PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: How did this report play out in Iran in the last day or two?
BABAK YEKTAFAR, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, WASHINGTONPRISM.ORG: Well, that’s the interesting thing. As I was tracking it, the initial reaction, of course, was what we hear more today from Iran, that here we go, it’s a victory for us. And I think to a certain extent it is a victory for Mr. Ahmadinejad, although we have to see how it comes back to haunt him. But, nonetheless, that was the initial reaction. And then what was interesting to me was that all of a sudden you could almost feel as if the higher-ups in the Iranian government were saying, well, wait a second. We’re giving too much credit to the United States right now. We can’t do that. Let’s just backtrack. And also we were kind of using this whole ambiguous nature of Iran and maybe they can be a power in the region because of their nuclear capability, you know, that was playing well for us a little bit. Maybe we should start questioning this current report as well, instead of saying, ah, that’s great, that’s excellent, this vindicates us, and here we are and wanting damages. But I think what prevailed over the last twenty-four hours is that let’s take advantage of this, let’s actually turn this into some sort of a court case, if you will, even though they may not actually follow through with that, and saying that the U.S., because of all these damages—through sanctions and such—that has caused us, they owe us something. But in some ways there are some groups within Iran, because there are two things that happened in Iran the last in the last week that’s interesting. About five hundred plus mothers—there’s a group known as Mothers for Peace—signed a petition asking the president of Iran to stop this rhetoric, as it may lead to a war to United States, and they do not want that. This is unprecedented. We haven’t had this before. And also the parliament has had news on a specific bill that will be asking Iranians who are residing in diaspora, and particularly residing in the United States, to form a committee that would push for peace and some sort of a negotiation, an all-out negotiation between Iran and the U.S. So I think there are some within the Iranian hierarchy who see this move and this NIE report as a face-saving way for the United States to kind of try, maybe, and come to the table for further negotiations and discussions of future U.S.-Iran relations.
JAY: Well, the other major theme in Bush’s comments at the press conference is that the problem is President Ahmadinejad:
White House Press Conference
December 4, 2007
BUSH: What changed was the change of leadership in Iran. We had a diplomatic track going, and Ahmadinejad came along and took a different tone. And the Iranian people must understand that the tone and actions of their government are that which is isolating them. There is a better way forward to Iran.
So is there a kind of a bit of a coordinated effort here in various ways to try to isolate, get rid of, or bypass President Ahmadinejad?
YEKTAFAR: I think it is, but unfortunately to me, again, it’s the policy that I’ve seen from the White House that is in a way a sort of a knee-jerk reaction, because the U.S. has cornered itself due to the war in Iraq, policy in the Middle East and towards Iran. First of all, I think it’s a bit disingenuous of President Bush saying that the problems came when Ahmadinejad became the president, because the biggest problem, to me—and you hear that everywhere—is labeling Iran as one of the members of the Axis of Evil in a speech that was given to the Congress, the State of the Union, in 2002.
JAY: If one needs a reason to develop a nuclear weapons program, someone telling you they want to overthrow you and have regime change would be a pretty good reason.
YEKTAFAR: Exactly. And I think that’s the case. One of the main reasons that I think Iran actually went back and tried to restart a sort of a weaponization program was exactly this. They cooperated with the United States during the invasion of Afghanistan. They cooperated with the United States when the U.S. decided to invade Iraq—and this was after the Axis of Evil speech. And they saw that basically they weren’t getting anywhere with the United States, and now they are surrounded by U.S. troops. And they realize that the reason that countries like Pakistan or North Korea are immune from this kind of belligerent attitude is because they possess this nuclear capability. And they’re convinced that that’s the only way that they can deter a power like the United States or its allies from attacking it or overthrowing it. And the fact that after all of this President Bush still insists that the military option will not be off the table and it’s still going to be there says a lot about what the Iranian reaction might be. But, as I said, at least on the surface, I think what this report is going to do, it is going to weaken to a certain extent the hand of the more hawkish elements within the White House or those who advise the president.
JAY: Over and over again we hear this history of the Iranian-U.S. nuclear negotiations or non-negotiations, sometimes from Rice, sometimes from President Bush, and here’s their history—this is again from the press conference:
BUSH: You might remember the United States said at that point in time we’ll put the WTO on the table for consideration, or we’ll help you with the spare parts for your airplanes. It was all an attempt to take advantage of what we thought was a more open-minded Iranian regime at the time, a willingness of this regime to talk about a way forward. And then the Iranians had elections. And Ahmadinejad announced that to the IAEA that he was going to—this is after, by the way, the Iranians had suspended their enrichment program—he said, we’re going to stop the suspension. We’ll start up the program again.
Essentially, Bush is saying and Condoleezza Rice has said previously that prior to 2003 there were a sort of good-faith negotiations going on between the U.S. and Iran, and that without any good reason Iran broke them off and went back to enriching uranium. How accurate is this as the history?
YEKTAFAR: Not really. Up to 2003—and that is really a sort of a watershed year for a number of reasons and one of the biggest missed opportunities for the U.S. and Iran to engage and start a path that would lead to a more peaceful coexistence. That was actually the EU three—France, Britain, and Germany—who were negotiating with Iran. The only thing was that they supposedly had the blessing of the United States for this negotiation, and it was at that time that the offer about the fact that the U.S. will not oppose Iran’s joining WTO and other incentives came about. But when I talked to some of the diplomats, and some of them actually were involved directly in the negotiations, what they told me was this, that at the very end, during the 2003 negotiations, the one thing that Iran was interested in and wanted was a security guarantee. And so we said, well, we’ll give you that. And the Iranians said “No, not you. We’re not concerned about you. The United States, and through United States, Israel. Are we going to get that guarantee?” And that’s the one thing that the United States was not willing to offer Iran, the guarantee that they will not do anything to overthrow the regime, be it through covert operations or even overtly at some point. And that’s what really derailed the negotiations in 2003. U.S. was not directly involved in those negotiations, but the EU three had their blessing.
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