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Iran: Expert Says Current U.S. Approach 'Not Fruitful'

By Mosaddegh Katouzian
PRAGUE, October 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. energy-security expert Flynt Leverett is an experienced voice on Middle East affairs, having formerly served as a U.S. National Security Council adviser on that region. Leverett, who is now director of the New America Foundation's Geopolitics and Energy Security Project, spoke on October 24 with Radio Farda about U.S. efforts to discourage Iran's nuclear ambitions. Leverett said on the sidelines of the Prague Energy Forum -- organized by RFE/RL in partnership with the Warsaw-based Institute for Eastern Studies -- that he thinks Washington's current approach has not "been fruitful."

RFE/RL: Iran says it is in favor of negotiations, but [that] there should be no preconditions. Do you feel that this would be acceptable to the United States under any circumstances?
Flynt Leverett: At this moment, U.S. policy is that the Iranians should suspend all of their enrichment-related activities as a precondition for negotiations. Apparently, in the last few weeks, Mr. [Javier] Solana of the European Union has been trying to work out a formula whereby perhaps the Iranians would agree to a suspension for a certain period of time, but maybe the day after talks started, so it wouldn't formally be a precondition. But those efforts proved unsuccessful. I think it will be very difficult for the Bush administration to enter talks with Iran without some kind of prior understanding about suspension [regarding] what kinds of activities Iran would be allowed to carry out or not carry out while negotiations were moving forward. I think the administration attaches a high priority to that, and it would be a difficult hurdle to get over in order to get the United States into some kind of negotiating process.
'Not Enough On The Table'
RFE/RL: As a former member of the National Security Council of the United States, how do you assess the U.S. approach to solving the Iranian crisis?
Leverett: This is my own personal view: I don't think the current approach is very fruitful. I think that one of the reasons we're not able to overcome the issue of suspension, and what the conditions for talks would be, is that the United States, unfortunately in my view, is not prepared to put enough on the table in terms of security guarantees, regional security frameworks, those kinds of things that would make a negotiating process genuinely interesting and attractive for Iran. I think that's a real problem in the current U.S. approach.
Leverett: This administration has had opportunities in the past to build a more cooperative relationship with Iran. In the aftermath of the September 11 [2001] attacks, the U.S. and Iran cooperated very well on issues relating to Afghanistan, and at the Bonn conference [on Afghanistan] in December 2001, U.S.-Iranian cooperation was critical to the success of that. Then, six weeks after the Bonn conference, Iran is labeled as part of the "axis of evil." I know from the Iranian side that this was an extremely disappointing outcome to what Iranians believed was a sincere effort at cooperation. There have been other opportunities that have come up, which, unfortunately, the administration has not pursued as seriously as I think they should have. But I think it is very important for the U.S. to find a way to work with Iran and establish a much better relationship than our two countries have now.
Key Obstacle
RFE/RL: Sources close to Iranian decision-makers say that in addition to what is in the proposed nuclear package, as you said, Iran seeks other incentives, mainly security guarantees. What are the chances for Iran getting such guarantees under the current circumstances?
Leverett: Based on my own experience in the administration, I'd have to say, frankly, I think it will be very difficult for this administration to be willing to consider giving a security guarantee to the Islamic Republic [of Iran]. I think if we were going to go down that road, it would mean that we would need to be talking to Iran about a whole range of issues besides the nuclear issue, as important as that is. I think that might be difficult for this administration to do.
Nevertheless, I think that is the only way through which the United States and Iran can really begin to put their relationship on a fundamentally different, better path, and I hope that's where we will end up. But as I said, based on my experience in the administration, I think it will be difficult for the administration to go down that road.
RFE/RL: What's the main obstacle for the administration going down this path?
Leverett: I think the fundamental issue is that for the United States to be willing to extend a security guarantee to Iran means effectively legitimating the Islamic republic. I think a number of important players in the administration, including, my sense is, the president himself, will be very reluctant to do something that in their minds would legitimate the Islamic republic. I think that's an unfortunate way of looking at the situation, because it puts some real limits on your chances of getting a diplomatic and strategic breakthrough between our two countries, but I think that is part of the reality in Washington.
Rights Concerns
RFE/RL: On the other hand, if the Iranian emigres who are politically active and opposed to the Islamic republic see that the U.S. is moving in that direction, some of them would be really disappointed, because they would feel that it's compromising the human rights situation in Iran and other issues.
Leverett: Yes, and I think there are important players in the administration, including the president, who would be sensitive and sympathetic to those arguments. That's why I think it will be difficult for this administration to end up going down that road.
RFE/RL: Are you sympathetic to those arguments, though -- the issues of human rights and democracy in Iran?
Leverett: Of course, I think human rights is an extremely important issue, a very important aspect of American foreign policy. But I think you need to ask what the best ways are of achieving real improvements in human rights on the ground. To my mind, current U.S. policy toward Iran has done very little to help us address our security interests, our political interests with regard to Iran. And I really don't think it's done anything to help the state of human rights in Iran. I think that by engaging Iran, by establishing a strategic framework for better relations between the United States and Iran and engaging Iran within that framework, we're going to have a much better chance of seeing real improvements in human rights in Iran than by simply lecturing and demanding from outside.
RFE/RL: Would the difficulties the U.S. has increasingly been facing in Iraq set the stage for a reduction in tensions between Washington and Tehran, or would it, on the contrary, increase the likelihood of confrontation?
Leverett: In theory, I think it could provide an opportunity for cooperation. I think the United States clearly needs to be involving Iraq's neighbors more in trying to stabilize the security situation and the political situation there. But to do that means recognizing that some of Iraq's neighbors have interests of their own in Iraq. I think, again, that will be a difficult hurdle for the administration to cross. I personally think that would be a better policy, but it will be difficult for the administration to do that. That always leaves the possibility that Iraq could become a point of additional tension between the U.S. and Iran. I hope that doesn't happen.

Copyright (c) 2006 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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