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Interview with Gary Sick: Israel is not Going to Attack Iran


By Fariba Amini, Rooz Online

Gary Sick was on the staff of the National Security Council under President Jimmy Carter and a White House aide during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. Currently, he is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the director of Gulf/2000. He is also on the board of Human Rights Watch. He is the author of All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran.   He recently spoke at a symposium at the University of Maryland titled "Iran after the 2009 Elections."


Rooz: You just came back from Iraq, where you spoke with a few ayatollahs. What was the content of those talks?  

Gary Sick

Gary Sick: The bottom line of what I heard is that the grand ayatollahs, on each of the occasions that we talked, when asked how they see the role of Islam in the new Iraqi state, in the post Saddam Hussein era, were unanimous in their answer. They indicated that they have no interest in a theocratic state or the Iranian model.  The role religion has to play is only one in discovering the truth and persuading people.  I take that as very strong evidence that they think differently.  Religious scholars in Iraq and in Najaf believe that Islam's job is not to control people or to make laws. One of the senior clerics explicitly said that after the invasion, the new Iraqi state will not go the same route as Iran.  This was the statement of not just a few clerics but of senior people.  It represents the opinion of the Shi'a establishment in Iraq.

Rooz: How did you find the situation in the country, the places you visited? Was it calmer?

Gar Sick:  I can't really characterize it.  I simply didn't spend enough time there to make a judgment. We were treated as official visitors but we were just four scholars. We were the guests of the vice-president and treated very well.  We spent one day in Baghdad, essentially in the Green Zone, thus we didn't see much of the capital. Then we went to Najaf to see how the situation was in that city.  Even though we were provided with security, we didn't' really need it. We wandered freely.  We didn't encounter problems of any sort. Evidence of past troubles could be seen and the bombing continues in parts of Iraq but Najaf was quiet. We were there for several days and walked at ease. We went to the Mosque of Imam Ali and met with people. We visited schools, religious establishments and libraries. Life was pretty normal and people were going on with their lives.

Rooz: How do you see the security of the Persian Gulf in light of all the verbal tensions? Do you see any real and present danger or do you think it is going to subside?

Gary Sick:  I don't see any immediate security threats.  I realize there is a threat from Israel possibly bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities. But I think I was pretty clear in my talk that I don't share those views. Right now I would say the degree of threat, at least a cross-border one, that is one country threatening another, is very low.  Iran is not threatening Saudi Arabia. Iran and Iraq get along. From an International point of view, the US is reducing its military force in Iraq. Overall, given the very high level of tensions that we had previously, the multiple wars we had, Kuwait, Iran -Iraq, the U.S. invasion, at the moment there are no such tensions in the Gulf; relatively speaking things are quiet but of course we know from the past that there is no guarantee things will stay that way.

Rooz: You said in your talk at the University of Maryland that the Israeli threat may be a bluff. Why do you say this?

Gary Sick:  I think the Israelis feel very strongly that Iran is a major threat to them.  I also think that Israel has the technical capability of bombing a number of targets in Iran but in my judgment they are not going to blindly use that capability. This is based on the fact that everything would be worse for them before and after, if they decide to bomb.  It would be worse not just because of what Iran would do but also if they do it without having the support of the U.S. They would risk the relationship they have with the United States as well their own security.  My view is that a lot of this rhetoric is used for political purposes. It is more of a bluff.  If you convince the United States, the European Union that yes, there is no improvement in relations with Iran and so an attack is the only way that may be their objective.

Rooz:  What could happen in case of a strike?

Gary Sick: As I said in my talk,  when Israel keeps talking  practically every day of attacking  Iran,  to me, that  is the best evidence that they are not going to do it.  If you look back at almost all the raids and operations they have carried out whether in was in Entebbe, in Syria or in 1982, on Iraq's nuclear facilities, all of those took place without absolutely any previous warning.  It was maintained as a great state secret.  And they knew that one of their strengths was the element of surprise. In this case, by talking about it for several years, Iran has diversified its program; they have tucked away their supplies. The storage site that was recently found out was clearly meant as a deterrent in case Israel bombed Natanz.  Iran has been able to put things underground, which makes it harder for a possible strike. It would be very difficult for Israel to do it in a single strike.  They couldn't come back and bomb for several days or a month, the way the US did in Iraq. Israel could do some damage but they could not wipe out the whole system. When they hit the facilities in Iraq, there was no defense, everything was above ground.  There were no preparations made and it was a very straightforward bombing of the target. That is not true in Iran today.   It is a funny strategy to use because you are basically telling your opponent to take as many precautions as possible, or to hide the materials in question, and that is exactly what Iran has done and is doing.  Israel can only hit specific targets on one occasion but cannot continue for several days.  Iran will retaliate and things will be far worse.  Of course things could change if Iran decides for example to kick out the IAEA and its inspectors or to go all the way to build nuclear weapons. Then, everyone will rethink their positions.  

ROOZ: How do you see the current US- Iran relations? At the moment, there are talks taking place between the Obama administration and some high-level Iranian officials.   You compared U.S.-Iran relations to a seesaw, constantly going up and down. Do you have any hope that these talks will lead to some positive changes in a near future?  

Gary Sick: There are already some signs of positive changes when two senior US officials could meet face to face with two Iranian officials. These talks took place in an international setting. This is a major shift. It is clear that talks are going on in order to solve some major problems. It is a unlike any other time during the last 30 years.  It doesn't mean that everything between the U.S. and Iran is solved but there is certainly a different atmosphere. Today, there is huge debate going on inside Iran whether they should accept the offer that was made by the G-8. Curiously a few hardliners are supporting this and a number of others are criticizing it. It is a political game basically between those who say that this is a giveaway and those who are willing to make some concessions.
I don't think there was a single time during the last 30 years when there was any public debate in Iran  whether they should deal with the U.S. or not.  The issue was always that it would be illegitimate for any Iranian to meet with the Americans.  There is an offer now on the table.  Will this work to the advantage of Iran or not? Now, such debate would not be going on with Iran if there were not some prior steps. I think the Obama administration has in fact created a new environment where Iran can say we can't talk to you; it is unacceptable to the Iranian people and to their own officials.   The debate has shifted to a new set of concerns.  The issue now is no longer whether we should talk to the Americans but rather what should we talk about or agree to?   This debate has just begun. I can't really say where it is going to lead because both sides have their own interests. Both sides are bargaining.  At the same time that international negotiations are going on, there are domestic debates taking place within all the countries that are involved, which makes everything enormously complicated. I think we just have to wait and see.  I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic. I think a process has started and I am not terribly surprised that it has triggered a serious debate. Each side has to make up their mind as to which way it should go, what the objectives are. What is important is that nobody is saying we should walk away or that we should boycott future meetings. Nobody is saying Jalili was clearly exceeding his authority when he met with the Americans and nobody in Iran is saying that he should be punished. I am never the one to expect miracles given the current situation in Iran where there is a huge debate about legitimacy, about the elections, about the treatment of Iranian people and freedom of speech and all.  It was surprising to me that given the tremendous domestic upheaval in Iran, they were able to go to the meeting and seriously and candidly talk about accepting a deal.  It is just the beginning of a very long road and I don't think anybody can predict where it is going to end up.

ROOZ: How do you view the role of Russia in all of these?  Are they playing a double role?

Gary Sick: The Russians have their own interest as well.  They have commercial interests with Iran which they like to preserve.  Russia wants to play a big role in the Middle East. Their relationship with the Iranians gives them a certain leverage on a whole set of issues, whether it is missiles placed in Europe or the nuclear development between the US and Russia and so forth.   They are playing a very complicated game.   The Russians do not want to see Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and I think they have made it absolutely clear to the Iranians in private, that if you break your word and suddenly develop a covert nuclear program and we find out that all along you were developing the bomb, don't expect us to stand with you.  We will come very hard on you.  At the same time that they are saying that we don't think sanctions work, but if things don't proceed properly and Iran won't cooperate at all, there may be no other choice. They are telling the Iranians that we will walk away from you if you are uncooperative.  It gives them leverage with the Americans and it keeps the Iranians on their toes. At the same time, they like to maintain a good relationship with Iran.  In that sense, the Russians are playing a perfectly predictable diplomatic game to maximize their ability to get the most from all sides.

ROOZ:  What do you think of the appointment of John Limbert [former US hostage in Iran] as the new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran?

Gary Sick: I think it is absolutely a perfect appointment.  He has all the qualifications. He has a lot of knowledge on Iran, he knows Iran inside and out; he is a sophisticated Persian speaker. He has written serious intellectual work which has insight into the problems between the U.S. and Iran. He has a tremendous diplomatic background. Virtually no diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service today has the kind of firsthand experience that he has.  They have created a new position for him; we never had it before so this is upgrading the Iranian portfolio to a much higher level and from my point of view he is a perfectly suitable person. I applaud the authorities at the State department and the White House for this appointment.  


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