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Top U.S. Diplomat for Iran Looks for Openings to Progress

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Philo Dibble is the new deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran. "We're not pulling back from the offer o engagement, but we can't pursue it unilaterally," he says.

Philo Dibble is the new deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat assigned solely to issues involving Iran, replacing John W. Limbert, who retired. He is a career Foreign Service officer; his previous assignments have included deputy assistant secretary in Near East affairs, director of the Office of Northern Gulf Affairs, deputy chief of mission in Damascus, Syria, and tours in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Tunisia, Italy and Pakistan.

He spoke with at his office in Washington soon after the release of American hiker Sarah Shourd, who had been held in an Iranian prison for more than a year, and in advance of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Question: You've returned to Washington from retirement to help manage one of the most contentious relationships - or non-relationships - that the United States has in the world. Is "congratulations" the right word? It's certainly one of the tougher assignments.

Dibble: I think there are no easy assignments.

I started in the Foreign Service in 1980, and [my] first job out of my incoming class was as a participant on the Iran Hostages Task Force. And ever since then, Iran has been sort of part of everything I've done in the [Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs], one way or another, directly or indirectly. So it only makes sense to close out a career doing this, since I started it that way.

Q: No assignment is easy, but it must be particularly hard trying to work with a government, like Iran's, that seems to be fractured.

A: "Fractious," I think, is more the word, or "faction-ridden," if you like. I think it's a mistake to think that the Iranian government is not a functioning government or a competent state. But its politics are very much present, and there are acute rivalries within and among the various branches and personalities within the government.

Q: We just saw that with the release of Sarah Shourd.

A: Exactly.

Q: That would have to be an optimistic sign that at least part of the Iranian government is interested in working with the United States.

A: I think that's taking it a little too far. I think that at least part of the Iranian government recognized that there was no reason to hold onto at least one of the three hikers, and they found a reason in Sarah Shourd's gender and in her state of health to release her under certain conditions. But to take that as a signal to us that they want to work with us, I think, is taking it a little far. It would be nice, but I'm not quite that optimistic.

Q: Iranians are going through a very tough time now, economically, and have been for a while. They also face a new round of sanctions. What would you say to the Iranian people about the sanctions?

A: I would say two things: first of all, that the parlous state of Iran's economy is due mainly to the mismanagement by the Iranian government, to the various distortions introduced through the subsidy system, to various other monopolies like the bonyads [supposedly charitable foundations with enormous economic power] and other similar distortions. That's one thing, and that's the main thing.

The second thing I would say is that the sanctions have never been aimed at imposing any kind of suffering on the Iranian people. In fact, they were very carefully crafted to target either nonproliferation or counterterrorism or certain elements of the leadership, and not - specifically not - the broader population. So that if the Iranian government chooses to point to the sanctions as causing the suffering, well, that's not very surprising. But the Iranian people need to have no illusions, and I suspect they don't, about what is causing their current economic difficulty.

Q: You don't see the government as being particularly popular in Iran at this point.

A: I think it's hard to say, but certainly on the question of economic issues it does not seem to have the wholehearted support of everybody.

Q: The Obama administration pledged that it would try to engage Iran, and it has made some moves to do so. Has the lack of progress changed the U.S. attitude toward engagement?

A: No, I don't think so, in the sense that there is still a readiness and an openness to deal directly with Iran on issues of concern to us, of concern to the rest of the international community and of concern to Iran. But this is not the first time that Iran has missed an opportunity. Already during the Clinton administration, there were gestures made in Iran's direction - the famous pistachios and carpets thing [a change in U.S. sanctions to allow the importation of pistachios and carpets from Iran]. But that was intended to be followed up by the Iranians by some sort of evidence on their part of interest in a conversation, and it never happened, which was very disappointing. And we're hoping they don't make the same mistake this time. We're not pulling back from the offer of engagement, but we can't pursue it unilaterally. There has to be some response.

And in the meantime, the fact is that Iran is pursuing a nuclear program that has preoccupied very deeply the entire international community. And in the absence of confidence in what Iran's intentions are, I think the world has to protect itself, so the sanctions are in part aimed at that.

Q: You're saying that the opportunity for engagement hasn't passed, just that the conditions are more difficult for engagement.

A: Well, it's not that they're more difficult, it's just that there hasn't been any substantive response on the part of the Iranians to the president's repeated offers to talk.

Q: The president also has talked about "a clear set of steps" that Iran could take to reassure the world on its nuclear ambitions. What do they amount to?

A: It's restoring the international confidence in Iran's program - that it is what they say it is and not what their actions suggest it is. But more precisely, it has to do with cooperation with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspections, their meeting Iran's obligations under the various treaties that it has signed, and basically opening their nuclear program so that the rest of the world can be confident that it is not a military program and it is entirely a civilian program, as they claim it is.

It's quite simple, and the prescribed steps are basically outlined in every IAEA report on the Iran program.

Q: But Iranian officials make pronouncements fairly often that they are meeting their obligations. You're saying it's not a nuanced thing at all.

A: It's not, and it's very clear, and it's quite explicit in the most recent IAEA report on the Iran program. This is not a matter of nuance or a matter of opinion. The obligations are as they are spelled out in the treaties, and Iran is not meeting them.

Q: Iran says that the change in the leadership of the IAEA has something to do with the change in the tone of the reports.

A: I think every leader puts his stamp on the organization he's leading. It's not a matter of tone, it's a matter of substance. It's a matter of real cooperation and really meeting the commitments that you are obligated to meet.

Q: Would you say the United States is pleased with the extent to which there is an international consensus on dealing with Iran's nuclear program?

A: "Pleased" is not quite the word. But Iran should take note that not only did we achieve the passage of a resolution in the Security Council which was stronger than anyone expected it would be, but it's been followed up by further measures not only by the U.S. but by the Europeans, by the Canadians, by the Japanese and now by the Koreans. I can't tell you what percentage of Iran's trading relationships are represented in that group, but I imagine it's quite substantial. Plus, the symbolism of the EU 27 countries acting together, not only to support the Security Council resolution but to go further than it, should really cause them to take note.

Q: There isn't much room for discussion on nuclear issues?

A: No: It has to do what it has to do. What can be discussed is the question of confidence. We have, for example, fully acknowledged that Iran, as other countries, has the right to have a civilian nuclear program and to have access to the technology associated with that. The problem is that we, along with many other governments, do not have any confidence that Iran is doing what it says it's doing, and therefore it cannot enjoy all the rights under the treaty because the international community does not have confidence in the Iranian program. Reestablishing that confidence is partly a matter of Iran doing what the treaty requires it to do - again, in cooperating with the IAEA - but also reestablishing the confidence of the international community in its intentions. And that's what conversations could be about - and quite serious conversations. That's what some of the proposals that were made back in October [2009] had to do with.

Q: Would it be useful for Iran to sit down now with the P5+1, Germany and the five Security Council members?

A: We think so. This is something that they're talking about now, up in New York, but I think yes.

Q: The focus of the sanctions by the United States and the world community has been on the nuclear issues. Where do human rights enter into the equation?

A: Well, there is a piece of the recently renewed Iran Sanctions Act which requires the U.S. to designate those who violated human rights after June 12th of '09, the [Iranian presidential] elections. But I think our concern for human rights in Iran predates that by a substantial period, and it's something that will continue to be a theme, not just in our conversation with the Iranian government but in our efforts to reach out to the Iranian people and the efforts of the international community to sort of put a focus on how the Iranian government is treating its own citizens. The fact that there are no sanctions associated with this right now, I think, is really a minor point. It doesn't mean we don't care.

Q: It's still a concern.

A: A very deep one, yes.

Q: And the pressures that would be brought to bear on other countries that might violate human rights would also be brought to bear on Iran, as far as that goes.

A: Yes, the kind of moral sanction [reflected in] measures in the Third Committee of the General Assembly [the Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs Committee], measures in the Human Rights Council - or efforts, sometimes successful, sometimes not, in both of those venues. Most of them have been led by countries other than the U.S., and I think that's an important point, because it shows that the human rights question as it pertains to Iran is not a political issue between the United States and Iran, it's something that concerns others as well.

Q: With the fractious state of the Iranian government, doesn't the United States, by trying to engage the Iranian government, become an issue for different factions to beat each other over the head with?

A: I imagine that's going to be the case, but it's more for Iran to contend with than for us to contend with. If we can present a sort of solid position, then the Iranian government will have to organize itself around that and respond to that in a way that benefits Iran, and to the extent that it fails to come to an internal agreement over how to respond to a U.S. offer, it loses the benefit of that engagement and the future is less rosy than it would be otherwise. I hope that would be clear.

Q: You would hope that Iranian public opinion would support engagement with the United States.

A: Yes, and I think it does. What polling there has been does demonstrate that the Iranian people do support some kind of engagement with the U.S.

Q: The detention of U.S. citizens, as far as the U.S. is concerned, is a humanitarian matter. How do you interpret the Iranian response, which seems to tie the fate of the other hikers to Iranians jailed in the United States?

A: They're tying and they're not tying. It's very hard to parse the public statements. President Ahmedinejad did mention the cases of Iranians in prison in the U.S., but at the same time as he was tying the release of the hikers to that, he was saying he wasn't tying the release of the hikers to that. So it's very hard to say exactly what was meant. Obviously, the Iranians are concerned about their people who are in prison in the U.S. Our answer to that is that these are people who had due process, who were represented in court and who were convicted of crimes. We are not preventing the Iranian protecting power, which is Pakistan, from visiting them in jail, which is our obligation under the Vienna Convention. These people will serve their sentence and then they will go, and it will not be a question of bargaining with us about their status, whereas the detainees in Iranian custody have not had due process, have not been tried. They're just detained. And the parallel escapes me, frankly.

Q: Is it just a matter of maintaining the pressure and appealing to humanitarian impulses in the Iranian government to help these people?

A: Well, I think that's certainly something we can do and have done and will continue to do until they're all released.

Q: More generally, do you see the Iranian government as pliable, as moldable by world public opinion?

A: I think for substantial parts of the Iranian government - I can't tell you exactly who -but also for the Iranian population and the Iranian commercial class, the relationship with the outside is important. It's not a hermit kingdom; it's a country that has long had really substantive trade, cultural, political and other relationships with the rest of the world. And I don't see any impulse on the part of any part of Iran to sort of close itself off from that.

Q: So other nations' opinions matter?

A: Yes, yes.

Q: Most Americans don't remember a time of good relations with Iran, and most Iranians weren't born yet, it's such a young country. There have been some hints of better ties, such as between the Clinton and Khatami governments, but relations mostly have been vitriolic. Is there a way to unpoison the well?

A: I think it will take time. As you say, there is baggage going back well beyond 30 years, and I won't say it's an act of will, necessarily, but some of this will have to be unwound. Some of the historical memories will have to be either put aside or mitigated somehow for anyone to go forward. Fundamentally, it requires a decision, a simultaneous decision on both sides, that the future can be better, and this ought to be pursued. We've made that decision; we're waiting for them now.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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