RUMI shirts by Arash Norouzi

Thomas R. Pickering's View of Iran
The Former Ambassador to Six Countries Weighs U.S. Options


by Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project
| March 18, 2008                  


Thomas R. Pickering Thomas R. Pickering served as U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, Russia, and the United Nations. He was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 1997-2000.

In the following presentation on Iran at the House of Representatives in January 2007, Pickering noted:

"The overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950's, as well as its deep differences with the United States in other areas, have all shaped the almost 30-year long estrangement from the US."



Thomas R. Pickering, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, 1997-2000
House of Representatives, Committee on Foreign Affairs
“Next Steps in the Iran Crisis”
January 11, 2007

Mr. Chairman:

I am honored to have been asked to provide testimony this morning on what we can do to deal with Iran and the challenges which that country presents for US policy, both in the region and beyond.

As requested, I will focus mainly on the political aspects of the issue and on possible diplomatic solutions as well as on the attitudes of other states toward possible solutions.*

The key issue separating the United States and many other states from Iran is Iran’s nuclear program.

*At the outset, I should make clear that the views expressed in this testimony are my own and not those of any organization with which I am or may have been associated

The International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors has found Iran in violation of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. A number of states have joined the United States in its serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and over the fact that it my well be a project for developing a nuclear weapons capability. It has also been discussed at some length in published articles.* I do not intend to rehearse all of that information here this morning, but as a result of having reviewed it, I begin with a presumption that we should have a well-founded concern that Iranian interest in nuclear development is for the purpose of acquiring weapons despite their public professions to the contrary. It has perhaps been best summed up in the conclusions of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors in its Resolution on Iran of 24 September 2005, when it determined that:

“…the history of concealment of Iran’s nuclear activities… the nature of these activities, issues brought to light in the course of the Agency’s verification of declarations… and the resulting absence of confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes have given rise to questions that are within the competence of the Security Council…”**

*One of the best discussions is in Mark Fitzpatrick, ‘Assessing Iran’s Nuclear Programme’; SURVIVAL, vol. 40, no. 3, Autumn 2006. Fitzpatrick is a former US Foreign Service officer who served as Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation and Export Controls.

** IAEA Board of Governors – Resolution adopted on 24 September 2005 as quoted in Fitzpatrick, p.14.


Iran is a large and significant country with at least a 2500 year history of Persian nationalism. Recent history, with the overthrow of the Shah and the 8-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, has reinforced that sense of nationalism. While there are significant minorities present in Iran, its long and salient history in the region, the binding character of its national language – Farsi, and its general adherence to Shi’ia practices in its observance of Islam have provided a special force pulling the country and its people together. The overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in the 1950's, as well as its deep differences with the United States in other areas, have all shaped the almost 30-year long estrangement from the US.

There have been a few exceptions, notably in the US-Iranian cooperation in meetings of the UN Secretary General-sponsored 6+2 Group on Afghanistan in the late 1990s and in the Bonn meetings in 2002 which followed the overthrow of the Taliban to put together the new Afghan Government.

Iran’s internal politics resemble a puzzle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma — a phrase which Winston Churchill famously used to describe the Soviet Union. Few, even among Iranians, have clear, consistent insights. What does seem clear is that critical decisions are still reserved for the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who consults before making at least the most important of them with both clerical and non-clerical leaders and advisors. President Ahmadinejad, whose official position is more circumscribed than his title implies and whose election and now widely infamous public remarks have begun to build a broader constituency in the wider Muslim world, represents a conservative and perhaps more correctly ‘radically reactionary’ point of view. He has seemingly lost some ground in recent elections. Reformers under Khatami and beyond have also been on a roller coaster course of influence inside Iran. We would do well to pay close attention to daily swings in fortunes as reflected in speeches and statements, but take much of it with a grain of salt. And for all that, few if any in the West, and perhaps too, only a few in the region have gotten to understand clearly and consistently the ever unfolding politics of Iran. There are serious differences of opinion inside Iran, and there certainly exist in Iran more convoluted and complex groups dedicated to one or a number of points of view, sometimes with influence, sometimes not. If it is Iranian policy to keep us all guessing and more about Iran’s internal politics, they have succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.

How does this question of the opaqueness of Iran’s internal politics play out regarding the potential for a negotiation with the US? An Iranian friend once summarized the issue in the best way I have yet heard. “When the US has been ready to talk, Iran has not been. And the opposite has also been true.” Right now, he says, “it seems that the US is not ready for talks, but Iran is”. My approach below is to try to find the right way to test that conclusion.

There are, in addition to the nuclear question, a number of other issues to be contended with from the perspective of the US — Iran’s support for terrorist groups in the region; Iran’s opposition to the Middle East peace process over the years; Iranian activities in Iraq; Iranian-Syrian cooperation on some of these activities; and Iranian mistreatment of its religious and other minorities. Others in the region share concerns with us about Iran’s power projection intentions with regard to the Middle East and beyond.

Iran too has raised concerns about US policies and activities, including US public professions of support for regime change in Iran and the stated interest of some in the US to use force against Iran; the failure to reach a full and complete settlement in the proceedings at The Hague on outstanding, reciprocal financial claims; and US military activity against Iran, including the US shoot-down of an Iranian civil aircraft, and attacks against Iranian oil platforms in retaliation for Iranian mining and other activities in the Gulf in past years.

The principal concern remains what can be done to resolve these issues – both those just noted and pre-eminently the nuclear question?

As with most issues there are a number of options. Setting aside merely standing by while Iran develops a military nuclear capability, only two seriously stand out as offering any prospects for change.

One is the use of force.

Such an action, or a blockade, might be carried out by Israel, the US or both, although at present each has denied such intent. Were Israel to carry out an attack with only its own forces — air, ground or sea — involved, the US would surely also be held responsible by most around the world. Were the US to act alone, Israel would also suffer from a possible direct Iranian riposte and the expected large Muslim backlash in the region and beyond.

Many doubt that our intelligence is currently accurate enough to know with a high degree of certainty about all the potential nuclear targets. As a result, military action, short of a full scale invasion, which has its own problems and which seems for the moment to be beyond contemplation, could not be counted upon to be effective in halting a military nuclear program – and particularly one being pursued clandestinely by Iran. Set backs might be achieved, but would they be worth the price?

Many have pointed out a series of deleterious consequences related to Iranian potential responses to such an attack. They seem to makes the risks markedly greater than any potential value such an attack might have in stopping or slowing down an Iranian military nuclear program. These include: a public decision by Iran to undertake the development of nuclear weapons in response to the attack; increased Iranian use of Iraqi Shi’ia – militias, insurgents and others — to attack and complicate US interests in Iraq; wholesale negative Muslim reaction around the world against the US and its citizens and interests to what might appear to be an unprovoked attack on Iran for carrying on activities now permitted by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); retaliatory attacks via Iran’s Hezbollah surrogates against Israel from South Lebanon and elsewhere; Iran’s stopping its own oil exports and seeking to interrupt Gulf oil exports by sea by blockading the Straits of Hormuz with anti-ship missile, maritime and air attacks; and increased support for terrorist attacks against the US around the world — to name some.

The other serious alternative is diplomacy.

There is no certainty of course that diplomacy can make a major difference, but it is not yet clear that all possibilities in the area of diplomacy have been tried. The purpose of diplomacy is to amass the maximum amount of leverage at the same time it opens the largest number of mutually acceptable doors for Iran to walk through to a solution.

As a former diplomat, despite the unlikely possibility of the use of force alone in resolving the problem, I would be loath to give it up before it could be used to play a role as a quid pro quo in developing through negotiations an acceptable solution to the nuclear question. There is little leverage left to be used in resolving this issue and it would be important not gratuitously to abandon what leverage does now exist, including the potential use of military force.

Indeed, it would be hard to see, given the high level of mistrust between the US and Iran, how this issue could be credibly removed unilaterally from the table by the US in any event, short of a full diplomatic agreement on all aspects of the outstanding issues. It is unlikely in my view that Iran would believe and accept any such proffer, in advance of a full agreement, as being trustworthy.

What are the diplomatic possibilities?

There are, for purposes of simplicity in presenting them, four possible bundles of diplomatic carrots and four bunches of sticks that could be deployed to increase Iranian interest in a successful negotiation. My purpose today is to outline the possibilities.

The central strategic purpose of the effort is to face Iran with starkest of choices – one outlined earlier this year in another hearing at the Capitol by my old friend and colleague, Ambassador Frank Wisner. Iran should be made to face the choice between full and complete international isolation on one hand and a nuclear program, without enrichment and reprocessing, but which through international cooperation fully and continuously meets all of Iran’s expressed needs for civil nuclear power, on the other.

Indeed, diplomacy should also include activities that both go beyond the nuclear issue and look toward the resolution of other outstanding problems between the US and Iran in the bilateral arena, improved regional security in the Gulf, and the removal of existing sanctions. These should be seen as methods to reassure Iran about its security and to bring Iran into the international community on a basis where its important role in the region and beyond can be realized on a cooperative, secure and peaceful basis. Such efforts beyond the nuclear can also provide additional leverage and bargaining room with Iran including on the nuclear issues. Finally, being able to put on the table all the possible elements for a broad solution should encourage those among the Permanent Five Members of the Security Council who are reluctant to support broad sanctions against Iran that they can confidently support such sanctions when deployed strategically to assist in working out this kind of ‘grand bargain’.

Many potential tactical combinations on ways to hold talks are possible. Some, on the nuclear issue for instance, might well be multilateral, involving the US, the three EU states already involved — France, Germany and the United Kingdom— with the possible addition of Russia and China. US-Iranian bilateral discussions will be necessary as discussed below. Regional discussions involving Iran’s neighbors, with perhaps the participation of others, will also be necessary.

Several new departures in US policy will be required –important compromises – including a willingness to give up the use of force and regime change against Iran in return for a fully acceptable Iranian civil nuclear program i.e.— to use carrots and sticks in a diplomatic process; a willingness on the part of the United States to engage the international community and particularly the Five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council early and often in this process to assure that the maximum amount of pressure and reward are introduced into the diplomatic scenario; and a sense that an Iran without nuclear weapons has a future, important role to play in the region and indeed in the world beyond .

What are the carrots and the sticks?

The first bundle of carrots relates to the most important issue — the Iranian nuclear program. An approach here should be based on a willingness on the part of the world community to give broad support to a full civil nuclear program in Iran except for enrichment and reprocessing. This is in effect an approach that provides Iran with all that it needs, but not everything it currently says it wants.

It will be important here to have an answer for Iran’s concern that if it does not independently possess enrichment it will not be able to assure full, continuous use of civil nuclear power. The answer is through a new international effort to assure that not only Iran, but all other states which need low-enriched uranium for civil nuclear reactors, will have continuous, uninterrupted access to such fuel under international, and as a last resort United Nations (IAEA), auspices as long as they maintain their non-proliferation obligations.

Such an approach should be built on internationalizing the Russian insistence that Russia should provide the fuel and take away the spent fuel for the reactor it is building for Iran at Bushehr. The new international regime would eventually be used by all states to acquire fuel for producing civil nuclear power. It would thus close the loophole in the Non-Proliferation Treaty which allows for the acquisition of enrichment and reprocessing technology as part of the civil nuclear fuel cycle.

The Five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council ought to play a key role in the creation of the regime. They also might well become the principal producers and vendors of fuel. To assure competitive pricing, at a minimum at least two of them, and hopefully more, should be part of the program. A permanent facility for the storage of spent fuel from all sources should be set up on the territory of one of these states and arrangements made to facilitate its transportation and long term storage with the cooperation of the IAEA. Russia in the past has indicated an interest in undertaking such an activity.

As an added assurance of permanence of supply, the IAEA might well also become the vendor of last resort. The enriching states should assure that the IAEA has access to a significant supply of fuel, perhaps stored in a neutral state, and where the only criterion exercised by the IAEA for continued supply would be full compliance by the recipient with its non-proliferation obligations.

Accompanying such a regime there should be instituted under the IAEA a new and improved inspection system. This system should be based on that recommended for Iraq in United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1441. An inspection system which provides for wide and immediate access is needed to assure that all programs in a non-nuclear country receiving civil nuclear fuel are peaceful and that no non-peaceful programs are present.

As an extraordinary measure further to assure Iran and others of the certainty of the operation of such a regime, it might be useful to place up to five-years worth of civil reactor fuel under IAEA control in Iran on a continuous basis. Were there to be any failure to provide new fuel to Iran when needed for civil purposes, except for reason of a finding by the IAEA of a violation by Iran of its non-proliferation obligations, this would open the door to Iran proceeding with enrichment on its own.

I would also suggest that over a period of time — say 10 years — with Iranian full compliance with its NPT obligations and with any subsequent agreements including especially those for inspection and verification, Iran too might become a participant in the International Fuel Regime with the possibility of enrichment under full international supervision taking place on its territory.

At the end of the day, if we are faced with the stark choice of permitting some level of enrichment to take place inside Iran under full international supervision and the concurrent continuation of full cooperation by Iran with broad inspection by the IAEA on one hand, and the loss of inspection access because of our opposition to any enrichment activity on the other, I would prefer the former approach.

In return, I would hope the US would be willing, in respect of such an agreement, to set aside the use of force and regime change as part of US policy toward Iran. But I would set aside these two aspects of US policy only if and when an acceptable nuclear agreement had been reached with Iran.

The second major carrot concerns US-Iranian bilateral relations. The purpose here would be to put on the table, at the outset of discussions, a willingness on the part of the US to open direct talks with Iran on all outstanding issues as long as Iran was willing to do the same, on the same basis. There would be no preconditions for either side. However, it would be the first item of business to deal with on-going enrichment activities in Iran. One suggestion has been that some US and other sanctions on Iran as well as all Iranian enrichment activity would be frozen for a fixed period of time as the first item on the agenda of talks with Iran to facilitate the discussions.

The central purpose of this US-Iran bilateral basket of activities would be to resolve the may outstanding issues of bilateral concern between the two states and to work toward the resumption of full diplomatic relations, including the opening of Embassies and the exchange of Ambassadors, probably over time and in steps and stages.

The tactical question of which issues to resolve when and on what basis would have to be left for the talks themselves. However, the proposition I make here is based on the view that progress in this area could assist in making progress in other areas. As a result the discussions and timing of the introduction of various proposals should be viewed carefully from the US side in ways that will encourage progress elsewhere, especially in the nuclear arena.

The third basket would involve regional security and efforts to improve stability and security in the region.

The first issue to be addressed by the regional states, including Iran’s neighbors, and the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, should be nuclear guarantees.

Here a major step might well be an offer of guarantees for all the non-nuclear states in the region against nuclear threats or blackmail from any source by the five nuclear powers so recognized under the NPT. This would supplement the guarantees already available to such states under Protocols to the Non-Proliferation Treaty against nuclear attack. It would also be the kind of step that would be worthwhile taking even in the event of a failure to curb Iranian military nuclear ambitions — reassuring the regional states of future protection against Iranian pressures or actions against them backed up by Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons.

A second step might involve the formation of a regional security coalition or organization whose purposes would include the settlement of outstanding disputes, especially border differences, as well as the adoption of security measures or steps in the area of arms control and disarmament. These latter could include limitations of forces, better direct communication or ‘hot lines’, the mutual observance of military maneuvers and similar measures along the lines developed in East West agreements during the Cold War.

The fourth bundle of carrots or basket of steps could well be termed an “anti-sanctions” basket. This might include, as the talks make real progress, the removal of sanctions and other limitations now imposed on Iran as an encouragement to further progress. One such step could involve the opening up of the region to the possibility of Caspian Sea oil swaps. Oil from the Caspian Basin might be delivered to Iran for its domestic use in northern Iran against the delivery of a similar amount of oil for international trade at Iranian Gulf ports. Other steps could include, as incentives to further negotiating progress, the loosening of restrictions imposed by the United States on investment in the development of oil and gas in Iran.

What about pressures and sticks?

If talks can make progress without them, there might be no need of these. Until there is full agreement on the nuclear question, as noted above, the use of force/regime change issues would not be put to rest.

However, to be realistic, there would need to be advanced agreement on a four-stage series of sanctions among the Five Permanent Members (P-5) of the UN Security Council in consideration of the willingness of the US and others to go ahead with the full program of carrots. Putting the carrots on the table without the sticks means undertaking negotiations where there are no consequences for Iran of intransigence and where intransigence could well be used to stall for time to achieve a military nuclear capability. These sanctions might be spaced some 6-9 months apart in the Security Council and involve an escalating series of steps. (This timing fits with the current publicly expressed expectations by key governments that Iran is not likely to achieve a weapons capability before 2009).

While the full content of each such step would need to be worked out in detail by the Council, the prior agreement among the P-5 might include four general categories of sanctions. Again, these sanctions would not be imposed unless it was clear that real progress was not being made in the negotiations toward agreement on the carrots.

The ideal way to do this would of course be to set out such a program in advance in a Resolution of the UN Security Council with dates certain for the imposition of each stage of the sanctions fully incorporated. Separate, subsequent Resolutions by the Council might delay or defer imposition if real progress was being made. This seems unlikely of achievement in the present Council. What is certain, however, is that an agreement among the P-5 on the outlines of a positive program for Iranian civil nuclear power as well as on a program of sanctions, would seem to be the minimum necessary to start down this road.

The first stage would be something along the lines of what has already been passed – some smart sanctions and some efforts to bring home to Iran that there was more to come.

The simple outline of succeeding steps would be:

     — Step two, international sanctions roughly equivalent to what the US has currently in place bilaterally;

     — Step three, a cut-off of all trade with Iran except for oil and petroleum and with provisions for access to a continued supply of food and medicine for the people of Iran;

     — Step four would include a cut-off of oil and gas trade. The time phasing should allow both a reasonable period for Iran to contemplate its failure to make progress on far- reaching proposals on the one hand and permit the international community the time necessary to take steps to adjust to the loss of Iran’s oil and gas exports in particular on the other. Such adjustments would have to involve the undertaking of a full series of measures by the world community — from the improvement in efficiency standards to the development and production of additional oil and gas resources around the world to the need to draw on stocks and reserves to meet immediate requirements.

All of this may leave a number of questions outstanding.

Let me address some of those questions.

First, how can we be certain this approach will work?

—We cannot. But the alternative, the use of force, is so deficient in promise, that it would seem best to try diplomacy first and while there is still time.

What are the downsides of this proposal?

There are some. They include:

     — The fact that there is now a new requirement — to think differently, and somewhat more out of the box about these issues than heretofore.

     — A need to be willing to put all of the pieces noted on the table for negotiation;

     — A willingness to consider critical but useful compromises on some issues.

     — A willingness on the part of the Permanent Five Members (P-5) of the UN Security Council to consider from the beginning to support a full package – carrots and sticks complete.

—The fact that there may well be in these ideas a very large number of complicated, inter-related issues to be resolved over a period of time in complex negotiating formats – that there are “too many moving parts” is the expression sometimes used in diplomacy. But many of these issues can also be aggregated and used positively to achieve agreement in different ways and that may be an advantage rather than a drawback, since it provides more flexibility for acceptable trade-offs in negotiations.

The Russians and the Chinese won’t join.

—This is possible — although they too say they share the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and advocate the use of diplomacy. We would not be bound to continue with such a broad, far reaching and generous diplomatic offer to Iran if they were not bound to continue, as needed, with a full program of sanctions. Also, we should remain open to any other ideas they may wish to propose to help resolve the issue diplomatically. So far they have had none to offer.

—But the decision not to go ahead would then become theirs to take and they would be responsible for and would have to bear a significant share of the burden of Iran’s movement to nuclear weapons. They would thus have to contemplate seriously the fact that their unwillingness to work with us might then compel the use of force, including a blockade, however uncertain the effect of that might be.

— For China that step could well result in significant world-wide oil scarcity and much higher prices, something it is urgently seeking to avoid through oil investment in Iran and elsewhere around the world.

— For Russia a nuclear Iran, under very heavy external pressure, could well become an additional center of Islamic fundamentalism, one with which Russia, with its millions of Muslim citizens and the on-going conflict against Islamic fundamentalists in Chechnya, would have to contend in its own domestic policy and activities for the long term future.

Some may say we have already tried to do this, but because Iran has refused, we have failed.

— It is true that some elements of this approach have been tried, but apparently not all – and not in combination with an agreement among the P-5 on both carrots and sticks. It is also true that we have not opened the door to US-Iranian bilateral talks without pre-conditions, nor have we moved to incorporate a full range of carrots and sticks in all four baskets into a general strategic approach.

While the chances are far from assured, we of course will never know the answer if we don’t try. This is one of those major issues on which US leadership will be critical. We still maintain a major lead in military and economic power around the world. Others still continue to look to us to exercise that leadership. Diplomatic efforts along these lines are a reasonable and rational answer to that hope on their part. In some areas we have clearly recently experienced a diminished capability to lead. That makes it even more important, that on an issue this significant, we look carefully at what that leadership requires and resolve to do what we can to succeed. While alone efforts here will not restore that diminished capability on their own, success here can help. Secretary Rice has helped to open the door wider to diplomacy in recent years and with Iran and it is hoped these suggestions will complement that effort. Finally, we should be cautious about doing further harm, something taken into account in crafting these ideas.

We should understand that we cannot do this alone. Our diplomacy, as I have noted, must help bring along others. These include principally Iran in the long run, and in the near and medium term, the Five Permanent Members as well as the other members of the United Nations Security Council and the key regional states including Iran’s neighbors. This in not an easy or short term task, but on the basis of our past experience and given our high interest in resolving the problem, also it is not an impossibility.

A few final conclusions about principles might guide a diplomatic dialogue?

Iran will be interested in an understanding with the US which it regards as its principal threat. Engagement will have to be put in place from the top down even though it is conducted through emissaries. All issues will have to be on the table, and that will need to include regime change and an acceptable nuclear program. Iran’s domestic order is not our top priority. If we can agree to engage, we can find the right forum. Successful diplomacy is based on the concept of reciprocity and we will need to apply that in dealing with Iran.

Diplomacy is not a magic answer. It involves tough work and a serious and deep commitment. But as we have found out from some of our more recent experiences when we have forgotten diplomacy and turned to force for a magic-bullet solution, this approach might be close to Winston Churchill’s famous description of democracy –‘the least worst of all other alternatives.’

I look forward to your questions.





Related links:

Engaging Iran - No Preconditions, No Illusions - Speech by Governor Bill Richardson

IAEA Chief Mohamed ElBaradei on Iran's Nuclear File

Meeting the Iranian Challenge - Speech by Joe Biden



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