Last week, the United States and Iran signed a long-awaited deal on the latter’s nuclear programme. The agreement will set limits on the Iranian nuclear programme, including a strict inspection regime, and massive reductions to the uranium stockpile for the next 15 years. In exchange for this Iran will be freed from the economic sanctions imposed against it. This deal raises new hopes and fears around the world. It also raises many questions, so we decided to contact Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson on the subject.
Lawrence Wilkerson was Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff in the second Bush administration. He was also Associate Director of the State Department’s policy planning staff under Ambassador Richard Haass. Prior to this Wilkerson served for over 30 years in the US armed forces. He is also a veteran of the Vietnam war. During the First Gulf War he worked closely with General Colin Powell in the first Bush administration. Today Lawrence Wilkerson teaches at the College of William & Mary on Government and Public Policy.
White: By some observers at least the nuclear deal has been welcomed as a break with the tensions of the recent past. Does this new deal represent a bold shift in US-Iranian relations?
Wilkerson: It has the potential to be so. There is no guarantee that it will shift relations dramatically—particularly if certain members of Congress continue to try to foul the deal. But if the basic requirements of the deal are adhered to by both sides, over time some trust will return to the relationship. At the same time, if other overlapping and even common interests, such as the defeat of ISIS and a political solution to the Syrian civil war, are achieved by common effort, the relationship could prosper and evolve more positively. Moreover, if an improved Iranian economy causes more democracy in Iran, that too could help the relationship become fuller and warmer. It is long overdue for the U.S. to mellow its support for dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and to develop a more nuanced and balanced approach to the Persian Gulf region. An improving US-Iran relationship could be a big part of such a change.
White: In many ways the Obama years resemble an extension of the second Bush term. This deal may be an exception. Why do you think the Obama administration has pursued this deal?
Wilkerson: Primarily for the same reason that it pursued better relations with Cuba: the time is long past for talking to potential enemies rather than attacking them, overtly in war or covertly in secret CIA operations. But specifically with regard to Iran, there is no answer to several huge challenges in the Persian Gulf region and in southwest Asia in general without Iran. Iraq, Syria, nor Afghanistan will find any stability without Iran’s assistance. Likewise, the situation of Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt will be problematic without ultimate Iranian acquiescence. At the end of the day, Israel’s security cannot be reasonably guaranteed either without tacit Iranian buy-in. Washington understood all these realities when Iran was the US proxy in the region, under the Shah from 1953 to 1979. Nothing has changed since then with regard to Iran’s power in the region; so, to ignore this reality today is truly unwise.
White: In 2010 Turkey and Brazil tried to broker a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme and the US government vetoed it. Does the new deal suit the US because of the strict inspection regime?
Wilkerson: That potential deal in 2010 was a good one and Washington was unwise to turn it down. Doing so delayed a good deal for five years. But now that we have a good deal, we should pursue it with vigor. The current deal allows the most intrusive inspection regime in the history of the NPT. Frankly, I am surprised that Iran is allowing so much. Cheating on any deal is possible, of course; but cheating within the parameters of this deal will be very difficult—and, more importantly, I have every confidence that we would detect such cheating in time to take appropriate action.
White: We’ve seen the Republicans come out in vocal opposition. Likewise, there have been signs of conservative scepticism within Iran. To what extent do you think the new deal is threatened by right-wing forces on both sides?
Wilkerson: I believe the Republicans in particular but some Democrats as well—Democrats who get a great deal of their political funding from Jewish Americans—will try to derail the deal. I feel the President has the votes to veto any adverse legislation or resolutions by the Republican congress and not have his veto overridden. But such moves would weaken the deal by showing less than solid support for it. I am hoping that the national interest—which is well-served by this deal—will override political gain with enough members of Congress to keep this from happening, but I am not certain my hope is going to be fulfilled. From my position as chief of staff to Secretary of State Powell in 2002, I saw how the Congress sabotaged the deal with north Korea, the so-called Agreed Framework. I know they can do it again. I just hope they don’t. I will be working to ensure that, as much as possible, the American people don’t let them do it. As for the Iranians, there are certainly groups that harbor people opposed to the deal as well—groups such as the IRGC, the al-Quds Force, and certain radical mullahs around the Ayatollah. But Ayatollah Khamenei has given President Rouhani the lead on this deal and if the economic picture is to be improved, he must continue to do so. I believe that is sufficient incentive for him to keep these oppositional elements in check.
White: The Israeli government and the Saudi royal family seem to be united in opposition to the nuclear deal. Does the split in the US political class represent a clash over regional interests?
Wilkerson: I’m not sure how the two thoughts in your question are related—except to interpret the question as meaning, do regional splits produce U.S. political splits? Not as much as some pundits try to insinuate. Most of the opposition to the deal—from my party, the Republicans—is simply political opportunism. My party has both houses of Congress and is salivating over the White House in 2016—or, rather, was. With Trump taking the early lead in the polls and with this very successful deal with Iran, my party has been set back a bit. So, its opposition to the deal has more politics in its fabric than substantive security concerns. They want the President to look bad and will do almost anything to achieve that purpose. That said, yes, the fact that this strange alliance between Tel Aviv and Riyadh has developed and that the Gulf Cooperation Council is buying billions of dollars of LockheedMartin’s BMD, and that Iran is on the “other side of this equation”, does cause political line-ups here in the US. So you have Republicans lined up supporting dictators with oil, Israel doing the same, and arguably the most democratic country in southwest Asia, Iran, being cast as their common enemy. Politics does make for strange bedfellows….
White: The US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter remarked that the “military option” remains on the table. What did you make of this remark?
Wilkerson: Just what he said. If the deal falls apart—specifically, if Iran cheats, breaks out and heads for a nuclear weapon—the military option is not foreclosed. Frankly, I believe saying it outright is stupid; but then this administration has not been the brightest bulb on the block when it comes to its rhetoric.
White: As a longstanding ally of Assad in Syria, as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran has been demonised by the West. Yet Iran stands as the only state with an interest in actively combating Islamic State. How valuable would Iran be as an ally?
Wilkerson: I think “ally”, formal or informal, is a step too far at the present moment—even though, as I said, Iran was our formal ally for over a quarter century. Gaining Iran’s assistance in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in ending the brutal war in Syria, with the defeat of ISIS, and with a number of other problematic situations in the region, would be a real plus, and not just for the US but, more importantly, for this very troubled region. As I said before, these situations will not be managed in a positive way without some assistance from Tehran. It’s that basic. The reality of this US-Iran deal may be more vital in this respect than in its more immediate nuclear aspect.
This interview was conducted in July 2015.