Middle East


Foreign Policy Expert Favors Engagement with Iran

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. (Photo: Cato Institute)

For the past three decades relations between Tehran and Washington have been among the major issues in the Middle East region. Many consider the situation to be at an impasse. Among other contentious topics on the table, the most pressing is the firm stance taken by the United States in demanding that Iran halt its nuclear activities, and Tehran's apparent defiance.

Many experts believe that a viable solution to the aforementioned issue is one of the main keys to solving many other conflicts in the region. In an encouraging sign the two countries, who have long abandoned the negotiating table, are engaging in bilateral talks on the security situation in Iraq.

The Washington, D.C.-based CATO Institute, considered one of the leading libertarian think tanks since 1977, has always been one of the major supporters of direct United States engagement with Iran. The Institute is also considered an opponent of the conservative movement, and in particular of Bush administration policies.

In a recent interview broadcast by American-funded Persian-language Radio Farda, Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, elaborated on his perspectives regarding the three main issues between Iran and the United States:

  • Iraq

  • Iran's nuclear program

  • Democratization

Iran and the U.S. have agreed to sit together and talk on the issue of Iraq. Do you think this event will have any effect on the decades-long frozen state of relations between the two countries?

I hope that it is effective, at least in the sense of showing minor progress. I do not expect dramatic breakthroughs. Everyone hopes for a breakthrough in the relationship in the way that the United States had with the Republic of China in the 1970's under President Nixon. But that is very unlikely in this case even if the relations improve between Washington and Tehran.

To begin with, it will be a very gradual long-term process over a good many years. We do not have anyone in the American government, and certainly not in the White House, who is willing to reverse the policy in the way that President Nixon did with regards to China. But the reality is that many of the problems we face in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, cannot be addressed in an intelligent way at all without engaging Iran as a major party.

Iran and the United States had previously negotiated on the issue of Afghanistan during the Bonn Conference, but it did not have much of an impact on the stalled relations. What do you think are the main differences between these two occasions?

First of all I think that the situation with regards to Afghanistan was a huge missed opportunity. The Iranians were sending all sorts of signals that they were willing to cooperate with the United States against Al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Washington and Tehran indeed had common interests in dealing with those two advisories. Iran certainly was uneasy about the influence that Al-Qaida had gained in Afghanistan. Iran also made a much broader overture in the early months of 2003 to try and achieve a breakthrough in relations with the United States. The Bush administration apparently, heavily under the influence of Vice President Cheney on this issue, rebuffed that overture entirely; another missed opportunity.

Here we have a third opportunity, where I think both Tehran and Washington would like to see a decrease in violence in Iraq, along with a functioning effective Iraqi government. That government is going to be Shiite-dominated, which Iran will be very happy about.

The United States is in a difficult position right now in that their current policy in Iraq simply has not worked at all, and I think we are beginning to cast about for some alternatives. Iran can be at least modestly helpful in that regard as long as we recognize that Iranian influence in Iraq is going to be inevitably much, much stronger than it was before. We no longer have Iraq as a strategic counterweight to Iran. Those days are gone and we have to face the reality that the big gainer from the Iraq war, geostrategically in that part of the world, is Iran.

But although Iraq has turned to be a main issue in Washington-Tehran relations, the US still indicates that its main problem in regard to Iran is its nuclear program. How do you think this issue must be dealt with?

Well, I would certainly prefer that Iran remains non-nuclear. I think one of the tasks that the United States should undertake is to try to convince Iran that if it goes ahead and builds a nuclear arsenal it is not going to significantly improve its security position in the region at all because Saudi Arabia, Egypt, quite possibly Turkey, perhaps some of the Persian Gulf states will follow the same steps too.

They will build arsenals as well, and at the end of the day Iran will find itself no better off in terms of security, and might even be worse off. That being said, the United States will have to accept the reality that Iran is going to insist on control over the fuel cycle. In other words, it is going to have a vigorous peaceful nuclear program.

Our task should be to try to ensure that the nuclear program remains peaceful, but the way to do it is to offer Iran a grand bargain that we will normalize political and economic relations with Tehran if Iran agrees to a very vigorous on-demand system of international inspections. This would ensure that any program remains peaceful and that material is not diverted to the production of nuclear weapons.

If Iran is willing to do that and the US is willing to normalize relations, I think we have a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue, as troubling as an issue that it has been.

But recently the whole thing seems to be on the opposite side; there have been numerous reports which indicate a plan to take military action against Iran. How possible does such an option seem to you at the moment?

I think the odds are about even at this point that the Bush administration will take military action against Iran before the end of his term in the office. I hope that does not happen. That would be an absolute catastrophe for the region. It will make the American blunder in Iraq look like a minor mistake by comparison.

Because if we attack Iran, not only are the consequences highly unpredictable but likely very unpleasant, including Iran making life extremely difficult for the US occupation force in Iraq and unleashing Hezbollah against American targets, but also increasing the general instability in the region. And the reality that every Muslim from Morocco to Malaysia would then be convinced that the United States is out to destroy Islam. This would be the third attack against a Muslim Country by the United States in little more than five years. That would be absolutely disastrous for American interests and for America's already bad reputation in that part of the world.

The other issue in regard to Iran-U.S. relations that I wanted to ask you about is the issue of democracy. "The lack of democracy and human rights" is one of the issues that the US counts as part of its major problems with Tehran. What do you think about that?

Well, in Iran's case it has a very unique system; it has elements of democracy, but it also I guess would be best described as thoroughly rigged democracy. I would like to see Iran become much more democratic. I would like to see Iran become a much more open society. But the way to accomplish that is through engagement, to draw Iran into a web of relations with the United States and the rest of the democratic world.

But do you think that the Islamic Republic of Iran has the capacity to correct itself in terms of a revival of democratic values?

The jury is still out whether the current political leadership is capable or willing to do that, but whatever chance we have for reform and greater democratization in Iran is not being helped by the current US policy of trying to isolate. We need exactly the opposite course.

Many of the conservatives accuse liberal politicians and scholars of taking for granted the human rights abuses in Iran, only because of their opposition to the current administration in Washington. What do you think of that?

I do not think that the opponents of the war in Iraq will take lightly the human rights violations of the Iranian government. The reality is that Iran is simply one of many human rights abusers in the international system. Let's face it that the US ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, is one of the worst human rights violators; it is probably worse than Iran.

We cannot just point fingers selectively at certain regimes when it suites our purposes on the human rights front. I think that the United States has been more than a little hypocritical on that issue over the years; and that really has not helped our policy in terms of its effectiveness or the overall reputation of the United States.

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