Speakers: Kenneth M. Pollack, senior fellow and director of research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution; author, “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America”, Mark Palmer, president and chief executive officer, Capital Development Company; member, Committee on the Present Danger, and David Kay, senior research fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies
Presider: Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, Council on Foreign Relations
January 12, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations
RAY TAKEYH: I’ll just call the session in. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations, and today we are on the record with three individuals to discuss Iran and where it goes from here. Mark Palmer was the principle director and the writer of the report for the Committee on Present Danger [“Iran— A New Approach”]. And, if I remember my Cold War history, the Committee on Present Danger came about in the 1970s to talk about the dangers of the Soviet Union. It has resurfaced with a new mission and a focus on the Middle East. And it’s first report was on Iran. I believe that was your first report.
MARK PALMER: Right.
TAKEYH: Ken Pollack is perhaps familiar to most of you. Author of three books, but most significantly for our purposes, “The Persian Puzzle.” I had the chance to read “The Puzzle” in both manuscript and the final form, and I can say that it is accessible, readable, provocative, and comprehensive. And David Kay, of course, is currently with the Potomac Institute, but has long been examiner of weapons of mass destruction of all sorts, most recently in Iraq.
Let me just start, Ambassador Palmer, with a question about your report. I had a chance to read it this afternoon. I had read it once before. Your report goes on to suggest that Iran is a determined proliferator of weapons of mass destruction, particularly the nuclear issue, which is of particular concern. It is determined to support a wide variety of terrorist organizations, and it’s, quote, “It’s determined to assert its regional hegemony, both ideologically and militarily.” So the prescription drug that your report has for dealing with this significant substantial threat are [a] high profile speech by the president; willingness to reopen the embassy; cultural, professional, and economic exchanges; a call for eradication of Revolutionary Guards; and an international tribunal to deal with Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Seyyed Ali] Khamenei.
Now, when I read this report, it seems to me there is a gap between this depiction of the threat and its prescriptions for dealing with the threat. Now, before I get into the specifics of these recommendations, do you think the recommendations that you have are sufficient to disarm the threat that you say Iran poses?
PALMER: Yes, I think— ultimately. I don’t— we’re not saying this can be done in six months, and we recognize that Khamenei, not Iran, but this dictator and his colleagues, are determined to develop nuclear weapons, and are already terrorizing the region and terrorizing the Iranian people. We believe— our report argues that the real solution is to get rid of him, to invite him to go back to the mosque, to do what many—
TAKEYH: What if he says no?
PALMER: –what many leading Shia mullahs in Iran itself have urged, which is to separate religion and the mosque from secular affairs with the state. So, our primary emphasis is on trying to support the Iranian people in their self-evident desire, a desire they’ve repeatedly demonstrated, to invite Mr. Khamenei to go back to the mosque.
Now, will that be done very, very quickly? Maybe not. But we in the West have been surprised again and again by the Orange Revolution [in Ukraine], by the Rose Revolution [in Georgia], by in the last 30 years over 40 dictators going back to somewhere. So that’s our prescription. But in the meantime, we believe it’s very important to engage. We want to open an embassy. We support what the British, French, and Germans are doing, though we also are very suspicious that Khamenei is really serious about it.
TAKEYH: Well, I was going to ask you a question actually about the report which talks a lot about Khamenei [who is] ignoring political factions to his right, political factions to his left, political factions, period, as if the country has no politics and no institutions. And it is, as you say, a dictatorship similar to Saddam’s or the hermetic North Korean regime. Is that really an accurate portrayal of what is happening in Iran in terms of this political society? And how did you arrive at the judgment that Khamenei has all these powers and all these prerogatives?
PALMER: Well, talking to Iranians. I think they believe that he is certainly all-powerful, that [Iranian President Mohammed] Khatami] has turned out, unfortunately, despite his legitimization through two elections, has not asserted his legitimate power, and does not exercise power over any of the key issues in the country. Khamenei does, and the Guardian Council do. And that group is the power in the country today. But potentially, the power is in the hands of the students, the intellectuals, the vast majority of people who voted for Khatami. Over 70 percent of the population clearly shows that they do not want the mullahs to be running the country in the fashion that they’re running it today. So I don’t think— most serious people don’t doubt Khamenei is the supreme leader. He says he is— he is.
TAKEYH: Right. Let me ask you just very briefly, David— turn to you for a second— I’ll come back. The head of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], Mr. [Mohammed] ElBaradei IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], says— he says it rather persistently— that there is no evidence to suggest that Iran has misused or diverted its nuclear technologies for military purposes. Is he wrong? And what evidence do you look for to suggest that the state is beginning to misuse its nuclear civilian program for military purposes? And where is Iran in that trajectory?
DAVID KAY: First, what you have to recognize is the instrument, the basis by which ElBaradei, Mohammed ElBaradei, draws that conclusion. And there, it’s an instance of international inspection. Inspection is very good and very useful in confirming whether states are abiding by their obligations or not abiding by their obligations. Inspections are a lousy tool to unmask a clandestine program and allow you to say there is a nuclear weapons program there. In the case of Iraq, it took finding the calutrons [electromagnetic apparatus for separating isotopes] in 1991, finding the centrifuge program [to enrich nuclear fuel] later in the fall, and then ultimately seizing the documents. That was not something you did by inspection— you did by coercive examination after the conclusion of the war. So I think what Mohammed [ElBaradei] is saying is, he’s looked at 18 years now— both documentary proof and Iranian admissions— 18 years of violation of the nonproliferation obligations by the Iranian regime. But what they have not admitted, and in fact what inspections have not found, and probably are incapable of finding, is what is the intent, is at the core [of] their nuclear weapons program.
So I think you ought to listen— and I urge everyone to listen to what they say about what they have found, as opposed to drawing conclusions about what we really want to know about; that is, whether there is really a bomb in the basement, or a proto-program to build a bomb in the basement. International inspection, the way we have it now, is not going to find them.
TAKEYH: But let me ask you in your report, and in almost every discussion of Iran, it is sort of assumed— and I assume it, and I think Ken does too— that Iran is actually determined to develop a nuclear weapons program. And what you’re telling me is you cannot decipher intent from the pattern of technological procurement, can you?
KAY: You may be able to, Ken may be able to, I may be able to as an analyst. Do not expect the head of an international inspection regime to be able to draw those conclusions. I found it very useful— and not just here, I mean it’s partly scientific training: if you separate what you know, and you have evidence to back up what you believe may be happening, and then most importantly identify what you don’t know— and I would put the intent of that program, its drive toward a nuclear weapon in what many of us, including you and Ken I now know [laughter]–
TAKEYH: And Mark.
KAY: No doubt Mark— probably prior to having evidence— believe the intent is a nuclear weapons program. But that’s not something for what, if I or anyone else was director general of the IAEA, could say inspection has led me to find evidence of that. That’s a conclusion. It’s a belief.
TAKEYH: And is it fair to say the IAEA process, given this current inspection regime, is an inconclusive one?
KAY: Absolutely. Inconclusive— not inconclusive as regard to whether Iran has lived up to its nonproliferation obligations. Violations, reams of violations, have been found. Inconclusive as to the intent of those violations, the purpose of those violations, what they’re designed to do.
TAKEYH: Well, let me actually turn to Ken. One of the things that the Committee on Present Danger report suggests that is that— again, I’ll read you the quote and you tell me what you think of it. “Khamenei”–which in this context means Iran, they’re interchangeable— “supports [anti-U.S. Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada] al-Sadr and others in Iraq, who want to become another theocratic dictatorship under Iranian tutelage.” Let me ask you, given your comparative advantage, a two-fold question: A, what do you think is Iran’s designs on Iraq? Is it to suggest that it’s seeking a theocratic dictatorship under the leadership of Khamenei or similar like-minded folks? What is Iran’s Iraq policy? And turn the angle around: What is that Iraqi Shiites and others view Iran and their prospective relationship with the Iranian government, which has been complicated in the past? So those are two questions for you.
KENNETH POLLACK: Sure. First, let me start by saying I wouldn’t disagree with the quote that you just read me, insofar as it goes. Now, I don’t know what the rest of the paragraph that that quote is contained in says. I have not read the report. I don’t know what the context is. But I will say that I think it is a true statement that Iran is supporting Muqtada al-Sadr and others who are desirous of building a theocratic state in Iraq. I also think that’s a very incomplete statement. I don’t know what the rest of the report says, but I would never leave it with just that quote. The fact of the matter is, I think that in their heart of hearts many of Iran’s senior leadership would love to have a theocratic government in Iraq, like their own, closely aligned with Iran. They think it is highly unlikely that they will get that outcome.
The second part of your question is an extremely important one. The Iranian leadership has made it clear time and again that they recognize that the Iraqis don’t much care for them, including Iraq’s Shia. They will remember the experience of the Iran-Iraq War. The ayatollahs’ hope, when they invaded Iraq in 1982— a counteroffensive in response to Saddam’s own invasion— when they invaded Iraq, their hope was that their Shia brethren would rise up and throw off the yoke of this awful Sunni dictator. And they didn’t. Instead, the Shia fought ferociously on behalf of Saddam’s regime. That was a very important lesson for Iran, and I think it is something we see playing out today. And, in point of fact, while it is true that they are providing some level of assistance to Muqtada al-Sadr, that level of assistance tends to be greatly exaggerated in the unclassified reporting in the outside press. And, what’s more, they provide support to a whole variety of groups, and most of them, the most important groups, the message that they get from Tehran is, “Go along with the Americans.” While it may be in their heart of hearts, as I’ve said, they’d love to see this theocratic Iraq, they know it is extremely unlikely that they’re going to get it. And what they see as the second best, and in fact a much more likely option in fact, one that they can absolutely refine, is the success of what the U.S. is saying it will do.
If we succeed— let’s set aside whether or not we’re going to succeed— but if we succeed in building an independent pluralist Iraq in which the Shia majority is allowed to have political weight equivalent to its demographic weight, the Iranians believe that they will get a government that they can live with. And given the fact that for the last 30 years they’ve had a government in Iraq that they couldn’t live with, that was their greatest principal foe, their greatest threat, that change is an enormous plus for the Iranians, and it is why you see them telling groups like SCIRI [Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq], like Dawa, the major Shia groups who do look to the Iranians at some level for some degree of support, see the Iranians typically saying to them, “Go along with the Americans— we are fine with where the Americans are going.”
Now, there are always multiple games. We know that the Rev Guard [Revolutionary Guard] is in there. If you want, I can talk about that as well. The Iranian government is never consistent. But the overwhelming, the mainstream, message from the leadership is that one, and I think it’s a very important thing for all Americans to keep in mind, because Iran’s tacit support for our reconstruction effort has been a critical element in the success that we’ve enjoyed in Iraq so far.
TAKEYH: Well, let me ask you as well, ambassador, because the next big issue that’s coming up in Iran’s international relations is the whole negotiations that are taking place with the Europeans, that have to do with whether Iran will abide by the EU-3 [Britain, France, and Germany] agreement [concerning Iran’s nuclear program], whether necessary incentives will come. And, as you know, the Iranians have said that the Europeans violated the original October 2003 agreement. What should the United States diplomacy be as the Europeans and Iranians negotiate? So far, it has been good cop/bad cop. Should that change? Should the United States be an active participant in these negotiations, which essentially imply offering concessions to the current regime? One of the things I found interesting about your report, you called for diplomatic recognition of Iran while indicting the head of state. What should the United States do? Should it be part of the diplomacy that’s taking place and offering concessions, while at the same time establishing an international tribunal next door to try Khamenei? I mean, how, where should the United States go with the EU-Iran negotiations?
PALMER: We support the negotiations. The committee thinks that they’re important, and it would be great if they succeeded. We just don’t think that that’s adequate by itself. We need— we propose a very broad dialogue with the Iranian people, and a re-engagement with the Iranian body politic— not just with Khamenei, not just with the Foreign Ministry, but with the whole of Iran, with the Iran that everybody in this room knows— with the rich complexity of Iran, not just with this one grand ayatollah who is not a grand ayatollah, who is parading around as a great figure, which he isn’t.
POLLACK: Not even an ayatollah.
PALMER: Yeah, he’s not even an ayatollah. So we think that it’s not adequate to depend solely on the European negotiations, but that they should be supported. And that, in the negotiations that our main role should be to try to keep the game honest, not to leave the Europeans feeling alone. It’s sometimes good when you’re in a negotiation to have pressure on one side and pressure on the other side. It’s clear they’re going to get pressure from the Iranians. So we’re a counter-pressure, and maybe that will help to keep the game honest and result in an outcome. I just wanted to respond that during the [former President Jimmy] Carter years, I was actually under [Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus] Les Gelb, director of the arms control office in the State Department, so I didn’t jump to a conclusion about the intelligence on their program without thinking a little bit about it and looking at the evidence. I think the evidence is clear that that’s where Khamenei wants to go.
If you listen, for example, to what [former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani has publicly stated would be the impact of a nuclear device exploded in Israel, as opposed to the same thing in what he called the Muslim world, he said it would be something like— he said it would be a drop in the ocean in the Muslim world, and in Israel it would destroy the state of Israel. It would completely obliterate Israel. So I think that there are people at very senior levels of this regime who want nuclear weapons and who understand what it would do to the geostrategic situation. And we cannot want that. And in our judgment, the Committee on the Present Danger believes we cannot tolerate it, and that if they get the weapons, we argue that we should take them out.
TAKEYH: Let me turn to you, Ken, because you and I have been talking about this issue a great deal. What is, if you assume as the ambassador does, why does Iran want nuclear weapons, what would it do with them? Is there anything that the United States and the international community can do to dissuade it from its current course?
POLLACK: A big set of questions there, Ray.
TAKEYH: I know you thought about them.
POLLACK: Let me start by answering your first question by quoting you back to yourself, and the question—
TAKEYH: Always a good move.
POLLACK: Right. Why does Iran want nuclear weapons or why does Iran’s leaders? It depends. [Laughter] It depends on who you speak to. I mean, as you well know, the Iranian leadership is not a unanimous one. They do not move in lockstep. It is an incredibly fractious group, and many different Iranian leaders seem to have different incentives for wanting nuclear weapons.
I think that we can broadly say that there are at least two clear motives for wanting nuclear weapons: one is defensive, one is security. The Iranians seem to believe that they have to have a nuclear weapon for deterrent purposes, and principally, deterrence against the United States. The Iranian regime has defined the United States as their greatest adversary. Obviously at different times in history that definition has been justified, because we have acted as their greatest adversary. I would add in many instances they provoked us, but of course that’s never the way that it seemed to Tehran. But the simple fact of the matter is the Iranians feel a grave threat from the United States. There are obviously other countries out there, but principally the United States, and they believe they must have nuclear weapons to deter us. The second clear reason is prestige. Iran wants to be a great power. Iranians believe that they should be a great power, and they see membership in the nuclear club as part of realizing those aspirations. And I think that is a fairly common set of aspirations throughout Iran’s leadership.
To get to your second question, though, I think one of the great unknowns out there is to what extent will the Iranian leadership use these weapons for offensive, aggressive purposes, if they acquire the weapons? Again, I think it’s clear that there are some in the leadership who do desire them for aggressive purposes, but it’s just unclear how widely shared that view is. And here I think the great concern is that once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, regardless of why— they may even have gotten them for purely defensive purposes— but once they have them, they will feel so secure, they will believe themselves invulnerable that the United States, or Israel, or Pakistan, or whomever, won’t be able, won’t be willing to retaliate, and therefore they would be freed to go back to a very aggressive destabilizing foreign policy, similar to what they pursued in the late 1980s and early 1990s. And so we have seen other states follow that pattern. The best example of that is Pakistan, which wanted nuclear weapons initially simply to deter India. But once it got them, decided that it was so secure from an Indian retaliation that it greatly stepped up its support to the Kashmiri insurgents, and provoked the [May 1999] Kargil crisis [in the disputed Kashmir region], nearly leading to a war between India and Pakistan. So there’s real precedence for that. I think that’s the great concern.
Now, as for what we do about it— as you well know, Ray, in my book I look at a whole range of different policy options and tease out pluses and minuses. I would say that the approach that Ambassador Palmer laid out, I have some, in fact, I have a fair degree of sympathy for it, because at the end of the day, I don’t much care for this regime in Iran, and I’d love to be rid of it. I think the greatest problem with that is the issue of timing. I like to use this analogy of two clocks, that there are two clocks ticking in Tehran right now. The first is the clock of regime change, and given the fact that most Iranians do want a different government— I think the evidence is pretty strong on that, as Ambassador Palmer suggested— I think it is pretty clear that at some point in time, we are going to have a different Iranian regime. But at the same time, the nuclear clock is ticking, and for me the problem is that the clock of regime change seems to be ticking much slower than the nuclear clock, and I am very pessimistic that regime change can take place before Iran gets nuclear weapons. And that’s what I seek to avoid, is this regime getting nuclear weapons. And I also have a great deal of difficulty, even though I’m willing to say the United States should support some aspects of regime change, I would think the United States has the ability to speed regime change in Iran. In fact, I think it will wind up being counterproductive based on our long history with them. As a result, and I will say I also don’t think the military options are very good. I’ve looked long and hard at them, and I think there are real problems. If you want, I can go into detail—
TAKEYH: We’ll get to them.
POLLACK: Yeah, I’ll set those aside. From my perspective, I think the best approach we can take on Iran is first to say to them, “Look, if you’d like to strike a deal, where we sit down, we give up our sanctions, we give up all the things that you don’t like, and in return you give up the nukes and terrorism, et cetera, and make it all inspections,” I’m glad to have that. I don’t think it’s going to happen, though. I mean, this is a deal that the U.S. has put on the table repeatedly, and this regime has never been willing to accept it. I don’t think they’re there yet. And as a result, I think that the fallback position needs to be— and you’ve heard other people say this, but I will repeat it— it needs to be a policy of true carrots and true sticks. I think as you and I have been talking about, what we are missing in the United States, what oftentimes you just hear, you don’t hear in the public discourse, is the fact that this Iranian regime is not invulnerable. They have real weaknesses. And their Achilles’ heel is their economy. Now, at the moment they’re awash in oil dollars, that’s certainly true. But ultimately, the Iranian economy is in very bad shape. It is failing to meet the needs of the Iranian people, and that economic weakness is creating internal instability. It is one of the greatest fears of the leadership of this regime. If the Europeans are willing to put real sticks on the table, we ought to be willing to put real carrots on the table.
I think just to summarize it, I think the approach that I would say is we— the Europeans, Japanese if we can get the Russians and the Chinese, so much the better— we have the opportunity to lay out for Tehran two very different futures: a future where they give up their nuclear program, they stop terrorism, and in return for that they get a very bright economic future, where we ultimately lift sanctions, we integrate them into the global economy— we do all the things that they need to keep their crippled economy afloat. And if they’re unwilling to go down that path— and that means simply the status quo, as well as moving farther in this direction— then life is going to be very unpleasant for them, and we can impose a series of graduated sanctions on Iran that puts pressure on the one area where they do not want to see pressure— on their economy. And I will close, I will finish these remarks by simply saying that I think that if you looked at Iranian behavior, especially over the past two years, what is so striking is how sensitive to any threat of economic sanctions the Iranians are. In 2003, when the IAEA first issued its first negative report, the Iranians panicked, and they agreed to everything that the Europeans asked. It was only after six months of the Europeans assuring Tehran that they would never, ever impose sanctions on Iran that the Iranians went back and reneged. And this time around, when once again the Europeans stood fast on the agreement and said, “We want those 20 centrifuges in,” the Iranians gave [in] again. The Iranians are very sensitive to this. They are not invulnerable. And I think that if we were willing to sit down and strike a deal with our European allies, I think that can have a tremendous impact on Tehran.
KAY: Let me just add I think what Ken discerns to be sensitivity on the Iranians’ part is probably better characterized as their understanding of how to manipulate the Europeans. [Laughter] That is, sure, you cave for a moment, and then you go right back to it. I think there is a fundamental problem with the good cop/bad copy analogy. What’s that led the Iranians to do, as it has other people, is to discount the leverage that we have, and to think that the Europeans are impotently manipulable. What we really—
PALMER: Proven to be so far.
KAY: Proven so far. And really, a failure on our part to understand a clash of cultures: the Western mentality is a belief that, essentially crudely put, everyone has his price. If we can find the appropriate carrots, behavior will change. The particular variant of Shia culture represented by the ayatollahs really is one that is much more concerned about cost than it is carrots. And in fact, as we talk about it, and you look at the Europeans, they continue to talk about— the European proliferation initiative recently just did the same thing again. The only sanctions on multilateral sanctions— multilateral sanctions heard in Iranian ears are the Chinese will veto it, it will never happen in the Security Council, and so we don’t have to worry. If we’re indeed ever to strike a pose with the Europeans to agree to this, we have to have an agreement that this is in fact a course we want to pursue, and it doesn’t pursue through a U.N. organization, because otherwise, the Iranians are going to think, “Well, we’re right back on the playing field we want to be in.” So I’m not sure I would agree it’s sensitive. I think they understand how to manipulate us.
TAKEYH: Let me just— before you, Ken, also even the current European deals suggest no new business arrangements— not the existing commercial relationship I guess persists.
POLLACK: David, I don’t agree with the— I don’t disagree with the points that you are making. I would put it this way: I think you’re right. The Iranians are trying to manipulate the Europeans because, as I’ve said, they’ve always done it in the past. I think the key variable out here is Europe’s willingness to stand fast against the Iranians. And that’s simply an unknown at this moment—
KAY: That’s pretty known.
POLLACK: The European diplomats are insisting that they’re willing to do this time what they never were beforehand. I think if they were willing to do it, it would put the Iranians in a dilemma. I think you’re right, the Iranians are betting that they won’t have to do it, because they’ve never had to in the past, and of course that’s always been the problem, is that they were always able to play us off of the Europeans. If the Europeans were willing to stick with us, then I think the Iranians would be in very tough shape. I think the question is, we don’t know whether the Europeans really are willing—
KAY: I think we really have to be sensitive to what the Europeans are saying, because they are saying they will consider sanctions, but they’re always saying multilateral sanctions, U.N. Security Council. The fact of the matter is, that is a no-go under any circumstances that we could imagine. If we are to have a dialogue with the Europeans, it is to move them not only to sanctions, but move them to the sanctions that we and the Europeans— and it would be nice but not going to happen, would be the Chinese included, it’s probably not even going to be the Russians— and to recognize that that still can be a tremendous force in terms of a price the Iranians would have to pay. But the Europeans continue to hang their policy on multilateral sanctions through the Security Council. I see that, and I think Tehran sees that, as nothing but a free pass. Don’t have to worry.
POLLACK: I agree with you, and you’re right. And it has to be done outside the Security Council, because the Security Council is never going to make this work.
TAKEYH: OK, ambassador?
PALMER: I don’t agree with Ken’s understanding of the view that dictators have of their people’s economic welfare and of economic growth and of economic rationality. I mean, if Khamenei and his crowd, the Guardian Council, really cared about making Iran a successful economy, they could have done it with very little trade and investment. I mean, they could just have had a rational economic policy, which they don’t have. What they’ve done is in a classic dictatorial way, they have taken over the assets of the state for themselves. The mullahs have become rich. Their families have become rich. They control the export-import business, these families do. We’ve just seen, with Saddam Hussein, the limits of economic policy of sanctions on dictators. He built over half of all his palaces from ’91 until we ousted him, during a period of very substantial— supposedly substantial— even European-agreed-to and supposedly implemented sanctions. In my view, economic sanctions against dictators simply don’t work. They’ve not worked against [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro. They simply don’t work because dictators have a whole other way of thinking about staying in power and about their own people.
So I think we need to invent— and we argue in our paper— we need to invent new kinds of sanctions that are much more finely targeted, that don’t hurt the Iranians, that in fact our policy should be geared to helping the Iranian people have trade and investment, have a positive economic policy. We should target the reason why they have a failed economy, which is this man and his coterie.
TAKEYH: I just have to open it up to the questions, now. Sorry. I ask for you to wait for the microphone, and introduce yourself as you ask your question. So I’ll open it up now for questions.
QUESTIONER: Raymond Tanter, Georgetown University. Not once did I hear from this esteemed group the word “Iranian opposition.” There is an Iranian opposition, and it would appear to me that if regime change were a goal, that that opposition should be cultivated. Now, you might say, “How much support does that opposition have?” Once the great powers, I would argue, send a signal to that opposition, then more people would jump off of the fence. But it’s a pretty dangerous place to be right now in terms of going to that opposition. And so I would like to put on the table the idea of a third option that is not just negotiations, that is not just military strikes, but supporting the Iranian opposition in the manner in which the president has already said— President [George W.] Bush— has already said, he wants to go over the head of the unelected ayatollahs and go right to the people.
TAKEYH: Let me just— your report does go into that actually. Could you—
PALMER: Yeah, our whole—
TAKEYH: Could you before, if I can elucidate this very question, who is the opposition? And if you could say how does the United States establish a relationship with them, because there is no solidarity as it was. So if you can— the delicacy of establishing a relationship with an opposition that doesn’t fully cohere?
PALMER: Let me first say, Ray, thank you for the question, because our paper is entirely premised on support for the opposition, or in our view Iranians, the majority of the population. So this is not some dissidents who are sitting in a cell somewhere. This is the whole body politic. Anybody who has read “Persian Pilgrimages” by this wonderful Washington Post reporter of Iranian origin [Afshin Molavi], who spent a year and a half going around and talking to taxi drivers, mullahs, students, and everybody else in the country, it’s very clear what the attitude is to this regime. There is total alienation. There’s no legitimacy on the part of this regime.
So I think that working— we think that working with the democratic opposition or with the people of Iran is the key. Now, who is the opposition? Well, Khatami went to Tehran University just two weeks ago I think it was, or maybe three weeks ago, and tried to speak, and the students almost shouted him down, because they said, “Shame to you— shame that you have not done what you were elected to do, that you have not had the courage to stand up for your principles. Your own people have been put in prison, your own family has been put in prison, and you wouldn’t defend them.” So I think, first of all, the students are the opposition. I— based on my experience in a lot of dictatorships, students are the most important single factor. In Ukraine recently they were the most important factor— the student group was. So I think the U.S. needs to help the students there.
Secondly of course, the intellectuals are very important. But the workers are very important, too. I do agree with Ken that there is concern in the ruling elite about the dissatisfaction among ordinary Iranians, including workers. And that can be tapped into. I mean, we in the U.S., and we [in] the democratic world, have very substantial experience in how to help to build trade unions, political parties, underground presses. VOA [Voice of America] doesn’t have anywhere near the money for its Persian language programs that it should have. It’s not on the air as much as it should. Both VOA TV and VOA radio are not, [U.S.-funded] Radio Farda is underfunded. We argue in our paper that the very good TV and radio stations that exist in this country and in Europe that broadcast in Farsi, independent stations, they’re underfunded, too. And when they’ve been able to be on strong transponders, they have mass audiences in Iran. I mean, it’s very— Avi Davidi, who is here from VOA, had me on recently. It’s very impressive how many Iranians call into VOA when they’re on the air. And, you know, this is a country that’s not closed. This is not North Korea and we should be doing more [Librarian of Congress] Jim Billingtons. It was wonderful when the Librarian of Congress went there. We need to have student exchanges. We need to get our NGOs authorized to operate there. I’m part of Freedom House, and Freedom House isn’t even allowed to operate in Iran today. We have the most cockamamie program and policy. I just think— I mean, President Bush has made a wonderful speech a couple of years ago that virtually nothing has been done to implement it. We’re not trying to help the Iranian people today. We have no connections. We’re not there.
POLLACK: I don’t want to disagree with the points Ambassador Palmer has just made, but I do want to add a few points, and I want to actually disagree with a fundamental assumption of your question, Ray, which is if we declare our support, Iranians will get off the fence, which I actually think that given our history with Iran probably would be exactly the opposite. And I think there’s a general caution that I think we need to be very careful about comparing Iran to any other dictatorship. It is very different from any other dictatorship. I was perfectly glad to compare Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship to [Romanian leader Nicolae] Ceausescu, to a whole bunch of others, because there were similarities. Iran is a very different kind of society.
But a particular point about the opposition. I cannot think of anything that would hurt one of the student groups more than to have it revealed that they were receiving funding from the United States— overtly or covertly. This is the problem with our involvement with Iran. For 50 years, American interference in Iranian affairs was the hobgoblin of Iranian minds. It is still the kind of rallying point that you find over and over again. Even though you have lots of Iranians who are very pro-American, the idea that the United States is reaching into Iran and manipulating things is an absolute no-go. And we have hurt every group we’ve ever tried to support over the last 25 years from doing so. So I don’t disagree with many of the points that Ambassador Palmer made. I’m a big fan of Voice of America. And I also— I actually think it was disgraceful that the administration was not more forceful in condemning the disgraceful 2004 Majilis [legislative] elections. And I think those kinds of things are perfectly fine. But I think that when you talk about trying to actively reach into Iran, you are going to wind up harming the very people we’re trying to help.
TAKEYH: You wanted to say something?
KAY: Yeah, just a quick point, Ray. I think, Ray, when you talk about opposition groups, you have to realize— Ken said one thing that I strongly agree to and think you ought to keep in the forefront of your mind. There really are two clocks. There is a clock of regime change and there is a nuclear weapons program clock. The regime change, under any condition I can imagine, is a very slow-ticking clock. The nuclear weapons program clock is a very rapidly evolving clock. The focus of attention needs to be on: are there steps we can take that will defer the success of a nuclear weapons program in Iran? And the goal of success for the administration ought not to be the elimination of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. That’s not going to happen at this stage. It is that deferral, delay so that the regime change clock has a chance to catch up. And so if we solely focus on helping the opposition groups, and quite frankly I’m with Ken, I can’t imagine if I were an opposition group in Iran, the last thing I’d like to have is U.S. money, and I’m not even sure I want U.S. endorsement— a kiss of death of my own supporters. But, anyway, however you help them, you’ve got to recognize you have an obligation to deal with the nuclear weapons issue. If you don’t, you’re going to be caught on that issue well before regime change.
TAKEYH: Barbara Slavin. And I ask you, as with Ray Tanter, to keep your questions crisp and to the point.
QUESTIONER: OK. Barbara Slavin of USA Today. Forgive me if I missed this— I came in a little bit later. Has anybody talked about the MEK [Mujahedeen-e-Khalq] and what we should do with them? They are an Iranian opposition group. There are thousands of them in Iraq under— in U.S. custody or under U.S. protection, I’m not entirely sure. What should we do with them?
TAKEYH: Ambassador, I’ll start with you, because that’s— the premise of your report is the support for Iranian opposition groups. Is that an opposition group that you think is worthy of American support or endorsement?
PALMER: Barbara, I am again delighted that you asked that question, because I think this is really an important thing for us to address. Whatever the history of the MEK, whether or not American army colonels were assassinated by legitimate members of the MEK in the ’70s, whatever role they played during the Iran-Iraq War, there is no question in my mind at least that there are many Iranians, both outside Iran and inside Iran, who support it. It was at the time when [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini came in, in 1980, in ’79-80, it was certainly a very serious force among ordinary Iranians— very organized force. And the fact that Khomeini ended up executing tens of thousands of MEK people, and that the MEK was able to organize an army demonstrates that this is a serious opposition. Whether one agrees with everything that some of the leaders stand for is another matter, but that it is a serious opposition I think goes without question.
So the issue is: is the U.S. government capable of doing a really objective look at the main criteria for terrorist groups today? It is today a terrorist group or not? And if it isn’t, are we capable of actually de-listing somebody? I talked to someone on the Hill just yesterday about this in connection with Colombia, where evidently the State Department and USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] are trying as a way of getting people out of the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] and other things to recognize that some individuals and groups actually want to go peaceful. And so AID and State want to compensate— to, you know, work with them, help them. And the Justice Department is fighting this, because they say, “No, no, they’re still terrorists.” Well, we have to be able to walk and chew gum. I mean, we have to be able to think about this in today’s terms in the realities of what the MEK is today.
TAKEYH: So you would support that?
PALMER: So I would support a serious re-look at this, an objective re-look.
TAKEYH: And a terrorist designation to be countermanded?
PALMER: And if serious people in the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] and elsewhere come to the conclusion that it is not today a terrorist group, we should de-list them and work with them.
POLLACK: I couldn’t disagree more with the sense of statements. First, the MEK as best I can tell, [inaudible] on the intelligence community, has very little support inside of Iran. While it is true that in the late 1970s and the early 1980s they did have a degree of support in Iran, they horribly de-legitimize themselves by throwing in their lot with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. The MEK raised an army to invade Iran. Iranians by and large have never forgiven them for that. Second, their acts of terrorism against the United States are, it is true, are somewhat in the distant past. Their acts of terrorism against Iran go right up until the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If they haven’t mounted a terrorist attack in the last 22 months, it’s because they’re sitting under lock and key under American forces inside of Iraq, and we’re not allowing them to do so.
I also think that there is an issue about the larger war on terrorism that we need to consider. These are a group of people who have accepted responsibility, who have claimed to have mounted attacks— terrorist attacks— against Iran recently. And I think that the Iranians have actually a point when they say, “If you want us to give up al Qaeda, you need to treat the MEK the same way.” Now, whether we actually hand them over to Iran I think is a different issue, but I think the United States would do very well to say that any group that has conducted terrorist attacks against any country on earth for which that country can make an indictable case— not a convictable case, simply an indictable case— we ought to engage in some policy of extradition. That’s been difficult, because we don’t have an extradition treaty with the Iranians. But I think that would benefit us enormously in our fight against al Qaeda, and against other terrorist groups that we’re thinking of.
TAKEYH: I’ll go to you, sir, you’ve been patiently waiting. If you can please introduce yourself.
QUESTIONER: Dennis Kux from the Woodrow Wilson Center. A couple of factual questions: one, Iran and the other neighbor, Afghanistan, how have they behaved? Helpful, harmful, et cetera? The second, Pakistan, nuclear weapons, Iran: what’s your assessment of what’s happened, how damaging has it been, et cetera?
TAKEYH: The relationship with [Pakistani nuclear scientist] A.Q. Khan…
KAY: Let me take the easy one, the relationship between Pakistan and the Iranian program. It’s substantial. It goes back to the 1980s. In terms of my bucket of what we know, I have to say there are some things we don’t know about it, because the Pakistanis have not cooperated, and the Iranians have been very reluctant to reveal anything we haven’t found actual physical evidence [of]. But the centrifuge program that the Iranians are pursuing has all the hallmarks— and I mean physical hallmarks— of the A.Q. Khan thing— the technology, everything from their mining extraction of uranium, the processing of it, the hexachloride, is of Iranian, at least Iranian help. It could involve China and Russian experts as well. It was substantial. The program would not be where it is today— that is, poised to go ahead with a proven, workable weapons design that will fit on a missile— without Pakistani help.
TAKEYH: Afghanistan? It’s very rare to get a question about the postwar construction of Afghanistan.
POLLACK: And this is one of these where this is not a black-and-white issue. The Iranians have been very helpful on Afghanistan. It’s the same as their perspective on Iraq. They live next door to Afghanistan, just as they live next door to Iraq, and their greatest fear in both of those countries is chaos. They hated the Taliban, they hated al Qaeda— I think they still hate al Qaeda, despite this bizarre cooperation, or at least this playing footsie with some of the al Qaeda leadership that’s going on now. And as a result, they’ve actually been quite helpful to the United States. They were extremely helpful during the war, and even since the end of the war they have been very helpful to us in Afghanistan, because there is a tremendous commonality of interests in those two areas.
TAKEYH: I’ll go [to] Larry, if you can go a little back. Come to you next.
QUESTIONER: Larry Hanauer with Booz, Allen, Hamilton. There’s a lot of discussion about regime change, whether it’s something that we or some other outside force instigates, or whether regime change just comes about through ordinary demographic change over time. But I’m wondering if anyone has given thought to really what comes next. The regime change would change the whole political structure, as Ambassador Palmer has said; it would change the economic structure of the country. And I think we’re seeing now in Iraq what happens when we pursue regime change without adequately thinking about the aftermath. So I’m wondering what might come next, and who in the U.S. government is thinking about it?
TAKEYH: Ambassador, since your report has emphasized—
KAY: A much harder question. [Laughter]
TAKEYH: –emphasized the idea of a different regime, could you— has the Committee on the Present Danger thought about life after Khamenei? [Laughter]
PALMER: No, I think this is a very important question, and I guess the— we have at least 40 different countries in the last 30 years that have gone through transition from dictatorship to at least beginning down the road to a market economy and to a viable democracy. I— you know, I don’t know whether anybody in the State Department is seriously, or anywhere else in U.S. government, is seriously looking at the future. I did, coincidentally, today spend some time with some— with a variety of people from the UNDP [United Nations Development Program], from the Hill, and from a variety of East European and Central European governments, talking about setting up an institute to precisely share the experience of all these transitional countries— Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, et cetera, all of Eastern Europe, the ones that have been and are still going through this transition, to share it with those that may be just thinking about it now— Egypt, you know, all of the Middle East, Burma, et cetera— because there’s not— even UNDP doesn’t have a lot of capacity already in-house for doing this. So I don’t know really how to answer your question in terms of is anyone seriously working on how Iran would look.
Let me just say, though, that based on my own experience in transitions in some of those Central European countries, that in the first year or two it’s pretty messy, but it somehow finds its way. I mean, there are very many talented Iranians, both in Iran and outside. I don’t think the problem is that nobody knows in Iran how to do a market economy or how to hold elections. The problem is, you’ve got a dictator who doesn’t want to leave power. I think once he goes— with some help from a variety of places— they’ll find their way, and they’ll be a successful society. I visited Iran a number of times over the years, and I’ve always been immensely impressed with how talented these people are. They will do fine. They will be like in the Eastern European context, in my judgment, more like Slovenia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic— than like the failed East European or further east states, which really haven’t gotten their act together— like Ukraine is still struggling to get its act together.
TAKEYH: David, did you want to—
KAY: Ray, just on this, I think anyone who thinks about regime change should not make the automatic assumption that a successor regime, however it comes about, is likely to automatically abandon its nuclear weapons program. One of the most important things about Iran and its nuclear weapons program to recognize, is the broad societal support that is well beyond the ayatollahs that Iran has a right to have a nuclear weapon for reasons of prestige, because they look around at the guys who have nuclear weapons and they compare, “We’re less worthy than the Pakistanis or the Israelis,” and they don’t like that conclusion, and because they live in a nasty neighborhood. And a lot of the strategic thinkers believe a nuclear weapons program will give them some magic pass to survival. You have to recognize that program is rooted, and if you doubt that, go back to the shah [Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi], 1974. We agreed that the Iranians’ 23,000 megawatts of nuclear power had another implication. The only concern Secretary [of State Henry] Kissinger had is, would we be able to build some of the reactors? I mean, this is something that to automatically say, “You can’t have it,” is something that is deeply offensive to a lot of Iranians.
TAKEYH: You wanted to—
PALMER: Let me just say I think that’s right. I think that it does have a broader base of support. But I think it’s also important not to just conclude from that that this is inevitable—
KAY: Oh, absolutely.
PALMER: –that if it becomes a democracy— I mean, we have seen a number of examples of countries that have transitioned from dictatorship to democracy, which have abandoned nuclear weapons programs— South Africa did. The Ukraine had plenty of nuclear weapons, so did Kazakhstan— and they voluntarily gave them up. So I mean, I think this is a serious issue, but I also think that we would be much more comfortable working with a democratic Iran on this problem than we are today.
TAKEYH: I’ll go to this side of the room. Tom Lippman. I’ll come back to you, sir.
QUESTIONER: Tom Lippman, the Middle East Institute. About a month ago, there was a delegation of quite well-informed and thoughtful Saudis who were here in town, had various meetings around town. And these— the members of that delegation all said that they and all their colleagues and friends and associates are convinced that Iran is our next target, and the decision to take it down has already been made by the Bush administration. Do you agree with that, and on what basis would they think that?
TAKEYH: Ambassador, you’re the closest one we have to a Bush administration official, [laughter] so maybe you know something? Do you think the Saudis—
PALMER: Is the question that Saudis perceive this or that this is a reality? That is, that the Bush administration has already made the decision to go?
QUESTIONER: [Inaudible] the brief case closed, the meeting ended, the decision was made.
PALMER: No, no. To the best of my knowledge, no such decisions have been made. And my own sense of and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz and others’ thinking is that that’s absolutely not correct— not at all. But I don’t work for the administration.
QUESTIONER: This is Umit Enginsoy from the Turkish NTV. As a follow-up to the previous question, although there’s no such decision made, do you think U.S. strikes against Iran could be possible, feasible, or useful? And, if so, could you imagine any case in which Turkey could cooperate with the United States against Iran?
TAKEYH: Let me just broadly— the way they did last time. [Laughter] Let me just broaden that a little bit because, ambassador— and I’ll come to you as well— your report does actually allude to the fact that it may be necessary to militarily strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Do you think that will eliminate the program? And what other ramifications of a strike, in terms of the longevity of the regime and its ability to mobilize national sentiment around an external threat?
PALMER: Well, first let me say that when the Committee on the Present Danger considered my draft on this subject, there was huge discussion about precisely this issue. I mean, the Committee on the Present Danger’s sort of senior pooh-bah, the big figures in the organization, are [former Secretary of State] George Shultz, [Senator] Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.], Senator [Jon] Kyl [R-Ariz.] and [former CIA director] Jim Woolsey, and others. And these are not people who readily think you should attack another nation, or attack its nuclear facilities. [Laughter] So I want to say on behalf of the committee that although we do provide for this, this is definitely not what you do to start out. You don’t wake up one morning, say, “Boy, we’re going to just do it.” It’s something that if you— if everything else has not worked, including regime change— nothing else is working, and you face this kind of threat, then you sit down with all of your friends and allies in Europe, and Turkey, and everybody, and you say, “Look, this is the reality that we face— what do we do?” Have you— have a long, hard discussion. So the Committee on the Present Danger argues strenuously that you should do a hundred other things first, and do them seriously. And we believe we’re not doing those things today.
TAKEYH: Now, there was a recent article on this, about military strikes Iran, in— where else?–The Weekly Standard. And they said that it allows nationalistic opposition, but so what. [Laughter]
POLLACK: We’ve done that before.
TAKEYH: Yeah, let me just ask you, Ken, what will be the ramifications within Iran, and what would be Iranian behavior should there be a military strike of some sort, which may be— we may get to it at some point?
POLLACK: And I think that, again, when you do a look at this, the ramifications are all going to be negative, once you get beyond the military, the nuclear program.
TAKEYH: It doesn’t disarm the program. If that’s—
POLLACK: I to a certain— I mean, I think you will rally the people around the government. This will be an act of war by the United States. I think they will retaliate with everything they’ve got. That said, those aren’t necessarily reasons not to do it, if we come to your second question, which is, what do you actually do to the program? And I think right now, that’s the biggest issue out there that makes this such an unattractive option, is honestly we don’t know what it would do to the program. When you speak to the intelligence analysts— we were actually with a handful of them today, and this question was put, and they came right back and said, “We have no idea what Iran’s nuclear program looks like.” OK? We don’t know if we know where all the sites are. There may be a half dozen other massive facilities that we just don’t know they exist. There’s some good precedent from this. The Iraqis kept half of their nuclear facilities completely hidden from us before the Gulf War. You know, when we into the Gulf War, we thought we knew where all the Iraqi nuclear facilities were. We bombed them to smithereens. Then David went in and said, “Oh, by the way, you missed 60 percent of them.” We didn’t even know they existed. The Iranians also— the revelations about [inaudible] and Iraq were big surprises for the intelligence community. And I would say the Israelis say the same thing. When I speak to their intelligence, they don’t know what the Iranian nuclear program looks like. And for all those reasons, I think that if the president were ever to go to [Director of Central Intelligence] Porter Goss, and say, “Porter, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has put a plan for airstrikes on my table. It’s going to be a major effort— we’re going to go in there and blow every target you can identify to smithereens. What’s it going to do to the Iranian nuclear program?” I think Porter Goss would have to say to him in all honesty, “Mr. President, we have no idea. It could set— ”
KAY: That’s better than “slam-dunk.”
POLLACK: That’s true. [Laughter] You know, this is— look, this is the issue you get to, which is if you know that there are going to be costs, you want to make sure that the benefits that you get are going to be big enough and good enough to justify those costs. And right now, we don’t know what the benefits are going to be.
TAKEYH: David, let me ask you a question. If there’s no military solution to this program, if you suggest that new diplomacy is going to run out its course, and if the president has made the point a number of times that this country will not be permitted to have these weapons, then how does this country not be permitted to have these weapons?
KAY: Well, let me answer the question, but let me first say I think it would be a huge mistake to take the military option off the table. I think one of the difficulties in negotiating with the Europeans in getting a common framework is they will never agree to the military option— and yet we have to maintain it if we are to have any hope. Look, I think there is a potential of a yes-able deal with the Iranians in the nuclear issue. As much as some people in this room may not like it, there’s going to be a renaissance of nuclear energy, or we’re going to be floating— like California. The nuclear industry is coming back. This is the point: instead of telling the Iranians, “You shouldn’t have nuclear power, you’ve got gas, and you should just use that for your energy,” we should say to the Iranians, and I think we should say it to some other countries as well, “There is going to be a renaissance, we realize there’s a role for nuclear energy. The dangerous part of this for all of us is the enrichment area, and we’re proposing the creation of regional enrichment centers, in which you participate in the management.” I think the one for Iran ought to be in Russia. I think the Iranians ought to help fund it and help manage it. I think you put a deal on that table, and the dilemma it poses for the Iranians is that they say no to it. It is a clear indication that the purpose of their program is solely military. But you have to put that out.