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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,

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? [Persian text in Emrooz]

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 Kerry 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 countries?

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.

Indications 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 Iran?

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.

Third, we understand that the Iranian religious leadership would change its behavior in areas of nuclear technology, terrorism, and the Middle 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 fourth, 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 level.

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 Iran.

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 change.

What are the key proposals about what the US should do with Iran? What policy is most likely to be adopted by the Bush administration?

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.

The Iran 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. [Persian text in Emrooz]

For letters section
To Arash Salehi
To Hooshang Amirahmadi


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