January 9th, 2012
11:27 PM ET

Will Iran negotiate? Will Israel attack? An expert panel discusses

Iran and the West are locked in a dangerous game of brinkmanship, a war of words and sanctions that could easily turn into something bigger. What happens next? This past Sunday on GPS, I discussed all this with a panel of experts.

Iranian-born Vali Nasr is a professor of international politics at Tufts University.  He recently served in the Obama State Department. Bret Stephens is the foreign affairs columnist of The Wall Street Journal, formerly the editor of The Jerusalem Post. Hillary Mann Leverett worked in George W. Bush's National Security Council as the director for Iran and Afghanistan. She is now CEO of the Strategic Energy & Global Analysis. Hooman Majd is one of Iran's finest authors and commentators. Born in Tehran, he now lives in New York.   He is the author of The Ayatollahs' Democracy. A transcript of our discussion is below:

Fareed Zakaria: Welcome all. So Hooman, you spent much of the last year in Iran.

HOOMAN MAJD:  Yes.

ZAKARIA:  Describe to me what does life in Iran look like with these mounting sanctions.

MAJD:  Difficult.  Life is difficult for the ordinary person.  The inflation rate is very high in Iran, as you know. You were there yourself. And it's getting worse. Foreign exchange, the foreign exchange rate has fluctuated dramatically over the last few months based on people's anxieties about the sanctions and anxiety about the possibility of war. So life is actually difficult for the ordinary person, particularly in the big cities.

ZAKARIA:  And whom do you think ordinary people blame?

MAJD:  I think they tend to - well, they're a little baffled by the Obama administration approach or the Western approach to Iran. They don't quite understand why these sanctions are being applied. They - some people might blame the Iranian government.  But I think generally speaking, people are like, why is this happening? Why is America doing this? Because people are pretty sophisticated in Iran. And they say, well, if they are trying to get our government to stop its nuclear program, That's not going to happen.

ZAKARIA:  And, Vali, when you look at this sort of leadership issue of first they say they're going to block the Strait of Hormuz then they back down. There seems to be disarray. How do you read what the Iranian leadership is trying to do at this point?

VALI NASR:  Well, there always is a difference of opinion among the leaders about how to handle the negotiations, the sanctions, the United States.  But I think overall, the decision in Iran has been made to meet threat with threat, violation of sovereignty with violation of sovereignty and show an aggressive face to the West in order to back the West off.

Now, there are people who may go too far and then they are sort of yanked back. But it's very clear that Iran has made a very clear decision that the way to deal with the United States on these sanctions is preemptive and it's to try to raise the cost to the West and to send warnings in the hope that the administration will back off.

ZAKARIA:  But what are Iran's cards here? The West has all these cards of economic sanctions and potentially more in military issued strikes. What are Iran's credible threats?

NASR:  Well, first of all, I think Iran would like to educate the West on the fact that the imposition of sanctions is not going to be cost-free. So that Iran can or can threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz, can threaten Arab allies around, can threaten regional stability. There is a perception that the Iranians have mentioned that that's going to cause an impact on energy markets and Europe and the United States right now are vulnerable. And generally, there are still many areas in which the United States is vulnerable in the region, in Afghanistan, in Iraq. And the Iranians have a perception that the Obama administration has been talking about sanctions as if they hold all the cards, they can make all the moves and there is no Iranian blowback, in a sense.

ZAKARIA:  Bret, it seems like the Obama administration is being very tough on Iran. And we can get - we'll get to it the issue of whether or not, you know, it's working and such. But from your point of view as somebody who's always had a pretty tough line, surely you must be pleased?

STEPHENS: I'm more pleased. I wish it had been these sanctions, the oil sanctions that are now coming into play, both from the United States and also the European Union had been done earlier. I think they would have had a greater effect on the regime

ZAKARIA:  But these things take time when you're trying to get other countries...

STEPHENS:  These things take time and as we learned from the IAEA report late last fall, the Iranians have made enormous strides in their nuclear program. I want to somewhat take issue with something Vali said or at least make another point.  The Iranians are belligerent whatever the stance of the United States.

The Obama administration came into office very clearly seeking an open hand outreach toward the Iranians. Now, you might quibble that it wasn't done in an appropriate style or it lacked a certain kind of nuance. But the general thrust of the Obama's presidency's approach was to congratulate the Islamic Republic on their new year, to negotiate face-to-face.

And the response from the get go from the Iranians was belligerent, not just at the level of negotiations, but taking those American hikers hostage, taking that American journalist, Roxanna Saberi, hostage and putting her through a kind of kangaroo court. So we shouldn't sort of imagine that Iranian behavior today is purely dictated by what has transpired in the last two or three months.

ZAKARIA:  Hillary, you think the Obama administration has been too tough, in a sense, right?

HILLARY MANN LEVERETT:  Yes. And I don't think they were ever serious about engagement. I think that President Obama came into office with this vague notion of engagement with it, but not really understanding what it would take.

When Nixon and Kissinger came into office wanting to fundamentally reorient U.S. policy toward the People's Republic of China, they did really important, noticeable things to the leadership in China. They stood down covert operations in Tibet and they stopped patrolling the Seventh Fleet was to stop patrolling the Straits of Taiwan.  Two really important things to show to the leadership in the PRC.

What did the Obama administration do? They had one 45 minute meeting over the nuclear issue.  They ignored President Ahmadinejad's initial letter of congratulations to President Obama.  And when the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, responded to Obama's New Year's message to the Iranian people, to the leaders and people of the People's Republic...The Islamic Republic of Iran, the Supreme Leader responded that we, the Iranians, have no experience with your administration, with the Obama administration. If you change your policies, so will we. That was a critical opening and I've been told by people within the Iranian National Security Council that it was fully cleared, authorized and thought through.  It was a major strategic error that we did not pursue serious, sustained diplomacy with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

President Obama has brought us closer to the brink of conflict with Iran than even the Bush administration did.

ZAKARIA:  Bret, you feel that the Obama administration made a serious offer of diplomacy. There are lots of people who feel that, you know, we've missed many opportunities for negotiation on both sides. You think that it's essentially - it's pointless to try and negotiate, because this is a regime that doesn't want the reconciliation with America.

STEPHENS:  Well, I think that's right.  I think the Iranians are of two views, that the West is either trying to subvert them through a kind of Velvet Revolution process or they're trying to subvert them sort of actively through covert operations or military strikes and so on. So I think that, in my view, goes very far to explain Khamenei's incredibly harsh and immediate reaction to President Obama's very public and early overtures.

ZAKARIA:  What do you say to that?

MANN LEVERETT: I think the Iranians, I think inside the Islamic Republic, they are concerned about U.S. attempts to undermine, subvert and attack the country.

And they need to defend the country, just as they needed to defend the country against Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1980.  Absolutely, there is a clear sense of self-defense, preservation of the country, not just the ruling elite, but the country. There's an absolute imperative for that.

But with that, Iran also sees itself surrounded by 15 neighbors.  Not one of them, except for Iraq today, possibly is a natural ally.

Iran has real, real national security concerns and legitimate interests that, in part, can be alleviated, ameliorated by a much better relationship with the United States.  And that is why the Islamic Republic of Iran has periodically, even from its inception, been open to working with the United States.

Remember the Iran-Contra affair during the 1980s, trying to get U.S. hostages out of Lebanon during the first Bush administration, Bush 41, working with the United States to get weapons to the Muslims in Bosnia, working with the United States in Afghanistan after 9/11, sending in an offer for comprehensive negotiations in 2003?

There have been repeated steps.  And when the - when the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran says in Mashhad, in one of the holiest places in Iran, says to crowds and crowds of Iranians, we don't have any experience with this administration, if you change your policies, so will we, that was serious...

STEPHENS:  But in your - in your telling of Iran, this is a 30 year record of Iranian efforts at outreach to the United States...

MANN LEVERETT:  And self…

STEPHENS:  - arrogantly or foolishly...

MANN LEVERETT:  - and self-defense and self...

STEPHENS:  - rebuffed by the United States. This is not a regime that, you know, supports terrorist groups, tries to kill a Saudi ambassador.  Perhaps is justifiably…

MANN LEVERETT:  Well, they have their strategy.

STEPHENS:  - incurred the...

MANN LEVERETT:  They have a self-defense strategy.

STEPHENS:  - resentment and fear of its neighbors.

ZAKARIA:  All right, let me ask you, Vali, you were in the State Department when this - these issues were being debated, you know, whether the U.S. should be reaching out in some way or the other. How is this going to end, because if you put all this pressure on them, is there a strategy for some kind of negotiated outcome, because otherwise, the pressure builds. And if the Iranians, as you say, kind of match pressure with pressure, things can get very, very risky. 

I mean if you look at the price of oil, I'm struck by this. In a global recession, with this huge slump, the price of oil is $110 a barrel. The price of oil in the beginning of 2007 was $50 a barrel with every economy booming in the world. So it has to be the - the fear of the political risks that are doing this. And so where do we go from here?

NASR: Going from here, if the objective of the administration is get the Iranians to the table or change their behavior, the sanctions regime is not going to work and for a very simple reason, because the sanctions, the level they are going to are going to threaten the stability of the regime.  If you threaten the stability of the regime, what kicks in is a Libya scenario.

In other words, even the Supreme Leader said that Gadhafi was an idiot for giving up his nuclear weapons because if you give up your weapons, you don't have any weapons of mass destruction deterrents. And then your people rise up, there is nothing to protect you from outside intervention. So if we're going to threaten the stability of the regime through these Draconian sanctions, you're going to only give Iran more encouragement to stick to its guns and try to race past the point of no return. So these sanctions currently are counter-productive.

ZAKARIA: What will bring Iran to the negotiating table?

MAJD:  I think to get them to the negotiating table where you might have a positive result, you have to - going back to what Hillary was saying and how the Obama administration had some outreach to Iran, but it wasn't enough, the 45 minute meeting and so on and so forth, you know, a Friday prayer leader in Yazd told me, at the time, right at that time Obama was elected, he said, well, if Obama is really serious - and this is what they tell their flock, they tell their people on Friday. If he's really serious, why doesn't he lift one of the sanctions? And one sanction is spare parts for our civilian aircraft.  You know, right now, today, if an Iranian wants to fly on Iran Air or even on British Midland Airways between London and Tehran, that plane has to refuel in Armenia or in Greece or somewhere else where they can get fuel.  They can't even get fuel for their airlines when they go abroad.

This is directly affecting the Iranian people. The Iranian government is making sure that the Iranian people know that it's directly affecting them.  They don't quite understand why these sanctions are there. They don't quite understand why their planes are falling out of the sky when they could easily be buying Boeings to, you know, safely take people.

So they were looking - and I think this is a reflection of the leadership - I think Hillary is correct, they were looking for some sign.  Now, I don't know about China.  I'm not an expert at all on - I'm not a historian. But I think they were looking for some sign beyond the rhetoric that said, yes, we're actually serious about this.

ZAKARIA: Given all the pressures that are building, do you believe within a year we will have reached some kind of crisis? Will there be an Israeli strike? What it's going to look like a year from now, if the pressures are building to a point where something feels like it's going to give?

NASR:  Oh, I think we are in a crisis. The question is when we are going to have an actual breakdown. I think, you know, we are not where we were in 2003 or in 2009.  We're at a point where the regime in Iran would feel that if they sat at the table and they gave what Bret is saying, that they will be under threat.  Ultimately, we want the suspension to come first, normalization later.

That makes them susceptible to some kind of action against them, as I said, to a Libya scenario. So they're not going to come to the table just because of the pressure.

And the reason, right now, the administration has not put forth a road map to a robust diplomatic negotiation on them.  It's just pressure, pressure, pressure.  And buckling now would actually make them vulnerable.

So I think they're going to hold their cards and that would make a danger.

ZAKARIA:  An Israeli strike, what is the possibility within the next year that there will be a strike on Iran?

STEPHENS:  I think it's highly likely.

ZAKARIA:  Without the United States?

STEPHENS:  I think it is - it is increasingly likely, because there is a perception among Israelis that the United States will not do what Israelis have hoped they would do, because, for Israelis, an Iran with a nuclear weapon is unacceptable, particularly in the current religious and political climate in the Middle East. And because I think the Israeli leadership really sees this as a threat like none other in their history.

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Topics: GPS Show • Iraq • Israel • Nuclear

soundoff (150 Responses)
  1. Justin

    I am not a professional at all on these matters but I do keep up with what is going on in the world. Both parties seem to be at a point of no return. The pressure from the west and its allies have pushed a "declining" regime into a corner. A corner that Iran at this point is very comfortable with. Any further action from both sides could easily turn into world war 3. If Iran was serious about it's intentions with its nuclear program there would be no need for enrichment of uranium at 20% a 3-5% enrichment program would be enough for energy purposes for their country. When you hear of things that were reported in 2009 of a underground nuclear plant Fordo that is now enriching uranium at the 20% is just further actions of acquiring a nuclear warhead. We can only sit back for so long until the enrichment process if continued and enriched at further percents allowing Iran to have accomplished the point of no return. I think that at this point in time that there are still options of negotiations with us/ Iran/ and Israel but if we don't act and come to the table with serious negotiations then it will be inevitable that war is not an option but a must. Key things in my opinion that show clear proof that Iran is not in some type of DEFENSE with the united states and allies but at an OFFENSE is obviously the percents that it is enriching but also the fact that they are pushing limits beyond what is needed for energy. Sentencing American citizen to death for espionage, the downed drone and releasing this information along with several other drones downed in previous years to Russia and the threats in the straight of Hormuz. Lets all not forget that we saved their Navy from terrorists aboard their ship not once but several times in the past and now even more recent saved them from and drowning ship. Yes America can be somewhat of the world watch dog but Iran as a nuclear power will do nothing but further more tension in the coming years because of negotiations with its oil and being able to threaten with weapons of mass destruction as well. This is not an act of Defense for the Islamic Republic but more of a Bully strategy to the United States and it's allies.

    January 11, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  2. Humanist

    Majd, Nasr and Hillary Mann Leverett are on the side of the bloody and corrupt mullah mafia and that is shameful.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  3. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    I have several comments here on why Iran needs to be stopped and Pakistan needs to be defanged.

    Read the following mail from a Pakistani which keeps cropping up every now & then. May be this guyQader Khan is a nut, but what if we have one such nut somewhere up the Pakistani army/govt. In fact there already are several. The former ISI Chief Mohammed Gul and also A Q Khan. Just do a google check to see what all they have said about the US, Israel & India, and also in general against Christians, Jews & Hindus.

    Here's what he said and the link to it:

    http://www.opinion-maker.org/2011/11/husain-haqqani-raymond-davis-the-2nd/
    by Qader Khan

    We will crush the infidel RAW-CIA-MOSSAD axis. Operation Al-Boraq is in progress, the hour of Pakistan's glory, and the utter defeat of the USA-ISRAEL-INDIA axis is near! Our engineers have been tirelessly working in extreme heat deep beneath the Mexican-American Sonoran desert border to construct tunnels through which we have supplied suitcase-sized nuclear bombs to the faithful mujahedeen. Our faithful mujahideen in India, Israel and the USA have also been issued scores of suitcase-sized nuclear bombs to lie in wait for a signal from Islamabad. In phase 1 of Operation Al-Boraq, at the appointed sunset hour, upon a signal from Islamabad, scores of suitcase nuclear bombs will be detonated simultaneously in India, destroying for ever that den of infidels. In phase 2 of Opearation Al-Boraq, exactly 6 hours later, when night falls upon Israel, our mujahedeen shall detonate the nuclear charges in Haifa, Tel-Aviv and other cities, destroying for ever that country of sinners. 6 more hours later, Phase 3 of Operation Al-Boraq shall involve detonation of the suitcase nukes simultaneously throughout the major cities in the USA. Thus, within 18 hours, the world shall be rid forever of the 3 major centers of anti-Islamic thought, and Islam shall rule the world, with Pakistan as its leader! Nobody will know where the bombs came from, so there will be no fear of reprisal in any shape or form. Yes, no doubt a few good Mussalmans shall die in the process, but they are guaranteed heaven unlike the infidels. For the true believers there is never death; only heaven & its rewards.

    January 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • John

      Amit-Atlanta-USA- Its very funny Amit. This nut has copied the KGB tactical weapons model, that did the rounds during cold war. Its rather expected from Islamists, and any such move will mark the end of Pak. I'm pretty sure of the fact that Pak can never survive another war with India.

      January 29, 2012 at 5:32 am | Reply
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