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Larry Wilkerson: After recent meetings with Iranian leaders, it’s clear the
US has lost the ability to understand how other states see their interests

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to the first episode of a new series, which is The Wilkerson Report with Larry Wilkerson. And he now joins us. Thanks very much for joining us, Larry.


JAY: Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson was the former chief of staff to the U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell. And just in case you didn’t know that (but I think most of our viewers must know that), he’s now an adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary, and that’s where he joins us from. So what do you got for us this week?

WILKERSON: Paul, I had the good fortune, I think, to meet in the last several weeks with the Iranian U.N. ambassador, Mohammad Khazaee, with their foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi. And that was the day before yesterday. And then about a week ago I met, at the Warwick Hotel in New York City, with President Ahmadinejad. These were meetings in a group of several people, 18, 19 people. And what I gleaned from that was very disappointing. I hope I’m wrong, but I think we are—much the way we did in 2002, 2003, we’re wandering towards another war in Western Asia. And this one, as General Anthony Zinni, former Central Command commander, characterized it, if you liked Iraq, you’ll love Iran.

JAY: And why do you think that? What came out of these meetings that led you to think this seems—has a bit of an air of inevitability about it?

WILKERSON: It just reinforced for me, this time from the Iranian side, that on both sides of the strait, as it were, the United States and Iran, the foreign policy, since about 1979—one could even go back to the overthrow of Mossadeq in ’53—has been delusional. That’s the best description I can come up with, delusional, on both sides, that we are in such a mode in this country, for example, that there is no political space, largely because of Israel, but other reasons, too. We can’t even let diplomacy succeed. And, frankly, diplomacy right now is nothing more than sanctions, unless some secret talks are going on, which I hope beyond all hope are going on. But I don’t expect them to be going on.

JAY: Well, did you get the sense that the Iranian leaders believe a war’s inevitable? ‘Cause I’ve always thought that—and certainly it’s the way they talk—that they think it’s really a bluff and they don’t really believe it’s coming.

WILKERSON: It’s more complex than that, Paul, I think. There are Iranian leaders who do not want war and would like to see negotiations succeed, but on their basis, which is, essentially, we’ve got to see some sanctions relief before we give you a deal that we won’t enrich above 5 percent, and so forth.

There are elements, though, in all three places—in Washington, in Tel Aviv, and in Tehran—that want war. No question about it. The elements in Tehran want war because they see it as solidifying their hold, their revolutionary hold on the government for at least another decade or two, something that’s looking a little precarious at the moment. They see it as a way to get international opinion to shift to them. And they’re probably right, there. Once bombs start falling, people start falling off as our friends and allies when innocent civilians are killed and so forth.

So there are people in Iran who want war. There are people in Washington who want war. I recognize them. They’re the John Boltons and others of the world that I had to deal with in 2001, ’02, and ’03 with regard to Iraq. They’re marching their own route and trying to push us on to war. The recent delisting of the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq, the so-called MEK, is a case in point. They are the new Iraqi National Congress/Ahmed Chalabi. They are—.

JAY: And by delisting you mean taking off the terrorist list.

WILKERSON: Yeah, taking them off the state sponsors of terrorism list—or the terrorism list, in this case, so that, essentially, they’re going to be advocating for war with Iran. And they’ll sidle up to the same kind of people that Ahmed Chalabi sidled up to. And there are people in Israel, I think, that would like to see the United States take care of their problem. So you’ve got people who want some sort of conflict, if not general war between us, in all three capitals.

JAY: Well, go back to the Iranian side. I mean, do you put Ahmadinejad in that camp that wants war?

WILKERSON: Ahmadinejad is—he is a checked-out president. He is a lame duck. Ahmadinejad and the ayatollah, as you well know, I think, are involved in a contretemps that Ahmadinejad can’t win. And so we’re looking for the next president. And I think the ayatollah, the Guardian Council, and others are looking for the next president, and Ahmadinejad is on his way out. And I would predict that you probably won’t even hear his name after he’s gone.

So what we’re looking at in Iran are different elements. I would say many of the elements of powerlike those in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the IRGC, many of them, if not their leadership, would love to see the United States or Israel or both drop some bombs. If there’s any truth to the fact that there might be some people in Iran that operate on a different sheet of music, say, than rational thinkers as we see rational thinkers, it’s probably in the IRGC.

So, as I said, you put all this together, and you put the lack of political space, really, domestic political space in Iran, and to get anything other than a win-win (and by that I mean they get significant sanctions relief), and the lack of political space in the United States on the domestic scene (that is, the Congress won’t let the president give any sanctions relief), and you can’t see diplomacy working—. So the president has said and Mitt Romney will say and any other president will say, because this has been our policy, that all options are on the table.

Well, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are not very far apart on this. They want diplomacy to work. But I don’t see how diplomacy as sanctions, which is all it is right now, can work.

So what do you do? You either back down when all the other options have failed or you carry out your threat, which is, if all other options fail, the military option is used. And if you do that, you quickly realize the military option was counterproductive, ’cause it will be.

Look at the Iran Project’s very careful analysis with—Zbig Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Admiral Fox Fallon, General Zinni, and a host—Ambassador Tom Pickering, and a host of others, including yours truly, signed up to it—and you will see what the prospects are. What it is is we’re going to have to invade Iran, we’re going to have to occupy Iran for at least a decade, spend $2 trillion to 3 trillion, put $500,000 infantrymen and others into Iran. And even then, as Afghanistan and Iraq are so proof of today, we won’t have any guarantee of success. But that’s going to—at a minimum what it will take to have regime change and thus reasonable assurance while the occupation is in place that no nuclear weapon is developed.

JAY: But in recent days even Netanyahu seems to have backed off that, and that the idea now is increase the severity of the sanctions.

WILKERSON: Paul, a deal’s there, a deal is there just as sure as I’m speaking to you right now. They will do only 5 percent. Anything over that they will get from outside sources, as long as it’s reasonably available and reasonably priced.

JAY: This is—we’re talking about the uranium enrichment.

WILKERSON: Yes, uranium for medical use and so forth and so on, for their reactor. They will only enrich to 5 percent, and they will allow the IAEA to do what it has to do to ensure that they don’t and to give the international community assurances that they don’t.

But they’re not going to do it unless we show our good faith by giving them some significant sanctions relief. That becomes doubly difficult because most of the sanctions by the Europeans originally were on human rights, and I, frankly, don’t believe those should be lifted. But as you know, the Europeans have come in on the oil embargo and other more draconian aspects of the sanctions, and we’re there big-time, from the bank to oil to whatever. So they’ve got to see some of that, at least temporarily, to show our good faith, released or, you know, taken off of it.

JAY: Well, what about the other side of it, though? And I wonder in these meetings if anyone asked Ahmadinejad this. While there’s no evidence there is a weapons program, and while the last intelligence estimate from the American agency said there’s no evidence there’s a weapons program, or at least the decision has not been made—in fact, that’s still the official position of the United States, that Iran has not made a decision to go ahead with the bomb.

WILKERSON: And I think that’s a valid view.

JAY: But let me add one thing, which I saw an interview with Hans Blix about a year ago, you know, the former inspector in Iraq, and he made a point I thought was interesting. He said he doesn’t think there’s a weapons program. He says he believes the Iranians—there’s no weapons program, but he can’t understand why the Iranians simply don’t give the IAEA every single thing they want, let them go anywhere they want, ask—answer every question they have. Why not do that and settle this issue? Does anyone ask [crosstalk]

WILKERSON: I think you have to look at other factors, Paul. I would give you as an illustration of those other factors McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser to John F. Kennedy, and then later lingering with LBJ. And in his autobiographical/biographical interview that has now been turned into a book by his authorized biographer (he died before the official biography could come out), you are stunned if you’re a soldier like me who fought in Vietnam and saw some of his buddies killed, you’re stunned when McGeorge Bundy says, well, we knew we couldn’t win the war, but we had to continue because of U.S. prestige. Wow. We had to continue because if we didn’t get enough people killed and show that we were determined to fight this theatre of the Cold War, our allies might back away. Well, 58,000-plus names on that black wall in Washington called the Vietnam Memorial Wall testify to McGeorge Bundy’s having paid a price.

JAY: And how many hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese?

WILKERSON: Two and a half million North Vietnamese, maybe a million South Vietnamese, and horrible casualties other than the 58,000 KIA.

So this has got something to do with the Iranian position, too. It’s prestige: it’s our revolution, it’s our country, it’s our people, and you’re telling us what we should do with it. Same thing with Saddam Hussein. Why wouldn’t Saddam Hussein come forward and tell everybody—I mean, stand there abjectly and say to the UN inspectors, I have nothing, I will go with you everywhere; if we have to walk over every square foot of Iraq, I’ll show you? Well, it was prestige, and it was also the fact he didn’t want the Iranians to know he was weaponless when it came to WMD. After all, he fought an eight-year war with them.

So you have to look at much more—a much wider array of very complex issues in order to understand why someone’s taking the negotiating position they’re taking. We call it empathy. We call it being—in the military, being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and look at the problem you’re negotiating from their perspective. Paul, we simply have lost the ability to do that in this country.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Larry.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy

Lawrence Wilkerson's last positions in government were as Secretary of State Colin Powell's Chief of Staff (2002-05), Associate Director of the State Department's Policy Planning staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass, and member of that staff responsible for East Asia and the Pacific, political-military and legislative affairs (2001-02). Before serving at the State Department, Wilkerson served 31 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was a member of the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College (1987 to 1989), Special Assistant to General Powell when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Director and Deputy Director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Virginia (1993-97). Wilkerson retired from active service in 1997 as a colonel, and began work as an advisor to General Powell. He has also taught national security affairs in the Honors Program at the George Washington University. He is currently working on a book about the first George W. Bush administration.