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AEI’s Michael Rubin dismisses Mike Huckabee’s understanding of Iranian foreign policy

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HH: Joined now by Michael Rubin. He is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. He’s also a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He’s an expert on Iran. Michael, welcome back, it’s good to have you.

MR: Hey, thanks for having me back.

HH: We’ve got a new report from the Pentagon today. Iran’s behavior in Iraq has not changed dramatically. Are you surprised by this, Michael Rubin?

MR: No, I’m not surprised. Sometimes, people are saying that Iran is interfering, other times they say no, Iran is holding back. Often times, people talk about Iran’s pragmatism in terms of how it can benefit the United States. But if we’re going to be realistic about foreign policy, and realistic about Iran as a power that is not a status quo power, we have to recognize that they are going to be pragmatic in finding new ways to undermine our mission in Iraq, and to undermine a stable Iraq.

HH: Now let me ask you about the objectives of Iran there. Do they want long term instability? Or do they want a Finland on their border, subject to their influence, Michael Rubin?

MR: The latter. Often times, we hear our diplomats, and European diplomats, say it’s in every country’s interest, all of Iraq’s neighbor’s interest to have stability. And that may be true, but it’s only in their interest to have stability on their terms. And often times, that’s mutually exclusive. You have to understand Iranian history. Every revolution in Iran has started from Iraq, whether we’re talking about the end of the absolute monarchy a hundred years ago, or whether we’re talking about the Islamic revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini used to live in Iraq, and smuggle audio cassettes of his sermons into Iran. They are nervous, because they also recognize that they don’t have a great deal of religious legitimacy. Any contradiction from any ayatollah in Iraq is a shot across the bow of Iran, because how can you be the supreme leader of Iran and claim you have ultimate political and religious legitimacy, and then be contradicted by any religious figure in a free Iraq?

HH: Now Michael Rubin, Mike Huckabee gave a speech about Iran which contained a couple of assumptions about it, which I’d like to get you to comment on. I played most of the speech yesterday. Here’s cut number one of Huckabee on Iran:

MH: Before we put boots on the ground in the future, we’d better have a few wingtips there first. And when President Bush included Iran in the axis of evil, everything went downhill pretty fast. As the only presidential candidate with a theology degree, along with several years of political experience, I know that theology is black and white, politics is not. My enemy today on one issue may be my friend tomorrow on another. Bottom line is this, Iran is a regional threat to the balance of power in the middle and near East. Al Qaeda is an existential threat to the United States. I know that we cannot live with al Qaeda, but there is a chance we can live with a domesticated Iran.

HH: Your reaction, Michael Rubin?

MR: I think he’s woefully naïve. First of all, he’s just plain got his facts wrong. I’ve been critical of President Bush and his Iran policy a good deal, but when Mike Huckabee says that everything went downhill after the Axis of Evil speech, that’s simply incorrect. First of all, the National Intelligence Estimate that just came out, whatever its merits, has confirmed that Iran was working on a nuclear weapons program until 2003. Now we can get into the whole issues of sequencing and enrichment later, but the fact of the matter is this is the height of the reformist period. At the time the Europeans and Madeleine Albright as well were apologizing to Iran, offering olive branches to Iran and so forth, Iran was taking that goodwill, and pumping it into their military nuclear weapons program. Now when George Bush talked about the Axis of Evil speech, some people say oh, that was too much in their face and so forth. But the fact of the matter is, that was, in a way, economic warfare, non-violent warfare, because what it did was it’s that speech that convinced the European companies that maybe it wasn’t worth their while to be investing in Iranian factories and Iranian plants. And the reason the Iranian nuclear program slowed down may very well be because George Bush upped the rhetoric.

HH: Let’s listen…

MR: Also, sorry…

HH: Go ahead.

MR: He also misunderstands that Iran’s president doesn’t have ultimate power. We may find President Ahmadinejad in Iran noxious, but the people who have ultimate power are the theocrats, the very black and white folks who he’s choosing to ignore.

HH: Well put. Let’s listen to a second cut from the Huckabee talk about Iran.

MH: We haven’t had diplomatic relationships with Iran in almost thirty years, most of my entire adult life. And a lot of good it’s done. Putting this in human terms, all of us know that when we stop talking to a parent, or a sibling, or even a friend, it’s impossible to resolve the differences to move that relationship forward. Well, the same is true for countries.

HH: Is the same true for countries, Michael Rubin, specifically Iran and the United States?

MR: Well, again, Huckabee has his facts wrong, because even though we don’t have formal diplomatic relations, meaning we don’t have exchanges of ambassadors and embassies, there has been constant communication with Iran. Zalmay Khalilzad, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Ryan Crocker, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, were meeting with Iran in 2002 and 2003, to try to get certain deals and agreements on Iraq. Iran took those agreements, basically they were that we wouldn’t interfere in Iran, and they wouldn’t send the Revolutionary Guard into Iraq. And they broke their promises. Before that, of course, the whole, whatever during the Reagan administration, we had what became the Iran-Contra scandal. Now putting aside the issues, the Congressional issues of bypassing Congress and the Nicaraguan Contras, what that was, was an attempt to reach out to Iran. Former National Security Advisor Bud McFarland went over to Tehran to talk, and it wasn’t us who exposed that deal. It was the Iranians when they…for their own domestic, political reasons. We have had constant talks with Iran, and the reason the talks don’t work isn’t because we’re not talking, but it’s rather because every time the Iranians make a promise, they violate it.

HH: Is this level of naïveté on Huckabee’s part common among American political actors, or is it uncommonly naïve?

MR: Well, it depends…I mean, I would put him in the Jimmy Carter school of foreign policy. And perhaps he…what’s dangerous, and it’s not just among politicians, but also among CIA analysts, State Department diplomats and so forth, the people that often times, the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who are actually making foreign policy and analyzing foreign policy, is projection, assuming that everyone is political, everyone thinks like us. But while Mike Huckabee may have learned politics in the back rooms of Arkansas, for example, and in the state house and so forth, the Iranian decision makers have been learning their view of politics on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war, and in the religious seminaries. They’ve been learning their negotiation skills not in the A100 class, which State Department foreign service officers have to do, but rather in the bazaars. It’s a completely different system, and I don’t he understands that there’s a different thought process there.

HH: Michael Rubin from AEI, always a pleasure, and a very important set of updates at as well, almost every day. I appreciate it, Michael, thanks for coming back, look forward to having you again.

End of interview.


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