November 13, 2006, 9:00 am - January 20, 2019, 7:46 am


1761 N Street NW
Washington, 20036 (Map)

The panel discussion "The International Community and Iran" took place at the 60th annual conference in November, 2006.

Panel 3: The International Community and Iran



Hooshang Amirahmadi, Trita Parsi, Barbara Slavin, John Limbert

Moderator: John Limbert
"Today if you stood in Tehran and you looked around, you would see around your country a lot of not very friendly folks. You would see a lot of Sunnis. You would see a lot of Arabs. You would see a lot of Turks. And of course, you would see a lot of Americans.
But if you had looked at Iran back in 1977 or 1978, just a year before the fall of the monarchy, you would have seen a country with virtually no enemies. Relations with the two superpowers, with Europe, with China, with Japan, were all good. Relations with Iran's neighbors, if not always cordial, were at least correct. The 1975 agreements between Iran and Iraq had eliminated, albeit at the expense of the Kurds, a major source of friction on Iran's western frontier. Events in Afghanistan, especially after 1978, were worrying but there was no open hostility there or with any other of Iran's neighbors.

The Iranian Revolution and its chaotic aftermath changed all that, and changed it quickly. In about a year Iran went from having no enemies to having no friends, unless you count Albania. When Iraqi divisions struck in September 1980, Iran found itself without supporters although it was clearly the victim. Even when Saddam used poison gas against Iranian forces, the voices of international condemnation were muted at best.

Iran's efforts to come back from these low points have encountered great difficulties. The problem, in my view, lies in a question that has remained unanswered since 1979. The question is this: if the Islamic Revolution was about making Iranians masters in their own house, which Iranians should be the masters and in what kind of a house? What should be the relationship between that house, the new Iran, and the rest of the world?

It became clear in the 1980s, the decade that defines so much for Iranians, that voices calling for orderly relationships based on mutual interests and the accepted rules of international discourse were drowned out by harsher, more extreme voices demanding endless confrontation, calling for death to this or death to that or death to just about everybody. The heritage of those days continues to bedevil the Iranian political system, to bedevil Iran's foreign policy with other states both in the region and outside it.

Today we're very fortunate to have three very perceptive experts who will talk to us about Iran and the world community. First we will hear from Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, Director of the Rutgers Center for Middle Eastern Studies, who will talk about Iran's international relations: why are they in perpetual crisis?

Then is Barbara Slavin, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent with USA Today and author of the upcoming book, "Bitter Friends and Bosom Enemies." She will talk about the US and Iran: is it too late?
Finally, Dr. Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and author of the upcoming book, "Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States," will speak about how the US should deal with a rising Iran and the options of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

Let me ask Dr. Amirahmadi to begin. I should also mention that Dr. Amirahmadi had registered himself as a candidate for president of Iran in 2005. I don't know if you want to make an announcement about your plans for 2009.

First Panelist
Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, Rutgers University

Thank you, Dr. Limbert, that's nice of you. I asked which Iranian should run the country and what kind of country, a democratic country, and I should be running it. For the next round of presidential elections, we will be also again back in the campaign trail and see what we can do. That's the only option Iranians have, to try it. Let me first thank you, John, for the kind introduction and also congratulate the Middle East Institute for their 60th anniversary. And I thank Ambassador Mack for the invitation. I'm going to respond to this question of why Iranian international relations is in such trouble. I think John pointed out a few of them. Since the revolution in 1979, Iran's international relations have been marked by more than occasional instability and turbulence, engulfing Tehran into costly periodic crises with specific nations or groups of countries. The most significant of such turbulence are the hostage crisis in Tehran shortly after the revolution, the war with Iraq, the Iran-Contra affair that followed it despite our conflict with the United States, the continued internal struggle over a different direction for Iran's foreign policy, and the current nuclear predicament of the country. These crises have imposed on Iran closer economic, technological and strategic costs, international isolation, and erosion of political legitimacy at home and abroad. More significantly, the turbulence has led to a mutual distrust between Iran and the world community, the West in particular, a reflection of which is this current crisis over the nuclear issue.

When the Islamic Republic has acknowledged its international predicaments, it has often blamed foreign powers, the United States and Israel in particular, for conspiring against the revolution and the regime in Tehran. Some in the regime's enemies' camp have argued that the crisis are premeditated and used as a survival strategy by the regime. Conspiracy theories have a special place in Iranian political culture.

Other explanations have focused on the religious basis of the foreign policy, cronyism and mismanagement, the failure of political reform, and the lack of a deeper understanding of international affairs. These explanations are justified but limited in breadth and depth. A more complex analysis would also have to account for several other important factors.

The most significant source of turbulence in Iran's international relations is a spiral conflict – to borrow a term from the late Richard Cottam – with the United States and the US policy to isolate, contain or change the regime in Tehran. A spiral conflict is a conflict that feeds itself and is based on a mixing of fact and fiction, misperception, misunderstanding, distrust and mutual demonization. Most significantly, a spiral conflict makes negotiable grievances look non-negotiable, preventing the parties from serious engagement, as is the case with Iran and US relations.

Iran's theocratic state model is another source of turbulence in its foreign policy and relations, as it does not correspond to an increasingly secular world where faith is a civil society matter and governments are not the only global players. The problem has been compounded in recent times when the Bush Administration has declared radical Islam an enemy and has made fighting terrorism and nonproliferation top priorities of its policy. Iran's nuclear programs, its association with Hizballah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and the harsh pronouncements of President Ahmadinejad against Israel and the Holocaust have made Tehran a convenient target.

The Islamic Republic prioritizes its foreign relations in the following order of importance: Islamic nations, neighboring countries, regional states – minus Israel of course, and extraterritorial states, including the United States in particular. Accordingly, improved relations with the United States is viewed as a lesser priority. No wonder that maintaining a state of no war and no peace, or detente, has been Tehran's primary policy approach to Washington. Unfortunately this approach has become the basis for the institutionalization of Iran's foreign policy and is shared among reformers and hardliners. There are at least two reasons why this prioritization has conflicted with a stable Iranian foreign policy. First, the United States has increasingly become uneasy with the detente with Iran and it has at every opportunity tried to move the relations toward either more peace or more conflict. Second, despite Iran's desire to the contrary, most Islamic nations in Iran's region tend to be its enemies while most of its regional friends are non-Muslim states, with the exception again of course of Israel.

The prioritization also means that for the Iranian foreign policy establishment, China, India and Russia come before Europe and the United States. This eastward orientation has not been welcomed by Washington at a time of growing demand for world oil in the face of declining supplies. Particularly that China, the contending next superpower, is the source of most of this rising demand in the world. For the United States, Iran stands at the wrong spot in the world's geopolitics.

The Islamic Republic's foreign policy makes another troubling division among the world community of states: those who are friends, those who are enemies, and those about whose friendship or animosity the republic is in doubt. The trouble is that the first two categories include the most powerful states of the world, such as the United States, larger European states, Russia and China even. Even when a large number of the Group of 77 states sympathize with Iran, only a few among them are trusted by Tehran. Iran's lack of trust in the international community, the West in particular, has both historic and recent roots. Unfortunately I don't have time to go through it but I will give that list during the discussion.

As a result of that distrust, from its very inception the Islamic regime has been struggling with a foreign policy that would remain independent of the East and the West. That goal was in itself a difficult one to achieve. The regime made it even harder by insisting that its foreign policy must also serve both Iran and Islam. Initially Islam came first, then later on Iran was made the primary target of that foreign policy. But the fundamentalists continue to insist that Islam must remain the primary focus from a national perspective of Iran's foreign policy.

A final source of instability in Iran's international relations is the fact that the Islamic Republic has replaced the Arab states in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Specifically, in the past two decades or so the Arab states have gradually moved away from their traditional militaristic role vis-a-vis Israel, toward a more economic approach, while Iran has gone exactly in the opposite direction. Therefore the fault line today in the Middle East conflict has moved away from Arab-Israel to Israel-Iran and by extension Iran and the United States.

Finally, in sum, as long as the sources of instability in Iran's foreign relations are not removed or reduced, Iran will continue to remain a source of concern for the world community and the world community will remain a source of concern for Iran. The one area where that problem can get more effective help is in changing the US-Iran spiral conflict into a US-Iran spiral cooperation. Thank you very much.

Second Panelist
Barbara Slavin, USA Today

Good afternoon. I want to thank the Middle East Institute and David Mack especially for asking me to participate on this august occasion. Over the years I've talked to many experts here at the Middle East Institute. I wouldn't qualify myself as an expert yet but with their help perhaps I'm getting there on a few subjects.

I wanted to focus on the Bush Administration's diplomacy toward Iran. There has been some indication of flexibility in the Bush Administration's second term and I think the question is whether it comes too late now to affect Iran's calculations.

There was a period following the September 11 attacks until, I would argue, about May 2003 when there were real possibilities for a breakthrough in US-Iranian relations. Mohammed Khatami was still the president and he had made attempts, as you know, to improve relations earlier under the Clinton Administration. Iran was providing extensive support to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, helping to overthrow the Taliban and install a pro-Western regime in Kabul. Iran was also promising tacit support to the United States in Iraq. There were about a dozen mid-level meetings between US and Iranian diplomats in Europe that grew out of discussions on Afghanistan but expanded to include Al Qaeda, Iraq and other matters. These talks were ended unfortunately after they were publicized, in part by USA Today, and the Bush Administration was rather embarrassed that it was revealed to have been talking to Iranians after Bush of course put them on the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in 2002. There was also the matter of several bombings in Saudi Arabia which the United States blamed on Al Qaeda members that it said had been given refuge in Iran. That is a matter of dispute, but anyway the dialogue ended.

About the same time or a little earlier there was also an offer of broad talks with the United States. Iran presented an agenda in May 2003 that covered all of the issues that were of concern to the United States and Iran, from the nuclear issue to support for Hizbollah and Hamas, willingness to accept Israel and so on. That offer was not taken up. The Bush Administration at the time was feeling very confident about its policies in Iraq and felt that it really did not need to deal with the Iranians – that it could overthrow the regime in Iraq and this would serve as a lesson to the Iranians that they might be next. My information is that this offer was never seriously considered at the highest levels of the US government. You can read my book to find out more hopefully about this effort.

From 2003 until 2005, the Bush Administration essentially outsourced Iran to the Europeans, to the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany). They conducted a series of talks, mostly about the nuclear program but they also talked about economic cooperation, terrorism, human rights. The administration ignored the talks. They did not really believe they would be succeed and so they provided almost no support to them. John Bolton at the time was the assistant secretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation and he showed his contempt for the talks in many ways.

After President Bush was reelected, in 2005 he took a trip to Europe. He and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began to realize that Iran was not being isolated by this policy, that the United States was being isolated. So in the spring of 2005 the Bush Administration agreed to put some carrots on the table. They agreed that they would stop blocking Iran from applying to the World Trade Organization and said that the US would consider providing spare parts for Iran's aging fleet of Boeings. Iran had been raising both these issues for years. In fact, back in 2001, right after the September 11 attacks, Richard Haass, who was then a senior State Department official, pushed very hard on the WTO issue, but the administration blocked it and it got nowhere.

Then the Europeans made what in hindsight turned out to be a strategic error. They waited to present a proposal of economic aid and cooperation with Iran until after the Iranian presidential elections in 2005. Their hope had been that Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president and a pragmatist, would win the elections, but of course he did not. It was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The European offer was rejected and the Iranians resumed and accelerated their uranium enrichment program and efforts to build a heavy water reactor.

Then last May the Bush Administration dropped the other shoe and finally agreed that it would take part in talks with the Iranians but only if they would suspend the uranium enrichment program and other efforts, as a precondition for joining the talks. We had a period over the summer where the Iranians made various suggestions that they would take part. They seemed to be quite enthusiastic. But here we are now, in November. The Iranians have not taken up the offer. The question is whether once again it was too little, too late, and whether they can be persuaded to.

I think frankly that the only possibility now comes out of the situation in Iraq. There was an agreement back in November 2005 by Condi Rice that Zalmay Khalilzad, our ambassador in Iraq, could speak with the Iranians about the situation in Iraq. He was given that authority. The Iranians at first were reluctant and then they accepted the offer. Then the Bush Administration got cold feet. This idea seems to be coming around again courtesy of the Iraq Study Group, which as you know is going to make its suggestions probably after Thanksgiving. One of those suggestions may be that the United States reaches out to Syria and Iran to try to stabilize the situation in Iraq.

I would argue that while Iran has benefited enormously from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, there is the sense that total chaos in Iraq will not benefit them. I think they'd like to keep the violence going but under control. On that basis perhaps they would be willing to join these talks. But of course the United States will have to give up its precondition that Iran stops uranium enrichment. President Bush today, appearing with Ehud Olmert of Israel, again ruled out talks. But we will see what the Iraq Study Group has proposed and perhaps there still is some room for flexibility there.

No one who has watched US-Iran relations or lack thereof over the last two and a half decades can be optimistic about the prospects here. The two countries remind me of two adolescents hesitating over who will ask whom out for a date. Both are afraid of looking too eager and getting rejected. We've seen this pattern over and over again.

But I think there are some compelling reasons and there are people in both governments who are supportive of some greater dialogue between the two countries. I think the question is whether those voices are going to be drowned out by the opposition within each of the two governments. Thank you.

Third Panelist

Trita Parsi, National Iranian American Council

Thank you so much. Let me thank the Middle East Institute and congratulate it for its 60th anniversary. It's a great time to talk about Iran today because there are some indications that we may be changing course in Iraq and that may lead to some changes with our policy toward Iran as well. If that is the case, a changing course on Iran is long overdue and hopefully will be extensive enough to rectify some of the major problems that the previous course has caused for American interests in the region.

The reality in today's Middle East is that Iran is a rising power, not only because the US took out its competition, Saddam and the Taliban, and not only because it's flush with oil revenues, but also because of the fact that it can combine these factors with a general state of lack of dependence on the United States. Thanks to US sanctions and efforts by the government in Tehran itself, Iran has managed to avoid being in a state of asymmetric interdependence with the United States. As President Bush himself said on December 21, 2004, "We have sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran." Instead of weakening Iran, US policies have pushed Tehran deeper and deeper into the sphere of influence of China and Russia, two states that are most likely to emerge or, in the case of Russia, reemerge as America's global competitors in this century.

This is one of the biggest geopolitical problems --disaster, some would say --of our policy versus Iran for the last fifteen years, born out of a belief that isolating Iran would also be able to prevent Iran from rising. This is a scenario that could have been avoided. As paradoxical as it may sound, a very large number of Iran's current elite are actually educated in the United States. They did their PhDs and their law degrees in this country. Many of them are trying to send their kids to the United States to study as well. They have a connection to the United States. It may be a very odd one but it is a connection nevertheless.

Partly because of these people, there's been a strong current in Iran since the 1990s to try to realign Iran with the United States. As was mentioned earlier on, Iran is a country that doesn't have any regional friends. It cannot afford not to have a global ally. So it looks around and the options aren't that many. It's the United States, it's the EU, it's Russia and China. Iran's first choice has been, in spite of its ideology and rhetoric, the United States, partly because of the unattractiveness of the other options. The EU is seen as weak and incapable of acting independently of the United States. Russia has been Iran's traditional enemy for 500 years and neither Russia nor China can provide Iran with the technology that its developing economy is desiring and depending upon.

But more than a decade of sanctions on Iran has pushed it, largely against its own will, into the orbit of the Chinese and the Russians, its third and fourth choices. This can have long-ranging effects because the new visa regulations are making it increasingly difficult for Iranian students to be able to come and study here in the United States. Instead they're studying in China and Russia. These people will be leading the country a decade or two from now and their frames of reference will be Chinese, not American.

America's approach to China is drastically different than what it is to Iran. With China, we understand that it is too big to be contained. We understand that containment is more likely to turn it into an irredeemable foe. We understand that objectionable Chinese policies are better changed through helping China integrate into the international system rather than keeping it out.

Clearly, Iran is not China in a global context. But in a regional setting, Iran is the China of the Middle East. It is the country that cannot be contained. It is the country that becomes more hostile when we try to isolate it. It is the country that we can better change through integration than through confrontation.

With Robert Gates as the potential new defense secretary and with Baker and Hamilton's report on Iraq, a new approach to Iran may be in the making. But it shouldn't be limited to Iran's role in Iraq or to the nuclear issue, because the events of the last few years have shown that the balance in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf has changed. The limitations of Pax Americana have been revealed.

For several reasons this foundation is trembling from the very bottom. First, as we discussed, the United States has failed to isolate Iran. Second, the GCC states who were supposed to be the primary beneficiaries of this arrangement have emerged as its key losers. Their aggressive armament during the mid-1990s increased tensions with Iran and made it more difficult for them now to be able to re-patch that relationship with Iran when Iran is rising and more assertive. Third, due to the unpopularity of the Bush Administration's policies, the domestic costs for many of the GCC states to continue to host thousands of American troops on their soil has risen to alarming levels for them. Finally, with the demand of energy from the rising Asian giants, China and India are developing an increasing interest for the security of the Persian Gulf in order to secure their own energy supply lines. These states are unlikely to accept that the security of this region should be a sole American matter in the future and many of the regional states are developing an interest to see these giants raise their profile in the region as a counterbalance to the United States.

Rather than providing security, the US security umbrella and the absence of an inclusive security arrangement have only increased anticipation of forthcoming insecurity and warfare while making the Arab states beholden to an arrangement and an ally that they can't do without but that they're finding it increasingly difficult to have good relations with. The writing on the wall is that geopolitical forces are making Persian Gulf security matters unlikely to remain solely an American prerogative. Rather than waiting for the current system to completely collapse, the US should welcome the opportunity to lessen its security burden in the Persian Gulf and take the lead in creating an inclusive regional security architecture. Such an arrangement must include Iran because you would not be able to have that arrangement without including one of the most powerful states in the region.

That is why I think if we approach the region not only from the perspective of the immediate problems that we're facing but also from a longer-term perspective, any shift in policy toward Iran should not just be limited to Iraq and the number of centrifuges that the Iranians are spinning but also address the wider geopolitical context out of which many of these problems are arising. Thank you.

Questions and Answers

John Limbert: Let me thank the speakers for really excellent presentations. We also have some very good questions. Let me take the moderator's privilege and take the first question. I was very pleased, Hooshang, to hear you bring back this formulation of the downward spiral in relations. I think we heard from all of our speakers variations of that problem, in which every action by one side is interpreted by the other side in the most hostile way. So whether you may see your action as conciliatory or a gesture, the other side sees it as hostile.

Let me ask our panelists: how do you break such a downward spiral? Or, how do you break this particular downward spiral?

Amirahmadi: First let me say that every issue that exists in US-Iran relations, any problem, is negotiable. That's important. That's part of the problem, that there is not a single issue that is addressed in US-Iran relations that is not negotiable. It's unfortunate that negotiable issues have become non-negotiable. I think it's partly because of that problem of perceiving each other only as on the wrong side.

The US and Iran have so many problems but I think if we were to speak right now, for the moment, I would do two things. The first thing is of course both sides have to let me tell you a story that's very important. A few years ago I met Secretary George Shultz privately in his home. He said, I want to summarize in four statements the US-Iran problems and the solutions. Number one, he said that Iran is a country that is important and we have to get Iran back to our side. We will never forgive ourselves for losing it. Second, he said this Islamic regime has harmed us as no other country, so much that it has harmed us more than any country in the world. Third, he said we cannot use force against this regime or this country. We have to make it in a different way. Finally, he said, I have a solution. I said, please tell me. He said, I think the way to do it is for Tehran and Washington simultaneously declare that they are ready to move forward with a little bit more improvement.

Breaking the deadlock, the first thing that has to happen is that both sides have to say that they want to normalize as opposed to moving forward with the conflict. That is a major statement forward. We on this side have never said that we want to normalize relations with Iran. The word "normalization" has never been put on the table. We say we want to negotiate. Then the other side, Mr. Khamenei says, negotiation for what? Israelis and Arabs have been negotiating for fifty-some years. You know what US wants to negotiate with us for? They want to humiliate us. That's all that they are interested in. They are not interested in building a relationship and improving this problem.

So I think the first important thing is for both sides, perhaps through the mediation of the United Nations or some other mediation, to simultaneously say in both capitals that they are ready to normalize. That will go a long way to break this spiral conflict.

Second, we are now realistically facing the nuclear issue. The nuclear issue is something that has to be on the table. But the problem is here. The United States tells Iran: I will negotiate with you if you do A or B. But that's not even the problem. The problem is this, that the Bush Administration is saying: I will negotiate with you while at the same time I have the military option on the table and regime change on the table. You can't negotiate with a country that you want to overthrow or engage in military conflict.

So another thing the US has to do is simply say: if you want to work with me, I will take this regime change option off the table. I will not engage you in a military conflict. But then you have to move forward, Iran, with something.

I think Iran must accept an acceptable compromise over its nuclear issue. Iran must understand that Iran's enrichment issue is not the issue for the United States only or the Israelis only or other groups. It is seriously an international issue, including Russia, China and India. So I think Iran must understand that this is not a game that's only played by the Israelis or the Americans, its so-called enemies. It's a global matter.

That acceptable solution is obviously one that will guarantee Iran's civilian use of this technology but at the same time make absolutely certain that Iran will not go in the military direction. I think the only way to that option is for Iran to accept as intrusive an inspection regime as possible with the international community, perhaps with some level of direct involvement of the United States. Not just IAEA, which the US after all doesn't trust that much.

Slavin: I think it's very difficult for a number of reasons. A lot of people have used the analogy of the US and China. Of course there were secret talks that went on before the breakthrough, before Nixon went to China. We had Henry Kissinger and the Pakistanis and a lot of other people serving as intermediaries. The problem with Iran has always been that there's a lack of trust that such meetings would be kept secret and it would be very embarrassing for them to leak before they led to anything. You have also various elements of the Iranian government that might use this kind of discussion against each other.

But I think there has been a failure on the part of the Bush Administration to take up certain offers that have been made by the Iranians for private discussions. Also, the US has not called Iran's bluff. Last year President Ahmadinejad suggested direct flights --it was the beginning of this year --direct flights between the United States and Tehran. The Bush Administration treated the proposal as though it were some bizarre concept, never even gave him the courtesy of a reply. When I was in Tehran last February, I mentioned this. Their national security advisor, Ali Larijani, said that they were surprised the administration has not replied. He said Iran would be willing to consider allowing American diplomats to go back and process visas in Tehran if there had been a positive reply to this suggestion. So if the US is serious about getting back into Iran, engaging with the people there, trying to follow the model of regime change that we saw in the former Soviet Union or even the changes we've seen in China, then it's going to need to be in Iran not just outside Iran trying to influence.

So the Iranians have put up a few trial balloons and so far the US has shot them all down. So again, the question comes: is it too late? Is there such a lack of trust now between the Bush Administration and Iran because of "axis of evil" and various other things that this cannot take place while the Bush Administration is in power and while Ahmadinejad is president of Iran? We do have to talk about his rhetoric and how difficult that has made it. It would have been much easier clearly for the Bush Administration to have made some gestures when Mohammed Khatami was still president.

So I'm not hugely optimistic, I have to say, that we are going to get anywhere in the next couple of years. But if Iran is to make proposals like this again, maybe this time the Bush Administration should take them up on it.

Parsi: Barbara mentioned the proposal that the Iranians had sent back in 2003. I think what was so shocking about that proposal was that at the time people would never have guessed that the Iranians would have put so many of these different things on the table. That they offered to turn Hizbollah into a mere political organization, which basically means that it would be disarmed, which would have meant that there would not have been a war in Lebanon and Israel this past summer.

So time has not really worked to the favor of the United States. Back in 2003 when they made the proposal, Iran was not spinning any centrifuges. Iran was not going ahead as quickly as it is now with its enrichment program. So if we continue to wait, hoping that some sort of a miracle will happen, most likely it will only weaken America's negotiating position.

So when we ask ourselves what needs to be done, I guess the first thing is to recognize that the current situation is not working to the United States' favor and is probably making it worse and worse the more the US waits.

Question: What are the chances that President Bush will take military action against Iran's nuclear sites?

Slavin: I've heard everything from 50/50 to two out of ten. There are people who still believe that that is a possibility. Of course the Bush Administration refuses to take it off the table. I think I disagree with Hooshang there. I think I understand why the administration refuses to take it off the table.

A number of experts suggest that the longer the US waits, the less sense it makes, because Iran clearly has had time to hide elements of the program. It has expanded its knowledge. It has scientists now who are beginning to know what they're doing, although they have had some difficulty with their centrifuges. They've only managed to install two cascades of 164 machines each and they're not working terribly well, from what I understand.

So the question is: what would military strikes accomplish, apart from consolidating the current regime? Some feel the Israelis may push the United States toward military action because obviously for them it is more of an existential threat than it is for the United States. Then the question is what the United States would do to support the Israelis or try to dissuade them.

I think it's still a possibility. One cannot eliminate it. I think it's somewhat smaller now in part because of the results of our own mid-term elections. I think the appetite for another war is clearly limited in this country.

Amirahmadi: I don't believe there will be surgical strikes. I think that's a myth. What will happen is a full-scale war. The US will never strike Iran surgically. It doesn't mean anything. You're going to destroy a few sites and leave the country wounded and then come after you? So if the US were ever to go after Iran, it will go full-scale. That is a major decision for the US to make. Can the Bush Administration make that decision in the next year and a half that it's actively there, and given the Senate and House of Representatives that they have lost? I don't believe that will be the case. Again, it's not surgical strikes, it's a full-scale war. We should not misunderstand that.

I believe honestly the road ahead is more sanctions. The Democrats are good for sanctions, not with wars. At least not now for Iran. We forget that over the last 27-some years, the Democrats have been in the forefront of the sanctions. The Bush Administration – the father, the son, the Reagan Administration, they did the least on the sanctions side. They spoke very tough against Iran but they actually did not do much. It's all tough talk. But you know who destroyed US-Iran relations? In the first term of the Clinton Administration, it was President Clinton. Every single sanction that is right there is from President Clinton, and he's a Democrat.

So what I'm trying to say is that the change could in fact create more trouble for Iran ahead, except that it will take the war off the table and put sanctions big-time on the table. That's my concern.

Parsi: I think it's a great question but I think there's a problem here. I think the problem is this question is arising from a mindset that we seem to have here in Washington right now in which we have completely forgotten about other opportunities to be able to influence Iran's behavior. If we are defining a powerful Iran as a problem in and of itself, then we have just invited ourselves to the Middle East permanently. Forget about withdrawing from Iraq in 2010. If we think that Iran has to be contained, sanctioned, it can absolutely not be permitted to live up to its full potential because we don't believe we can influence its behavior, or we don't even care if we can influence its behavior – then we're going to be there for the long run. It's actually what the drafters of the document prepared by the Project for the New American Century were envisioning when they were writing the blueprint for the Iraq war, months if not years before the 9/11 attacks.

Question: Another question related but with a slightly different focus. Can we pursue a policy of regime change in Iran and a policy of nuclear disarmament of Iran at the same time? Or is a choice needed? If so, which to pursue first?

Amirahmadi: Obviously there is a contradiction there. The administration, Dick Cheney in particular, and Mr. Rumsfeld, made an argument last February or so saying that Iran is going to go nuclear whether we like it or not. Therefore the only option left is to make that country democratic, which means to change the regime. So regime change was made a policy because they gave up on a nuclear Iran.

The assumption is that a democratic Iran with a nuclear bomb is less dangerous than a dictatorial Iran with a nuclear bomb. The fact is that is not true. There is no support for that hypothesis. We know that democracies have used nuclear and the dictators have never used it. So that's beside the point. I think that's difficult to sustain, that kind of hypothesis.

I believe that the US cannot simultaneously move with regime change and stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, not just technology for energy, a bomb. If the US pushes further in the direction of regime change, Iran will certainly move forward and further toward developing or diverting toward military use. No question whatsoever. The regime is first and foremost concerned about its survival and that comes first. That's the way I see it.

Slavin: I think it depends on how you define regime change and how you go about it. There isn't anyone in this room who wouldn't like to see Iran's government change. I would argue that probably 99 percent or at least 90 percent of Iranians would like to see their government change. But it's how you go about it. Do you follow patterns and models that have been shown to have an impact? Or do you use a lot of rhetoric, to quote Hooshang, that doesn't get you anywhere but just gets the back up of the regime there?

I would argue for clever regime change, which means not talking a lot about it but trying to do things that actually influence the government there and that broaden contacts with the Iranian people. To the administration's credit, it is putting more money into exchanges. I know Trita said the visa issue is still difficult but I know the administration wants more young Iranians to come here to study and is making an effort to increase that. I would suggest that if they had some visa officers in Tehran they'd made it even easier, so that people didn't have to go out to Dubai or to Turkey to make their applications for visas. But that's the long-term solution.

Parsi: I would like to go a step further. I think we have another assumption here in Washington that hasn't been questioned enough, which is that we assume that enrichment capability automatically means weaponization. That is not the case. Even if Iran, like many other countries, would have that technology, we still have a tremendous amount of opportunities to be able to prevent Iran from weaponizing and getting a nuclear bomb.

One of the forces that actually is working to our favor, if we recognize the situation, is that Iran itself and many people inside Iran's government recognize that Iran's strategic position would be weakened if it weaponized. Iran is by sheer size in a position in which it is stronger than most of the states in the region – because of its population, its resources. It actually has had that natural advantage for 3,000 years, which is why it has always been one of the regional powers. But if Iran were to weaponize and help spark a nuclear arms race in the region, meaning that very small states that currently are much weaker than Iran would also go for the nuclear bomb, then Iran would suddenly put itself at a strategic parity with these much smaller states. The Iranians are well aware of this and I think they're smart enough not to go that route. But we have to be careful that we don't push them in that direction.

John Limbert: Thank you. Barbara, I especially liked your point about regime change and what that means. A few months ago I was talking to a group out in Oregon and someone in the audience asked me, are you worried about the mullahs having nuclear weapons? I thought for a moment and said, I'm worried about the mullahs having bows and arrows.