AEI scholar and Iran/Iraq expert Michael Rubin is concerned about the U.S.-Iran meeting yesterday in Baghdad.
HH: Last segment, I told you about that extraordinary meeting yesterday between representatives of the United States and Iran that occurred in Baghdad. And to make sense of that, if it’s possible to make sense of that, we’re joined by Michael Rubin. Michael Rubin is a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute. He’s also the editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He has been an advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, he has been a staff assistant in the office of the Secretary of Defense, he’s an expert on Iran, and I’m pleased to welcome you, Michael Rubin, to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Welcome.
MR: Hey, thanks for having me.
HH: You’re also the author of Eternal Iran, a book I’ll link to at Hughhewitt.com later tonight. What happened yesterday, Michael Rubin. What were we doing talking to them, and why are we agreeing to do security conversations with Iran?
MR: Well, unfortunately, sometimes policy makers in Washington become more wedded to having a process than having, to progress. And unfortunately, it looks like we’re getting snared, in a way, a diplomatic net where we’re so busy talking that we don’t address the real issues. And any evidence that surfaces that makes it appear as if our talks are failing will be filtered away so as not to sidetrack the diplomatic process. And one thing which is clear since our first meeting with the Iranians on May 28th, the Iranians actually accelerated the influx of weapons into Iraq.
HH: Michael Rubin, I interviewed General Petraeus at length on this program last week, and he confirmed what had previously been alluded to by other brass in Iraq, which is we know they are training and infiltrating and killing Americans from Iran. Against that backdrop, as well as the Ahmadinejad statement today that they will never stop their nuclear program, this just doesn’t make any sense in the context of the Bush doctrine.
MR: No, there’s still this desperation, both in Europe and also in Washington, that there exists some magic political formula that will bring Iran into compliance. But every time we offer incentives to Iran, they take the incentives and continue doing what they’ve been doing anyway, often at an accelerated pace. One example, between 2000 and 2005, the European Union had sung the praises of engagement with Iran. And this is at a time when Mohammed Khatami, the reformist president, was the leader of Iran. And Iran took the money, EU trade with Iran tripled during that five years, and invested 70% of that hard currency windfall into Iran’s nuclear and military program. And it’s almost comical the way we get caught in the same trap again and again. Sometimes, people talk about how the Iranians are pragmatic. But pragmatism isn’t always good. The Iranians might be very pragmatic in realizing that they have a strategy to stymie the United States, and that the U.S. desperation for talks, they can use against us.
HH: I also reported a story in the first segment of tonight’s show, Michael Rubin, that pension funds are getting it, and beginning to force divestment in Iran, and in foreign energy companies doing business in Iran. So if even profit-minded entities are forcing Iran realism on their shareholders, is this a Secretary of State Rice on down policy? Is this Ryan Crocker? Who is behind American Iranian policy?
MR: Well, I mean, first and foremost, the buck stops with the President, and the President has given the go-ahead for this to happen, and the President appears to be ignoring information that it’s not working, whether that information is reaching his desk or not is another issue. On a day to day basis, the person who is in charge of Iran policy is Nick Burns, the undersecretary of State for policy. Ironically, he was also slated to have the same position should Kerry have won the last presidential election. He’s very much a left-leaning figure. And he’s one of these people that subscribes to what they teach in our foreign service academy in the A-100 class, which is that there’s always a possibility to get to yes, to make a deal, and that engagement talk is always the proper strategy. In this case, there’s too much projection going on. Our diplomats are ingrained, inculcated with this idea, but the Iranians learn strategy in a completely different way, and they’re having their way with us.
HH: Now let me ask you if it’s possible, this is an explanation I once came up with for Ariel Sharon doing what he was doing, which is to prove to the world we’ve gone to the limit, we’ve done everything that was possible before acting unilaterally against Iran. Is that conceivably a reason for meeting with him and establishing this security group?
MR: That is conceivably a reason. The problem comes, and this isn’t just an issue with Iran and Iraq. It’s been an issue under Clinton and the early Bush years, both on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and even under Reagan with the Soviet Union. Once there’s a diplomatic process in place, there’s a great deal of political filtering that goes on. The process and desperation to continue the process ends up shaping the information which is considered to the point that we turn a blind eye to any contrary information for the sake of not scuttling the process. So the danger here is look, the Iranians are very smart, that they’ve studied our strategy for years and years and years. I’ve been to Tehran, I’ve talked with their officials, I mean, they make no secret of this. And I believe what they are doing is engaging us in a process knowing that once we’re engaged in the process, we tend to desperately cling to any straw of hope, no matter how far fetched, to keep that process continuing. On the other hand, I’m not sure whether it’s ever possible to convince the Europeans or the Russians or the Chinese, for that matter, that we’ve tried every, every possibility short of military action, because first of all, they may not care about Iran’s nuclear weapons. They might be realists. They might be much more interested in stymieing us, and for us to put our good will on the public opinion of people in Russia, people in China, or people in France, is ridiculous.
HH: Michael Rubin, you’ve written the book Eternal Iran, you study, you’ve visited Tehran, tell us a little bit about Ahmadinejad and Mullah Yazdi’s theology, and whether or not they would hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction against Israel.
MR: Well, Ahmadinejad comes from this revolutionary background. I think he used to be a commander in the Revolutionary Guard. He’s not actually a cleric. And what he often does is he plays the populist religious chords against some of the more moderate clerics. Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who you referred to, is a staunch hardliner, and what comes out of their mouths are often threats. I mean, it’s common both in Washington circles where I normally live, I’m talking to you from Fort Hood, Texas, right now, but also in academic settings, to deny this idea, conflict of civilizations. Well, whether or not that exists, Ahmadinejad and Mesbah Yazdi believe it exists, and they make reference to it all the time. Whether or not they’d use nuclear weapons, they’ve talked a great deal about this idea that through violence, they can hasten the return of this messianic figure in Shia Islam. Now whether they really believe that or not, I don’t know. I can’t get inside their heads. But I’d say it’s a real enough risk that we don’t want to take, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons.
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HH: Michael Rubin, stepping back from the decision of America yesterday, a profoundly wrong one in my view, to enter into prolonged negotiations with Iran in Baghdad, what is going on inside the Iranian regime, as best you can tell, domestically? Is Ahmadinejad imperiled by domestic political pressure?
MR: No. And first and foremost, often times, people talk about factionalization. Many policy makers, many pundits, have this idea that if there’s factions in Iran, whether they’re hardliners vs. reformers, pragmatists vs. revolutionaries, whatever, maybe we can game the system in a way. There’s factions in every country. Even North Korea has factions inside its ruling elite. The deal with Iran is that it’s not the president that controls the country. He’s not the one that calls the shots. Ahmadinejad is basically just the voice piece. The head of Iran, the person who appoints the revolutionary guards, has to approve all operations and so forth, is the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. And he’s very astute at playing factions off each other, and he’s been in control since 1989, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died, the founder of the Islamic republic. Ayatollah Khamenei has been consistent. While we’ve been talking about reformers, pragmatists and the hardliners, he’s been driving the nuclear program forward. And as Ahmadinejad, who’s basically both president and his spokesman, said today, there’s no intention to stop that.
HH: Now given that, given that we can draw a conclusion that there’s no intention to stop it, is there an inevitability coming upon us quickly that we’re going to have to either accede to the nuclearization of Iran, or use military power?
MR: I think that’s where we’re getting to. Now the issue with military power, though, military strike, limited or otherwise, is it doesn’t really solve the problem. At most, a military strike can delay the problem, and the question then becomes for Washington policy makers, how do you take advantage of that delay? Through several administrations, we’ve kicked the can down the road on the Iranian nuclear program. And if we’re only using military force to be able to kick the can down the road some more, without dealing with the real problem, which is the regime, I would say that that’s a pretty irresponsible use of our troops.
HH: Now the key question is, to me, in the preface to The Oak and the Calf, Solzhenitsyn wrote what if the Soviet Union…this is you know, thirty years ago, what if it’s just paper mache and you can poke a stick through it? What is the strength of the Iranian regime, Michael Rubin, in your estimate? Can it be toppled easily? Or is that a battle to the death if it’s joined?
MR: It can be toppled, not easily by any means. What’s the cement that holds it together? The Revolutionary Guard. We know from a variety of means, both on quantitative and qualitative, that the Iranian regime only has about only 20% of the Iranian population really support the idea of theocracy. That doesn’t mean that 80% of the others are revolutionaries by any means. Most of them are quite apathetic. However, the Revolutionary Guard, hand-appointed by the supreme leader, has the arms, and they’re willing to enforce the revolutionary precepts. What people often forget when they’re hoping for some muddle through reform, is that it doesn’t matter what 80% of the people think, because in Iran, sovereignty derives not from the people, but from Ayatollah Khamenei’s conception of God, and therefore, he doesn’t care what the people think, and he has the Revolutionary Guard in place to make sure that they don’t get out of line.
HH: And do you see Israel being willing to accept Iran as a nuclear state?
MR: I don’t. I’m not an Israeli policy maker, but it would be a huge problem. Often times in the United States, we talk about Israel. But what’s really ironic is if one talks to the Arab states on the Persian Gulf, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, even Saudi Arabia, they’re scared to death of this issue as well, because Iran has a history, both under its revolutionary regime, and pre-revolution under the shah, of really throwing its weight around when it feels that its powerful. And indeed, just two weeks ago, in the Iranian newspapers, one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s appointees, who’s the editor of the main state newspaper, wrote an editorial basically saying you know, the country of Bahrain, where the United States has a Naval base, shouldn’t really be independent, because several centuries ago, it was part of Iran, and it should continue to be part of Iran.
MR: The rhetoric seemed a little bit like what Saddam Hussein was saying about Kuwait pre-1990. The difference is, Saddam Hussein didn’t have nuclear weapons, and Iran may very well if we continue this muddled-down approach.
HH: Ten seconds, Michael Rubin, do you see a crisis imminent in our relations with Iran?
MR: A crisis is imminent, and it’s made worse by the fact that Iran is dangerously overconfident.
HH: Michael Rubin of AEI, thank you, the author of Eternal Iran. We look forward to you again soon.
End of interview.