll turn it over to you for your questions. So be thinking of them and then we’ll get out of here by 11:30. Michael.
MICHAEL LEDEEN: David, yell at me when we’re at about seven minutes because I don’t –
MR. IGNATIUS: I will.
MR. LEDEEN: I don’t have a watch.
MR. IGNATIUS: I’ll whisper at you.
MR. LEDEEN: Well, thank you. Thanks to the Atlantic Council, thanks to Fred, thanks to Shuja, thanks to David for coming, thanks to Flynt for coming. In a way the title of this debate is a bit of a hoax because, just as people used to argue “make love, not war” or “make war, not love,” it’s easy to do both.
We can both engage with Iran and support revolution in Iran at the same time. We did it with the Soviet Union. There is no reason on Earth why we can’t do it with Iran. So I hope I’m not disappointing anybody when I say, you want to talk, talk; you want to engage, by all means engage; see what you can get. I’m pessimistic.
We’ve engaged for, by my count, 31 years. Every American president has eventually come to the conclusion that we could make a grand bargain with Iran and has tried to do it. That includes even George W. Bush who, in 2006, thought that the United States had made a deal with Iran which Nicholas Burns, who tells us about it in copious detail in first person on a three-part BBC documentary, had been negotiating with Ali Larijani and thought that the deal had been struck.
And it was scheduled to take place – the announcement was scheduled to take place on a wonderful Monday and he, Nicholas Burns, and Condoleezza Rice were going to fly up to New York to the United Nations, wait for the plane to land from Tehran; Larijani would announce that Iran was going to suspend Iranian enrichment; Condoleezza Rice would announce that the United States was going to lift or suspend sanctions.
And on the Friday before the Monday, the Iranians called up and said, could we have an extra 300 visas? And the secretary of state, not wanting to give the Iranians an excuse not to come, said, issue the 300 visas, which we did. And on Monday morning Condoleezza Rice and Nicholas Burns flew to New York, waited for the plane to arrive. The plane never took off, never came – and so forth.
There was a similar disappointment during the Clinton administration. There were all kinds of disappointments in the Reagan administration where extensive negotiations went on and indeed from the minute the revolution took place in February of 1979 the United States was negotiating with the Khomeini people and so forth trying to strike a deal.
So in the past 31 years, so far as I can tell, there has never been a moment when we weren’t trying to make a deal with Iran. And there has certainly never been a president who didn’t conclude or wish or hope that we could do that. As we all know, it has not happened.
And one of my favorite books about Iran is the terrific book by Mr. Pollack at the Brookings Institution called “The Persian Puzzle,” in which he recounts in painful detail all of the various efforts that the Clinton administration took, at which time he was Flynt’s equivalent at the National Security Council – interestingly with a similar background: intelligence analyst and so forth.
And basically what he says is, look, we tried everything. There wasn’t a carrot we didn’t offer. There wasn’t a stick we didn’t brandish. It’s not our fault. We just couldn’t get a deal. Okay, so my question to anybody who thinks we can get a deal is, what’s different now? What has changed? Why would you think you could get a deal today when you couldn’t get a deal for 31 years? I mean, surely none of us – even though everybody in Washington is famously egotistical – I doubt that anybody here thinks that he or she is more brilliant, more profound, more talented and so forth than all of the people who, for the past last 31 years, have tried to do this.
So why? That’s my rhetorical question to the people who only want to engage or negotiate or try to strike a deal. And, as I say, I’m not opposed to trying to strike a deal. And if you can get one, god bless you. I’m pessimistic.
I think that the best metaphor for talking to the Iranians is that great scene from “Goldfinger.” And every time I talk about this, fewer and fewer have seen “Goldfinger” because younger people haven’t seen those James Bond movies. But, anyways, there is that great scene where Bond is splayed out on a sheet of gold. And Goldfinger is standing up on the balcony looking down, watching this scene. And the laser beam is slicing through the sheet of gold headed for Bond’s private parts. And Bond looks up and says, do you expect me to talk? And Goldfinger looks down and says, no, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.
And, for me, that’s Iran. Iran expects us to die. And Iran wants us to die. And the other rhetorical question that I like to ask people on this subject is, we’ve all seen these mobs in Tehran and other cities in Iran that have been organized by the regime. And they’re all standing there chanting, death to America! Death to America! What do you think they mean? What is that all about? Is that local politics? Is that some kind of street celebration, an excuse to come out to get free food and drink? What is it?
I’m an historian. I spent the first half of my professional career in Nazi and fascist archives. And I have always been bothered – tortured even – by the fact that the Western world watched all of these things happen – whether it’s Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin and so forth. The color doesn’t much interest me. Watch these people come up – telling us what they intended to do. And people said, well, they don’t mean that – or if you only knew them.
And all of these people fell in love with Stalin or fell in love with Hitler – lots of people; some of the great journalists of the Western world fell in love with Mussolini, quite literally, in part because of the intellectual conceit; David was nice enough to talk about my work on Machiavelli.
I mean, almost every intellectual secretly wants to be the consigliore to the prince. It’s the best job because you don’t have to bother with public opinion and justifying yourself and selling books and all of these things that intellectuals hate. You have an audience of one; you talk to one person. So there’s kind of tyrants that intellectuals really love; it’s common that intellectuals are seduced by tyrants and come to admire and like and justify and excuse acts of tyranny and so forth.
So I’m not surprised. It never surprises me when this sort of thing happens. But what speaks to me as an historian is that for me, in many ways, Iran is “Groundhog Day.” Here it is again, a tyranny that told us well in advance what it intended to do. Khomeini wrote books. Khomeini delivered sermons. They were published.
Some of us, before the overthrow of the shah, wrote articles saying things like, you don’t like the shah, god bless you; there is a plenty not to like about the shah. But this guy, Khomeini, if you take what he writes seriously, he’s going to be worse, much worse – worse for us, worse for the Iranian people, worse for the region, worse for the Muslim world.
And so I think it’s fair to say it has been. And Khomeini, just like all of the others, did what he said he was going to do. And the Islamic Republic today rests on a solid foundation of hatred for the West, religious fanaticism and misogyny, which in many ways is the sort of hard core of this regime. And what struck me most when I first read Khomeini was his hatred of women and his contempt for women. And what drove him around the bend was the very idea that female teachers could be teaching Iranian boys. And he railed against that. Look at what the shah does? He permits women to teach our boys.
And when he got in, he took care of all of that. And today, as you all know, Iranian woman are worth, legally, formally, half a man. So if, for example, a pregnant woman is killed in an automobile accident and she is pregnant with a male fetus and the family of the other car is held guilty in the accident and has to pay reparations to the family of the victims, they pay one full share for the male fetus and one half share for the pregnant woman because she’s a woman and he’s a man. And so the division of Iran takes place.
This, by the way, if they emerge as a dominant power in the region, you will see that spreading – not that it has to spread. Other countries in the region think along similar lines and act along similar lines. But that’s the kind of society that the Islamic revolution created.
But the basic fact for the United States and for American policy is that Iran is at war with us and has been at war with us for 31 years. Iran kills Americans whenever and however it can. It took years before it was possible in polite society here or anywhere else to point out that the IEDs, which were the single-greatest cause of American casualties in both Iraq and Afghanistan, were largely of Iranian origin and that the component parts of those things were actually tracked back to Iranian factories; they had Iranian identification numbers and letters on them.
And some of them still do today in Afghanistan, although the Iranians got very annoyed at being caught out at this and are now outsourcing more and more of that stuff so we will find less and less of their fingerprints on these weapons, even though their support for every major terrorist organization on Earth is now legendary – and that’s whether they’re Sunni or Shiite or not religious at all – like Jibril, for example, whom they famously support and whom they seem to like a lot, which is one of the little mysteries that we can talk about.
So the Iranian regime – both directly and through proxies – kills Americans whenever they can. And one of the most shocking things about the debate over Iran in the United States is how rarely people refer to the fact that they are killing our boys and girls and they are blowing them up whenever they can. And nobody seems to get very excited about that. That somehow is not a central issue in this debate. Well, it is for the Ledeen family, who have children on those battlefields and have for many years now.
And so it seems to me that the case of Iran –
MR. IGNATIUS: We have reached 10 minutes.
MR. LEDEEN: Good. So two more sentences – that the case of Iran is one of those rare cases in which moral and strategic obligation intersect and coincide. And so I think it’s both morally right and strategically sound to support revolution in Iran. And we’ll get to the details later. (Applause.)
FLYNT LEVERETT: Thank you very much. Let me add my own words of gratitude to the Atlantic Council and to David Ignatius for helping organize and stage this event and to Michael Ledeen for participating.
Michael has put a couple of very important questions on the table and I certainly do want to turn to the matter of the plausibility of strategic engagement with Iran. But before I do that, I want to spend a few minutes talking about another “why” question: why America should engage with Iran. And I am going to make a very simple declarative argument; namely, the United States needs strategic rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. This is not a nice-to-have thing. It is an imperative.
Under any circumstances, Iran would be a pivotal country for the United States, given its geostrategic location at the heart of the Persian Gulf and at the crossroads of the Middle East in Central and South Asia; because of its demographic and territorial size; its historical identity; and its enormous hydrocarbon resources.
But beyond those structural factors, over the last decade, a variety of factors, including U.S. policy choices such as the invasion of Iraq, have come together to boost the strategic position of the Islamic Republic of Iran in quite dramatic fashion. And Iran, today, is emerging as a genuine regional power.
This is preceded to a point where, in my view, the United States cannot achieve any of its high-priority goals in the Middle East, whether with regard to Arab-Israeli peacemaking, post-conflict stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq, fighting al-Qaida or assuring energy security, without a more productive relationship with Iran. That’s why I say this has moved from the nice-to-have category to the need-to-have category.
I think you can draw a useful analogy between the Islamic Republic today and the People’s Republic of China in the late 1960s, early 1970s. At that time, China was an emerging regional power but it was certainly not the global economic power that we know today.
For 25 years, the United States had worked assiduously to isolate the People’s Republic diplomatically, to starve it economically and to support a Republic of China based in Taiwan as a political alternative to the People’s Republic.
When Richard Nixon was inaugurated president of the United States in January, 1969, the People’s Republic was actively supporting armed Marxist movements in multiple countries, it was providing ordinance, weapons and military equipment to North Vietnam that was being used to kill American soldiers in Vietnam and it had actually tested a nuclear weapon less than five years before Nixon’s inauguration.
But President Nixon had the insight and courage to recognize that a 25-year-old policy of diplomatic isolation, economic embargo and nonrecognition for the People’s Republic had proven dysfunctional for the interests of the United States and its allies. And with Henry Kissinger, he determined to reorient America’s China policy in a direction that would actually serve U.S. interests.
The result, Nixon’s famous opening to China, was one of the great and historic achievements of American foreign policy in the second half of the 20th century. We need that sort of achievement vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran today.
Some will say my analogy doesn’t hold because the opening to China took place in still the midst of the Cold War and that the U.S. and China had a common enemy in the Soviet Union. The United States and the Islamic Republic, from this perspective, don’t have that easily identifiable common enemy.
I think that really sells short what the opening to China was about. It’s not just about triangulation against the Soviet Union. It’s a recognition that the United States has important national security and foreign policy problems that it could not solve, or at least, could not optimally solve without an opening to China. The U.S.-China relationship didn’t become less important with the end of the Cold War. It has become progressively more important since the end of the Cold War.
And I would argue that the United States today has fundamental national security and foreign policy problems that it cannot solve or cannot optimally solve without strategic rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. I think that is also true in reverse for the Islamic Republic. I will come to that momentarily.
Michael said that every president since the founding of the Islamic Republic has tried to reach a grand bargain. I would respectfully disagree with that statement. It is certainly true that every administration has tried in some way to engage the Islamic Republic. Those attempts at engagement have been narrowly focused, usually on some specific tactical issue.
In most cases, the Iranians have in fact cooperated with us on the issue in which we sought to engage them. And in many cases, the Iranians cooperated with us on this narrow tactical issue because they thought by doing so, it might actually prompt us to rethink our willingness to live with the Islamic Republic.
The historical record is that it is typically the American administration which pulls the plug on the tactical cooperation either because of domestic political blowback in the United States or because of some perceived Iranian provocation in another arena that is not connected to the issue on which the United States and Iran are cooperating.
That was certainly the pattern with U.S.-Iranian cooperation over Afghanistan after September 11th, when the Iranians reached out, provided substantial cooperation to us in getting rid of the Taliban, standing up the Karzai government. My wife and frequent co-author, Hillary, was directly involved in negotiations with Iran over Afghanistan for almost two years. Providing very substantial help, their reward for that was to be labeled part of the axis of evil and eventually to have the United States cut off even tactical cooperation over Afghanistan.
I don’t believe any American administration has ever proposed a grand bargain with the Islamic Republic in the way that President Nixon proposed and pursued, let’s call it, a grand bargain with the People’s Republic of China. But that is what is required now. It is required for American interests and it is required if engaging Iran is going to have any chance of success.
As David said, Hillary and I have just come back from a trip to the region and we were able to spend the better part of a week in Tehran. And I can tell you from discussions with Iranian officials that the Iranian leadership had a certain amount of hope about President Obama. And when he changed the rhetorical tone about Iran early in his administration, in his inaugural address, in some interviews, in the Nowruz message last year, this had an effect.
Two days after the Nowruz message, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, came out publicly and said, okay, if you change – you, the United States change – your policies towards us, we will change, too.
From an Iranian perspective, there has been no change. There’s no change in the red lines on the nuclear issue, there’s no change in U.S. support for both overt and covert activities which the Iranians see as threatening to their internal stability. And in that kind of climate, the Iranians will not respond favorably to American overtures.
But, if the United States put on the table a real author of a grand bargain, a real author aimed at a fundamental realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations, I believe that the Iranian leadership, under successive presidents and throughout Ayatollah Khamenei’s tenure as leader, has wanted that kind of fundamental realignment and that they would respond positively to it. Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. IGNATIUS: So we’ll ask Michael Ledeen to respond. Let’s try to keep the responses to maybe seven minutes so we’ll have time for questions.
MR. LEDEEN: Okay, on Afghanistan, my understanding of what happened immediately after 9/11 is that the Iranians conducted what we would call a two-track policy. On the one hand, they cooperated with us diplomatically, and whatever their various relationships – very complicated relationships – with the Taliban were, they purported to help us in Afghanistan and they were rewarded not just with the axis of evil but they were rewarded with an Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which they wanted very badly and which they saw as a great success for them.
But at the very same time that these negotiations were going on, Iran was running terrorist teams in Afghanistan with explicit instructions to attack American troops when they went in there. And this was confirmed by the American Special Forces in Afghanistan who found the groups that were there operating under Iranian guidance and support. And they were neutralized.
I mean, I come back to what I said at the beginning point, which is both things are invariably going on at the same time. They are talking and they are killing us. And they do those things simultaneously.
I don’t believe that we will ever get a workable modus vivendi, let’s call it, with Iran so long as this regime is in power. I just don’t think it’ll happen. I think they hate us. I think that the Islamic Republic is based on hatred of America; a desire to destroy or dominate us along with all the other infidels.
I think they believe these things – they certainly act as if they believe them – and that our best hope for getting a grand bargain with Iran, with which I agree is not best accomplished with the Islamic Republic but is best accomplished by a successor regime, a free Iran, which the Iranian people will choose truly freely and not in these phony elections. And I think that the regime is right to be nervous about internal opposition.
I wrote the other day that Iran is conducting a two-front war. One is international and is largely directed against us and our allies and the other is internal against their own enemies. They’re not at all worried about the international fronts because they think they’re doing very well there. They’re very worried about the internal front because they know that the internal opposition is very strong and very determined. And that’s what they’re worried about, so I think we should support that internal opposition.
You referred to overt and covert assistance to them. I don’t see it. I mean, I don’t know about it. I’m not particularly well-informed about covert but so far as I know, we’re not doing anything to support the Greens, the political opposition inside Iran. And on that subject, I’m pretty well-informed since I’ve had ongoing friendships with people who are now called Greens and who, back in the mid-1980s, were officials in the office of the prime minister, who was Mousavi at the time. So I have 25 years of contacts with them. And they insist that there is not a government in the Western world that is even talking to them, let alone assisting them.
And they say categorically, no contacts, no help, no assistance, no nothing. And if anyone has a right to complain about the performance of this administration and the ones that came before it, it is they; it is the people who want a free Iran; the people who want equal rights for women; the people who want an end to the political prisoners; the people who want truly free elections and so forth.
And if the regime really believes, as it says it believes, that it’s dealing with an angry minority and so forth, they might very well put to a test the proposal that was made in the last few weeks by both Mousavi and Karroubi, which is, okay, if you’re not worried about us, if you’re so confident of your own leadership, then don’t bring out hundreds of thousands of troops to make sure that there are no demonstrations.
Give us a place, whether it’s an open field near Qom or whether it’s a public square in Tehran, and permit us to freely call for a demonstration and see who shows up. And then the world will be able to see who is the majority and who is the minority, and who wants what. And then Iran could have a national referendum where the people would be asked to verify or reject this form of government and the very nature of an Islamic Republic, and if they called for a non-Islamic Republic, then they can go through the common practice of writing a new constitution, improving it and then electing people to staff it out.
I will just say – I mean, it’s probably not necessary because this is a very well-informed audience – I have argued for years against any kind of military action against Iran. And I am violently opposed to the various calls for bombing, even bombing nuclear facilities and so forth. I have always supported, both in Iran and elsewhere, nonviolent, democratic revolution, which is what I’m calling for in Iran. And I believe Iran is right on the verge of it, and I think it’s very easily accomplished.
And we can argue about data and facts and interpretations and so forth, but when I was in the Reagan administration and came to the conclusion that the Soviet empire was about to fall in the face of all kinds of intelligence analyses and formal documents and so forth which assured us that Gorbachev was firmly in control and that the Soviet economy was growing and that it was stable, or the works of famous professors at Yale University said of the three great world empires – the American, the Japanese and the Soviet – the American was the weakest and would fall the first, it seemed to me and to some of my colleagues at that time that you could smell the rot in the Kremlin. And I can – I think – can smell the rot today in Tehran. And I can see it.
I mean, a regime – just one example because they do have a kind of, how shall I call it, charming wackiness about them. This regime is now committed to the obliteration of “green.” Very bad for Kermit the Frog. And so green is now banned from Iran. The opposition was writing revolutionary slogans on the money in green ink – that is banned. You can’t wear green. I’m wearing green today as a sign of solidarity with them.
But the funniest is that there are streets in Tehran – as I’m sure you’ve seen – which have green stripes on them to tell you where you can park and where you can’t, and there are now teems of people out spraying black on top of the green because you can’t have green. That is not a self-confident and stable regime, Flynt. These are people who are scared to death even of a bit of colored paint on a sidewalk. So I think we should support these people.
How do you support them? The revolutionary instrument of the Soviet era was the fax machine. The revolutionary instrument of today is the satellite phone. Get them satellite phones so they can communicate with one another. And above all, let the government of the United States comes out and say, we like these people, we support these people, we think their calls are legitimate; release political prisoners, grant equal rights to women, permit freedom of speech, freedom of press.
I mean, every major press organization brands Iran the greatest enemy of press freedom in the world right now. That’s quite an accomplishment. And they’re so frightened of the opposition that they’ve killed in the last several months 440 people, and executions are going on all the time. This is the kind of regime it is. Freedom for Iran – a free Iran, I think, will be a great partner for the United States and indeed for all the people in the region. (Applause.)
MR. LEVERETT: For 30 years, American analysts of a certain political persuasion – and let me use the shorthand adjective, neoconservative. For 30 years, neoconservative analysts have been arguing that the Islamic Republic of Iran is on the verge of fundamental political upheaval. This argument was made in the early days of the Islamic Republic, it was made in the context of the Iran/Iraq War, it was made after Ayatollah Khomeini died, it was made when the reform movement appeared and started winning elections, it was made when the reform movement effectively collapsed and it was made as an argument for the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Yes, I personally heard President George W. Bush talk about how one of the reasons that we should use military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein was that the cultivation of a more participatory political order in Iraq would finally help Iran, which of course was ripe for fundamental political change, to realize its full potential, throw off the yoke of the Islamic Republic and become a secular, liberal democracy.
In all of these cases, the argument that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of fundamental political upheaval has been consistently and uniformly wrong. The argument is still wrong today. Many advocates of regime-change in Iran – those who have been uniformly wrong about the Islamic Republic’s internal politics for 30 years – say, okay, maybe we were somewhat ahead of our time, premature in our judgment, but look at the situation today. There’s never been anything like the Green movement; we have to be right now.
Well, sorry, no, you’re not. Hillary and I have been arguing since June of last year that there is no hard evidence that the Islamic Republic’s presidential election of June 12, 2009, was stolen. I say no “hard evidence,” not “must have been,” “had to have been,” “no way Ahmadinejad could have won” stuff, but “hard evidence.” Even the suggested evidence that some people claim to find in the election results, supposedly more votes cast in some districts than there were registered voters in those districts, how could Ahmadinejad have won in Azeri-majority areas when Mousavi was ethnically Azeri, et cetera?
There are easy explanations for all of those things. likewise, there is no evidence that the Green movement ever represented anything close to a majority of the Iranian public and I would argue the signs are that its social base is shrinking, not growing, right now.
Now, it seems to me that the burden of proof ought to be on those who would claim that the election was stolen, the Green movement represents most Iranians, and Iran is indeed on the verge of some kind of political upheaval, rather than on someone like me, who asks, simply, what’s your evidence for those claims?
Okay, but if you want to put the burden on me, what tangible evidence we have regarding Iranian public opinion and attitudes – polls conducted by three Western polling organizations before and after the election, nine polls conducted by the University of Tehran before and after the election, and other quantifiable indicators such as crowd size and the ability of the Green movement to turn people out into the street – every one of those polls supports my analysis.
And if you don’t like the University of Tehran polls, fine, but then you have to explain why the polls done by Western polling organizations show the same results, in broad terms. You can laugh at the University of Tehran polls. I didn’t know laughing was an argument. But then explain to me the Western polling results.
Public debate, today, in the United States about Iranian domestic politics is altogether too reminiscent of the debate in our country during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Think back to those days, when the American public and, indeed, publics around the world were exposed to a concerted effort by the U.S. government and its partners to build up public support for coercive regime change in Iraq. The U.S. and British governments proclaimed, with seemingly absolute certainty, that Saddam Hussein’s regime had stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. It had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, and it had close links to al-Qaida.
After the Bush administration and its followers in the media and think tank echo chambers pushed those, quote, unquote, “judgments,” people just knew that Saddam had nuclear weapons and supported al-Qaida. They just knew it. They were established facts. They fit very well with our assumptions about Saddam and his regime, but of course those facts were all wrong.
If you want to build American policy toward Iran on the idea of supporting regime change, you better look very, very carefully at on-the-ground reality – as it is, not as you might want it to be, but as it is. And I can tell you, just back from Tehran, I don’t know where these stories about green being banned in Iran come from. Excuse me, green is one of the colors of the Iranian flag. There is no shortage of green in Tehran or in the Islamic Republic. We can tell stories; we can take comfort in certain kinds of stories; but look at facts. Look at on-the-ground reality.
This is not a place that is on the verge of revolution. They had a revolution 31 years ago. They don’t want another one. We may not like it; we may not understand it; but most Iranians want to live in the Islamic Republic of Iran. They may want the Islamic Republic to evolve in various ways. They don’t want that Islamic adjective taken out of the name of the country. We need to come to terms with that, and we need to drop fantasies that internal political change in Iran is going to solve our foreign policy problems in the Middle East.
We also need to abandon the idea that we are going to be able to, sort of, dictate the terms of Iranian surrender, in the way that we dictated Libya’s terms of surrender in order to rehabilitate the Gadafi regime. If there’s going to be rapprochement between the United States and Iran, it’s going to be on the China model where it’s going to be based on a balance of interests. And we are going to have to accommodate some important Iranian interests.
But given what is at stake for the United States and given the enormous damage to America’s strategic position that, I think, the wrong choices regarding Iran policy will inflict on us, this time around we better think. We better look at reality and make policy on the basis of reality, not how we’d like the world to be. Thank you. (Applause.)
MR. IGNATIUS: Thanks to both of our speakers for articulately summing up the basis of their positions. As moderator, I want to begin by saying that what I was looking for from each speaker was a better discussion of how the process would happen – how the process of engagement would go forth, Flynt, and how the process of regime change would take place, Michael. So let me ask you to respond briefly to a question from me on each.
Flynt, this administration has been trying, at some political cost since it came into office, to make engagement work. In the president’s most recent statement, he continued very specifically to keep the door open to Iran, saying that if Iran wants to live by international norms, we welcome that. That’s really an invitation to dialogue about a grand bargain. And yet we have seen consistently that this regime is unable, for whatever reasons – and I hope you’ll speak to what those might me – to find a consensus to support a reciprocal response.
In October, Ahmadinejad seemed to support a breakthrough in the Geneva proposal, publicly endorsed it. And then after some back and forth back home, in which the proposal was attacked by the opposition, support was withdrawn by the supreme leader and then Ahmadinejad backed away from it. So it does take two to tango, and it looks to the White House right now as if we ain’t got a partner. What do you know that they don’t that makes you think that this is still a viable strategy?
MR. LEVERETT: It is true that Obama has changed the rhetoric and has said he’s open to engagement, but from an Iranian perspective that is not substantively serious. The Obama administration is taking an approach which, I think, could be described as: Okay, let’s sit down. You, the Iranians, can talk about whatever you want to talk about. We’ll have things we want to talk about. Let’s see what we can do on that basis.
From an Iranian perspective, given the history where, from their perspective, they have tried tactical engagement, tried tactical cooperation with the United States, and it has never led to anything of strategic consequence for them, at this point they are saying very explicitly – they want, upfront, a comprehensive framework for engagement. They want to know, if this process works, where is it going to go? Where is it going to lead? The Obama administration has declined to put that kind of framework on the table or to engage substantively with the Iranians about the definition of such a framework.
If the United States doesn’t do that, Iran will not think we are serious about engagement. In terms of the ability of this government to take decisions, and in particular your reference to the discussions about how to refuel the Tehran research reactor, I mean – if you’ll remember the sequence of events on October 1st of last year, there’s a meeting in Geneva, the P-5-plus-1, Bill Burns heading the American delegation.
And there’s a one-on-one session between Burns on the American side and Saeed Jalili on the Iranian side. Coming out of that meeting in Geneva, the American side describes it as an agreement in principle to do a kind of swap deal, to refuel the Tehran research reactor. Iran would send some part of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of Iran. Finished fuel would be provided for the Tehran research reactor. Subsequent discussions to be held in Vienna at the IAEA on all of the technical details.
By the time the meeting in Vienna is held, there is – I think, the day before the Vienna discussions start – there is a Jundallah attack in Baluchistan that kills more than 30 people, including a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, who was a widely known hero of the Iran-Iraq war. This makes the Iranians even more suspicious than they were going into the Vienna talks about what is really awaiting them.
There’s no understanding about bigger issues like uranium enrichment on Iranian soil. There’s no understanding about broader strategic issues beyond the nuclear question. And in that context the Iranians say, we are not prepared to accept a proposal in which we would send three-fourths of our current stockpile of low-enriched uranium out of the country, in one batch, and wait for more than a year in the hope that we would get finished fuel in return.
MR. LEDEEN: A proposal that they had previously accepted.
MR. LEVERETT: They had not accepted all those details. I think they had accepted the idea of a swap, in principle. Details to be negotiated. And by the time we got to the table in Vienna, the climate was not very good for a discussion of those details.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me invite you to make news. I see cameras here; there are reporters from the wire services present. Did you hear anything last week during your trip to Tehran that would provide some new basis for considering the possibility or process of U.S.-Iran engagement?
MR. LEVERETT: Yes. I heard from Iranian officials that they want to engage with the Obama administration. But they want to see signs, indications that the United States really does want a fundamentally different kind of relationship with the Islamic Republic. And that sign, whatever it would be, is going to have to go beyond nice rhetoric. It will need to be something that is tangible, something that can be interpreted in Iran as a clear indication that the United States wants a fundamentally different relationship.
Some of the ideas that might fit that bill – if the Obama administration would reaffirm the Algiers accord that ended the hostage standoff in January 1981. There is an explicit commitment in that document by the United States not to interfere in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic.
I’m pretty confident the Obama administration went through an exercise, last year, of whether or not to put groups like Jundallah and PJAK on the list of foreign terrorist organizations. In the case of Jundallah they decided not to do that for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me. But if there could be some clear indication that the United States is not involved with groups that are carrying out what the Iranians see as terrorist campaigns inside their country, I think that would be enormously beneficial.
There is a parallel here – one of the first things Nixon did when he took office to show the Chinese he was serious was to tell the CIA to knock off covert operations in Tibet. You know, there are things that the Obama administration could do to show their seriousness. And the Iranians say that they still want to be able to engage with this administration and find a way to a better relationship.
MR. IGNATIUS: I’ll turn to Michael Ledeen and ask you, Michael, about the missing connection – at least as I listened – in your discussion of regime change. How does the United States help this opposition, Green movement in Iran without, at the same time, discrediting it, without giving the regime precisely what it wants, as a way to say, these people are tools of the United States; this is another attempt from outside to write our history as Iranians. How do you avoid that?
MR. LEDEEN: They say it every day. They say it today, when we’re not even talking to them, let alone helping them. They say it all the time and they’re surprisingly explicit about it. They say there’s a foreign headquarters and the foreign headquarters manipulates all these groups. Anybody who’s anti-regime is ipso facto a foreign agent. And when they torture people in the prisons and drag them in front of television cameras, and make them say, yes, I’m working for the United States, I’m an agent of CIA and so forth – you know, a couple of them were even asked how they received their instructions from me. Right? On television.
For them everything that happens inside the country that they don’t like is the result of a foreign plot. So you’re not going to change anything by helping them. I mean, if you’re helping them the regime will continue to say about them what it is saying today. Except, in that case, finally – praise the Lord – it will be true.
But you know, all of these arguments – we heard them ad infinitum at the end of the Soviet empire. I mean, everybody said to us, when Shultz dared to go to meetings with his Soviet counterparts and would always have a list of political prisoners and say, release these people. Give them freedom of speech. Permit them to gather; permit them to protest, and so forth. Everybody said, why are you doing this? You’re pushing the Russians against the wall. You’ll just make them angrier. It will make it more difficult to reach agreements with them and so forth.
But it didn’t. We reached all manner of agreements with the Soviet Union – all the while, supporting dissidents and supporting solidarity. And for me that’s the model. Do the same thing. I mean, the United States shouldn’t permit itself to be intimidated into refusing to advance our highest ideals and support people who are trying to gain their freedom in one of the most noxious tyrannies on Earth by people who say, well, if you do that, the Iranians would just say: You see, you see, they’re trying to undermine us.
You know, it’s paradoxical because it is impossible for the United States, in my opinion, to have a durable long-term relationship with a tyranny. Sooner or later, it’s going to blow up just because of the nature of the thing. And it applies to China, too. I mean, there are going to be all kinds of bumps in the road and so forth. I don’t think much of the China analogy. I think it’s a different situation, that it would take us, it seems to me, a bit far afield. But I repeat: I’m certainly in favor of a modus vivendi with Iran, if you can accomplish it. I don’t think you can accomplish it.
I will just say two things about negotiations and all the blame that Flynt puts on the United States. Do you also blame the French, the British, the Germans, the Italians, the Russians and so forth – that is, all the others who have been trying to reach some kind of agreement with Iran on a very narrow subject, namely, uranium enrichment? I mean, don’t they bear some part of responsibility for this terrible state of affairs? Is it all the satanic Americans who are constantly forcing the poor Iranians to reject the latest agreement for one reason after another?
It’s the whole Western world, after all, that’s trying to get some kind of working relationship with Iran. And nobody’s managed to accomplish it. Why? I mean, Ken Pollack says – and he tried very hard – and I think you’re being unfair to the Clinton administration when you say that no American administration has really tried to reach a grand bargain. I think they tried very hard to reach a grand bargain. And they failed. That’s what he says. I wasn’t there.
MR. IGNATIUS: You said, Michael, that sooner or later this rotten regime will begin to crumble. Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between sooner and later.
MR. LEDEEN: Yes, there is. (Chuckles.)
MR. IGNATIUS: Especially given the prospect that Iran is moving as rapidly as it can, people believe, toward nuclear-weapons capability. So given that clock, my question is, you said earlier that you did not favor military action. What do you think is the possibility that this movement will gain at least a share of power in time to influence the nuclear weapons decisions? And do you in fact think that this opposition has any different goal for Iran than the current regime?
Certainly, at the time of the October Geneva deal, the opposition was outspoken in denouncing the idea of making a deal with the United States over nuclear weapons. I wrote at the time that there’s a Great Satan addiction in Iranian politics. They’re all afflicted with it. What about that? What about the timetable? You know, can we wait for them to build their movement, or do we have to think about something quicker?
MR. LEDEEN: Well, the answer is, nobody knows, really. Everyone was advised – I thought and wrote that the Soviet empire was doomed and hollow and would fall, but I, like most other people, was surprised when it happened, how it happened, under those circumstances, and so forth. These things are very hard to predict, especially timing, as the bishop often said to the actress. And so it’s very hard to try to lay out a timetable for these things, especially because there are all kinds of other factors. Will anybody help them?
If somebody helps them, I think it will happen faster. If nobody helps them, I think it will happen more slowly. I mean, I think that revolutionary moments sort of come around and keep on coming around. And I think that, had we supported the opposition earlier, that you would have had a successful revolution earlier, frankly. I’m not one of those with whom Flynt is upset, who has been predicting the imminent downfall of the Iranian regime ever since 1979, not at all.
But I do think in recent years, there have been times when it was possible and that we should have supported them, and so forth. And I was very disappointed in Secretary Powell, and said so, back in 2003, was it, when we ran away from the potential support of people who – and at that time, there had been millions of people in the streets of Tehran and a general strike had been called for, and so forth, and he pulled the plug on that, quite explicitly and publicly. And I think that was a terrible mistake.
So I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s revolutionary situation. I think the Green movement is worthy of our support, both morally and strategically. What do they want? I think that, in terms of their attitude toward the regime, their policy was anybody but Ahmadinejad. So I think whatever the Iranian government had agreed to or had proposed at Geneva or Vienna or wherever the most recent meeting was held, they would have opposed it on the grounds that the Iranian people hadn’t been consulted and that the Iranian people must be consulted.
When we talk about revolutions, we should notice that Iran had at least three, and some historians argue four, revolutions in the 20th century. It’s a country with a revolutionary tradition. It’s not unusual for revolutions to happen in Iran. So there’s plenty of tradition and raw material and so forth. And as to what lessons they learned from the last revolution and therefore, don’t want another one, I don’t think we know.
I’ll just make one final point on what we know about what the Iranian people want. I think their actual behavior on the streets is more reliable than what they say to somebody with a clipboard. If I were an Iranian citizen and somebody either called me up on the phone or came up to me with a clipboard, wherever he came from, and said, I’d like to ask you a few questions about how you feel about your regime, I would immediately assume that, that was kind of loyalty check. And I would try to tell him things that would keep me on good terms with the ministry of intelligence and the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards.
MR. IGNATIUS: Just to clarify, as a final point, the news item, forgive me, but it would be your view, Michael, that the United States should provide both overt and covert support to the opposition movement in Iran?
MR. LEDEEN: I’ve always been in favor of overt. I think covert is not an American policy decision. It’s their policy decision. So if they want to covertly, then I think we should try to accommodate them. But the basic things they need from us, which are explicit political support saying, these people are worthy of support, release the political prisoners, grant equal rights to women, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, all of that – there’s nothing covert about that. Those are our values. That’s the United Nations Charter. Support those things; endorse them.
Communications devices and so forth – there have been some articles recently where people have written that, paradoxically, certain kinds of export controls are making it more difficult to provide things that Congress has called for and most of our leaders approve – keeping Internet open, keeping access to social networks open. In particular – I’m not smart enough to know if that’s true, but if it is true, we should remove those impediments. We want – we should try to support free flow of information in any and all ways we possibly can.
And just from the last years of the Cold War, a point that most people are unaware of, that I was unaware of, until we got into it: When a regime of this sort tries to control information, the information it’s best at controlling is information inside the society. And so we found, surprisingly, that people in Leningrad didn’t know what was going on in Moscow, et cetera.
They were much better informed what was going on in, to take the Iranian case today, Beverly Hills or New York City or London or Paris than they were about what was going on inside their own country. One of the big things that the United States and other Western countries need to do is to try to keep the Iranian people as informed as possible on what’s going on in the rest of the country.
MR. IGNATIUS: I want to turn, now, to the audience and to your questions. I see two hands in the back, two up here. I want to ask you to introduce yourselves, to keep your questions brief, please, to direct them to one of our speakers if it’s a particular question. Yes, sir, go ahead.
Q: Yes, thank you very much. My name is Shahayar Etmanali (ph). Mr. Leverett, just a quick comment and then a question. Sorry, Mr. Ignatius. The comment, I made to you before. It is very arrogant to sit here in Washington, or quite frankly, anywhere in the world, and to claim that you know what the Iranian people want when you say that they want the Islamic Republic. There’s only one way to truly find out what the Iranian people want. It is to have free elections. And it is very interesting that the only people against such a referendum are the Islamic Republic and their stooges on the payrolls of Washington.
Now, my question to you: We clearly hear you about rapprochement and about having a grand bargain with Iran, and you claim it is better for United States security and our allies if such a grand bargain happened than the status quo. The question to you is, do you believe that the best-case scenario for the United States and its allies, when it comes to Iran, is actually a free, liberal democracy in Iran? I mean, would you believe that, that’s best case for the United States?
MR. LEVERETT: Look, I think the United States needs to deal with Iran as it is, and not as we wish it to be. You know, I said what I say about, I don’t think the election last year – the presidential election – was stolen. I certainly am not in a position to vouch for the integrity with which every ballot was handled or counted. You know, that’s not my argument. My argument is that the result was perfectly compatible with the indicators we have about Iranian public opinion. And so I have yet to see, as I said, any hard evidence that the election was stolen.
I agree that Ahmadinejad is an extremely polarizing political figure. And I think that the Western media, in the way that they’ve covered Iranian politics over the last year, they have basically given the lion’s share of attention to those parts of Iranian society that are extremely polarized in opposition or in criticism of Ahmadinejad. And I think there’s been an inadequate appreciation of how popular Ahmadinejad actually is in big stretches of Iranian society.
It is not – you say I’m being arrogant – I think it’s arrogant and I think it’s also just a bad way to approach foreign policy, to sit here in Washington and say, well, we want the – you know, we want Iran to become a liberal democracy and, you know, we’re going to withhold doing serious foreign policy with this extremely important country until they fit, you know, our template of how they should have their internal politics organized. Thank god we didn’t do that with China, and I think we’d be making a big mistake to do that with regard to Iran. It is not up to me to determine what kind of political order Iran has. The Iranian people do that.
MR. IGNATIUS: The woman in the scarf just under the TV camera here.
Q: Thank you. My name is Manda (sp). I’m Iranian. And for the last 20 years, I have been working with Iranian women inside Iran, and I have been supporting them and helping them. And they are organized and they have been the most – they have been – they have had the brunt of dictatorship and gender apartheid against them during the last 30 years. They have lost their children in eight years brutal war.
And now, the Iranian women have showed – after the war ended, that killed half-a-million Iranian children, for no good reason, the women of Iran rose up. They have been, time and again – they put their hope on Mr. Khatami. Mr. Khatami proved to be nobody and a member of the same regime. Iran is a gender apartheid regime. The international community supported the people in South Africa against the racial apartheid regime. Why can’t the international community support the women of Iran – all 50 million of them – and the young Iranians who are living in – 50 million under 30 years of age living under total poverty and hopelessness.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask you to stop there. I think that does give us a question –
Q: I’m sorry, I’m giving a lecture here. But I have one question – one question for Mr. Leverett.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let me ask Flynt to answer it.
Q: Can I ask my question, please?
MR. IGNATIUS: I thought you just did, sorry.
Q: No, I just made a statement, and I’m sorry. I’m getting very emotional about this issue, because I know Iranians. I’m an Iranian myself. I don’t sit here and make judgments. But Mr. Leverett, you are – for the last 30 years, you’ve had negotiations with the regime of Iran from Mr. Reagan with – (inaudible) – and on through Mr. Clinton, eight years, through Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright and through Ms. Rice and during Bush administration, and now 14 months with Obama administration.
Iranian regime is not going to make any deals because they cannot. They took over Iran by anti-Western civilization – America being the symbol of it. And they are not going to give it up. This is one issue – I am saying this in front of all these gentlemen.
MR. IGNATIUS: Ma’am, we need a question, please, now.
Q: The question is, how long do you advocate – is there any deadline for your rapprochement or dialogue or political appeasement? And when it ends, are we going to bomb the people of Iran?
MR. LEVERETT: Let me just address, first of all, the gender apartheid issue. Look, I think it is – you know, there are undoubtedly restrictions on Iranian women today that I might find – I wouldn’t want my wife or daughter necessarily living with those restrictions. But I also have to say I think this notion of gender apartheid is just belied by the reality of modern Iranian society.
Hillary and I were invited to be at the University of Tehran to speak with students in their graduate program in American studies. The majority of those students were women. They were incredibly accomplished. The majority of students in Iranian medical schools today, as is finally the case in the United States as well, the majority of students in Iranian medical schools today are women. Women function at the top of the most learned professions in – look, this is reality. You can live in whatever, you know, imagined world you like, but this is the reality that one sees if you go to Tehran today.
In terms of how deadlines – you know, this is not a reward to the Iranians, to negotiate with them. It is something that the United States needs to do for its own interest. This is not some reward that we will bestow upon the Iranians when they meet certain conditions. This is something we need to be doing. And I’m saying we need to get serious about doing it. Simply having tactical discussions on a particular issue, wait a few more years, have another round of tactical discussions on another particular issue is not serious, strategic engagement.
That’s not how we did it with China. And if we want to do this with Iran, we’re not going to be able to do it in that way, either. We’re going to have to have a comprehensive agenda and approach this in a strategically grounded way. We have not done that in 30 years.
MR. IGNATIUS: I’m going to collect a series of questions here. I will take them in sequence and then we will come back to the panel for final statements. This gentleman here and that gentleman standing in the back. Madame, you had your hand up. So let’s go in that order, please.
Q: Marvin Glimo (ph). You’ve said several times that America has to send a signal to the Iranians on what we’re willing to do. Not once have you said that the Iranians have to send a signal to the United States on what they have to do. And certain signals will be full inspection of the nuclear facilities, stopping support of the terrorism, stopping the criticism of the destruction of Israel. What do the Iranians have to do to let the United States government know they’re serious? I have my own opinion.
MR. IGNATIUS: I’m going to ask you to hold off – you, sir.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Hi, my name is Matt Duss. I’m at the Center for American Progress. I just want to thank the three of you for a very interesting discussion. Mr. Ledeen, I’m interested in the example you gave of Secretary of State Schultz meeting with his Soviet counterpart. I think it’s a good one, but I think a point there is that he did, in fact, meet with his Soviet counterpart.
My question is, is it – it seems that a lot of the debate over Iran has been presenting it as a, kind of, zero-sum question. Is it possible to continue to attempt to achieve some kind of rapprochement or some kind of accommodation – does that necessarily weaken the opposition or is it possible to continue to meet with Iran while, at the same time, making our support for human rights and democracy clear?
MR. IGNATIUS: Miss here in the second row.
Q: Thank you. Hi, my name is May (sp). I’m from the U.N. Information Center. My question is for Mr. Ledeen. As far as my modest knowledge goes, the Green movement is not entirely about regime change or a secular government; it’s more freer elections and granting of rights. If we help the Green movement, as you proposed, will there be a stipulation for a secular government? And how would that unfold, according to you?
MR. IGNATIUS: And we’ll take a final question from this gentleman here. My apologies to those that I was not able to call on.
Q: Hi. My name is Hans Lunger (ph). I’m with the Cato Institute. I have a question for Mr. Leverett. In terms of Iranian public support for the nuclear program, to what extent is it based on the nationalistic sentiment? And if there was a regime change, would we see any different attitude in public opinion? Would people then abandon this nuclear effort?
MR. IGNATIUS: Would you like to start, and then Michael?
MR. LEVERETT: Yeah, I’ll take two of the questions. What does Iran need to do to signal – look, I think that, in itself, reflects a certain mindset that the United States is still the hegemonic power that it was in the 1990s and can basically dictate the terms by which problem states realign with the United States. You know, that model might have worked with Libya – I was involved to some degree in that process, think that it was a very successful outcome for the United States. It’s not going to work with Iran.
The focus should be on American interests. My argument is that America needs a realignment with Iran. You may not accept that premise. But you know, if you accept that premise, then what should follow from that is, what does the United States need to do in order to make that happen, in order to make that work? In the case of China early on, if you want to call them pre-emptive concessions, there were, in fact, pre-emptive concessions made by the Nixon administration to the Chinese. Tell the CIA to stand down from covert operations in Tibet. Tell the U.S. Navy to stop patrolling in the Taiwan Straits.
Because Nixon had a strategic objective and he needed to show the Chinese he was serious in order to be able to achieve that objective. That is the way we need to be thinking about Iran – not in this kind of quid pro quo, tit-for-tat kind of way. I think once we put a comprehensive framework on the table, then yes, there are going to be all kinds of things that we will need to get out of this grand bargain in order for it to be worthwhile for us. But we need to be in that process where we are working to create, to forge that grand bargain. And you know, I think the focus should be on what the United States needs to do in order to make this work.
In terms of public opinion on the nuclear issue, both the Western polls that have been done and just, you know, kind of anecdotal impression would lead me to think that the nuclear program, at least defined in terms of a nuclear energy program with fuel cycle – uranium enrichment activity going on in Iran – this has broad support across the Iranian political spectrum. It has broad support across Iranian society.
The polls, which show that the public is perfectly supportive of trading off aspects of the nuclear program that might be purely weapons-related in return for better relations with the United States, but they do not see uranium enrichment fuel cycle activities in that light. That is seen as something that Iran has a right to do. It is part of Iran becoming a technically modern and advanced society. And I don’t think there is any political appetite or support in Iran, at this point, for giving up uranium enrichment.
The regime continues to say, the government continues to say to its own people that this is a peaceful nuclear program. Iran does not have nuclear weapons, does not want nuclear weapons, and that Shia Islam forbids the acquisition of nuclear weapons. But I think that there is very, very broad popular support for the nuclear program, including fuel cycle activities.
MR. IGNATIUS: Michael?
MR. LEDEEN: Well, as to the question, can we talk to them and support revolution at the same time, it reminds me of one of my favorite jokes, of the person who asks another guy, do you believe in baptism? And he says, believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it done! So yes, I mean, we do it all the time. We’ve been talking to the Iranians all the time. It’s not as if talking to them would be some kind of breakthrough. We’ve been talking to them for 31 years.
And what we haven’t done is supported the opposition or even spoken to the opposition. So sure – of course, obviously. The question, what’s the nature of the Green movement? What would the Green movement do if it was suddenly swept into power tomorrow? Nobody really knows because they are compelled, constantly, to speak in code. And so the messages that they deliver and the speeches that they give are always very careful because there are certain things that they must not say in order to permit the regime to arrest or kill them.
And there were many top officials in the regime who constantly call for arresting and executing them, after all. So I think the easy answer is that the Green movement is a big umbrella organization. Now, there’s all kinds of people in there. There’s people who want a secular republic; there’s people who want an Islamic republic; there’s people who want, you know, with greater rights, with greater freedoms and things like that. What they all seem to want is better relations with the West, and I would stress the West, not just the United States.
Iranians see themselves as part of the Western world. Nothing so much will set an Iranian’s teeth on edge as being lumped in with the Arabs. They don’t want that. They don’t think of themselves that way, at all. And they want to be part of the Western world. So I think what it is reasonable to expect from a successful Green movement – but anyway, you would see it because the thing would unfold over time and the nature of the regime and a referendum on the nature of a new free government in Iran would take time. And everybody would debate and you would hear all those different points of view.
And who would win it and who would emerge as the head of a new, freely elected government in Iran? I wouldn’t begin to predict. I don’t think anybody can predict. I just want to say one thing about, you know, what do the Iranians want from us – what kind of gestures do they want from us to be more forthcoming? Well, they tell us all the time what they want from us. They want us out. They want us out of the Middle East. They want us out of Iraq, out of Lebanon, out of Afghanistan, abandon support for Israel – get out of the region. That’s what they keep asking for.
Now, that’s the kind of gesture that we could make that would undoubtedly facilitate arriving at, you know, kumbaya or some such thing. I don’t think we’re going to do it, but that’s what they say. And they keep saying it. And they say it every time. And then, again, I’d like to thank you and I’d like to thank Flynt. I think it’s productive. I think it’s informative. I think it’s the kind of thing that should happen more often. And I’m really pleased to have been part of it and I think the Atlantic Council should be commended for doing it.
MR. IGNATIUS: Hear, hear. I apologize. I see hands that are still raised. I am going to call on the head of the South Asia program at the Atlantic Council, who is really a resource for all of us who follow this region in Washington, Shuja Nawaz, to say just a few words in conclusion. Shuja?
SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you, David. I just wanted to announce that next Tuesday, March 9th, at 3:00 p.m., we’ll be hosting an event, also on Iran, where we’re building up on the work that we did in 2001, when we published a compendium of sanctions and rules and regulations, and then an analysis of the sanctions. So we are carrying that work forward. Dr. Kenneth Catspin (ph) has produced a compendium of the latest rules and regulations and sanctions-related work, and we will have another discussion where all the questions that weren’t’ asked or answered today, I hope, will be answered.
Also, to let you know that the Atlantic Council takes Iran extremely seriously and we are in the process of launching a major Iranian project, which I’m delighted to see Mark Brzezinsky here, who will be leading the project. And we have a stellar cast, which I will not announce today, but that will be part of the steering group and international group that will help that effort, over the next two to three years.
Also, finally, I want to thank, on behalf of Fred Kempe, who unfortunately had to leave, and he wanted to thank not only Flynt and Michael and David for this superb discussion, but all of you, for having come and having made it such a useful exchange. And finally, a special thanks to my two colleagues, Ainab Rahman, standing near the camera, and Shikha Bhatnagar, who is hiding at the back, the associate director of the South Asia program, because they worked really hard to pull this together. And thank you all again. (Applause.)
Transcript by Federal News Service, Washington, DC.