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Hours after returning from a fact-finding mission to Iran, Gareth Porter sat down with The Real News Network’s Senior Editor Paul Jay to discuss his findings. Gareth responds to recent Obama statements toward Iran, pointing out that Iran has a long history of walking away from negotiations with the West and this debate over the value of participation in negotiations is raring up again against the backdrop of Obama’s election victory. The debate in Iran over entering negotiations, primarily to address Iran’s nuclear power program and support for Hamas and Hezbollah, has now split between those in the Iranian leadership who believe that Obama’s victory represents a change in direction in US foreign policy that may validate Iran’s participation and those who believe that the forces in Washington are too strong to permit such a change in direction. Gareth explains that since Obama’s appointment of Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State, a key player in the passing of the controversial Kyl-Lieberman Amendment that labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, served as a signal to most that Obama would not bring the change of course that Iran was hoping for.

Story Transcript

Iran debates negotiations
Paul Jay, Washington, DC

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: On Sunday on Meet the Press, Barack Obama spoke about negotiating with Iran. The debate’s been raging in Washington about if and how to debate Iran. Here’s what Obama had to say.


Courtesy: NBC, Meet the Press
December 7, 2008

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), US PRESIDENT-ELECT: I think we need to ratchet up tough but direct diplomacy with Iran, making very clear to them that their development of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable, that their funding of terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, their threats against Israel, are contrary to everything that we believe in and what the international community should accept, and present a set of carrots and sticks in changing their calculus about how they want to operate.


Well, whether to negotiate or not negotiate is not just a debate that’s raging in Washington; it’s also raging in Iran. Do the Iranians want to negotiate with the Americans, something everybody on this side just seems to assume? But maybe not. Joining us to discuss this is Gareth Porter. He just returned from Tehran just two days ago, and he will inform us on how this debate’s going on in Iran itself. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: The debate here is always what to do about the Iranians. But what’s the debate over there? What’s happening?

PORTER: Well, there’s been a debate, of course, in Tehran in the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran for some time about the question of negotiating with the United States and with Europe. And, you know, the debate really comes down to, you know, is it in the interests of Iran now to enter into negotiations, and if so, under what circumstances. Should Iran make any concessions to indicate that it’s open to negotiations? This issue came up in 2008 over the Javier Solana proposal to have a six-week freeze of the P-Five plus One—the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—proposal for sanctions against Iran, to freeze that for six weeks if Iran would freeze the level of its uranium enrichment program for six weeks, and that would allow, then, a period of negotiations. Well, within Iran we know that there were voices that were saying that Iran should accept that Solana proposal, but in fact it didn’t happen. Iran in the end decided not to adopt that proposal, not to agree with it. So we know that there was a debate.

JAY: Just to put some historical context, if I understand it correctly, in 2003 the Iranians put forward a proposal to the United States, which they submitted through the Swiss and some other channels, to have very comprehensive negotiations with the US. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, told us that and confirmed all this, that the Iranians had suggested they would talk about everything, from a nuclear program to their support for Hamas and Hezbollah and other kinds of issues, and that Cheney blocked that at that time.


June 6, 2008

JAY: The vice president essentially was committed to regime change, so the negotiations did not serve the agenda?

LARRY WILKERSON, FMR STATE DEPT CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: It’s more visceral than that. The vice president is committed to not talking to evil, period. All you do if you talk to evil is corroborate that evil; you give that evil legitimacy.

JAY: The vice president was, I believe, one of the signatories for the Project for a New American Century, which lays out, essentially, the projection of US power and just to reshape the world in a single-superpower world. So regime change was very much part of this. Regime change in Iraq, regime change in Iran is really stated as a programmatic objective.

WILKERSON: I think their purpose was regime change even more broadly than that. It was regime change throughout the Middle East, starting with Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran, and rolling on through the Middle East, ultimately even probably rolling on to Riyadh, one of our erstwhile allies for the last half-century, Saudi Arabia.

JAY: So negotiations does not fit into that kind of a program.

WILKERSON: It doesn’t. It doesn’t fit into the program philosophically, i.e. don’t talk to evil, and it doesn’t fit into the program that they had designed, I think, that would use hard power, military power, principally, to initiate this and even continue it if they found it was necessary to do so. That keeps the military-industrial complex alive; it keeps Halliburton alive; it keeps Lockheed alive; it keeps the entire complex that the United States had developed that I call the national security state alive, and well after the demise of the Soviet Union. So there was a strategic purpose to this, as well as a regional purpose vis-à-vis the Middle East.


So, from 2003, when the Iranians were rebuffed, now let’s go forward and talk about what are the different forces at play here. Who in Iran wants to negotiate and who doesn’t?

PORTER: Well, that particular proposal obviously had the blessing of the supreme leader. There’s no doubt that this was an initiative that did represent the highest level of authority in Iran. And when they were rebuffed by the United States, clearly that sort of discouraged the Iranian government from making, you know, further initiatives to the United States, and they really waited then in 2004, 2005 for further developments which would make a difference in terms of that analysis. They were prepared, of course, to negotiate with the European Three in 2004, 2005, that is, Britain, France, and Germany, and they made some fairly forthcoming proposals, proposals which I think now some Europeans feel they made a serious mistake in not accepting on the nuclear program, because, you know, in 2005, when the Europeans were waiting and not responding to the Iranian proposal, the Iranian presidential campaign was underway, Rafsanjani versus Ahmadinejad. They hoped Rafsanjani would be elected and they could get a better deal; instead Ahmadinejad was elected. And at that point the Iranians, having been, you know, feeling that the Europeans were basically playing them, decided to toughen up their stance.

JAY: So what happens in Iran? Go back to the clip we played off the top. When they hear Obama talk about using the carrot and the stick and do they want the tough way or the not-the-tough way, how does that resonate in Iran?

PORTER: Well, that’s exactly what I found on my trip, that what is happening in Iran is that this general debate over negotiations has now begun to focus, obviously, on Obama. And there are two very different interpretations of the Obama phenomenon in American politics and of what to expect from an Obama administration, at least in the initial weeks after Obama’s election. There was an optimistic view, which was that Obama’s election represents a shift in the American electorate, a new demand for change both domestically and in foreign policy, and that that presents an opportunity for Iran to get into substantive negotiations with the United States and to end this long 30-year—.

JAY: And then there’s some evidence for that. At the time Obama was saying, “Let’s negotiate, let’s talk,” it was at the same moment that McCain and Lieberman and some others were really beating the drums for war, and Cheney was running around the world trying to get people on board to isolate Iran.

PORTER: The Iranians, at least those who are more sympathetic to negotiations, were very optimistic about the possibilities for an Obama presidency opening up negotiations. The opposite viewpoint, the more pessimistic viewpoint in the Iranian regime, was that Obama would not represent anything different, that he may have wanted to open up relations with Iran, but he couldn’t do it because of the power of the Zionist lobby, as they call it, in Washington and the pressures on Obama from those vested interests in maintaining hostility toward Iran, that he would not be able to really have the freedom of action with regard to the policy toward Iran. So that was the nature of the debate in the early weeks after Obama’s election. Now, however, since Obama has named his new national security cabinet, and particularly the Hillary Clinton nomination as secretary of state—.

JAY: And just to put some context there, during the big fight over the Kyl-Lieberman Amendment, which was this amendment in Senate to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard terrorist, the only senior figure of the Democratic Party, practically, to vote in favor of this thing sponsored by Lieberman was Hillary Clinton. So I think one can understand why they’d be concerned.

PORTER: That’s right. And she was definitely seen as, you know, allied with the pro-Zionist, pro-Israeli forces in American politics; Obama was seen as really being somewhat independent of that. But since, you know, her nomination, his nomination of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, the nature of the debate has shifted, and those people who were more optimistic, more hopeful about Obama have now really pulled back a bit, and they have said, you know, “At present we’re not really very hopeful either.” One of the foreign ministry people that I spoke with on the record, director general of North American affairs for the Foreign Ministry, said he now believes that it’s very unlikely that we’ll see any change in Obama’s policy, and this was, again, in response to—.

JAY: In US policy with Obama.

PORTER: And that’s because of the Hillary Clinton nomination more than anything else.

JAY: Now, Obama did say in this Meet the Press interview that he is still willing to negotiate, to talk with the Iranians. It is language that is different than we’ve heard from the Bush administration, even though in practice there has now been some outreach from the Bush—.

PORTER: Yes, and it is recognized. Even the pessimists do believe that there’s a difference between Obama and Bush, or Obama and McCain, if you will. But what they’re saying is that there’s more similarity than there are differences, and that the similarity is that both Bush on one hand and Obama on the other hand believe in pressure on Iran as the way to get things done. And from the Iranian point of view, that’s really not acceptable, that they don’t agree to go to the negotiating table under pressure, essentially.

JAY: In the next segment of our interview, let’s discuss something big that has changed over the last month or so, which is global financial meltdown, which certainly has to have some effect on just what the US is capable of doing with Iran, even if it wanted to. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Gareth Porter.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.