RD: Gary Sick is one of the best-known American analysts on Iran affairs, and has served on the US National Security Council under presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. He is also the author of All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran (1985), October Surprise: America's Hostages in Iran and the Election of Ronald Reagan (1991), and The Persian Gulf at the Millennium: Essays in politics, economy, security, and religion (1997). He is the co-editor of Security in the Persian Gulf: Origins, obstacles and the search for consensus. Iranian Diplomacy has interviewed Gary Sick on the current state of affairs between Iran and the US, the role of Israel, and possible ways to end the nuclear standoff.
Interview by: Mohammad Ataei
IRD: In his AIPAC address President Obama criticized the excessive talk about war with Iran and said that that would undermine the security of the US and Israel. Earlier, Israeli officials said that they might attack Iran without notifying the US in advance. Why do you think Israel and the US are now divided over the Iranian nuclear issue?
GS: Basically, the United States has the view that it would be unacceptable for Iran to actually have a nuclear weapon, and the Israelis have said that they think it should be unacceptable for Iran to have even the capability of building a nuclear weapon. And basically, in my point of view, Iran already has the capability to build a nuclear weapon, if it decides to do so. So the real discussion here is that basically Iran has said it would not build a nuclear weapon -- and I think the president has recognized that and takes it seriously, and he’s now looking for a diplomatic solution to the problem. I think Israel is less interested in diplomacy and negotiation and is more interested in confrontation with Iran. So that’s the basic difference between the two sides.
IRD: Some say the US is worried that Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities unilaterally. In your estimation, would Israel be able to bomb Iran without US knowledge and aid?
GS: It has been my view very much from the beginning that first of all, Israel could not stop Iran’s nuclear program by itself no matter what it did, but in fact a strike by Israel against Iran, even a successful strike, probably would not completely hit all targets that would have to be hit. Secondly that would almost certainly inspire a nationalistic response from Iran and its people would gather around the government and support it. Three, it would almost convince Iran to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and kick out the IAEA inspectors and actually decide to build a nuclear weapon, which they have said they would not do. So in fact a strike makes everything worse than it was before and my analysis is that Israel will in fact follow its own national interest and since this is very much against Israel’s national interests, it would not launch a unilateral strike.
IRD: There is another question about the Iranian nuclear program: is that the real core problem between Iran and the US? Some say that the nuclear issue is a red herring aming a wide range of conflict and differences between Iran and the US, such as Iran’s influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the oil and security issues in the Persian Gulf. Do you believe this is a correct understanding? And do you think that an Iranian decision to suspend its nuclear program can solve problems with the US?
GS: There is a wide range of issues between the US and Iran and in a number of things. On a number of things we actually agree. We agree on the fact that we would like to have stable, peaceful governments in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States cheers Iran’s concerns about the drug trade and there are other issues, both environmental and others, in which Iran and the US have many things in common. We also disagree about many things and that includes the political relations between the two sides and particularly the nuclear issue. To my mind, the only way we can deal with those problems is negotiations and if we succeeded in negotiating a settlement of some form in the nuclear issue, and thereby take that off the table, the climate would enormously improve. This would be a confidence-building measure of great importance and would make it actually easier to address the other issues which are important but secondary, and I think what we need now is a major step in building confidence between the two sides, some measure of trust which doesn’t exist on either side, but I think it’s not impossible to do it and if we did, some other issues would be easier to deal with.
IRD: So you believe that other issues are secondary to the Iranian nuclear program.
GS: Basically, the nuclear issue has become the most significant issue, simply because now it has gone to the UN Security Council and Iran is under sanctions. So it’s important for Iran to remove those sanctions and it is important to the United States and other countries to get assurances, in the form of inspections and monitoring, that Iran’s program is what it says it is, that is, a peaceful nuclear program. If that was the case and this issue was taken off the agenda of the UN and sanctions were no longer there, I think the possibility of cooperation on other issues would be far greater than it is now.
IRD: Some people say that the Iranian Leadership believes that suspending the nuclear program would not help anything and once they do that, the US would press on other things such as the human rights issue and Iran’s support for terrorism -- and Hezbollah and Hamas; and that’s why they think any suspension of the program would not help. Do you think this is a correct understanding?
GS: I understand where that comes from, and there has been a series of broken agreements between the US and Iran in the past, but it goes both ways: Iran has backed away in some cases from what we thought were assurances. The United States has certainly backed away from its own commitments from time to time. So this suspicion is there. The reality is that if a practical negotiation succeeds in finding a solution to the nuclear program, it’s going to be much easier for Iran and the US to begin to address some other issues that exist. There are people in the US who actually are unwilling to deal with Iran under any circumstances and who would in fact continue to make requirements and then place new burdens on Iran even after an agreement. There are people in Iran who also think that you can not possibly be able to negotiate with the US. Basically, those hardliners on both sides actually reinforce each other; so they end up talking to each other and actually make the situation worse. There are a number of people in both Iran and the United States who have a real interest in finding a way to improve the relationship between the two sides. Those people need to be given an opportunity to function. As it is now, most of the dialogue is between the hardliners and that is not a way of solving the problem.
IRD: How do you see the role of AIPAC and the Israeli lobby in the United States?
GS: They are pushing a very hard line. Israel has taken the position that there should not be any negotiations with Iran unless Iran concedes its entire nuclear program at the beginning. Clearly, Iran is not going to do that. So what Israel is asking for is no negotiations with Iran and they are asking the US to take a very strong position with regard to military action, even if there is evidence that Iran has the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Iran already has that capability. AIPAC and the representatives of the Israeli position are working towards no negotiations and towards war. I think the president’s address at the AIPAC conference made it very clear that he is suspicious about Iran but he thinks that negotiations is the right way to go and he is not interested in starting a war which would be catastrophic for everybody in the world. So in that sense, I think there is bad news and good news. And we would be seeing more of that in the next week or two after Mr. Netanyahu’s visit to Washington.
IRD: Obama recently wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, which has been described as half threatening and half respectful and conciliatory. If that is so, what you think Obama tried to say by sending that letter to the Iranian leader?
I think in fact it would be almost impossible to write a letter and not to mention that there are sanctions there installed by the UN Security Council. If you want to regard those steps there is no way to avoid that. So Iran and the US have very strong differences of opinion on the subject. I remember the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviet Union, when President Khrushchev sent a very strong note to the United States in which there were very severe threats, but there was also a small indication of a promise to get out. The United States simply ignored the threats and answered the part that was positive. I would strongly urge the leader and others in Iran to take that approach to look for a positive way to get out of our problems rather than always examining the negative side which is inevitably going to be there when countries are in dispute with each other.
IRD: There are some questions about Syria and the effect of the Syrian factor on the ongoing conflict between the US and Iran. Some people believe the possible fall of Bashar Assad would pave the way for a military strike against Iran. Do you think this is correct?
GS: I don’t see that as a necessary outcome. I think President Assad is probably going to fall. His people are in an open revolt, his military has been killing the opposition forces as fast as it possibly can, but people continue to demonstrate against the regime. Maybe he could survive in short term, but I suspect in the end he won’t. The facts are working against him. President Obama was clear in his speech to AIPAC that a war would be a disaster for everybody involved and I think he understands that and that’s why he was talking about ‘no loose talk about war’: that war is going to have a bad effect not only on Iran but on everybody else and its not in America’s interest to do that. He made it very clear that war would only happen when other avenues are completely shut off, and that includes negotiations. I think both Iran and the US have a very good reason to get involved in serious negotiations, not just posturing and talking to each other in the media.
IRD: If Obama is reelected, how he will he deal with the Iranian case in his second term?
GS: Everybody is trying to guess what Mr. Obama would do in a second term. Let’s wait till the election. Basically, I have been watching American politics for most of my life and I discovered that my ability to predict what a president decides to do in a second term is almost always wrong. So I’m not going to make any guesses, but I do think that he has made it very clear that he is interested in an engagement with Iran that did not work the first time around for a combination of reasons which were partly Iranian and partly American. But he is prepared to pursue a negotiating strategy. That’s the best thing that we have got right now. But it takes two to tango. The US can’t do it by itself and Iran can’t do it by itself, and basically the two sides are going to have quit listening only to their hardliners and actually listen to the people who are interested in finding some positive outcome. That’s easier said than done, but I think it is important.