Ahead of Iran’s presidential election on June 14, RFE/RL asked top U.S. observers to weigh in on the effectiveness of sanctions, the end goal of nuclear negotiations, and the possible benefits of taking a more diplomatic approach toward Tehran.
RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to Ryan Crocker, a career U.S. diplomat who has served in ambassadorial posts throughout the Middle East and South Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was assigned to the U.S. Consulate in Khorramshahr, Iran, in the early 1970s.
Crocker is currently a member of The Iran Project, a nonpartisan group that has called for a rethink of U.S. strategy regarding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Crocker was recently nominated to join the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees U.S. international broadcasting, including RFE/RL.
RFE/RL: In a recent interview with “The Los Angeles Times,” you suggested that sanctions are easy enough to impose but “the more you press this regime, the more they dig in.” Can you expand on why you think the sanctions regime has not worked?
Ryan Crocker: I think it’s fairly clear-cut, as is sadly so often the case with sanction regimes — whether it’s Iran now, Iraq a decade ago, or others — it isn’t the regimes who feel the pain and the pressure of the sanctions. Very often they make money out of them. Saddam [Hussein] certainly did and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Iranian leadership is actually profiting from sanctions. They’re not responsive to their populations.
So, what they see is a sign of hostility from the West that doesn’t really cause them pain. They’re digging in and saying: ‘No, I’m not changing policy.’ [Which] is, I think, the entirely predictable thing to do.
RFE/RL: You have suggested that diplomacy should be stepped up. What concrete measures do you have in mind?
Crocker: What we suggested in the recent Iran report (issued by the Iran Project), to which I was a signatory, is that without removing pressure — [leave] the sanctions on, don’t take the military option off the table — that we should do what President [Barack] Obama said he was ready to do at the beginning of his term. And that is engage in comprehensive, wide-ranging talks with the Iranians. Everybody can bring everything to the table and let’s see what we’ve got. Again, our current approach may have some effect on the speed of their nuclear program, but it certainly isn’t stopping it.
Let’s talk about everything, including the nuclear program, and see if there might be some common ground on some areas — for example, Afghanistan. The Iranians can’t be happy about what is happening in Syria. However, this comes out, they will either lose or have a badly weakened ally in Bashar al-Assad and he is their only Arab ally. So, let’s talk about the broader Middle East, and so on and so on.
One of several things will happen. Either we may find the basis for ongoing discussions on a couple of issues where we can find common ground; or, the Iranians will publicly demonstrate a complete intransigence across the board which will further isolate them and strengthen international pressure against them. Either way, I think it’s an initiative we should take.
RFE/RL: As U.S. ambassador to Iraq, you held talks with your Iranian counterpart, but you said that it didn’t get anywhere. Why do you now think talking to Iran can bring results?
Crocker: Because some years have passed since then and times change, circumstances change, people change. I was also involved with direct talks with the Iranians in 2001 and 2002 on Afghanistan, where we did make progress. There’s also — to come back to the Iraq talks — as I suggested, that if we do have talks and they go nowhere and it’s because of Iranian intransigence, you know, that is not a bad thing either, because it makes clear to the world just where responsibility lies.
RFE/RL: What is the end goal when dealing with Iran? Ending Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities? Or regime change, as Iranian leaders seem to believe?
Crocker: Let me start with the last point. We’ve tried regime change once in Iran, as you know, with Prime Minister Mosadegh in 1953. That did not turn out well. And I think the seeds of the 1979 revolution were planted in ’53. So I definitely do not recommend regime change as a policy for the U.S. or anyone else.
What we would like to see is a change in the policies and behavior of the regime. It’s up to the Iranian people to make their own decisions on their government. Regime change imposed from outside through a coup did not work well for the West in Iran and sensitivities among Iranians — not just the government but the population as well — of foreign interference are very high, and we need to understand and respect that.
The point of negotiations, again, is certainly not to bring down a regime but it’s to see if we can find some common ground that leads to some productive engagement. Again, I cited Afghanistan as a possibility where we do have some common interests, and then see if we can broaden that to a set of understandings that may cause the Iranians to say, “Okay, we can have a different relationship with the West and we really don’t need to pursue this nuclear issue any further.”
Now, that may never happen. It certainly would take a long time in any case, but I think it’s worth pursuing. But again, this is about policy change. It’s not about regime change.
RFE/RL: Are we heading toward a war, seeing as you and many others believe sanctions are not going to change Iran’s policies? Are we turning Iran into a failed state?
Crocker: No, I don’t think [so]. Iran is a strong nation, it’s a resilient nation. An eight-year war with Iraq didn’t turn Iran into a failed state, neither will any of this. What I’m suggesting is exactly the opposite of going to war, it’s moving to diplomacy: broad-gauged, sustained, diplomatic engagement precisely to lessen the possibility that there may be a resort to military force.
Although, as I said — and as [the Iran Project] said in the Iran report — this is about, as we say in America, carrots and sticks. Let’s have a broad-range discussion. They’ve always said they wanted that, but we neither lift sanctions nor do we take the military option off the table. So it’s the two together.
RFE/RL: Should the U.S. look at a containment policy? Can the U.S. live with a nuclear armed Iran?
Crocker: Well, that’s the whole point — to see that we don’t have to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran. Because I cannot tell you what the consequences of that maybe except to say it would create a very dangerous situation in the region. I don’t know how other states would react.
One of the dangers is proliferation. If Iran acquires that capability, some of its neighbors are going to start working very hard to get a capability of their own. It just is not a direction you want to go. So, that is why we’re suggesting let’s start talking broadly and see if we can come up with some areas of agreement, some tradeoffs, that can take this region away from further proliferation.
RFE/RL: Do you think the ground-level effect of the sanctions, which arguably have harmed Iran’s economy and helped spur inflation, could harm the United States’ image among average Iranians?
Crocker: It’s a good question. I haven’t seen recent polling. I do know that over time the United States has enjoyed a consistently high level of popularity among the Iranian public. We certainly would not want to see anything develop that would taint those attitudes. I do hope the Iranians — who are sophisticated, well-educated people — understand that these sanctions are meant to target the regime’s nuclear program, to obstruct it, to extract a high cost for pursuing it. They are not directed at the Iranian people, and if the Iranian people are feeling the pain it’s because their government is using these sanctions against them.
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty