An Interview with Gary Sick: There Is No Threat of War

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Keyvan Mehrgan & Farzaneh Salemi Interview with Gary Sick

There are few Americans as much interested in and having a deep understanding of the developments in Iran and the Middle East as does Gary Sick. A retired captain in the American Navy, Sick was a member of the National Security Council under Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Between 1976 and 1981, he was also a White House advisor on Iran affairs. During these years, both the Islamic Revolution (1979) occurred and the US embassy in Tehran was taken over (1979) by Iranian students. Perhaps that is the reason Sick’s views on Iran enjoy a much deeper understanding compared to other American statesmen.

Sick holds a PH.D in political science at the Columbia University. Before reading the following interview, we would like to remind our esteemed readers that the views expressed by this American theoretician may cast doubts about his real intentions in some cases and may be unacceptable to us.

Q: Relations between Iran and the US have gone through numerous tensions at various times. In recent years, the US has adopted a dual policy towards Iran which sounds very controversial. On the one hand, Washington claims to prefer diplomacy and negotiation in resolving crises but on the other hand insists on escalation of sanctions against Iran. Meantime, the US president reiterates every now and then that military strike against Iran is still an option. How would you comment on these controversies?

A:  The truth is that the US does not follow a unified policy vis-à-vis Iran. Just like in Iran, in the US too there are various groups and parties holding different views on international issues. For the same reason, part of the US political spectrum supports diplomacy and negotiation and another part demands pressures on Iran. The controversy in the US approach towards Iran originates from this very duplicity. Washington seems to be pursuing two policies on Iran at the same time. Interestingly it is the same in Iran.

Q: In your opinion which spectrum is more powerful: supporters of diplomacy or advocates of pressure on Iran?

A: I think at this juncture of time the activity of the groups who believe in exerting pressure on Iran has lost color to some extent. The situation is not like what was in the past and pragmatism is now part of the US policy towards Iran to a great extent. Today, many American statesmen would like the crisis between Iran and the US resolved; and for the same reason the attitude of supporters of pressure on Iran has not reached the stage of execution. The United States does not want to create a new crisis in its relations with Iran and the world. We clearly noticed this approach in the course of the talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. The nuclear program of North Korea could have produced an uncontrollable crisis but resort to diplomacy did not let this happen.

Of course this approach in dealing with new crises is not specific to the US. For example, Syria and Israel too have recently started indirect talks and this shows there is an international tendency towards resolving new crises. Of course we should not forget that the situation would not remain the same forever. On many occasions, such approaches would not last forever. The Bush administration, for instance, has led two wars against Afghanistan and Iraq but now is talking about diplomacy.

Q: You mentioned the indirect talks between Israel and Syria. Besides these talks, Israel also brokered a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza recently and at the same time follows exchange of prisoners with the Hizbollah. What is your analysis?

A: I guess the talks between Israel and Syria would affect the relations between Tehran and Damascus. The point is that Israel has started these negotiations with an aim to leave behind the current dangerous conditions in the Middle East. Without doubt, the US and Israel have reached prior agreement on this issue, namely talks with Syria and other parties involved in the Middle East disputes. In other words, this decision has not been taken by Israel alone. Of course, the US government insists that it would not interfere in these talks but it is crystal clear that such negotiations and their possible outcome would have direct impact on the Middle East, as well as the US and Israeli interests. In my opinion, the outcome of the talks between Israel and Syria would pave the way for peace with Palestine. I also think this would reduce Iran’s influence in the region. It cannot be said that Iran would be isolated but this new Israeli strategy would have consequences for Iran in any way.

Q: You mean Israeli adventurism in the region would assume a new form?

A: Israel is sending important signals anyway. The targets of these signals are more the Europeans than Iran. By restricting Iran in the region, Israel wants to influence Europe and make Brussels adopt tough stances against Iran. But Europe too can clearly feel the danger of war in the region and that is why it constantly insists on continuation of talks with Iran.

Q: Do you think there is a threat of military attack against Iran?

A: I don’t think so. Neither the US nor Israel really intend to attack Iran militarily. Whenever there is media ballyhoo concerning war against Iran, the American officials such as the joint chief of staff of the army or secretary of defense or others reiterate that the US has no intention to attack Iran. However, if tensions rise in the region I cannot totally rule out the possibility of military action against Iran. For example, if the interventions of Iraq’s neighbors suddenly mount the threat of an attack (on Iran) would go up and the control of the situation would go out of hand. Generally, as long as the situation of the region is stable the threat of military action is out of question but rising tensions would directly increase the possibility of confrontation.

Q: If Iran rejects the 5+1 proposed package, what would happen in the region?

A: The 5+1 proposed package was very important. Europe has clearly announced that if Iran accepts uranium suspension, this would further pave the way for negotiations. In my opinion it would be wise of Iran to pave the way for the negotiations. The Iranian officials should consider all the aspects and then react to the proposals of Europe. I do not believe that if Iran accepts the proposed package, all the problems would be immediately solved. But negotiations are always the best solution to the problems.

Q: Is the idea of possible opening of an American interest section office in Iran part of incentives to encourage Iran towards negotiations?

A: The creation of the office could be effective and useful. But I am not very much sure if the US really intended to set up such an office in Iran. But if the two sides want the office could reduce some tensions between Iran and the US.

Q: IRI Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has recently cited some change in US attitudes towards Iran and may be the idea of the interest section is part of this change of attitude. Do you really see any change in the US attitude towards Iran?

A: If we call this situation a change of attitude, I think the US has put this change into effect in the 5+1 package. That is why I say Iran should carefully study the 5+1 proposals. This would be in the interest of everyone.

Q: Right now, Iran is one of the most important challenges of the US foreign policy. Barack Obama and John McCain as two presidential contenders have repeatedly taken stances towards Iran. What do you think would be the stance of the new US government vis-à-vis Iran?

A: In his speeches, Obama has clearly said he would be ready to talk to Iran and I think McCain too would follow suit. When the conditions are ripe for negotiations it would not matter who the US president is. Whoever finds his way to the White House would prefer negotiation to confrontation provided that Iran too would want the same.

Q: Ali Akbar Velayati, the international advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader said recently that the policy of Iranian leadership is not based on confrontation and that Iran wants to play an effective role in international relations. Therefore, Iran prefers negotiation to confrontation.

A: This is not a complicated issue at all. Everything depends on Iran. The ball is in Iran’s court and the opportunity for Iran to make a decision has been provided. Iran would use this opportunity if it really wants otherwise things would be different.

Q: To what extent Iran’s influence may affect US pressures on Tehran? It sounds the US does not like this influence at all!

A: Iran has great influence in Iraq. Obviously, the Iranian government has influence among the Iraqi Shiites and at the same time maintains strong ties with the Iraqi government. Many Iraqi statesmen adopt positions very close to those of Iran. So it is no surprise to see the Iranian influence in Iraq. But this influence is also decisive; for instance in negotiations such as those related to the security pact between Washington and Baghdad as well as the timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, this influence leaves its impact. In fact, the future of Iraq to a great extent depends on Iran’s feat. Some wrongly think if Iraq gets insecure the American troops would accelerate their pullout. But this is not true. If the unrest in Iraq escalates so would the confrontation between Iran and the US. On the other hand, despite the fact that some Iraqi groups have links with Iran, Tehran does not control them. The commotion made about Iran’s influence in Iraq would not change anything in Iraq but heighten the tensions between Tehran and Washington.

Q: In view of these conditions, how would you describe the future of Iran in the Middle East?

A: In this region, the Arab states are trying to secure their joint interests. They do not have much trust in Iran and see themselves separate from Iran especially ethnically. But this is not the end of the story. They are also sensitive towards Iran’s nuclear program and its influence in the region. Obviously, Iran too wants to maintain its influence in the Middle East. Well, in my opinion this is not possible and Iran should be reasonable. I believe if Iran’s demands continue in the region in this manner it would be to its disadvantage. Meantime, the US too has many interests in the Middle East and does not want to lag behind. Furthermore, Iran and the US are not supposed to change overnight and totally overlook their demands in the region. In any case, we should not forget that Iran and the US just exercise “influence” in the Middle East not “control”. The fate of the Middle East is decided by a set of conditions which no country controls.


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