Obama Administration Has Goodwill for Rapprochement with Iran

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Iran Review's Exclusive Interview with Craig Unger
By: Kourosh Ziabari

The 10th and last round of negotiations between Iran and the six world powers to clinch a comprehensive deal over Tehran's nuclear program is underway in the Austrian capital Vienna. High-ranking delegations from Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States are engaged in a marathon of breathtaking, intense and technical negotiations to find a solution for the decade-long stalemate over Iran's nuclear activities.

Since Hassan Rouhani was elected the President of Iran in June 2013, new windows have been opened for the resolution of the nuclear conflict, and Iran reached an interim agreement with the P5+1 group of nations in November 2013 known as the Joint Plan of Action. President Rouhani's" charm offensive" has been received with enthusiasm in the West, and his moderate, conciliatory tone has attracted many of those who had come to see and understand the politics of Iran in terms of outworn clichés and stereotypes.

However, what is making the whole world concerned these days, taking the journalists from across the globe to Vienna and the lobbies of the Palais Coburg and putting the camera lights on Mohammad Javad Zarif, Catherine Ashton and John Kerry is the question that whether the 7 negotiating countries can work out a deal that can close Iran's nuclear dossier once for all or not.

Craig Unger, a contributing editor at the Vanity Fair magazine and a prominent American journalist, recently traveled to Iran to confer with the Iranian officials, conduct interviews with the Iranian intellectuals and academicians and get reports for his publication from Tehran. Unger has been featured by such publications as The New Yorker, Esquire Magazine and New York Observer. His five books are "Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove's Secret Kingdom of Power", "Blue Blood", "The Fall of the House of Bush", "American Armageddon" and "House of Bush, House of Saud." His work has been cited in Michael Moore's Palme d'Or award-winning movie "Fahrenheit 9/11." Unger has written extensively on the politics of neo-conservatism in the United States and the family of former U.S. President George W. Bush. He regularly appears on CNN and ABC Radio Network as a guest and analyst.

Iran Review got a phone interview with Mr. Unger and discussed with him the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1, the rise of neo-conservatives in the U.S. government, the role of Saudi Arabia and Israel in the growth of chaos and instability in the Middle East and the ups and downs of Iran-U.S. relations. What follows is the full transcript of the interview.

Q: In one of your Vanity Fair articles, you had referred to a paper written by Richard Perle and other analysts for the Israeli-American think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic Political Studies entitled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." The paper had set out strategies for dominating the Middle East through waging wars against Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and changing the geopolitical balance of the region in favor of the United States through installing pro-Western regimes. Was attacking Iran or regime change in Tehran something which they were pursuing at that time when the paper was written? Were George W. Bush's plans for attacking Iran and toppling the Iranian government an spontaneous plan or something which had been foreseen years before?

A: What is important to understand is that Richard Perle and the other analysts for the neo-conservative think tanks are policy analysts, and at the time that paper was written, they were not in power. They were affiliated with various neo-conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, and the neo-conservatives of course were a few hundred policy analysts and they were looking for trying to get into power; this was during the Clinton administration, and they never got very far with Clinton. But they were setting out strategies, that they would explore later, and this was their thinking, which they pursued, and did get this position of power when George W. Bush came into office. So, this was something very much calculated and not spontaneous. And in fact, if you want to look at the events that preceded the war in Iraq, there was a break-in at the embassy of the Republic of Niger in Rome on the last day of 2000. At the time, George W. Bush was not yet the president. He had won the controversy of election as the Supreme Court designated him the president by then. But he didn't take office until January 21, 2001, so this was about three weeks before he took office. And this break-in resulted in the stealing of stationary and various documents that were later used to forge what became known as the Niger Documents that were forgeries suggesting that the Republic of Niger was selling yellow cake uranium to Saddam Hussein and these are the documents used to start the war on Iraq. So that's before George W. Bush got into the White House, but you had neo-conservatives doing that. One of the other analysts who wrote that paper was David Wurmser, who became a chief aide to Dick Cheney.

Q: So, are you going to imply that the neo-conservatives rose to prominence while Bush was in office? What were these right-wing advocacy organizations doing before him?

A: The neo-conservatives really grew out of a group of policy intellectuals who were first around during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and they started out with the Democrats, but gradually became more and more drifted farther to right, and eventually joined the Republican Party when Regan came into power. So they had a certain amount of clout during the Reagan era, and you could see them at war within the Reagan administration and neo-cons were closely allied with Likud in Israel and at the time promoted the - if you refer to the Iran-Contra scandal, they were putting forth illegal arms sales to Iran at a time when Israel still supported Iran against Saddam Hussein.

Q: With this in mind, do you think that George W. Bush had a plan for supporting the neo-conservatives after coming to power in 2001? Were the neo-cons those who pushed Bush to wage two wars, one in Afghanistan and the other in Iraq?

A: The one in Afghanistan had taken place after the 9/11 attacks, regardless of the neo-cons and I think that had much more widespread support in the United States. The war in Iraq, it seems to me, was very much fabricated and the American people were led to believe wrongly that Saddam Hussein had some role in the 9/11 while he really didn't. The idea that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction came through in part due to these forged documents that were stolen from the Niger embassy. Now why did Bush end up supporting the neo-cons policy? I didn't see him strictly speaking as a neo-conservative, but he was an Evangelical Christian. In many ways, the theology of Evangelical Christians which is a very much Christian Zionist point of view - that theology, was closely similar to the ideology of the neo-conservatives.

In any case, the Biblical prophecy of the Christian evangelicals has a strong component of Christian Zionism, that is they believe that the return of Jews to the Holy Land (Jerusalem) is in accordance with biblical prophecy. As a result, they favor Jews taking over the West Bank, Jerusalem, etc. I traveled to the Middle East under cover to all the holy sites, and saw right wing evangelical Christians contribute to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, etc. You can see that this works hand in glove with foreign policy of neoconservatives, who are not particularly religious, but support Israeli expansion for their own secular reasons.

We have a saying here that Reagan always used to say -We are a shining city on a hill. The reference is biblical, to Jerusalem- i.e., America is the new Jerusalem. And thus was born the idea of American exceptionalism- that we are the new Chosen People. So we can do anything we want.

This idea of American exceptionalism- that America is the one indispensable nation- is especially key to Republican foreign policy. Also, if you go back to World War I, in England, you will see that British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was a Christian Zionist as were other Brits and it played a role in the Sykes Picot agreement and the birth of Israel.

Q: So, why do you think George W. Bush was so much aggressive towards Iran? Do you associate this hostility towards Iran with his extremist religious beliefs or his apocalyptic mindset? Why did he repeatedly threaten Iran with a military attack and concerted airstrikes on its nuclear facilities?

A: That's a good question! This is explained more in my book, "House of Bush, House of Saud" Once the neo-conservatives got into power, they dominated the intelligence apparatus of the United States, and again and again - we have a very complex intelligence apparatus. It's more than just the CIA; State Department has a very large intelligence section; we have the National Security Agency, and during the Bush era, they put Paul Wolfowitz in a very prominent place in the Pentagon, in which he dominated its intelligence apparatus. When you look at the events like the Niger Documents, you would see that even though they weren't true - different analysts would analyze them and say they are fraud and forgeries; nevertheless, the documents kept coming in again and again and again. I had an interview with Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who was the Chief of Staff to Colin Powell and he said we would look at the data, and we take something out forty-six times fraudulent and then put it in forty-seven times. So the information that got to Bush supported these policies, and the neo-cons did a dazzling job of orchestrating how the intelligence data would get to the White House.

Q: Specifically on Iran, would you please tell us why George W. Bush had adopted such a hostile stance? It was completely evident in his statements that he hated Iran, as exemplified by his speech in which he branded Iran as part of an imaginary "Axis of Evil." What's your take on that?

A: It's important to know that George Bush was not knowledgeable about foreign policy, at all. He had no knowledge whatsoever what foreign policy was. When Bush started running for president in 1998, this was a man who had been to Europe only once or twice in his life. He never traveled widely at all. His father had been the President of the United States, ambassador to China and ambassador to the UN and Bush himself, coming from this wealthy family had almost never traveled outside the United States and had basically almost no knowledge of foreign policy. Knowing that, Bush Sr. said it was very important to groom him and he tasked Brent Scowcroft, who'd been his national security advisor, with that mission at the time Bush Jr. was the governor of Texas and running for president. Scowcroft was sort of an outfox like various people. One of Scowcroft's protégés was Condoleezza Rice, and Scowcroft had realized that Condoleezza Rice had started leaning towards the conservatives. In addition, a number of neo-conservatives like Paul Wolfowitz came down [unintelligible], and one of the other people Bush Sr. put in charge of educating his son was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. So, in answer to your question, I would say between the neo-conservative analysts and Prince Bandar, you don't see a pretty picture of Iran. But that phrase, the Axis of Evil, was written by the speechwriter David Frum and from the point of view of a speechwriter, he is looking for a clever phrase that everyone would remember. And the hint to axis was a reference to the Axis Powers during the World War II, meant the Nazis, and I think it was a reckless use of language obviously on his part, and it became very important, because this was in a time when Iran was willing to offer a grand bargain to the United States, and instead the United States rejected it out of hand, and it would have been a good time for rapprochement, but that would never have happened under Bush.

Q: Yes, I was just about to ask you a question on the offer Iran had made to the United States. In 2003, Iran put forward a proposal for cooperation with the United States on addressing such issues as Taliban in Afghanistan, Iraq and nuclear non-proliferation. The Bush administration angrily turned down the offer, and even blasted the then Swiss ambassador to Tehran Timothy Guldimann for conveying Iran's message to the White House. However, after more than a decade, the U.S. government under President Obama has apparently realized that confrontation leads nowhere and it's negotiations based on mutual respect that can solve the problems. Why do you think they rebuffed Iran at that time when the offer was presented, and why did they now change their policy and decided to engage in Iran diplomatically?

A: It was rejected because the neo-conservatives had really taken over the Bush administration by that point, and the book to which you refer, "A Clean Break" - I read the writings of David Wurmser, and believe me, there's no fun to read this book [laughing]. I read them trying to answer exactly the question you're asking: what was the rationale and the overall vision? And there's one point at which David Wurmser says that if we overthrow Saddam and install a Shiite government, then the new Iraq would go on to topple the regime in Iran. And I read that sense, five or six times [laughing] and there was no data to back it up. There was no reason to back it up. There was nothing to back it up whatsoever. And clearly, it was wrong, and yet it seemed to be at the core of the strategy, and it seemed not to make any sense at all to me.

Q: But the neo-conservatives are still in power; not necessarily in the White House, but they have a remarkable leverage over the government through their advocacy organizations. They are in institutions that are oriented on pushing the U.S. government to wage new wars. However, the Obama administration has resisted the pressures and refused to wage a war on Iran and instead is now talking to Iran. So, what has changed the course of U.S. foreign policy on Iran and why has the U.S. government come to the conclusion that it needs to talk to Iran instead of just bullying it?

A: I think this is precisely a real difference between the Republicans and Democrats, and I think the Democrats would be less militaristic and less hostile to Iran, more likely to solve the nuclear issue, and so forth. But as you say, I think it's true on both sides. We have our own hardliners, and Iran has its hardliners, and also ideologues. They do very much reflect the policies of Likud and Netanyahu. For many of them, no nuclear deal would be satisfactory, no matter what the terms. I think Netanyahu would be against any nuclear deal that we come up with, and if it does go through, he would be very unhappy. But, both sides have to satisfy their domestic adversaries, as well, and the danger in Washington is that the Congress may interfere, and that is a danger from our side.

Q: So what's your personal viewpoint on the future of the talks? Are you hopeful and optimistic that the last round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 can bring the standoff to an end? Is any agreement to be sealed before the November 24 deadline?

A: I think they can come up with what would be called a partial success. Both sides have invested enough a lot on this. I think both the Rouhani administration and Obama administration genuinely want an agreement, but I am less optimistic today than I was before the elections, the Congressional elections, because the Obama administration is going to try to work around the Congress, but a new Republican-dominated Senate will try to ruin the deal by re-imposing sanctions and I don't know how that will work out exactly, but it's certain that we will see that kind of battle would take place.

Q: So, if the negotiations eventually lead to a comprehensive agreement, do you think that Tehran and Washington will cooperate on other areas of mutual concern, including the rise of ISIS in Iraq or the stability of Afghanistan?

A: That's certainly a hope and if you look back at the last 35 years - I mean, the revolution is now 35 years old. In that time, the United States had been allied with Iran while the Shah was in power and now it's being allied with the Saudis and the policies during that era have led to an enormous amount of conflict and war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait and the other countries. Our aid to the Mujahedin in 1970s led to the rise of Al-Qaeda. Now it seems that it's happening all over there with the rise of ISIS and so the hope would be that we could enter a new era in which if Tehran and Washington were working together, they could cooperate on such issues as the rise of ISIS, but on our part we have to somehow manage the control of Congress and make sure that it's not a battle; this is not necessarily impossible. In that regard, I did talk to people and there's a lot of business that can be done between Iran and the United States and I think that would help ease the frictions and sort of hold off the Israeli lobby and those kind of economic benefits could work for both countries.

Q: You are the author of the book "House of Saud, House of Bush" which explores the close relationship between the Saudi royal family and George Bush family. What's your viewpoint regarding Saudi Arabia's efforts to weaken Iran and undermine its regional clout? The Saudi officials, including the foreign minister Saud al-Faisal have previously signaled implicitly that they would help Israel if it ever decides to launch an attack against Iran using Saudi's airspace. What's your viewpoint on that? Will Saudi Arabia really collaborate with Israel in an anti-Iran aggression?

A: You know, I don't have a special inside knowledge on that. I did read of course King Abdullah said that - it was widely reported that he said it's time to cut off the head of snake, and I believe in this quote, he referred to Iran so certainly it seems like the Saudis have effectively become Israeli allies and I'm reminded that more than 30 years ago when the George Bush Sr. was Vice President, Prince Bandar went to Washington and lobbied so that the United States would sell weapons to Saudi Arabia. And Israel was very much against it. The Israeli lobby tried very hard to stop it. They were unsuccessful of course, and the United States sold tens of billions of dollars, and I think even hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia. And now, I think it's ironic that Saudis has effectively become an ally of Israel in an odd way. That's why I'm somewhat optimistic that the Israeli lobby could be beaten again when it comes to Iran. I'm told for example that Iran had an airline that wants to buy 300 jet airliners and they would be interested in dealing with Boeing. If deals of that magnitude could be made between the two countries, I think even the Republicans in the Congress might start to support that.

Q: Well, this is a prelude to a possible long-term cooperation, but in order for that to happen, both sides, Iran and the United States, need to stick to their part of the interim agreement that was concluded last year in Geneva. The UN atomic watchdog has confirmed that Iran has honored the agreement made last November and abided by its commitments including the technical limitations on its enrichment activities. Do you see the willingness and firmness in the U.S. government to honor its part of agreement by lifting the nuclear-related sanctions and ease the restrictions?

A: Again, I think for its part, the Obama administration is sincere, but it's also not all-powerful, so as we discussed, he is limited - he has issues with the Congress. Some of the sanctions can be lifted by the presidential executive order; other sanctions can be temporarily suspended. But Congress ultimately may have a final say. Now what we are going to see is that we have a Republican Senate that will try to override whatever Obama tries to do in terms of lifting those sanctions. And that's going to be a battle, and my fear of course is that it could possibly destroy the whole deal. That's a new development as of yesterday, so we have to see how things play out once the new Republican Senate takes office in January.

Q: Let's imagine that a comprehensive nuclear deal is not secured by the November 24 deadline. Do you think that everything will be ruined if the two parties fail to reach a lasting agreement? Will the situation come back to what it was 4 years or 5 years ago, that is a situation of constant hostility between Iran and the West and the recurrent sanctions that were being directed against Iran one after the other?

A: I think it's a very pivotal point in history. That's one of the reasons why I came to Iran. There are two extremes. There are many ways this can break down, but the best case scenario is that we do reach a nuclear agreement and it's satisfactory enough that in the wake of it, the sanctions are lifted, Iran does roll back its nuclear program, and even some trade between Iran and the West begins on a fairly substantial level, it benefits the people of Iran and the West as well, and once series of economic transactions take place, relations warm and get closer, and that can perhaps lead to the easing of some of the tensions throughout the region. The United States would coordinate with Iran in fighting the ISIS, and it would be the start of a new year in the Middle East. That would be the good side. The bad side is that the deal falls apart. Iran ramps up its nuclear weapons program. Israel gets angry and takes military action. Iran in response blockades the Strait of Hormouz. Then you're on the road to disaster if that wouldn't take place. So I personally prefer the former to take place.

Q: Exactly, everybody hopes that the first scenario takes place. We have invested a lot on that in Iran's progressive media. In terms of the U.S. domestic policy, do you think that the presidential election in 2016 will have an impact on the future of Iran-U.S. relations? Will the situation deteriorate if a Republican president with a foreign policy similar to that of George W. Bush comes to power?

A: Yes and yes [laughing]. The fact that the Republicans won the Senate is bad for this deal. It makes another powerful obstacle. I don't know how it would play out. I don't like to make predictions. But it seems to me that the Obama administration has goodwill and it's going to resist the Congress trying to enforce sanctions. But Obama, in general, had been very weak in dealing with the Congress and that has been one of the biggest disappointments of his presidency.

In terms of Iran, he did something fairly smart about a year ago. There was an attempt by two Senators, Kirk and Menendez to increase sanctions on Iran and even tough this bill was co-sponsored by 59 Senators, the Obama administration intervened and prevented it from coming to the floor. Now, we have an incoming Republican Senate, and Obama is going to have a much harder time doing that kind of thing he did last year, so it will be a real problem. How it would play out? I don't know. As to a Republican president, it's pretty clear that Jeb Bush, another Bush, is going to run for president. And if he runs and wins - it's predicted a lot, because the Republican Party is bitterly divided right now in this recent midterm election. But I think when it comes to putting together one candidate for presidency, it's slightly in a weaker position, but to take your premise, yes, I think a hardline Republican president would be disastrous. One of the things that has been ironic in Senate in all of this is that we have a parallel of adversaries on both sides; a parallel of ideologues both in Iran and the United States, and they reinforce each other. It was the neo-conservatives and Netanyahu who benefited from Ahmadinejad, and vice-versa. And in many ways, the hardliners are allied with each other. They need enemies to stay in power, and in many ways, the Republicans benefit from a hostile, hardline Iran, as Netanyahu, and similarly, the hardline conservatives in Iran feel justified when they have a hardline right-winger like George W. Bush in power.

Q: But you surely admit that the situation in Iran has changed, and the new moderate President Hassan Rouhani has taken a conciliatory approach and intends to amend Iran's ties with the international community.

A: Yes, absolutely. We call it "charm offensive" here. It's been quite effective, and I think that plays very well in the West. You do see Netanyahu saying that Rouhani is a wolf in sheep clothing, but I think that makes Netanyahu look bad.

Q: Thank you very much, Craig, for taking time to respond to our questions.

A: You're most welcome.

Key Words: Obama Administration, Iran, US, Rapprochement, Joint Plan of Action, George W. Bush, Niger Documents, Neo-Conservatives, American Exceptionalism, Nuclear Facilities, Afghanistan, Iraq, November 24 Deadline, Comprehensive Agreement, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Sanctions, Hassan Rouhani, Unger

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