World Views
4:35 pm
Wed April 10, 2013

What Nuclear Tension With Iran is Really About

Anti-American mural outside the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran
Credit David Holt London / Flickr
Listen to Suzette Grillot's full interview with Col. Lawrence Wilkerson

Iranian state television says the Islamic Republic inaugurated two key nuclear-related projects Tuesday, just days after another round of talks with world powers seeking to limit Tehran’s atomic program.

Retired State Department official Lawrence Wilkerson described what he calls “delusional security” in foreign policy that’s bubbled up in both Tehran and Washington, D.C. over the last three to five years.

“It's come to a peak ostensibly over the nuclear issue, but what it's coming to a peak over really is a power struggle in the Gulf for who's going to be the power to be reckoned with outside the United States,” Wilkerson says.

The retired U.S. Army Colonel and former chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell says even if the U.S. were to become energy independent, signatory defense treaties would keep the U.S. concerned with the ebb and flow of energy in the region.

“This is really about that power equation more than it is nuclear weapons,” Wilkerson says. “Of course, the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, the testing of one, would change that power equation somewhat for Iran, so we're looking at that as being a bad development.”

Wilkerson described a scenario where meaningful negotiations could take place. He says if Iran got rid of all the uranium enriched at 20 percent, and kept future enrichment between three and five percent, and agreed to a rigorous inspection procedure, the U.S. might be willing to soften its position.

“For that, we'll give you some, temporary at least, relief on the European oil embargo,” Wilkerson says. “And we'll give you some relief on financial sanctions. “Then we do that, and we check it out, and we see if it'll work, and we move on further down the road.”

According to Wilkerson, the U.S. President would have to “multitask fiercely” to make this quid pro quo a reality, including earning the support of both Israel and the U.S. domestic audience.

“He's got to go after that with everything in his power – the bully pulpit, all the pressure he can bring, and so forth – because he's going to have a lot of antagonists in Congress,” Wilkerson says. “He's got to sell that deal, and he's got to get that deal approved. That's not going to be easy. It's going to require incredible leadership.”

(L-R): University of Oklahoma Farzaneh Family Chair in Iranian Studies Afshin Marashi, Lawrence Wilkerson, "World Views" host Suzette Grillot - February 6, 2013
Credit Jacque Braun / tumblr

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On why total energy independence wouldn’t keep the U.S. out of the Middle East

We have signatory treaties where we're committed to the defense of Japan, to the defense of South Korea, to the defense of NATO, which has now expanded majorly, and to really the defense of the Philippines, and to the defense of Thailand. These are signatory treaties, and we don't have a signatory treaty with Israel, but we're darn sure committed to the defense of Israel. So these people aren't invulnerable, so as long as they're not, as long as energy has to flow at a reasonable price, we are concerned.

On what it would take for meaningful negotiations between the U.S. and Iran to develop

Get rid of all of that you've enriched at 20 percent. We'll give you long-term contracts so you can buy it from others who do that. That's for medical reasons and so forth. And let us put a very intrusive inspection regime on the ground - cameras, boots, everything - for 5-7 years and make sure that we can trust you in implementing this decision. And for that, and here comes the crux. For that, we'll give you some, temporary at least, relief on the European oil embargo. And we'll give you some relief on financial sanctions. That's the quid pro quo we have to put on the table for Iran to put the kind of things on the table that we want.

On how to implement that quid pro quo

In the United States, the president is going to have to multitask fiercely. He's going to have to take Bibi Netanyahu, or whoever happens to be ruling Israel at the time, in hand, and he's going to have to say, "OK, this is what I've worked out, and if you try to thwart this, I'll do everything in power..." This is private conversation, this is not public conversation, "...I'll do everything in my power to bring you down. I have got to have your support on this. I do not want you undermining." Then he's got to go to the American people and say, "Start writing your Senators and Representatives, because this is a deal we can live with. This is a deal we can enforce. This is a deal that ensures American security, and ensures, to a certain extent, Iranian security, and it's a win-win deal, and we need to sign it."

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, welcome back to World Views.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON: Thanks for having me back.

GRILLOT: So I'd like to ask you a few questions about your particular expertise on U.S. foreign policy with regard to Iran, and the current situation that we face with Iran's decision to become a nuclear state. Whether they have become a nuclear state. What does this mean? How is the U.S.-Iranian relationship really shaping up over this issue, or other issues you find to be particularly relevant between the two countries?

WILKERSON: Well, as you know, U.S.-Iran relations have a long history, and the more modern part of that starts with our overthrow of their prime minister in 1953, moves through the installation of the Shah, the fall of the Shah in '79, the very bloody World War I-like Iran-Iraq War from roughly '80 to '88. Our siding with Iraq while selling Hawk missiles and TOW missiles to Iran, and a whole mess of what I'd call "delusional security" in foreign policy. And that delusion has come to a peak in both Tehran and Washington over the last three to five years. And it's come to a peak ostensibly over the nuclear issue, but what it's coming to a peak over really is a power struggle in the Gulf for who's going to be the power to be reckoned with, outside the United States. The ideal strategic situation for us would be the one we achieved when President Carter in 1980 essentially said it's in America's vital interest to make sure oil flows through the Strait [of Hormuz], and to make sure the Gulf is stable.

GRILLOT: So I think that's really key, because how is it all connected? This issue of oil, because we tend to think, "Oh, Iran. Nuclear weapons. Power struggle." But where is it that oil comes into that whole picture?

WILKERSON: It comes in floodingly. People ask me, "Well, what happens when we become essentially independent, with fracking and natural gas and oil and so forth?" Well, the first thing I say is the verdict is out on whether fracking is really going to be the thing everybody says it is, or cause earthquakes and destroy us. But even if that hypothetically comes true, that we're energy independent, it isn't going to make a bit of difference, security-wise, because our Allies aren't. We have signatory treaties where we're committed to the defense of Japan, to the defense of South Korea, to the defense of NATO, which has now expanded majorly, and to really the defense of the Philippines, and to the defense of Thailand. These are signatory treaties, and we don't have a signatory treaty with Israel, but we're darn sure committed to the defense of Israel. So these people aren't invulnerable, so as long as they're not, as long as energy has to flow at a reasonable price, we are concerned.

GRILLOT: So it's about oil from the region. Not Iran, though, right, because...

WILKERSON: Well, it is oil and gas from Iran, too, because Iran ticks in...if you look at the IEA figures, the International Energy Administration figures, Iran may be number two or number three in gas, and may be, if it's fully explored, somewhere around Iraq in terms of oil. Oh by the way, the latest reports on Iraq are maybe 300 billion barrels. That tops Saudi Arabia. Maliki’s plans are to be at 13.7 million barrels per day production capacity. That tops Saudi Arabia. And oh, by the way, Saudi Arabia's fields are geologically insolvent in many respects. They're the only country that doesn't report to the IEA the status of their fields. So we don't know what the status of their fields is. Are they geologically becoming untenable? When you suck all the oil out, they begin to collapse. They begin to fall in on themselves, and so forth. You get too much water, too much sand, and so forth, to make it economically feasible. The Saudis themselves have privately told me that in order to sustain their levels of patronage, to keep their people happy, if you will, at least the princes, they need about $115 per barrel consistently. In order not to perturbate their own problem, which is to force the world, and incentivize the world, into looking for alternative energy, they don't want to go above $88. Look at the conundrum they've got to face. We need $115 to keep my populace pacified, but oh, if I go above $88 I incentivize alternative energy throughout the world. So they've really got a problem.

GRILLOT: So that domestic political/international political check-and-balance comes into play there in terms of making sure that you keep your domestic population happy, but that you satisfy international need and desire on the other hand.

WILKERSON: Yes. And don't commit suicide by driving people away from oil.

GRILLOT: And that's clearly what's going on throughout the region in this case with this particular resource. So Iraq obviously coming up as a major producer and exporter of oil, an even larger one than it is now. This will change the game too, then, as you mentioned what that's going to do to Saudi Arabia. But bringing this back to that power struggle over the control of this resource. This is basically the bottom line here in terms of our concerns about Iran and their nuclear capabilities.

WILKERSON: I think it's that, but it's also that connected to the power situation in general. As long as our man was in charge of the most demographically cohesive, the most militarily powerful, the most geographically well-positioned country in the region - Iran - the Shah - we were happy. But now that a government we don't like, and don't trust with some reason, is in charge in Iran, we don't like the fact that they are, for all practical purposes, the country that should be the regional "big guy." We want Saudi Arabia and the GCC, as do they, to be the big guy. And we want Israel to be able to sit there and look at it all and play one off against the other for its own security. And we want to be in the background to move in at any time, and back anyone that we need to stabilize the situation. We don't like Iran being in that power equation, so this is really about that power equation more than it is nuclear weapons. Of course, the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, the testing of one, would change that power equation somewhat for Iran, so we're looking at that as being a bad development. Yet, Israel not reporting to the IAEA, not subject to their protocols, owns more nuclear weapons than anyone in the region. You have to go to Pakistan before you find someone with that kind of capacity. So this is really kind of weird, in strategic terms.

GRILLOT: So how has the U.S. response been to this, then? Clearly we know how they feel about Iranian nuclear weapons, and our strategy has been sanctions. Is this going to get us to where we want to go? Is where we want to go regime change? Change in behavior? What is the goal of this strategy?

WILKERSON: A question I would ask you is "Who is we?" The neo-conservatives? The Republicans? The Democrats? The president? Just as there is in Iran, there are different feelings and different views of all these elements of power in government. I think your question though goes right to the core of the matter. The president has said it's unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, or at times he's said nuclear capability. That's very different.

GRILLOT: Which are different things. Nuclear capability....

WILKERSON: Iran already has a nuclear capability.

GRILLOT: Which means that...

WILKERSON: We helped them get it (laughs) during the Shah...

GRILLOT: Exactly, so they have nuclear power capability, so that exists. But they don't have, at least as far as we know, nuclear weapons.

WILKERSON: They haven't made a decision, our intelligence community says with high confidence, to make a nuclear weapon. At one time, they were looking at it. They may still be looking at it. But they have not made a decision at the highest level to go for a nuclear weapon.

GRILLOT: And our goal is to not only contain any kind of nuclear weapon that might emerge, but to prevent them from getting it to begin with.

WILKERSON: I think, going back to what the president said, it's a little more aggressive than that. Our goal is if Iran makes that decision, or we think they've made that decision, we are willing, initially diplomatically, to try to get them out of it. That's what we're doing right now. Or, if we think they've made it, and are racing for it, we're willing to bomb them and even invade them. The president's statements have been quite categorical in that regard: Unacceptable. Military option is on the table. We're using diplomacy right now, but as you pointed out, diplomacy equals sanctions...

GRILLOT: That's it, right? That's all it means.

WILKERSON: ...and sanctions aren't going to work, so where does that leave you? You either back down from your rhetoric, it becomes acceptable...

GRILLOT: It becomes acceptable to talk to them.

WILKERSON: Well, it becomes acceptable to have a nuclear weapon, or...

GRILLOT: ...or you attack them.

WILKRESON: Those are the only options that are left.

GRILLOT: So what's likely here?

WILKERSON: Well, the option that's left just glimmering in the distance is the option of real negotiations. What that would mean, very basically, is that for what we want from Iran, which is essentially not to enrich uranium above 3-5 percent. Get rid of all of that you've enriched at 20 percent. We'll give you long-term contracts so you can buy it from others who do that. That's for medical reasons and so forth. And let us put a very intrusive inspection regime on the ground - cameras, boots, everything - for 5-7 years and make sure that we can trust you in implementing this decision. And for that, and here comes the crux. For that, we'll give you some, temporary at least, relief on the European oil embargo. And we'll give you some relief on financial sanctions. That's the quid pro quo we have to put on the table for Iran to put the kind of things on the table that we want. Then we do that, and we check it out, and we see if it'll work, and we move on further down the road. There are so many things we need to talk about besides nuclear problems. We need to talk about everything from the region and security and what Turkey wants, and what Syria ultimately will need to be stabilized. What Saudi Arabia needs. What the GCC needs. What Iraq needs. Ultimately we need to talk about an array of challenges that confront us in the region, and globally where they need to be players, in addition to the nuclear problem.

GRILLOT: But this would then be treating Iran as a legitimate player in the region. But this has domestic political consequences too, right? And also consequences with our relationship with Israel. Let's not forget that the leader of Iran has said what he's said about Israel. So let's go back to this notion of playing off your domestic political interests, and trying to balance those with your international interests. How are we going to manage that in this situation in Iran. Because let's not forget that Iran has a domestic population that has certain interests. As you've said previously, they're going to want a nuclear weapon, or a nuclear program regardless.

WILKERSON: Yes. It doesn't matter if we put a Thomas Jefferson Democrat in charge. We might say we trust him or her more, but we'd still have this feeling if they developed a nuclear program right up to a decision to make a nuclear weapon. You've put your finger on the extreme difficulty of this situation and why I say in many respects "delusional" is the best way to describe both capitals. They have to speak, they being the Iranians, have to speak to their domestic audience. We have to speak to our domestic audience, and the monkey in the works, if you will, for us, is Israel. We tend to do that which Israel, and its very vigorous and aggressive lobby - APAC - in Washington, more or less say that we should do. When we rhetorically seem to try to defy that, like U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tried to do in his questioning of Chuck Hagel during the confirmation hearing, we really, instead of doing what Lindsey wanted to do - make his point about Israel never impacting U.S. policy - we do the exact reverse. We prove the point that they do, because everyone listening to that in the national security elite knew that Lindsey was asking Chuck a question he couldn't answer. And why couldn't he answer it? Because if he said anything adverse about the U.S.-Israeli leadership, his confirmation? Sunk.

GRILLOT: So the domestic political dilemma of ensuring one's domestic position has an impact, ultimately, on the policy that you can carry out overseas.

WILKERSON: Absolutely.

GRILLOT: And how these two are going to come together in some way. You mentioned that they're delusional, but this is really reality.

WILKERSON: Reality is often delusional (laughs). Ask any soldier with PTSD.

GRILLOT: (Laughs) Well OK, fair enough. So what is the ultimate solution to this relationship if we are unlikely to treat them in this realistic manner, but also unlikely to move down the road in any kind of realistic way in terms of diplomacy. What is it going to take, I guess, to move it further?

WILKERSON: It's going to take some exquisite leadership. It's going to take some courageous leadership to really offer that quid pro quo I said was essential. Then to forge an agreement over time based on that essential quid pro quo. In the United States, the president is going to have to multitask fiercely. He's going to have to take Bibi Netanyahu, or whoever happens to be ruling Israel at the time, in hand, and he's going to have to say, "OK, this is what I've worked out, and if you try to thwart this, I'll do everything in power..." This is private conversation, this is not public conversation, "...I'll do everything in my power to bring you down. I have got to have your support on this. I do not want you undermining." Then he's got to go to the American people and say, "Start writing your Senators and Representatives, because this is a deal we can live with. This is a deal we can enforce. This is a deal that ensures American security, and ensures, to a certain extent, Iranian security, and it's a win-win deal, and we need to sign it." And he's really got to go after that. He's got to go after that with everything in his power. The bully pulpit, all the pressure he can bring, and so forth, because he's going to have a lot of antagonists in Congress. He's got to sell that deal, and he's got to get that deal approved. That's not going to be easy. It's going to require incredible leadership.

GRILLOT: Well, perhaps only a second-term president could maybe make progress on this.

WILKERSON: Good point.

GRILLOT: Colonel Wilkerson, thank you once again for discussing such a challenging, and often frustrating, issue with us on World Views.

WILKRESON: Thank you for having me.

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