The world is watching
Interview with presidential candidate, Hooshang Amirahmadi
May 18, 2005
Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi is
a candidate in Iran's presidential elections on June 17. He is
President of the American
Iranian Council and Director of the Center
for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
New Jersey. See his official site, Amirahmadi.com.
Arash Salehi: John Kerry, during his
election campaign, said that if elected he would offer Iran direct
talks. First, given the situation in Iran, could a direct talk
take place between Iran and the US? And second, does the “direct
talk” option still have supporters in the Bush administration?
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Hooshang Amirahmadi: To begin with, let me thank you for the
opportunity to discuss US-Iran relations. As you may know, I have
spent over 15 years on the subject, continuously warning both sides
that the conflict between the two countries could spiral into disaster.
I am afraid that in the absence of any serious initiative on both
sides, my predictions could come true.
I am pleased to say that I provided important opportunities for
Iran to mend relations with the US, but the Iranian government
failed to recognize and utilize the opportunities.
One such opportunity
occurred during President Clinton’s administration in March
2002, at an American Iranian Council conference, when Secretary
Madeleine Albright extended a regret and then an apology to the
Iranian people for America’s wrong policies toward Iran including
the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (even if
the real makers of that coup were the British).
Unfortunately, opportunities of that nature will not arise again
between the two governments. September 11 has changed the American
security and political environments drastically, and in the meantime,
the Islamic Republic has drifted toward a harder line at home and
abroad, or at least that is what is seen from the outside to have
happened in Iran.
Senator Kerry offered direct talk, but he had
a difficult condition: that Iran halt uranium enrichment completely
and return the spent fuel back to Russia. Iran has accepted this
last condition in a recent contract with Russia, but it has difficulty
making compromises on the enrichment issue with the European
Three (UK, France, Germany). So I believe that even if Senator
had become the American President, the direct talk would have
not taken place between the two.
Aside from the difficulty for Iran to accept stopping the enrichment
altogether, domestic Iranian politics would have made it difficult
for Iran to enter into a direct dialogue with the US. A web of
networks, some with Mafia-like economic and political interests,
opposes US-Iran dialogue. Even if the Iranian domestic politics
could have been overcome, the American domestic politics would
have eliminated the dialogue option.
The most powerful elements
of the Bush administration are no longer interested in negotiating
with Iran as long as the political system in Tehran remains unacceptable
to them. Never before has the link between Iran’s domestic
politics and US-Iran relations been as strong as it is today. Separating
them is becoming increasingly impossible.
Will the lost opportunities of the Clinton period
ever return as long as the systems on both sides remain in place?
Do the conservatives also regret the lost opportunities?
Yes, I believe that even the conservatives
regret, and should regret, the loss of the opportunities that we
provided and Iran missed. As long as the present system in Iran
remains as is, regardless of what political party rules in the
US, the two countries will not be able to resolve their disputes.
The lack of mutual trust is simply too huge to overcome with half-hearted
approaches such as the two sides offer.
American traditional concerns with Iran’s nuclear ambition
support for terrorism, and opposition to the Middle East peace,
is radically changing. The Bush administration is now assuring
the Iranian people that the US is on their side as they seek liberty
and freedom from the Islamic theocracy.
This US shift toward Iran’s
domestic politics is indicative of two American concerns: that
the Islamic regime will not implode any time soon, as some had
predicted and Washington had hoped, and that its military-strategic
power is growing while remaining an Islamic theocracy and unfriendly
to the US.
Implied in this shift is also the fact that American
concern has changed from Tehran’s behavior to its power and
ultimately the regime itself. The Bush administration is now increasingly
thinking in terms of regime change. Indeed, regime change might
have already become the policy. The big question for the US is
how to change the regime.
If Iran held a free presidential election (on June
17), how would this affect the views of the neoconservative hardliners
in the US toward Iran?
It depends on what you mean by “free
elections.” If the Guardian Council were to eliminate secular
candidates or candidates with less religious credentials, the neoconservatives
will dismiss the elections as undemocratic and rigged. So a “free
elections” between the various factions of the system, including
the reformists, pragmatists, and conservatives, will not be attractive
to the neoconservatives.
I might add that such elections will not
be attractive even to American democrats. The time that intra-system
elections were viewed as legitimate and free has long gone. The
neoconservatives do not have a problem with Iran’s behavior,
as was the case during President Clinton administration. Rather,
they have problem with Iran’s power and by extension its
regime. They fear that Iran’s power, both hard and soft,
can in the near future become a serious headache for Israel, even
potentially threatening its existence. The anti-Israeli rhetoric
from Tehran has been damaging.
If the Conservatives (osoul garayan) were to win
the presidential elections, can one expect a harder line from the
US and possibly a military clash between the conservatives in both
Certainly a conservative, supposedly more
anti-American, president will annoy Americans more, causing them
to become less compromising, thus providing opportunity for conflict
of a serious nature. In my view, the situation would not improve
even if a reformist or pragmatist were to be elected as president.
There are at least two reasons for this: one, the US problem is
no longer with one faction, and the Bush administration is not
making a distinction between conservatives and reformists as the
Clinton administration used to make.
For the Bush administration,
the regime as a whole is an issue. Secondly, the US problem has
increasingly become less about regime behavior and more about its
intentions and capabilities. More specifically, it is Iran’s
power that is the target of Bush administration rather than the
regime’s behavior. From this perspective, Washington is not
focused on changing regime behavior but on destroying its power
or changing the regime.
Will the legitimacy of the elections decline to
a dangerous level if the Guardian Council were to reject the reformist
candidate? And if this happens, what will the global reaction be?
The US and the world community are watching
this election very carefully. If the Guardian Council rejects candidates
on a political and ideological basis, the elections will be viewed
as illegitimate and non-democratic. I believe the world will be
watching not only the reformist candidates but also candidates
outside the system, including secular candidates.
The US and Europe
will be even more disappointed if candidates outside the system
are not allowed to run. If non-system candidates are rejected,
the world public opinion is ready to write off the Islamic Republic
as non-reformable, in which case regime change will be viewed
as the only alternative.
Will a candidate from a particular faction, if
elected with a high vote, be able to increase Iran’s negotiating
power vis-à-vis Europe and the US? Is there a difference
of opinion between the Israelis and Americans over how to handle
Iran’s “nuclear threat?”
President Khatami was elected with a very
high vote, but currently the world sees him doing nothing. Therefore,
the problem with Iran’s lack of ability to negotiate effectively
with Europe regarding its rights to civilian nuclear technology
is not related to the size of the vote that the current president
or the next president will get.
At the core of the problem is the lack of trust in the Islamic
regime. Unfortunately, the regime abused its own rights to peaceful
nuclear technology by hiding its activities and cheating the world
community. If that had not happened, Iran would not need to negotiate
its own rights! The only way Iran can regain that rights is for
the nation to first regain that lost trust.
Will the US, which is the main troublemaker, trust the presidential
candidates who are running as within-the-system candidates? I doubt
it. As I see it, the US will not trust any of the candidates that
are currently running for president, nor will Europe, or even many
of the other nations in the region and beyond. And worse yet, none
of the candidates running have the vision and the guts to regain
the lost trust.
The Israelis are particularly concerned about within-the system
candidates. They really want to get the US to destroy Iran’s
infrastructure, beyond its nuclear sites or military installations,
including downsizing Iran’s power and territory. Can they?
It depends on how bad relations become between the US and Iran,
which are getting worse every day, or what happens to the nuclear
negotiations with Europe, which are at the point of collapse.
suggest that the Israelis will not give up on their demand that
the US hit Iran’s nuclear sites and beyond. It is very possible
that they will succeed. They have the momentum on their side, and
usually get what they want from the US.
Different opinions are expressed by the various
American and Israeli officials on what to do with Iran. Are such
differences tactical, or they emanate from a confused policy toward
They are both tactical and strategic. Former
Secretary of State George Shultz, in a private conversation in
the summer of 2001, summarized the American view of Iran following
the Revolution in four points.
First, Iran is a very important
country, and we should have never lost it, and now that we have,
we need to regain its partnership.
Second, no regime has harmed
the US more than the Islamic Republic, and it is going to be
difficult, if not impossible, to mend relations with this regime.
understand that the Iranian religious leadership would change
its behavior in areas of nuclear technology, terrorism, and the
East peace if subjected to American force, but that is not an
option that we can entertain unless we are forced to do so. And
there is only one mutually beneficial solution to our problem,
and that is to begin a dialogue that will help normalize relations,
and that has to begin with confidence building at the highest
Secretary Shultz’s points were made right before the September
11 tragedy. Since then the world has changed, particularly in the
Middle East, and so has US-Iran relations. The American military
destroyed a terrorist regime in Afghanistan and a dictatorship
in Iraq wrongly alleged to having weapons of mass destruction and
links with terrorist groups. Both countries remain politically
unsettled and economically in shambles. Yet, after the successful
elections there, the Bush administration has been able to detach
itself, at least mentally, from those problem cases, and have increasing
paid attention to Iran.
American forces are now stationed within a stone’s throw
of Iranian forces. Meanwhile, Washington has been threatening Iran
with additional sanctions and the Israelis have been insisting
on the use of force, and according to certain reports, a small
contingent of American intelligence forces might have already entered
If Iran’s June presidential elections do not generate
enthusiasm or produce an acceptable president, Washington most
likely will adopt a policy of explicit regime change, and Israel
and a few other states in the region will enthusiastically support
it. If this happens, the “Iraqicization” of Iran will
begin. This means certain steps to include UN-sponsored multilateral
sanctions, surgical military strikes, support for the destabilizing
opposition, and even further military confrontation. It can take
years for a conflict of this type to conclude, and in the meantime,
Iran will be destroyed.
Is it not naïve that the US thinks it can
help the position with as little money as 3 million US dollars?
Don’t they think that, indeed, such a financial offer will
put the Iranian NGOs at risk?
The offer of financial assistance to the
NGOs and opposition groups is symbolic. It is intended to suggest
that the Bush administration is seriously thinking about regime
What are the key proposals about what the US should
do with Iran? What policy is most likely to be adopted by the Bush
The Bush administration is reviewing its
Iran policy. Currently the policy is leaning toward explicit regime
change. As things stand, the US policy toward Iran is negotiation
with the regime where American interests require it, and no negotiation
when Iran’s interest is involved. It is a one-way street.
In the meantime, a few think tanks and pressure groups have offered
their recommendations. The Council on Foreign Relations recommends
that the US “selectively engage” Iran to address critical
US concerns, and broaden linkages between the Iranian population
and the outside world. The Committee on Present Dangers suggests
that the US adopt a policy of engagement and regime change by opening
a dialogue with Tehran, supporting the Iranian people.
Policy Committee recommends that the US consider a combination
of coercive diplomacy, destabilization by the MEK, and limited
military operations to facilitate regime change. The Washington
Institute for Near East Policy recommends that the US work with
the EU Trio on the nuclear matter but keep the option of surgical
military strikes open, and simultaneously assist the opposition.
Finally, the International Crisis Group has put forth the idea
of a “grand bargain” with Iran, whereby the two countries
agree to settle all outstanding disputes at once.
The American Iranian Council, a policy think tank which I established
in 1992, devoted to improving understanding and dialogue between
the two countries, recommends that the US and Iran undertake a
number of “confidence-building measures” as a prelude
to negotiations for establishing diplomatic ties without preconditions,
except for the condition of free elections in Iran. They then should
work judiciously toward resolving issues of mutual concern focusing
on easier cases and on common interests. For the process to move
forward, both sides have to be genuine in their pursuit of a normal
relationship and realistically address the key domestic and regional
challenges their negotiations will face.
In AIC’s view, the policy recommendations offered by the
above think tanks and ad hoc committees are unrealistic and thus
unpractical. They are based on a mistaken view of Iran and the
regime, propose options for the US while ignoring the Iranian side,
and reflect the views of a select group of foreign policy technocrats
while excluding inputs from the general public and other key stakeholders.
Will Iran become the next Iraq for the US?
Iran poses the most daunting foreign policy
challenge for the Bush administration. President Bush has said
he is determined to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, support
for terrorism, and opposition to the Middle East peace and the
American concern about Iran’s power and theocracy is understandable.
The Islamic Republic of Iran is hostile to the US and its other
half, Israel, while it builds closer relations with the America’s
future rivals for global leadership, particularly China and the
European Community. From an American perspective, this is not an
acceptable position and ideology for Iran to assume in international
relations given that it can, and, the US insists, intends, to build
nuclear bombs (even give them to “Islamic terrorists,” according
to US claims), has huge oil and gas reserves, and benefits from
a significant geo-political environment. Thus, Iran must understand
that the United States’ problem with it is larger than the
sum of American concerns with Tehran’s behavior. This larger
challenge is what Tehran needs to address, but it is obviously
not able to do so.
From the American perspective, the problem with Iran’s
power and position can be addressed in three ways: either by developing
a partnership with that power, reducing it to a non-threatening
size, or by changing this regime. It appears that the Bush administration
sees no chance of building a partnership with the regime, largely
because of its animosity toward Israel and its theocratic state
system, whose legitimacy the US has yet to recognize. That leaves
power reduction or regime change as the only two options. Thus,
the immediate US problem is to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
However, the nuclear issue, while important in itself, is also
a pretext for the US to enter into a wider confrontation with Iran.
Tehran is rightly convinced that the US ultimately wants to change
its Islamic regime, and with that understanding in mind, it is
hesitant to give up its nuclear programs.
Thus, when President Bush says “all options” remain
open, he is not contemplating serious diplomacy. The remaining
options include UN-sponsored sanctions, regime change or reform,
and a war, total or surgical, by the US or Israel. Multilateral
sanctions, as the first phase of a “planned” confrontation,
can heavily weaken Iran, particularly if they were to include the
Iranian oil for a protracted period. Surgical military operations,
parallel with or subsequent to sanctions, can inflict heavy damage
on Iran, and there is a high probability that the US and Israel
will eventually use this option.
If the US were to find sanctions and surgical strikes ineffective,
it might adopt an explicit policy of regime change, which the pro-war
exiled Iranian opposition and the neoconservatives support. If
that happens, then “Iraqicization” will result. It
must be understood that “Iraqicization” is a protracted
multi-year confrontation. Before the US deposed Saddam Hossain,
the US engaged Iraq in a 12-year war of attrition that included
multilateral UN-sponsored sanctions, surgical military strikes,
destabilizing operations, territorial restrictions on the movement
of Iraqi armed forces, and finally a full-scale military confrontation.
In the case of Iran, a similar process will be adopted if the
US decides to change the regime, and it is very possible that it
will make that decision if the presidential election is not freely
held, giving the US even more pretext to implement the Israeli
wishes. It must be noted that if the US was to impose a military
confrontation on Iran, it will begin the conflict with extremely
heavy bombing campaign. My hope is that the US will never undertake
such a brutal action against the Iranian people, and I will do
everything in my power to prevent it even if I know under the present
circumstances it is going to be very hard if not impossible.
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