Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 9646
November 12, 1996


Anthony Cordesman, Senior Fellow,
Center for Strategic and International Studies

Richard Cottam, Professor Emeritus,
University of Pittsburgh

Phebe Marr, Senior Fellow,
National Defense University

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

ANTHONY CORDESMAN, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and International Studies: The
very nature of the situation is that the U.S., to deter him successfully, virtually has to
overreact to Saddam to get the forces there in place if he threatens the south. That leads to a
cycle of sort of challenge and response and Saddam sometimes does well with it and sometimes does

KEITH PORTER, producer: Today on Common Ground, the future of U.S. policy toward
Iran and Iraq.

RICHARD COTTAM, Professor Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh: We’re paying a big price in
terms of relations with close friends in Europe and in the Middle East and in Asia, that Iran is
not isolated from these people. She has good diplomatic relations with most of them. Almost no
one agrees with our policy and this is beginning to hurt us in terms of how people view us, in
terms of our leadership. I think the price is big enough now that we’re ready to think in terms
of some change, even though there are pressures, especially from Israel, that we not change.

PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter. As Bill Clinton won the right
to serve as President for another four years, he also won the dubious honor of dealing with Iran
and Iraq for another four years. From the hostages in Tehran and the Persian Gulf war to the
ongoing problem of Kurdish rights and the alleged support for international terrorism, these
countries have provided the United States with some of the biggest foreign policy headaches of
the last 20 years.

Today on Common Ground we hear from three experts in this area: Anthony Cordesman, Senior
Fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Richard Cottam, Professor
Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh; and Phebe Marr, a Senior Fellow with the National
Defense University. Current U.S. policy toward Iran and Iraq is called “dual containment.”
Anthony Cordesman explains.

CORDESMAN: Originally the idea was that we would not attempt to use either Iran or Iraq
as the means of achieving a balance of power in the Gulf. That although we would treat the
nations differently, we would contain both in terms of their regional ambitions, their support of
military movements and their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. I think it has become
harder and harder with time to define exactly what we mean by dual containment. For some people
it has become a harder and harder line for both countries, almost to the point of attempting to
isolate them both economically and militarily.

PORTER: Phebe Marr?

PHEBE MARR, Senior Fellow, National Defense University: Yes, I think it’s a slogan, it’s
not a very popular one and I think it has acquired a great deal of opprobrium in the region. I
would go back to what Tony says. In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war and Iraq’s invasion of
Kuwait, it seemed to policy makers in Washington that the idea that we could keep a balance
between Iran and Iraq which was essentially our unspoken policy during the Iran-Iraq war had
failed. Because at the end of it Iraq was so powerful it was able to invade Kuwait. And basically
this policy indicates that we are not going to tilt to Iraq to balance Iran or tilt to Iran to
balance Iraq, while two regimes are in power that seem to be relatively inimical to our
interests. So the only way in which to maintain a balance in the Gulf is for the United States to
be there with some kind of a military presence to deter these two regimes ourselves. So dual
containment is kind of a catchy phrase that summarizes it, but I agree with Tony that it doesn’t
really explain much more than this very simple idea to balance the power, that you’ve got to deal
with both countries as single entities and they’re very different and we may need different
policies toward both.

PORTER: Richard Cottam, is it a slogan, a catchy phrase, or more than that?

COTTAM: It’s no more than that. It started out I think with the administration thinking
that it would actually have a policy that would be dual containment and that that would evolve
over time, and that they were really going to be doing something different. But in fact, I think
they did just exactly what Phebe just said.

PORTER: Anthony Cordesman, is U.S. policy changing the behavior of Iraq and/or Iran?

CORDESMAN: Well it would be certainly a change in some areas. You can’t deny Iraq its oil
exports, any military imports, create a situation where there is a UN special commission
constantly monitoring their efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and conduct no-fly
zones and not impact in terms of the policy. Has it changed regime yet? Obviously not. In the
case of Iran, I think the United States has certainly had a marginal influence in limiting their
ability to attract outside investment. We obviously haven’t done anything to reduce their oil
export levels which have gone on regardless of the sanctions. We probably have had some impact,
although not a decisive one on their acquisition of arms and weapons of mass destruction. Again
have we done anything basically to influence or change the regime or in many aspects, its support
of terrorism or its position in the Gulf, then it’s far from clear we have done that.

PORTER: Richard Cottam, have we changed behavior?

COTTAM: As far as Iran is concerned, I think we’ve changed the behavior very little. It
was premised on an assumption that Iran was instigating, was initiating, was orchestrating
efforts to subvert largely Islamic governments around the world and that it was therefore the
fount of a really revolutionary subversive movement. And I think that the problem with that
thesis is that we haven’t seen the evidence that would support that it ever existed. So I don’t
think that you can claim that we stopped it. But that is why it was applied. Containing Iran was
containing Iran as the subversive force. And I think from the point of view of their subversion
they haven’t been doing much lately, but I think that’s not exactly what we had in mind.

PORTER: Phebe Marr, you appeared to have a reaction?

MARR: My own personal view of Saddam is that he’s irredeemable in the sense that over the
long term he’s probably not going to change his behavior. He will make tactical changes. What
we’re gone get from him is tactical compliance, but strategic defiance. That is to say if some of
these constraints were lifted, I believe that he’d go back if he could to the same behavior. But
you can always compel people—you can deter them. I prefer to use the term deterrents rather than
containment. If your force is there, if there is likely to be some serious you know, retribution
if you do something, then at least for the time being you can stop it. Whether you’re making a
long term change in Saddam’s behavior so that he’s really changed his mind and if you withdrew
your forces you would get a more compliant Saddam, I think is not likely.

I’m a little more circumspect about Iran. It’s not quite clear the extent to which they have
changed their behavior. I’m a lot more skeptical about Iranian behavior than Dick is. I think
there has been support of the people who in the region want to undermine regimes which tend to be
friendly to us. They certainly have been against the peace process rhetorically; how much they’ve
done in actual fact to undermine it is another question and this policy is designed to compel
them to think about choosing between guns and butter and raising the cost of this policy. I think
it’s an open question, the extent to which it’s actually changed behavior.

PORTER: All right. Anthony Cordesman, our friends and allies around the world who are
working counter to our policies to Iraq and Iran. Does that bother you?

CORDESMAN: Well oddly enough, no not at all. I think it’s an irony but if you really
wanted to have the idea policy, one way to do it might be to have the United States play the
tough cop and allow your allies to maintain the dialogue and go on and slowly deal with the
economic changes, the expansion of oil production, restoration of oil, that I think sooner or
later you have to do. That isn’t a deliberate act or choice on our part, but I don’t see the
differences between us and our allies as striking as I suspect many do.

But my background in NATO and in Asia is such that in general one does not have a coalition based
on identity of interest. And within the southern Gulf, I think a lot of the differences are often
exaggerated. A lot of them stem back to the issue of the Kurds and the United States concern with
the Kurds is, I believe, fundamentally different from that of Turkey, which has different
strategic interests in the area and fundamentally different from that of the Arabs, who are
concerned largely with the Arab identity of Iraq and could care less about the ethnic future of
the Kurds.

PORTER: All right. Richard Cottam?

COTTAM: From the point of view of Iran, I would say that the only government that really
thoroughly agrees with our policy toward Iran is Israel. And that as far as the rest are
concerned, they have to one degree of another taken actions or policies that are really
subversive of the intent of our policy. Since I think our policy was one that was ill-advised,
that doesn’t bother me if what it has allowed is for Iran to do better economically than they
would have without such help.

PORTER: Phebe Marr, any comments on our allies?

MARR: Yes. I think there’s some kind of an idea floating around there that we had this
massive coalition during Desert Storm. We did, to fight the war; but that somehow it’s
homogeneous and it’s going to last. That’s a fallacy because in fact I think that the coalition
is issue-oriented. It will agree with us and come together on certain issues. For example,
weapons of mass destruction. For example, should Saddam mobilize on the border of Kuwait once
again, you’d find a lot of coalescence in the coalition. As Tony mentioned, on the Kurdish issue
there is simply no agreement, and that’s one of the reasons why we didn’t get much support. And
incidentally there isn’t an awful lot of support on getting rid of Saddam.

We have the overwhelming responsibility and in fact the access and resources, on security. And
much of our policy is driven toward security. Certainly we trade with this area, oil is
important, but oil and trade is much more important in this area to our European allies who do
have the military presence. So it’s perhaps not surprising that they put more emphasis on trade,
which is much more important to them rather than security. There perhaps needs to be more of a
balance in these roles.

PORTER: Okay. I have another question about Iraq, and I’ll start with Phebe Marr. Iraq is
being pressured from all sides, from the two by the U.S., by Iran, by Turkey on the other side.
Is there a chance that Iraq will break up? Are we planning for this? Do we think that this is
going to happen?

MARR: We are certainly not planning for it and officially, I think unofficially we do not
want it to happen. We have said that maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq is important.
Sometimes there are unintended consequences of policy, however certainly our policy in the north
has led to what I would consider a power vacuum up there. Not an independent Kurdistan because
that takes Kurds who are capable of putting an independent government together and that’s clearly
not the case. If our policy goes on too long, you can get an erosion of the central government.
It’s certainly conceivable that Iraq could break up not, I want to add, into three parts—Kurds,
?? in the center and Shiite, but you could have an erosion of the central government that
couldn’t maintain control. My own view, however, is that we’re not anywhere near that stage yet.
The center still is in control of most of the country, and in fact in short order it may be in
control of more of the north and Saddam is rather unfortunately still in control of the center.

PORTER: Anthony Cordesman? Any breakup in the future?

CORDESMAN: No, I would absolutely agree with Phebe. I think the Shiite rebellion to the
extent that it existed, and it’s important to know that it was a relatively small fraction of
Shiites, has been ruthlessly suppressed. For anything to come back it would have to come back
spontaneously in the face of overwhelming military superiority. In the case of the Kurds, I think
what Phebe has said is completely accurate, plus the problem of breaking up is a lot more
difficult for the Kurds than it might appear. Because unless they can drive the government out of
a significant oil area in northern Iraq, which they have no capability to do, there’s no way that
the Kurds can ever have an economically viable enclave and they will be not only isolated from
Iraq, but they will fact hostility from a Turkey which is fighting its own Kurds and in Iran
which has fought a four year civil war against its own minorities and is not about to be dragged
back into the problem.

PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground about U.S. policy toward
Iran and Iraq. Our guests are Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International
and International Studies, Richard Cottam from the University of Pittsburgh, and Phebe Marr from
the National Defense University. Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are
available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is service of the
Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of
programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

Anthony Cordesman, I think a lot of people in the American public, even where I live I know our
Air National Guard units have been sent in support of the no-fly zones. I think a lot of people
want to know how long this will last. Do you have any idea how long America will be militarily
involved in Iraq?

CORDESMAN: Well I think the problem is we are involved in a conflict of attrition and the
only logical point—I think Phebe hinted at this earlier—that puts an end to this attrition is
that Saddam falls. And it’s not clear that there are any tools in place that drive him out of
power. The very nature of the situation is that the U.S., to deter him successfully, virtually
has to overreact to Saddam to get the forces there in place if he threatens the south. That leads
to a cycle of sort of challenge and response and Saddam sometimes does well with it and sometimes
does badly. No when does this all end? Unfortunately it’s a little like the Cold War. We would
all love to have instant solutions, particularly ones which result in moderate democratic regimes
and all the other values we’d like to see, but the fact we want instant solutions doesn’t mean
they’re possible and when you deal with a strategic problem like this you learn to live with it.

PORTER: Phebe Marr, any comments on that?

MARR: No, I mean this is an issue we talk about all the time in Washington. Certainly
access to oil at reasonable prices is sufficiently important to us that we’ve declared it’s if
vital interest. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t different ways to protect it. As long as
Saddam is there, as long as he continues to challenge, and that seems to be part of his nature,
it seems to me that some kind of deterrent policy is going to be there which means some kind of a
presence in, at, or near the Gulf. However, I would say that flexibility in the size and the
presence, the nature of the presence, how you deter him, I don’t imagine that this policy as we
currently see it today, is going to maintain itself in perpetuity. And in fact we’ve already seen
some changes in some of the things that we’ve done with respect to the present.

PORTER: Richard Cottam, I’ll switch to a different question for you, this on Iran. We get
so little coverage in the American press at least of what’s going on in Iran, but there is this
feeling that there has been some kind of change at least, and perhaps even in the way that Iran
engages the rest of the world. Has there been a change and can you describe it?

COTTAM: Yes, there’s been an enormous change in Iran. What you’ve gotten is a steady
trend away from anything that you could describe as Messianic drive to expand. You don’t see that
in the newspapers, you don’t see anyone calling for this, you don’t see it from government
officials. The notion that Iran would like to carry Islam elsewhere is now reduced to Iran’s
wanting to be something of the intellectual father of an Islamic movement, the lead Islamic
nation, as they see it, and therefore they have moved so that they want to cooperate with much of
the rest of the world. I would argue that their primary foreign policy objective now is to
situate themselves well economically in the region and in the global economic system. And that
requires a behavior that the rest of the world appreciates and I think that from this point of
view, they’re getting it from them.

PORTER: Okay. Anthony Cordesman? Any change in Iran?

CORDESMAN: I think I have a somewhat less sort of favorable view of Iran than Dick does.
I don’t believe that this is a Messianic regime anymore. Revolutions grow old and people go back
to the realities of life and this is particularly true when you fight an eight year long war with
Iraq and you lose it and you are then followed by a desperate economic crisis. I don’t find the
regime to be at all desirable. I think we have seen some positive signs over the years, but
recently things have grown worse, not better. Maybe it’ll change again. Revolutions are very
unstable structures and they can move in both directions. But I don’t think this is a demon. I
don’t think it has vast complex operations going on in the Islamic world that really threaten the
Islamic world except where nations are themselves very weak, unable to govern and failing to meet
their people’s expectations and then they are at most a catalyst.

I think they are seeking weapons of mass destruction; that is a threat. Of course they too are
threatened. They have to deal with the fact some day Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are very
likely to come back on line. They are seeking to get leverage in the Gulf. They are acquiring ??
missiles, mines, submarines, building up a presence there. It is potentially threatening, but
there are no clear signs that this is an urgent crisis or can challenge American power. So let me
say that it has gone from a revolutionary to a more nationalistic, hostile but not openly
aggressive, regime.

PORTER: Phebe Marr?

MARR: Yeah, I think I would agree with that last comment in particular. The revolution is
dying out, what we’re seeing is the weak recrudescence of traditional Iranian nationalism. The
regime in many respects is split, not simply between hard liners and soft liners, it’s more
complex than that. But one of the problems I think we face in dealing with Iran is we never know
which Iran we’re speaking to. It’s very difficult for them to take a consistent policy and move
ahead on it. They are re-arming, they do tend to sometimes attempt to meddle in if not help
destabilize some of the neighboring regimes. I, too, think there’s a certain amount of
defensiveness in all of that. I’m… let’s put it this way, I’m more skeptical than Dick, I’m a
little wary of Iran, they’re going to have to sort of prove to me that their conduct is
improving. But I don’t see it as quite the threat I think that a lot of other people do. I’m just
waiting to see.

PORTER: Richard Cottam, any reaction to what you’ve heard here?

COTTAM: Yes, I disagree with Phebe quite strongly on this. I don’t think that it’s two
groups. I don’t like the regime, let me quickly say, at all, but I don’t think the regime looks
like what Washington thinks it looks like or the official policy thinks it looks like. But what
you’re getting instead of two groups is you have a… the next president will probably be a very
conservative Islamic figure who will I think be noninnovative, very unlikely to move Iran very
far and not have interests at all. But in terms of Iran’s prosperity, I don’t seem much coming
from him for this either. There is a faction that sees itself as much more progressive. In fact,
it calls itself Socialist. It will win some more seats in the Parliament, not in the next
election which is presidential, but soon. And this group I think would follow a little bit more
forward of foreign policy for Iran than the other. And the supreme leader of the country is
closer to them.

PORTER: Is there a generational split in Iran?

COTTAM: You mean…

PORTER: …sort of a post-revolution generation coming along?

PORTER: Well actually one of the most important things about understanding modern Iran is
that this is a generation-long revolution now. You have an enormously larger population and you
have a whole new class, whole new group of young people with no memory even of the Shah. And what
this is producing is a regime that’s resembling a lot of mass politics, but has not been
stimulated or excited by its leadership. The active and enthusiastic support for the regime is
very small, very small.

PORTER: All right. I’ll come around this way, I’ll start with Mr. Cordesman for one final
question. It seems that the conventional wisdom for so long was that the U.S. and Iran were on a
collision course, an inevitable collision course. Do you think we’re on an inevitable collision

CORDESMAN: Well if you keep talking about it enough I suppose it can become a
self-propelling prophecy, but there’s an interesting incident, just a week ago, where an Iranian
gunboat hit an American combat ship and they sort of both looked at each other and sailed away.
I think that we have lived with hostile regimes and hostile states with a reasonable moderate
structure of deterrents for most of our history in one way or another and with a little
intelligence, we’ll do it again ’til one of us changes.

PORTER: Richard Cottam, are we on a collision course?

COTTAM: No, I don’t think we are. The main reason I don’t think we are is that we’re
paying a big price in terms of relations with close friends in Europe and in the Middle East and
in Asia. That Iran is not isolated from these people, she has good diplomatic relations with most
of them. Almost no one agrees with our policy and this is beginning to hurt us in terms of how
people view us, in terms of our leadership and I think that the price is big enough now that
we’re ready to think in terms of some change even though there are pressures, especially from
Israel, that we not change.

PORTER: And Phebe Marr, I’ll give you the final word.

MARR: No, I don’t think we are either and I don’t expect us to get up at any time in the
future and announce formally a change, but actually currents in Washington do nudge us in one
direction or another. I think I sense perhaps a window of opportunity to begin to move a little
in a different direction in Washington. I’m not sure about that but I wouldn’t rule out what Dick
is saying. I would like to say that any kind of collision we’re going to get with Iran—we have
to consider that Iran is very weak. Weak states do not forcibly aggress against a superpower like
the United States. What we’re likely to face if at all, may be elements of terrorism or
insurgency. I’m not saying that Iran is or isn’t engaged in this. While this is unpleasant we can
live with it. So a major collision seems very unlikely to me.

PORTER: That is Phebe Marr, Senior Fellow with the National Defense University. Our other
guests have been Anthony Cordesman, Senior Fellow with the Center for Strategic and International
Studies and Richard Cottam, Professor Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. For Common
, I’m Keith Porter.

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