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.