By Staff, National Iranian American Council (NIAC)
Washington, DC - “I don’t think there is an implicit obligation for the United States to follow like a stupid mule whatever the Israelis do,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski. “If they decide to start a war, simply on the assumption that we’ll automatically be drawn into it, I think it is the obligation of friendship to say, ‘you’re not going to be making national decision for us.’ I think that the United States has the right to have its own national security policy.”
Zbigniew Brzezinski (right) with Trita Parsi
Watch the entire conference on C-SPAN's archives
Speaking before a conference sponsored jointly by the Arms Control Association and the National Iranian American Council, Brzezinski effectively ruled out a U.S. or Israel attack on Iran as “an act of utter irresponsibility” that would mean “the region would literally be set aflame.” He warned that a policy based on such unrealistic options ultimately undermined U.S. credibility.
Panelists at the event argued that the timing is right for a renewed diplomatic initiative with Iran. “Right now is the right time, right after the American elections, and right before the Iranian elections,” observed Professor Ahmad Sadri of Lake Forest College. “Remember back to 2008 when we were in the same point in the cycle, except right now on the ground the situation is much worse. There’s more fissile material, and there’s less optimism.”
However, at the same time, Sadri noted that Iran’s soft and hard power in the Middle East has declined. “If I was an American negotiator, I’d say this is exactly the right time to go into [negotiations].”
Nuclear specialist Jim Walsh of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argued that both sides needed to be prepared for compromise and to expand their existing offers. “You’re not going to have success if you simply continue to repeat the things you did before that didn’t work.”
“Content-wise, both sides have presented proposals where they are asking a lot and offering very little,” Walsh observed. “This is classic, everyone does this, but in this particular instance where nobody trusts one another, they take that proposal as evidence, ‘Ah ha! The other side isn’t serious.’”
The panelists agreed that the lack of trust was a major obstacle for successful talks. Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, former head of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) in Iraq, criticized the inability of the U.S. and Iran to pursue areas of important strategic interest, such as stabilizing Afghanistan, because of the lack of a relationship. Sadri advocated that working together to address the drug trade funneled out of Afghanistan could be an area to start to build confidence.
Any negotiations that resolve the nuclear issue, according to the panel, would necessarily include a discussion on easing sanctions. Walsh cautioned against an unbalanced approach by the U.S. and the UN Permanent Five plus German (P5+1). “The things they’re offering Iran are very limited, very small, in fact some of them are out-dated,” Walsh said. “We’ve been at this so long, offering spare parts for planes isn’t going to cut it anymore.”
However, Walsh cautioned, the Iranians cannot hold unrealistic expectations regarding sanctions relief. “The Iranians are saying once we get rid of the 20% issue and we get Parchin a clean bill of health, we’re done, and all the sanctions should be gone. That’s not going happen.”
Instead, he said, “Iran has to adopt the Additional Protocol. It has to follow through on its current safeguards arrangements, and do so in a way that’s forward leaning rather than reluctant. That’s not happening. So the core issues are not going to go away, even if we solve 20%.”
Ambassador Ekeus discussed the lesson of Iraq sanctions in the 1990s, which he grappled with as the head of the UNSCOM inspections effort. Initially, he said, the sanctions were “a functioning system” because they conditioned the easing of sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s disarmament and acceptance of robust inspections. However, when Iraq eventually came into compliance in 1997, the U.S. announced that it would still not lift sanctions unless Saddam Hussein stepped down. The goal became regime change, which, Ekeus said, “destroyed” the system and ultimately brought the U.S. into war.
“That’s the scenario I fear with the US,” said Walsh. “We sanction a country, they start to do what we want them to do, and then someone announces, ‘Well, it really doesn’t matter what you do because we’re going to keep the sanctions regardless,’ and then the thing falls apart.”
Brzezinski expressed similar concerns. “I do fear that some of the energy for sanctions is driven simply by a kind of almost fanatical commitment to a showdown with the Iranians.”
Brzezinski said that, in addition to eschewing the so-called military option, one diplomatic strategy to consider would be secret, parallel talks between the U.S. and Iran held outside of the U.N. Security Council led negotiations. Walsh endorsed the idea that talks should be shielded from public political scrutiny. “Any real negotiation, you’ve got to meet all the time, every week, all the time,” said Walsh. “Meet behind closed doors, eventually the cameras get tired, stop coming to the meetings, and then you can get stuff done.”
But if talks do not yield results, Brzezinski argued that the best back up option would be a mix of sanctions and deterrence instead of a drift to military action. “Deterrence has worked against a far more powerful, far more dangerous, and indeed, objectively, more aggressive opponents in years past,” he argued.
He argued that the goal of any U.S. policy should be to prevent Iran from acquiring a “significant military nuclear capability,” and warned against policy prescriptions based on “a hypothetical, imaginary, non-credible notion that the moment they have one or two bombs they’ll eager rush into national suicide.”
“The notion that somehow or another they’ll put it in a picnic basket and hand it to some terrorist group is merely an argument that may be convincing to some people who don't know anything about nuclear weapons,” Brzezinski said.
“I don’t find that argument very credible, I’m not sure that people who make it even believe in it. But it’s a good argument to make if you have no other argument to make,” he stated. “The fact of the matter is, Iran has been around for 3000 years, and that is not a symptom of a suicidal instinct.”
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