Q&A:"Grand Bargain With Iran Was a Missed Opportunity"
My interview with U.S. Representative Henry A. Waxman
(This is first published in ISP News Agency and reprinted on Asia Times)
WASHINGTON, Jun 17 (IPS) - Last week, the European Union offered Iran an incentives package to stop enriching uranium in order to initiate negotiations with the West. Mere days later, and before Tehran had responded, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that the Europeans planned to freeze the assets of Iran's largest bank in a bid to discourage Tehran from developing "nuclear weapons".
Iran has since withdrawn around 75 billion dollars from European banks to prevent the assets from being blocked -- although it is unclear when they will actually be imposed, and several rounds of economic sanctions in the U.N. Security Council have been largely ineffectual.
With U.S. President George W. Bush leaving office in January 2009, many in Washington -- particularly Democrats with an eye on the White House -- believe a new approach is needed toward the Islamic Republic.
In an interview with IPS correspondent Omid Memarian, Henry A. Waxman, the influential chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in the U.S. House of Representatives, said that, "The next [U.S.] administration would need the full range of talks, sanctions, coalitions with the other countries, and the threat of war to resist Iran's nuclear ambitions."
He added, however, that a Democratic administration would pursue direct discussions and would try to reopen the possibility of "a grand bargain" regarding Iranian influence in the region that is acceptable to both sides.
Waxman, who is also a super-delegate pledged to presumed Democratic nominee Barack Obama, represents California's 30th Congressional District, which includes a number of cities that are home to a large Iranian American population.
IPS: What would you suggest for the next administration regarding its policies toward Iran?
HW: I think a Democratic administration would take the position that they want to have more open conversations with Iran, perhaps without any preconditions. It may be wishful thinking that it would induce positive results, but I think it's important to pursue direct discussions. The United States has to keep the pressure on Iran, working through the U.N. to stop developing of nuclear militarism, and sanctions have to be kept in place, but it should be pursued at the same time there are actual negotiations. I think we were better off with North Korea having actual discussions with them even though it involved multi-party discussions.
Also we need the threat of war, even though I hope to hold that off. We should never drop it, take it off the table, because it is always something you want on their minds.
IPS: Do you think the next administration will renew Iran's membership in the "axis of evil" club?
HW: Well, I always thought the idea of saying there's an "axis of evil" was stupid. It was unproductive; it didn't serve any purpose. After you've called another country a name, then what happens? When the president gave that speech, I sat in the House chambers and wondered what was this all about? A lot of my friends were very happy that he pointed out how evil they are, but so what? That just made things more difficult rather than easier to try to find solutions. You don't have to like each other.
IPS: The nuclear issue has been at the centre of the U.S.-Iran relationship for the last decade. The Iranians insist that they will never give up enriching uranium. Would the United States be able to live with a nuclear Iran?
HW: That's very problematic. And I think that might happen, but I think it's a very big problem to contemplate, if for no other reason [than that] Israel would be very concerned if Iran was nuclearised -- had nuclear weapons that they could deliver. I don't know what Israel would do without the United States because I don't think Israel could handle the problem militarily by itself.
IPS: What will be the major difference between a Democratic administration and a Republican one when it comes to dealing with Iran?
HW: A Democratic administration is more open to using diplomacy as an additional tool, maybe less likely to want to sabre-rattle. But sabre-rattling doesn't do much unless it is credible, and I think the Bush administration's saber-rattling has not been credible because Iran simply has to look and realise we are in Iraq and they can cause a great deal of problems for the United States if we pressed them too hard. It is a danger when the U.S. is more provocative to Iran, then Iran uses it to clamp down on its own people, especially those who are more moderate and would like better relations with the United States.
IPS: In 2003, the Iranians offered the United States their "Grand Bargain" proposal and asked Washington for a comprehensive dialogue. Why did politicians here ignore the offer?
HW: A Democratic administration would go back and try to open that possibility up for discussions of a grand bargain of one sort or another. I don't know how successful that would be, but I think Democrats would certainly have seen that as a missed opportunity.
IPS: I see a lot of pictures of you and leaders of Middle Eastern countries on the wall of your office. Can you ever imagine a picture of yourself and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on this wall?
HW: Do I see that as a possibility? Possibly. I wouldn't restrict pictures. And I hope someday we can have open contact with Iran -- but I would hope at that point Ahmadinejad is not president.
IPS: I find the U.S. idea of negotiations with Iran that are coupled with the military threat to be a bit weird. Why should one expect such combination to be successful?
HW: You don't say it's on the table, but you don't go into a negotiation and say you are going to give up all your levers, and one of your levers is we don't want you to become a nuclear power. One option is for you [Iran] to abandon that, have inspections and try to become part of the rest of the world in terms of commerce and greater prosperity. The other is we put sanctions on you and quite frankly, it will be so unacceptable that military tactics is an option. We will not take off the table.
IPS: Is there unanimity in Congress on talking to Iran?
HW: No, no. Speaking of a Democratic administration, Obama has been criticised that he is naive to want to talk without preconditions, and the Republican position is 'they are our enemy' and they want to be much more tough on Iran and not talk to them. I don't want to say that all Republicans take this position, but for the most part, Republican leaders have not talked about why we don't pick up and go back to the 2003 offer and why we don't have more direct contacts and discussions -- I haven't heard that from too many Republicans.
IPS: What is the message that you're getting from the Iranian-American community in your constituency?
HW: I get very mixed messages from my constituents became some say don't even talk to these guys, we don't want to work out anything with them -- we want a regime change. And then more often than that, I get 'don't go to war, don't use military against Iran, that would be the worst thing to do'. [On the other hand], my Jewish constituents do not like the fact that he [Obama] wants to talk [to Iran].
IPS: Do you think Bush administration will launch an attack, or an air strike, against Iran before the general elections?
HW: No, no. Send the message to Iranians (laughing).