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The recent election of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani has raised hopes for improving diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran. President Rouhani exchanged letters with President Barack Obama and is making overtures to other Western leaders. In a speech yesterday at the United Nations, Obama said Iran topped the U.S. foreign policy agenda and promised to pursue diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear activity. Later on, Rouhani struck a conciliatory tone, saying it only has peace in mind and is willing to negotiate. And top diplomatic officials from the two countries will meet for the first time since 1979. Guest host Susan Page and a panel of experts discuss Iran and the United States at the U.N.
- Robin Wright Analyst and joint fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
- James Kitfield Senior correspondent, National Journal.
- Mehdi Khalaji Senior fellow, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East; also a Qom-trained Shiite theologian.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is out this week for a cause dear to her heart. She'll be in California to star in a play to benefit Alzheimer's research. President Obama and Iran's President Rouhani both addressed the U.N. General Assembly yesterday. Each promised to pursue diplomatic channels in addressing Iran's nuclear program. Joining me in the studio to talk about what happened at the U.N. and the prospect for improved relations with Iran, James Kitfield of National Journal. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MR. JAMES KITFIELDGood to be here, Susan.
PAGEAnd, Mehdi Khalaji of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thanks for joining us.
MR. MEHDI KHALAJIThanks for having me.
PAGEAnd joining us from the NPR Bureau in New York City is Robin Wright of the U.S. Institute of Peace and Woodrow Wilson International Center. Hi, Robin.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTHi. How are you?
PAGERobin, I understand you've just come from the U.N. where you were part of a group that met with President Rouhani. Tell us what happened.
WRIGHTThis was a breakfast hosted by the presidential delegation, and it was really quite interesting. Over half of it was off the record, but he made several points on the record, first and foremost about that famous non-handshake with President Obama, yesterday. He said he had no problem shaking hands with Obama or negotiating with him, but he said they needed a plan of action, kind of a framework for talks before they engaged directly.
WRIGHTBut he did say that both the president and he had agreed to continue communicating by letters. As you know, the two presidents exchanged letters for the first time since President Rouhani was elected, and that has, in some ways, been a spur to the new diplomatic initiative. He also reversed course in policy out of Tehran on the Holocaust, a very sensitive subject. He called the Holocaust a massacre against the Jews and a crime against humanity, including Christians. So those two were some of the very striking headlines out of this meeting.
PAGERobin, I know you've carried this part of the world for quite a long time. How unusual is it for the president of Iran to have a meeting like this with a group of journalists?
WRIGHTNot really. This is the fifth time I've done this with an Iranian president, dating back to 1987 when then-President Khamenei, who is now Iran's Supreme Leader, became the first revolutionary leader to appear at the U.N. General Assembly and give a speech to the world leaders.
PAGEMehdi, tell us what strikes you about what Robin told us about the president of Iran's comments at this breakfast this morning. And, particularly, the comments he made about the Holocaust, how significant do you think those words are?
KHALAJIYou know that Holocaust has never been an issue for Iranians. Iranians, unlike many other Muslims, did not have genuine Jewish questions, per se. So even Iranians were surprised when Mr. Ahmadinejad denied Holocaust. And many Iranian politicians at his time criticized him for making such a statement. I think Iranians are very happy that Mr. Rouhani made it clear that Iranian people have no problem with Jewish people and have no intention to threaten them.
PAGEAnd, James, we've seen this flurry of attention and optimism surrounding President Rouhani's visit to the United States. Why has he made such an impression?
KITFIELDWell, he's got very small shoes to fill because Ahmadinejad was such a fire brand and such a, you know, rhetorical bomb thrower that a guy who just sounds reasonable is a breath of fresh air. But, above and beyond that, he has really launched a charm offensive to signal that he wants a new relationship with the United States. On the Holocaust issue, I mean, he tweeted out Rosh Hashanah greetings to the Jewish people.
KITFIELDHe, you know, initially he was asked about the Holocaust, and he kind of said, well, I'm not a historian. But obviously that got some blowback, and he's now, you know, come out and said it was a crime against humanity. So this is someone who wants to put the relationship on a different footing. Apparently, we're going to be able to test that very quickly. I think tomorrow Secretary Kerry meets with his Iranian counterpart for a meeting that will sort of start to flesh out how some of this engagement might work.
KITFIELDBut he's sending all the right signals, not only now, but even during the campaign. We saw the first televised debate between the candidates, and he really went after the current nuclear negotiator in Iran as being too hard line, too doctrinaire. So he's sending a lot of good signals. The time is going to quickly come to test whether he's going to back it up with some actions.
PAGEAnd, you know, U.S. officials had really raised expectation that there was going to be some kind of encounter between the two presidents yesterday at the United Nations. That didn't end up happening. Is it disappointing to the U.S. side that it didn't happen?
KITFIELDYou know, I think it is slightly disappointing, but, quite honestly, it was kind of a risky move for both leaders because Obama would have gotten a lot of blowback from hardliners in this town, who would have said, you know, you haven't gotten anything from them, and yet you're falling for just a smiling face and the same old policies. And clearly the Iranians had more concerns about the hardliners back in Tehran. So they decided the time is not quite right for this. So I think it's a slight disappointment, but, you know, substantively it was just a handshake.
PAGERobin, you talked about what we heard from the president of Iran. What did we hear yesterday from President Obama in his speech at the General Assembly that you thought was significant when it comes to this issue of U.S.-Iranian relations?
WRIGHTWell, let me just point out one thing on this issue of the Holocaust and Israel and so forth. One of the things that was striking this morning was that President Rouhani brought the one Jewish member of Iran's parliament to the breakfast with us. He had brought him to New York for the opening of the General Assembly. And he brought him to breakfast, and he actually talked about the Jews in Iran a little bit to us. Again, that was off the record.
WRIGHTWhat struck me about President Obama's speech yesterday was that he basically tried to balance the approach to Iran. He talked about, you know, U.S. missteps in the past and referred to the 1953 CIA orchestrated operation that ousted a democratically-elected prime minister and put the Shah back on the throne. He acknowledged the U.S. role in manipulating Iranian politics. And then he turned around and said, but that's not what the United States is trying to do now.
WRIGHTWe do not have a policy of regime change. But then he turned to the Iranians and said, but we also hold you accountable for your transgressions against us, including support for extremism and the takeover of the U.S. embassy. So there was a balance in that opening. And then he said that he was prepared to give Secretary of State John Kerry a mandate to deal directly with the Iranians.
WRIGHTAnd this raises the profile. This is secretary of state to foreign minister. And, you know, it implies direct dialogue, as well as through the world's five other major powers that have been involved in nuclear negotiations with Iran now for a couple of years. So it was outreach. It talked about building trust and, I think, took the first steps. But we do have to, as you said, put Rouhani's words to the test.
PAGEMehdi, it was so interesting to see the cutaways during President Obama's speech to the Iranian delegation sitting in the hall. And at times they looked kind of stony-faced and at times clearly listening very intently. What do you think the response is by the Iranians to what they heard from President Obama yesterday?
KHALAJII think what Iranians might have understood was that United States' presence in the Middle East is very serious. And President Obama started with the question of Syria, not with the question of Iran. That was another message for Iranians that U.S. priority in the region now is Syria, not Iran's nuclear program.
KHALAJIAnd Iran should cooperate with United States and international community for stabilizing the situation in Syria. And also, on the question of nuclear program, President Obama emphasized on U.N. Security Council's resolution which asked Iran to stop enrichment. I think that was also important. And I don't know whether it comes up in the negotiation or not.
PAGEI'll tell you who wasn't in the hall during President Rouhani's speech, and that was the Israeli delegation. Why weren't they there, James?
KITFIELDYou know, this is a bit of a good cop/bad cop, but it's a sincere bad cop. So, you know, take the Israelis serious on this, but they are very worried that this guy's charm offensive will be sort of accepted as actual progress on the nuclear portfolio. And clearly it's not. He's setting the stage, I think, for perhaps progress on the nuclear portfolio, but he hasn't done anything yet.
KITFIELDAnd the Israelis are very, very skeptical. And, I guess, you know, you can understand their position. You know, he has said, for instance, that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon, has no doctrine for a nuclear weapon, and never has sought a nuclear weapon. Well, the evidence suggests that at some point they have sought nuclear weapons.
KITFIELDNow, the question is how far they've gotten along, where those experiments led to. So clearly the Israelis are not ready to take this guy at face value. They want to see action, and they still are the sort of club of military force that is threatening this whole process. And they want to remain that and keep the pressure on him to actually come up with a deal that they can live with.
PAGEOn the Friday News Roundup, how many times have we talked about hopes for some kind of breakthrough with Iran, hopes for a new phase of the negotiations over the nuclear program, only to have essentially nothing happen? Does this seem like a different era now starting?
KITFIELDI mean, I'd be interested in what Robin thinks. I actually sense something different here. It seems to me that Iranian interest in the region now, because of the sanctions primarily and their economy's tanking, they've seen all this air of unrest, they can't find good jobs for their own restful, youthful population, so I think Iran's motivated. They feel a bit exposed by Syria. They're not fans of people who gas people because they lost so many people to chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
KITFIELDSo for a number of reasons, I think they feel like a need for a change of course, and I think that, because of Syria, we feel that, too. So, you know, to me, there's a possibility here that I haven't seen exist, except for perhaps 2003 when this guy, who's now the president, was a nuclear negotiator, and he actually negotiated a freeze for a while of their uranium enrichment.
PAGEWe're going to take a very quick break. And when we come back, we're going to go to the phones. We'll take some of your calls. Our lines our open, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email to email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Joining us from the NPR Bureau in New York City is Robin Wright. She's an analyst and joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. She's author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World."
PAGEAnd joining us here in the studio, James Kitfield. He's senior correspondent at National Journal. And Mehdi Khalaji, he's a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He focuses on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East. Mehdi, tells us, who is President Rouhani? Tell us a little something about him.
KHALAJIPresident Rouhani is one of the essential figures of Islamic Republic. He was involved in military in the first decade of Islamic Republic. And he was involved in the main decision made by Islamic Republic on the security issues since Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1989. He was representative of Ayatollah Khomeini in the Supreme Counsel for National Securities since 1989 until now.
KHALAJIMr. Rouhani was one of the main people who designed Iran's nuclear program in the late '80s. And he was involved in this program from the very beginning. So he's an insider. He was not a usual politician. He was a man of making decisions behind the curtain. And he was one of the confidants of Ayatollah Khomeini, not since he became the supreme leader but also -- but their relation goes back to the first days of Islamic Republic in 1979 as he describes in his memoir.
PAGEAnd, Robin, is he a pretty familiar figure to U.S. diplomats?
WRIGHTNo, he isn't. But the man he appointed as foreign minister is arguably the most visible presence Iran has, even since the revolution, because he was educated in the United States, three degrees from New York University, of California College, and then the University of Denver. And then he later became ambassador to the United Nations. I did a profile of him for the Washington Post when he left the U.N. in 2007.
WRIGHTAnd I got quotes from Joe Biden, Chuck Hagel, John Warner, Joe Lieberman, a lot of the figures on both sides of the aisle, you know, who are major players in the United States. I'd make one important point though. I think Rouhani is arguably the most powerful president Iran has had for reasons that may not seem as obvious. He is not like former President Rafsanjani, a rival of the supreme leader.
WRIGHTHe is, as Mehdi points out, an ally. He's also not someone who represents just one sliver of society. Be it the hardliners of President Ahmadinejad or the reformers of President Khatami, he is seen as a centrist. And because he has this longstanding relationship with the supreme leader and was for 25 years the national security advisor, he has the power, the ability to persuade and to follow through on the kind of overtures we once heard from President Khatami.
WRIGHTBut President Khatami wasn't able to deliver. I think for the first time in 34 years, you have leaders in the United States and in Iran who have an interest -- a genuine interest in solving problems. Now, that's not going to make the issues any easier. It's going to make negotiations just as tough, no matter who's in power. But there's a little bit more of a will, I think, and that's what makes this moment different. Doesn't mean success, but it does make it difference.
PAGERobin, you say he's the most powerful president in Iran's history, and yet still the supreme leader is the man in charge, right?
WRIGHTHe is indeed, and he is ultimately the one who will make the decision. But we've seen a number of really interesting signals out of Iran over the last 10 days or so. One is the supreme leader's speech in which he talked about the need for what he called heroic flexibility on diplomacy. And that was basically a signal that he was giving his stamp of approval to President Rouhani's new initiative, his outreach, his interest in solving the nuclear file.
WRIGHTAnd also you've had speeches from both the supreme leader and the president to the revolutionary guards basically saying, it's time to go back to your barracks. You can help the country develop economically, but this is not a moment to be involved in politics. And that's a very interesting reversal from the era of President Ahmadinejad when he brought many revolutionary guards into the system.
PAGEJames, the idea of heroic flexibility could definitely be a help in diplomatic negotiations. Now we're going to have this meeting, this really historic meeting tomorrow with Secretary of State Kerry. What do you expect to happen at this session?
KITFIELDWell, the outlines of a deal look something like this. There's going to have to be limits on how many centrifuges they have spinning creating uranium. And there's going to have to be limits to how much highly-enriched uranium they have. And there's going to have to be some sort of transparency that assures us and the Israelis that they're not hiding, you know, stockpiles that would allow them to have a very quick breakout.
KITFIELDAnd for some deal like that, what those limits are are to be negotiated. But that's somewhat what the deal looks like. And what they want is sanctions relief, which is also not going to be easy from our side. These things are very intertwined, both sanctioning their nuclear program but also their support for extremist groups like Hezbollah. So untangling sanctions in a way that will get them to a yes is also going to be very difficult.
KITFIELDThere are people in this town who really would like regime change in Tehran. And they think these sanctions are finally biting in a way that could cause the regime, you know, real problems. So for a number of reasons, the devil will be in the details, as we've always said, but I totally agree with Robin. This is probably the most ripe moment for progress on the nuclear frontier on this issue, this (unintelligible) for more than a decade and that we should see how far we can take it.
PAGEMehdi, do you agree with that?
KHALAJIYes. I think it's a very important moment, but we shouldn't forget that Mr. Rouhani is not there to change the whole philosophy of Islamic Republic. The nuclear program, if it is an existential threat for Israel, it is an existential need for Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini believes that his legacy would be to create something that would guarantee the survival of Islamic Republic. He believes that the animosity between Iran and West is (word?) and cannot be solved by any means.
KHALAJISo he thinks that West did not miss any opportunity for destroying Islamic Republic. And if we don't have a hard power to rely on, at the end, they would destroy us. They would never recognize the existence of Islamic Republic. So for Iran, having a nuclear capability is an essential need to protect the existence of Islamic Republic. And I don't think that President Rouhani is there to change this philosophy.
KHALAJIWhat Rouhani is trying to do is to decrease the pressure. What we know now is that Iran has little money in his pocket. The sanctions are really hurting both people and the government. The government is concerned about the political implication of economic sanctions, so they want to buy more time. They want to breathe a little more, but they don't want to change their essential policy.
PAGEWe're going to go to the phones. You can also send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or read some of the emails that we're getting in just a moment. But first let's go talk to Jim who is calling us from Hyattsville, Md. Jim, hi. You're on the air.
JIMYes, thank you. In the late '60s, I worked three years in Iran with Peace Corps traveling all over the country to every province. And in my viewpoint, Iran is an extremely diverse-tolerant country. At the time, I was told that Iran had the third largest Jewish community. There are dramatic cultural differences from south to north, east to west.
JIMSo I believe that the current theocracy is an aberration which probably does not truly represent the Iranian people. I am overjoyed to see this rapprochement occurring between the U.S. and Iran. Iranians are very similar to America. We worked great together in the '60s, and we could do that in the future if we'd stop this hostility which strengthens only the political parties in both countries.
PAGEAnd, Jim, let me ask you, have you ever gone back to Iran since working there in the Peace Corps in the '60s?
JIMYes. I went back in 2006 on a two-week tour. And I just had people coming up to me on the street saying, (speaks foreign language), where are you from. I'd say, America, and they would say, oh, I'm like to come to dinner. They were just so friendly to me personally, and that is just so typically Iranian.
PAGEAll right. Jim, thank you so much for your call. Mehdi, how different do you think it is in Iran today compared with in the '60s when Jim was working there in the Peace Corps?
KHALAJII think, thanks to media, Internet and satellite, Iranians have become more pro-American. I can describe Iranian society as the most pro-American society in the Middle East, except for Israel. So Iranians are following the American literature, American art. They are -- many people in Iran live the same way that Americans live here.
KHALAJIThe architecture is the same. Many things are the same. So don't forget that over a million Iranians live in the United States. They have family there. They travel here. So Iranian governments and the American attitude does not reflect what Iranian society feels and thinks about the United States.
PAGELet's talk to Ken who's calling us from Harrisburg, Pa. Ken, thanks for holding on. Ken, are you there? Ken? I'm sorry, I think we've lost Ken. I'm going to try another caller. We're in a new studio. We're trying a new phone system. Let's see if this one works. Let's talk to Rema who's calling us from Cleveland, Ohio. Rema, are you there?
REMAYes. Hi. Thank you for taking my call. And the reason I'm calling is I think the Iranian people are great people, but I really don't trust Rouhani or trust (unintelligible) because they are buying time -- I agree with your guest. They are only buying time, and I do not trust them. And they show their true color when they are involved in Syria and involved in killing the Syrian people and being with a dictator who gassed their own people. And they are still with him.
REMAAnd that's why they're coming to the table because there is no more -- they are bankrupt because of helping Assad in Syria. And now they are trying to buy more time. And we have to be very careful. I do not trust them, and I don't trust their -- with them coming to the table because their ambition is really to be a super power in the Middle East. And they showed their true colors in Syria and...
PAGERema, thank you so much. And, James, this is definitely a complication in U.S.-Iranian relations, the situation in Syria and Iran support, as Rema points out, for the Assad regime.
KITFIELDSure. And President Obama, you know, mentioned this trust deficit between us and the Iranians in a speech yesterday. I mean, we've got 30 years of animosity and a lot of instincts that have grown up around that animosity. So, you know, I go back to Reagan's, you know, distrust but verify. No one wants to go into a deal and just trust the Iranians, that they mean business.
KITFIELDWe want to have very clear ideas about the kinds of verification transparency and the kind of deal that will -- that both us and the Israelis can live with will ensure that they cannot have a rapid breakout to a nuclear weapon. So no one's asking them to -- anyone to trust the Iranians. We want to put them to the test. But Syria is a problem, and if we have movement on the nuclear portfolio, I think the thinking is we might have more positive atmosphere for movement on Syria.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850, and we're reading your emails. Just send us an email to email@example.com. Well, Robin, here's an email we've gotten from THX11 who writes, "President Obama's speech seems to be an attempt to offload leadership onto the United Nations and place any responsibility for Iran getting nuclear weapons on them and the international community.
PAGE"It is obvious," this person writes, "that the U.N. is historically a toothless tiger." What do you think of that? Do you think that President Obama in fact wants to rely more on the United Nations on this issue?
WRIGHTNo. In fact, the United States has recognized that agreement on whether its tougher sanctions on Iran, tougher sanctions on Syria have been impossible in part because Russia and China have a veto at the Security Council and would nix any effort to come down harder on either government.
WRIGHTSo I -- this is why I think it's been kind of interesting to watch the emergence of the United States trying to navigate a world in which you can't use the United Nations as, you know, at least since Libya, as an instrument to guide policy or rally international sentiment in one direction and prevent the use of force. The U.N. has always had problems because you have a lot of diversity and different visions come together at the Security Council, and with the veto, you often can't get the kind of joint action that might be useful for any of its members.
WRIGHTSo -- but a toothless tiger? You know, what would the world be like without the United Nations, a place for countries to come and vent, a place that came up with the, you know, first international code on human rights shortly after its creation, that has been a standard in whether it's holding the Soviet Union and communism to account, apartheid in South Africa, that it has taken important positions in the past? But Obama's in a tough position right now because it's hard to rally even the Europeans to go along with action on when it comes to Syria.
PAGEBut, you know, James, it's interesting. Just weeks ago, we heard the president dismissing the idea of going through the United Nations on the issue of Syria. And yet there he was making quite a muscular speech in that form.
KITFIELDYou know, the United Nations, if it didn't exist, you'd have to create it tomorrow. So, you know, it doesn't mean it's a satisfying place to work. It is, as Robin says, you know, a fractious world body with 180-plus countries involved trying to sort of align their interests and sort of norms of behavior that everyone can live with.
KITFIELDBut, you know, I will say, on Syria, a place where you want to use force, the Security Council is totally paralyzed by Russia, you know, opposing that as a permanent veto-wielding member. But on the sanctions actually, we got Russia and China to agree to some of these sanction regimes. And that's where the U.N. comes in handy.
KITFIELDWhen you can get consensus there, it can be very powerful 'cause Iran's having a very hard time finding a way out of the sanctions noose that we have slowly methodically tied. And, you know, we put one level of sanctions in, and they don't react. We put another level in, and we finally have a noose that's pretty tight on them. And they're starting to scream about it. So I don't think you could've done that without the United Nations.
PAGEMehdi, how important have the sanctions been in getting us to this point with at least the possibility of more effective negotiations on the nuclear program?
KHALAJILook, (unintelligible) see today Rouhani in power as the winner of the election, it's because of sanctions. If we think that Rouhani is the man to negotiate with, it's because we think that he's close to the supreme leader. For the -- this was the supreme leader who supported Ahmadinejad for eight years, so this was supreme leader who changed his mind on the pressure of sanction.
KHALAJISo I think sanctions worked in Iran in a very unexpected way. Many people in the city were bringing historical example of sanctions not working. But in case of Iran (unintelligible), no, sanctions really work. And it's not only the pressure from outside. It has been translated to social and political pressure from inside Iran. Many people started to lose their interest in Iran's nuclear program, and they said, it's not worth it. Let's forget about the nuclear program and have better economy.
PAGEWe're going to take another short break. We'll be back in just a moment. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking about U.S.-Iranian relations and whether they're about to enter a new and promising phase. We're talking with James Kitfield from National Journal, and Mehdi Khalaji from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and, joining us by phone, Robin Wright from the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
PAGEWell, here's an email from Marilyn in Colorado, who writes us: "The new Iranian leader wants to negotiate in part because more than a year ago President Obama led the Europeans in imposing tighter sanctions in Iran. Yet all the reporting implies that the new direction taken by Iran is the result of some magical alignment of the planets that has nothing at all to do with President Obama." So, Robin, does President Obama deserve perhaps more credit than he's getting for this situation we now see?
WRIGHTWell, actually, the United States doesn't deserve quite as much credit as it's getting in terms of the sanctions issues because one of the real problems in Iran was the gross mismanagement of President Ahmadinejad. I've been told by several Iranians who are very familiar with -- who live in Iran, who are very involved in economic issues, that the assumption was, when President Rouhani took over, it would take eight years to unravel the eight years of President Ahmadinejad's mismanagement. And, in fact, when they looked at the books they realized it's going to take a lot more than eight years.
WRIGHTSo that plays in, in a major way, with the pressure from international sanctions and has indeed led to a kind of crisis that the Iranians want to get out. They feel that -- this is a very proud civilization that feels it wants to get back to the days of greatness and not be a pariah state, not deteriorate economically. And so I think that's contributed enormously to what's going on. The sanction has indeed played a role, but it's not the only role.
KITFIELDI actually think that the Obama administration does get a lot of credit. And this is the reason, you know, we watched through eight years of the Bush 43 administration, where we refused to talk to Iran. We tried just coercion. We let the Europeans take the lead in these talks, and they went nowhere. And by the end of those eight years, we were the problem. The fact that we wouldn't sit down with Iran, the fact that we gave them nothing, you know, even amongst our European partners, you know, we became the focus.
KITFIELDAnd one thing that Obama did in his early outreach, when he reached out his hand and it was slapped away, was convince people that, you know what, no, maybe it's the Iranians that are the problem. And that's when we started to see consensus build for these tighter and tighter sanctions regimes. So I think that was a pretty clever diplomatic gambit, and it clearly is bearing fruit now. I mean, that's not to say what Robin said is not true. It actually is. Ahmadinejad was awful for the economy. I don't think that Rouhani can turn that economy around now without sanctions relief, though.
PAGEAnd, Mehdi, how do you assess President Obama's leadership on this particular issue?
KHALAJII think the way Iranians look at United States is not realistic. They think that United States is not a country. The United States represent a mythological, metaphysic power, which is what they call great Satan or evil. And they think they have a very sophisticated propaganda against United States since 1979. And they believed many of the things that they said, they, themselves, say about United States.
KHALAJISo I think many problems Iran has, has nothing to do with United States, like mismanagement, like corruption in the economy, like the problem Iran has with its Arab neighbors, the problem Iran has with Turkey, the problem Iran has with its own citizens. You know, Iran has Sunni citizens which consist of something like 12 percent of the population.
KHALAJIIran has problem with ethnic minorities, with religious minorities. Iran has, I mean, the government has lots of problems with many things that have nothing to do with United States. But Iran believes that everything is coming from United States. And if United States push, they can solve the problem, or they can manage -- as Rouhani said, if they can manage the differences with United States, they would get more control of the situation.
PAGEIt's interesting because it's such at odds with some impressions of the state of U.S. power here in the United States. And even yesterday, we heard President Obama talk about what he called, I think, hard-earned humility about the U.S. role. What did he mean by that, James?
KITFIELDHe meant that we went into Iraq thinking that we could change the regime and build a democratic ally there, and it turns out that's very difficult to do. And we did the same thing in Afghanistan, and it's very heavy costly lifting. And so we have some humility about regime change now, I think, in this country. And we found out that America can't, you know, snap its fingers and turn the lights back on in a country like Iraq, for instance. There's things we cannot do. And, clearly, with this war-weary population, there are things that we will not do.
PAGEAnd, of course, the president talked specifically about not seeking regime change when it came to Iran. Well, let's go to Birmingham, Ala. and talk to Robert. Robert, you're on the air.
ROBERTThank you so much. And thank you so much for what Diane represents and what this program does. Number one, I'm trying to put myself in the mind of an Iranian. America went over there, through the CIA, which you talked about -- you kind of glossed over it -- and literally destroyed that country and set it back, I don't know -- so my question to you is, why shouldn't Iran be taking America and the West to the world court and suing for reparation and -- and the illegal damage caused by what the CIA did?
ROBERTAnd one other question.
ROBERTAlso, if I'm thinking like an Iranian, here you have Israel who have nuclear weapons, so it's OK for Israel to have a nuclear gun to Iran's head, but Iran cannot have the capacity to defend itself? I'm going to leave that...
PAGERobert, thank you so much for your call. Mehdi, how would you respond to Robert?
KHALAJIYeah, on the second issue, Israel has not signed NPT. Iran has signed NPT.
PAGEThe Non-Proliferation Treaty, yes.
KHALAJIExactly. Which makes it very different. And on the other hand, Israel never threatened to destroy Iran, but Iran has systematically not only made statements about wiping off Israel the map, but also they have supported groups who are fighting Israel, like Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. So that's two different cases. But, on the first issue, I think he's right. As Americans have all the reasons not to trust Iran, Iran also has all the reasons not to trust United States or the West.
KHALAJIIran believes that United States and the West never recognized Islamic Republic. And for Iran, eight years Iran/Iraq War, it was not between two Muslim countries. It was between Iran and the West because Iran thinks that everyone in the West helped Sadam Hussein to overthrow the regime. And no matter how many times Mr. Obama says, our policy is not to change the regime, look, Ayatollah Khomeini believes that United States has waged a cultural war against Iran.
KHALAJIAnd Hollywood is harming Islamic Republic more than Pentagon. This is what Ayatollah Khomeini said explicitly, that miniskirts are damaging Islamic ideology more than bombs. So Ayatollah Khomeini's obsessed with the idea of soft war waged by the West to destroy the minds and the heart of Muslim young.
KHALAJISo I think they would never believe that U.S. policy is not regime change. They need real actions. Especially they want a concrete step taken by United States to release some of the sanctions and what they call security guarantee. They want to be sure that United States would not attack Iran.
PAGEWell, Robin, does the United States mean it when President Obama says that we do not seek regime change?
WRIGHTI think that's President Obama's policy, yes. I think also Obama has been very concerned, even about engaging militarily in the region on a short basis. He spent his first term in office trying to get the United States out of two wars. And I think he's trying to spend the second term in office preventing new wars in the Middle East, be it in Syria or Iran.
WRIGHTI think he uses force quite reluctantly, which is one of the reasons that the United States has not done anything 2 1/2 years into Syria's civil war, even though 100,000 people have died and there has been, you know, use of chemical weapons on a repeated basis. So I take that as genuine policy decision.
PAGEHere's a comment we got from Tony on our website: "My question to the panel is very simple. Would Iran be prepared to give the global community a proof of intent, something clearly definable as an act to prove that this time they are serious, Letting the IAEA in, allowing a delegation to see their facilities?" And we got a tweet from Jennifer who only had 140 characters, and so she said much the same thing more briefly. She said, "Let the inspectors in to look at their nuclear program, and then we can go from there." What do you think, James? Is that going to happen?
KITFIELDI actually think it's possible. I'm more optimistic that could happen now than I have been in covering this issue for the last 20 years and for the reasons we've all talked about. There are interests on all sides that would be served by some sort of a deal. And that deal will obviously have to be IAEA inspectors not only looking at their enrichment, but also asking questions that Iran has been refusing to answer for years about some weaponization experiments that they did in the past. And we don't know -- and we want to be assured they're not continuing to conduct them.
WRIGHTCan I weigh -- can I...
PAGEYes. Please go ahead.
WRIGHTCan I weigh in on that?
WRIGHTBecause President Rouhani talked about that in his speech at the United Nations and again at breakfast this morning. And he keeps using the word transparency and acknowledging that the outside world has suspicions, doubts, and a lack of trust. And I think just using that language is the beginning. It's a signal only, but it's the fact that an acknowledgment of the fact the world really does have serious doubts, serious fears, and that Iran wants to address it.
WRIGHTAnd he even talked about -- he thought that in a relatively short time these issues could be addressed. Now, that remains to be seen. Everything has to be verified, even more so than it was with the Soviet Union. The world has such deep suspicions. But, you know, it is this sense of we intend to show and give access to the IAEA in ways that they haven't in the past. And that, I thought, was particularly striking in his language.
PAGEMehdi, do you expect this to happen?
KHALAJIYeah, I think it is possible, but it depends on where we are talking about, which facilities. I don't think that Iran would agree, at least in earlier stages, to let U.N. inspectors to visit all Iranian nuclear facilities. So we are talking about Fodor, we are talking about Parchin, and we know that the (unintelligible) of each of them are different.
KHALAJISo I think things are really complicated. It depends on how negotiations go on. But the use of term transparency is not unprecedented. I think Ayatollah Khomeini has used this term many times before, and Iranian presidents, including Khatami and Ahmadinejad, used this term before. So Rouhani is not the first person who uses this term.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're reading your emails and taking your calls. Let's talk to Howard. He's calling us from Palm Beach, Fla. Howard, you've been very patient. You're on the air.
HOWARDYes. I read some of the Israeli press after the recent election in Iran. And there were a lot of statements that the victory for the reformist government was a defeat for Netanyahu, that whenever you would see interviews of Israeli spokesmen on TV and so on and they'd be criticized for the settlements or some other Israeli policy, they immediately would segue to Iran and say, why are you criticizing us? Why don't you worry about the nuclear bomb in Iran? Some of the concern that Israeli has right now is that they're losing their boogeyman.
PAGEInteresting, Howard. What do you think, James?
KITFIELDI mean, in a lot of ways Ahmadinejad was a very useful tool not only of U.S. foreign policy, but for Israeli foreign policy because he put this really nasty face on this problem. So, yes, a guy who's very charming seems to be, you know, going to the extra mile to accommodate the international community, it does worry Israel.
KITFIELDIsrael worries that we'll cut a deal that will not satisfy their concerns, that Iran has a break-out capability. And so they are worried. Again, having Ahmadinejad talk about wiping Israel off the map and denying the Holocaust was very useful in isolating Iran on the world stage. And Israel doesn't have that now.
PAGEHere's a related email from Carolyn. She writes us, "Why is the Holocaust or Iranian's view on Jews a deciding factor in the success of U.S.-Iran progress? Please address this issue. I am a student at TCU, and our political science class is curious about this." Robin, what would you tell the political science class at TCU?
WRIGHTWell, Israel is -- the irony is Israel and Iran used to have very good relations during the Shah, and Iran actually provided Israel a lot of its energy. Things soured, clearly, after the revolution. And it's sad in many ways because the largest Jewish community in the Middle East, outside of Israel, is still in Iran. It's dwindled significantly. It's somewhere between 10,000 and 25,000, but I've been to synagogues in both Tehran and Shiraz. I've been to the kosher butcher in Tehran, the Jewish school, a Jewish-run hospital where the Ayatollahs like to go.
WRIGHTThere is very much a Jewish component in Iranian society, even though it is a very small minority. But Ahmadinejad's provocative statements and, of course, the long hostility since the revolution toward Israel has made this the conflict to watch in the Middle East. And it has only grown over the last eight years. You know, in looking at the terms of a deal, it's clear to me that President Obama and President Rouhani face the same problem, in that they may be able to do a deal with each other, but they might not be able to sell it to their legislatures.
WRIGHTAnd then you throw in Israel and whether it will ever believe that any deal is verifiable, will insure its security and prevent Iran from ultimately developing any type of mass destruction makes this a very, very, very complicated -- arguably the most complicated set of negotiations anywhere in the world.
PAGEAnd yet one, James, that the president has said is one of his two main foreign policy priorities for the rest of his term.
KITFIELDYeah, along with reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians because those are the long-term -- I mean, the looming crisis over another conflict, this time with Iran over its nuclear program, we have threatened that we will use military force to keep that from happening -- so has Israel.
KITFIELDAnd the issue with the Palestinians and the Israelis are the two sort of open, festering sores in the Middle East that have kept it one of the most unstable regions in the world for a very long time. And, you know, so I commend him for going at those two issues, you know, but you wouldn't want to bet on them right now.
PAGEJames Kitfield from National Journal. And we've also been joined this hour by Robin Wright from the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center and Mehdi Khalaji from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thank you all for being with us this hour.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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