Friday, September 22, 2006

Ahmadinejad and the Council on Foreign Relations 

Wednesday night Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met in a private session with the Council on Foreign Relations, much to the outrage of Rick Santorum -- who sent them a letter -- and other conservatives. Apparently many of the group's Jewish members boycotted the event, but various other luminaries attended, including Richard Haass, Brent Scowcroft, and Robert Blackwill.

There has been a great deal of controversy lately over the degree to which we should "allow" past and present leaders of the Islamic Republic to engage with the United States and the American people. I was in the small minority of American conservatives in supporting a visa for former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami to visit in late August -- not because I thought he was a good guy that we should respect, but because I thought it could be useful. On the other hand, I thought it was appalling that major American universities, including especially Harvard, fell overthemselves to legitimize him. Khatami may be the "least bad" president the Islamic Republic has ever had, but that is an extremely low standard for human decency. Khatami's Iran did most of the things that Ahmadinejad's Iran has done, albeit with a less destabilizing rhetoric.

In the case of Ahmadinejad, it is obvious that the United States government should isolate him, and it is depressing, even if predictable, that the mainstream media gives him relentless opportunities to lie to the American people. However, I thought that it was potentially productive for the Council on Foreign Relations to meet with him. Yes, he is a lunatic Holocaust denier. Unfortunately, he is also the head of a pretty powerful country that has caused the United States no end of hassles for almost 30 years. It is understandable that many members would want to boycott the meeting, but I thought it would be useful nonetheless for two reasons, both deriving from the fact that there are many members of that group who are either Democrats or who are generally opposed to the Bush administration's approach to Iran. First, I thought it would be constructive for those people to take Ahmadinejad's measure in a private setting. I, for one, would like to know whether they think he is as overconfident and reckless as Iranian dissidents and American hawks (including me) believe that he is. Second, I thought that -- perhaps -- Ahmadinejad might be moved to be less reckless if he understood that even those American foreign policy experts opposed to the Bush administration were concerned about Iran's passion for the nuclear fuel cycle and international terrorism. At a minimum, that message would boost the credibility of the Bush administration's diplomacy, because it would signal that his support on the Iranian question is deeper than public opinion polls would otherwise suggest.

With that background, therefore, I was interested to hear NPR interview one of the attendees, Harvard professor Ashton Carter. Professor Carter was an advisor to John Kerry in 2004, and he served in the Clinton Administration's Secretary of State. Notwithstanding these potentially debilitating limitations, he has a sharp enough eye for strategy that he supports the Bush administration's nuclear deal with India. In other words, he is precisely the sort of person to whom sensible Democrats (in addition to John Kerry) will turn for advice on national security matters. Listen to Professor Carter, or read my rough 'n' ready annotated transcript below:

NPR: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said through a spokesman that inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a "really, really bad idea," so why did the Council invite him?

Carter: I can't speak for the Council on Foreign Relations. My own participation at their invitation was because I wanted to hear what this man had to say in a private setting and get the measure from him. I'm disappointed to report that what I found was a person who is very confident in his position, on a roll because of the perceived ascendency of Iran in the region and his own political ascendency and filled with ideas with which I'm afraid we're fated to disagree as a country. I thought it was worth hearing what he had to say but what I have to report about it is discouraging in the sense that it did not point to any solutions for the problems we are sure to have with him.

NPR: Were you able to question him directly?

Carter: I was, as were others who were present. The topics covered were his denial of the Holocaust, that came first, Iraq, Lebanon, Hezbollah, human rights in Iran and then, their nuclear program, that's the point on which I engaged him particularly. He was intent on making the point that Iran has the right to enrich uranium. I said to him, "Let's not worry about the right for the moment. The question is, is it wise for you to exercise that right given that the rest of the world does not want you to do so and that your pursuit of that path is likely to be harmful to your people because it will lead to economic and political sanctions?" He really dodged that question of the prudence of his move. I thought he missed an opportunity. Here's a group of Americans who are involved in foreign policy who have served our government... people who are very concerned about Iran but also of a problem-solving bent [this, presumably, is code for people who would solve this problem by means other than violence, since I think even those who would bomb Iran into sheet glass are of a "problem-solving bent" - ed.]. He didn't give you much if you're looking to solve any of these serious problems that we have with Iran.

NPR: Well, I'm wondering if he did it more for the public relations benefits back home than to engage in a substantive dialogue.

Carter: Well that's really exactly right and kind of the point. Here's someone who is not playing to the American audience, seems to feel that he is in a strong enough position that he doesn't need to. That's worrying. He's playing to, as he said repeatedly, to the younger generations in his part of the world, first and foremost in his country but throughout the Muslim world, who he feels have been marginalized and poorly treated. He speaks for them. He said that its been two generations since the end of World War II but the United Nations is still run by the victors of World War II. The younger generation that he represents or wishes to represent is due their place in the sun now. [If you listen to the audio, it is clear that Carter is saying that Ahmadinejad believes this, not that Carter believes this. - ed.]

NPR: Well, is there anything he said last night that made you think, 'Oh, well, yeah, I guess he does have a point and we need to be paying attention to X'?

Carter: On the nuclear problem -- and no one, including the President of the United States who has said this in recent weeks -- has any problems with Iran having nuclear power plants. We cannot have a situation in which uranium enrichment is spreading all over the world. Somewhere along the lines, that material is going to fall into the wrong hands, not just the Iranian government, maybe terrorists as well. That's the point I think he needed to hear from Americans. The other thing he needed to hear from Americans was -- he made a crack at some point that 'you all seem to be representing your government' despite the fact that the Council on Foreign Relations is an independent organization. A number of participants fired right back and said 'you need to hear that this is not just George Bush or the Bush administration that is concerned about Iran, it is a broad spectrum of opinion very concerned about what you're doing.' At a minimum I hope he took that on board but I'm not sure he did. [It is not clear whether Carter dodged the question from NPR, did not understand it, or whether NPR botched the editing. Any way you slide it, Carter didn't seem to answer the question asked. - ed.]

In rough terms, it appears that the first of my hopes for the meeting -- that liberal foreign policy experts would see first-hand that Ahmadinejad is dangerously overconfident and potentially reckless -- was fullfilled. The Democrat Ashton Carter advises next will have the benefit of this experience. The second hope -- that Ahmadinejad would understand that many American experts outside the Bush administration were very troubled about Iran's apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons capability -- seems not to have been accomplished.


By Blogger luc, at Fri Sep 22, 11:01:00 AM:


I read with interest your post on Ahmadinejad’s visit to the Council on Foreign Relations and cannot help but be amused by your seemingly eternal optimism as expressed by your hopes for the conference, especially your second point.

When one considers the type of regime this particular individual comes from, unless one is an eternal optimist, it is unreasonable to expect a rational discussion leading to any mutually satisfactory agreement. Except for the case of Reagan and Gorbachev, and Reagan was obviously dealing from a position of strength, I cannot think of any other moment in history where a long standing dispute between powerful contenders ended peacefully by agreement. Can you?

I understand that some may question my assertion that Iran is a powerful contender but, in their own mind at least, they are and in our dealing with them since 1979 we seem to have nothing to discourage them to think so.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Sep 22, 12:32:00 PM:

Well, I'm not sure we're not also dealing from a position of strength. We may not have the same will, but we certainly have the strength. The question is whether one can deal with a regime so motivated by religious considerations.

In any case, I was not in this post advocating a particular policy, and confess that I vascillate a great deal over what our policy toward Iran should be. That seems all the more reason to try to understand our adversary, so I am in favor of taking advantage of those opportunities while minimizing activities that might be seen to legitimize him.

Iran is a bureaucratic regime, bureaucratic in the sense of having different centers of power. Even the Guardian Council is a "Council." Shouldn't we try to understand the various players in detail? During the Cold War, there was a well-developed sport of "Kremlin-watching," in which specialists and amateurs alike would put together stray clues in public information to divine the politics fortunes of various factions within the Kremlin. There seems to be no such similar effort under way with regard to Iran. Why shouldn't there be? That is why I am not opposed to informal encounters with both Khatami and Ahmadinejad, even while I'm opposed to conferring legitimacy on them.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 22, 01:53:00 PM:

The most stunning thing about this post is....you listen to NPR?

Careful, or you'll get your right-wing blogger card revoked.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Sep 22, 02:47:00 PM:

Dude, you have to know your enemy.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 22, 06:16:00 PM:

There is nothing at all wrong with inviting President Ahmadinejad to meet with the CFR. It is important to gather additional data on, or from, your potential adversary.

But in this case, the visit apparently had an even more important effect. It may have convinced influential, but dovish, U.S. foreign policy advisors to perhaps not be so dovish. Maybe they will now advise their clients and bosses similarly.

If all of this is true, perhaps the State Department should consider funding a cross-country speaking tour for Mr. Ahmadinejad.

A final point. According to TigerHawk's account of the meeting, Mr. Ashton Carter and some of his colleagues seemed a bit baffled by a man so at ease with certainty and his world view.

In their 20s, Mr. Carter and his CFR colleagues were at comfortable Ivy League universities, debating great theories and being urged to open their minds to new ideas, in a totally sheltered world that gave them complete protection to do so.

In his 20s, Mr. Ahmadinejad was attempting to survive Iraqi artillery and rocket bombardment, which included clouds of mustard gas. He then was responsible for recruiting armies of child suicide volunteers to clear Iraqi mine fields with their bodies. After that came "wet work" for the IRGC. One does not prosper in those circumstances, or even survive them, by allowing a free-flowing debate inside one's head. Only certainty and an iron will will do.

Just one more similarity between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler - the parallels between their younger days.


By Anonymous Don Cox, at Sun Sep 24, 08:51:00 AM:

I don't think Ahmadinejad is a man who listens well, so I expect the CFR learned more from him than he did from them. He may have gone away thinking that the famous two-party conflict in the US is a sham, and the Democrats secretly support Bush.  

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