Richard Murphy, Senior Fellow for the Middle East, Council on Foreign Relations
Eric Rouleau, former Ambassador-at-large, France
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JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground. In this edition of Common Ground,
U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. Is it time for a change from the stated policy of dual
containment of Iran and Iraq?
RICHARD MURPHY: So the dual containment policy which started life as frankly a slogan,
became something approaching reality as we gradually hardened our policy towards Iran.
MARTIN: Iraq and Iran are both seen as states which are hostile to U.S. interests. But
here too, experts who come at the issues from different perspectives say that especially in
Iran, where there is a new, more moderate leader, steps should be taken to relax U.S. policy.
ERIC ROULEAU: Without going to the point of saying that he is the Iranian Gorbachev,
because of course the situation is so different in Iran than in the Soviet Union, it is
something like that.
MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.
The United States has vital interests in the Persian Gulf. The region has massive oil
reserves and it is ever so close to Israel. It also has two nations, Iran and Iraq, which
have bristled with hostility toward the United States. For most of the Clinton administration,
the U.S. has pursued a policy of dual containment against the two countries. But this last
spring three influential foreign policy experts, former National Security Advisors Brent
Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, along with former Assistant Secretary of State for Near
East Affairs Richard Murphy, published an article in the journal Foreign Affairs in
which they suggested a change of course. I spoke with Murphy about conclusions they reached
in the article, including the central premise that dual containment is no longer viable.
MURPHY: The basic problem is that the policy was supposed to be a short-term, of
short-term application. As far as Iraq went there was a lot of wishful thinking. There’s no
other word for it. Right after Desert Storm, after the war, the assumption was that Saddam
Hussein, faced with an extraordinary set of sanctions, a total military humiliation on the
battlefield, would either step aside or be pushed aside by his own, presumably by his own
military. Well, here we are 6½ years later and it hasn’t happened. We were, as far as Iran
went, at odds with the state, and there’s been a lot of mutual hostility, been in that
relationship ever since the humiliation Americans felt when Iran seized our embassy back at
the time of the Revolution in 1979. But we did not see it in the ’80s and into the ’90s as a
case identical to Iraq. It was a very different country. It does pose a challenge. But it’s
a much more complex set of challenges than that of Iraq. So the dual containment policy,
which started life as frankly a slogan, became something approaching reality as we gradually
hardened our policy towards Iran and tried to put it under the same type of sanctions,
restrictions, embargoes, that we got the world to agree with us to do vis-à-vis Iraq.
MARTIN: Now, let’s take Iraq. There are still international sanctions in place against
Iraq. And you’re not proposing that those be lifted, but you are proposing maybe just a slight
shift in policy relating to sanctions?
MURPHY: Well, we believe that frankly, until Saddam goes there really cannot be a basic
change, nor should there be, in American or global policy towards Iraq. He has proven himself
untrustworthy, extraordinarily clever at hiding programs, which first of all he said never
existed, on his weapons of mass destruction, and then concealed them quite successfully for a
prolonged period from the United Nations monitors. So there is simply no trust in him as a,
as a leader. And he is the leader. And as long as he stays he has amassed extraordinary
power into his own hands. So there is no, we made no recommendation for a total overhaul or
lifting of the sanctions on Iraq. We said there is one goal we must keep in mind, which is to
maintain the international unity that was achieved in ’90-’91, to the maximum possible degree.
Keep to coalition together. And to achieve that goal, to secure that goal, it may be necessary,
perhaps for humanitarian purposes, to have further relaxations or ability of Iraq to sell oil
in exchange for food and medicine, such as the United Nations resolution allowed in Resolution
986. In order to keep the military straightjacket, as we put it, on, to keep Iraq from
developing its military capabilities any further, and certainly for keep it out of developments
in the weapons of mass destruction, be they chemical, biological or nuclear, to keep a very
tight military set of restrictions on Iraq.
MARTIN: Iran, according to Murphy, presents a more complex situation however. U.S.
relations with Iran have been sour since the 1979 revolution and subsequent seizure of American
hostages. In recent years the U.S. has accused Iran of supporting international terrorism,
seeking the acquisition of nuclear weapons and actively trying to undermine the Arab-Israeli
peace process. But Murphy notes that Iran is not a country that is dominated by a single problematic
leader the way Saddam Hussein dominates Iraq. And in the Foreign Affairs article, he
and his co-authors argued for a more nuanced approach.
MURPHY: Well, that’s right. When the article came out, just as a footnote to history,
it was published just about two weeks before the decision in the German court over the so-called
Mykonos case, the name of a restaurant in which a German investigating judge established that
Iranian agents had been guilty of assassinating Iranian Kurdish dissidents in this German
restaurant called Mykonos. And so when the article was published urging a more subtle,
nuanced approach on the part of the American government towards Iran, there was a quick
reaction, Well, you’ve really shot yourself in the foot with that. Iran has just been
convicted internationally, first of all by the Germans, who did a very thorough investigation,
and they established a trail of evidence leading back to high political authorities in Iran.
Including it seems, at least one of the Cabinet. Well, then about 3 weeks after that the
Iranian elections took place and this extraordinary even happened, with the man who was assumed
to be a loser. Certainly not the favorite of the top authorities in the regime, swept the
field. And won some 69-70 percent of the popular vote. So our call for a more nuanced
approach, which certainly did not, was not based on the assumption that there would be a
change in political direction in Iran, got a more sympathetic hearing. It’s just, that’s some
of the funny by-play that happened once that article was published and people starting
reacting to it.
But the challenge that Iran puts to us is not the short-term military challenge that Saddam
did in 1990 and that he tried to repeat in 1994. And to some extent still has a capability of
putting a number of divisions in the field against Kuwait. It would be suicidal for him to do
so, but the whole war in the beginning was a folly. So we don’t rule, we should not rule out
a continuing need to confront a short-term military threat to the region from Iraq.
Iran does not pose a direct military threat to its neighbors. It does not have the, what I
think the military calls a lift capability, to transport its forces across the Gulf. It shows
no sign of trying to directly move against the, our Arab Gulf state friends in Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, Bahrain, the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. But, we have three complaints
about Iran. And they are serious complaints. One is support for international terrorism; a
second is support for violent opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process; and third, above
all, and for us most serious of all, is what we see, or have seen as its search to acquire a
nuclear weapons capability. Now of those three, the third is, from American national interests
and the region’s security, the most grave. But the isolation which we have tried to impose on
Iran has not been achieved. We do not have international support for it. And the absence of
any dialogue between Washington and Tehran, which is not all because Americans have had trouble
talking to Iranians; Iranians have had trouble talking to Americans. And I preface everything
I would recommend about shifts in American policy on the assumption that the Iranians
themselves are ready for a change. Having said that, there’s no evidence that our containment
of Iran has affected whatever programs they have in terrorism or nuclear capabilities, or
certainly affected its rhetorical opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process. I suggest
that in the latter, in the last case, the opposition to Arab-Israeli peace in no small measure
Iranian hostility to Israel may be influenced by its recognition that Israel is such a close
friend of the United States and the progress in the peace process means so much to the United
States. One way to jab at America is to constantly announce its opposition to the state of
Israel. Now, on all three charges—it has denied, Iran has denied at the top levels, all
three charges by America—it has said “We do not support international terror—we don’t support
any terrorism, we don’t have a nuclear weapons goal, and we don’t agree with the direction of
the peace process but we do not support violent opposition to it.” Now, you can accept that,
you can not accept that, but the fact is our not talking to Iran about it has only perpetuated
this set of problems. And so the more nuanced approach would be to see if there might be some
common ground that our present approach has not permitted.
MARTIN: U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf is our topic in this edition of Common
Ground. In a moment we will continue with a stronger view of the need for change.
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It should be noted that there is a pretty sharp difference of opinion between government
leaders in the United States and Europe over Persian Gulf policy. In general the U.S.
advocates a strong military approach to the region, while Europeans argue for a heavier
emphasis on political methods of dealing with what both sides agree are problem countries.
The European view is typified by Eric Rouleau, a former Ambassador-at-large from France and a
former long-time Middle East correspondent for the French newspaper Le Monde. Rouleau
is much more certain than Richard Murphy that things in Iran have really changed.
ERIC ROULEAU: As I said, I’m not a skeptic. I think that real radical changes are, can
be programmed. It can be expected in Iran. Although the election of Mr. Khatami to the
presidential seat is itself a kind of revolution. Since he got the vote of two-thirds of the
population. I mean no president in the world would get as many votes. It was a free election.
Especially that we know that he was especially supported by the young people which represent
more than half the population, which haven’t been through the revolution and have very
different ideas from the people who rule them. Plus women by the way, Islamic women, who I
have met some of the leaders of the Islamic movement in Iran, and I discovered they were very
militant, very feminist, much more than our women in the West are in general. Now all these
people are behind him. Also the radical left within the society is in favor of him. I mean,
it’s a very heterogeneous coalition, but it’s a very interesting one. Because all these
people are in fact expressing one wish: change. And I think change for the better because Mr.
Khatami made it very clear all through his election campaign and even before, because we knew
him from before—he was publishing articles, he was making speeches, and you know, I was
following what he was saying, although he was unimportant—and he hasn’t changed. He is for
full freedoms of civil society—I am quoting him—for civil society. He is the only cleric
who uses the words “civil society.” He is for full freedom, defense of human rights, and as
it was said this morning, something which is unique in Iran, he spoke over and over again
about the rule of law. Which is something in the Middle East is unknown. What is the rule
of law? I mean we know all about it, but….
He also said many things about the West which people have overlooked. For example, he said,
Those in this country who hate the West or adore the West are both wrong. The West has a lot
of qualities and has a lot of negative aspects and what we should do is get closer to the West
to get what they have to give us, which is positive. Amongst other things technology and
economic progress and we can reject what we think is negative. Why should we love the West
or hate the West? Which is I think a very, sort of balanced way of looking at things. He
also spoke of international détente many, several times. He says Iran should live in
friendly relations. Last but not least he has changed his Minister of Intelligence who as you
know was considered as a, as kind of a chief terrorist. He was extremely powerful within the
state and nobody expected him to be fired. And he fired him. And he named, as it was pointed
out, named a man who is, doesn’t come from the intelligence community, who is considered being
a liberal. And a few days ago Khatami went to the Intelligence Ministry and speaking to the
staff he said, “You should forget being the fist of Iran, you should become the light of
Iran.” Which is, already gives also a signal to the West that he doesn’t want any terrorist
actions abroad. He wants intelligence to do its work as intelligence and not as terrorist
gangs abroad. I mean we have many signs which indicate that the man and people who support
him really want a change. Which I think we should, we should welcome. Even though it doesn’t
open immediate negotiations with the United States because this is another subject. But I
think without going to the point of saying that he is the Iranian Gorbachev, because of course
the situation is so different in Iran than in the Soviet Union, it is something like that.
And unfortunately in the United States it took years for the administration to recognize that
Gorbachev was going to really change. And I hope that the United States will understand early
enough that change is in the air in Iran.
MARTIN: Let me shift to Iraq momentarily then. It’s not likely that the U.S. is going
to go along with lifting sanctions, but how sustainable is that policy on an international
ROULEAU: Well, for a Frenchman, for a European, this is not sustainable for many
reasons. American policy towards Iraq was understandable at the time when people thought,
including Europeans, that he would be overthrown in a very short period. Seven years have
gone by and today all experts on Iraq, whether European or American, believe that he might
stay over ten years in Iraq. As a matter of fact I’ve known this country for many, many years,
and my recent visits to Iraq indicated to me that the sanctions have strengthened Mr. Saddam
Hussein’s grip on the population. Because he tells them, and they believe it of course, that
they are besieged by Western powers who want to inflict hunger and sufferings upon the Iraqi
people. Because there is one point which people maybe underestimate, is that sanctions have
punished, very severely, the population, but not at all Mr. Saddam Hussein and his friends in
power. They are living in luxurious conditions. I mean, I’ve seen some of the Minister’s,
members of government. They are really living in a very, very luxurious situation. They get
all the food they want. They get all the clothes. One minister was clothed in Italian-cut
suits and shoes. I mean apparently everything is open to them. But the population is starving.
And I don’t have to go into the details but here, just look at United Nations figures. The
rate of mortality amongst the children is extremely high. A whole generation is being
destroyed. The economy of Iraq is destroyed. I mean, they will need, I don’t know, two,
three decades before they can reach the level of what they used to be before the Gulf War.
Now this is something inhuman about it, because we are destroying a country and a people, not
destroying the regime. And we are still being told that this regime might stay for another
So this is why I said at the beginning of this interview, that Europeans, and the French in
particular, have a political perspective. We are trying to find ways and means to solve the
problem in a lesser evil manner. Nobody has a good answer to the question. We say, we can’t
go on like that. Last, but not least, the United States doesn’t seem to want to respect its
word, its commitments. There is nothing in the United Nations resolution which says that
sanctions will be lifted only if Saddam Hussein goes away. As a matter of fact its contrary
to the Charter. You don’t go around overthrowing foreign governments even if they are
terribly bad. Or else there will be no rule of law in the world. I think the United States
should give the example. I mean, we, Western democracy should give the example of respecting
our commitments. Now if we don’t like what’s in the resolutions we can change them, but we can’t
come out as the American government is doing, come out openly and say, “We are not lifting
the last sanction before Saddam Hussein is overthrown.” Although there is nothing legal
about that statement. I think this is, this is terrible for our credibility and for
MARTIN: Finally, let me ask you about the Arab-Israeli conflict. And I guess in most
general terms I’d be interested in your thoughts on whether or not the peace process that was
started at Oslo basically, whether it’s, whether it can be sustained, whether it can be
ROULEAU: I think it’s easier to answer the question now than a few months ago when
Mr. Netanyahu came to power. Because at that time some people, it wasn’t my case, some
people thought that, well, he’s going to be pragmatic and he’s going to go along with this
peace process. Well, now things are clear. I mean I don’t have to explain at length that
Mr. Netanyahu in fact killed the Oslo agreements. I mean we can consider the Oslo agreements
as dead. He killed them, because he said it very openly, I mean there’s no secret about it.
He said he would not go back, give back the Golan Heights to the Syrians. Okay. So why
negotiate with the Syrians? He said that he would not have any Palestinian State even if the
Palestinians want it, on any conditions. He is building settlements all over the place which
is clearly against all the international laws which we have voted. Again, we come back to
the Western powers. He is fact violating every single—it’s a long story. I mean I can go
into details. He is violating every single international commitment towards the peace process,
whether it’s Oslo or the Madrid policy, whatever. And therefore the question is not what
Netanhyahu will do, but what the United States will do. Because if the United States wants
to be a serious mediator—I say serious, I insist on the word—if the United States seriously
wants peace between Israel and the Arabs, surely the United States should stand up and say
that this cannot go on like that. And that somebody is violating the laws and some sanctions,
even should be taken into consideration. But we are attempting just the opposite. The
American administration, for reasons you know better than I do, are going along with
Netanhyahu, by and large.
MARTIN: Changing U.S. policy toward this region of the world is not simply a matter of
listening to experts. Policy toward Israel is heavily influenced by domestic politics. But
so is policy toward Iran and Iraq. In fact Congress and the President have engaged in some
competition to see who could be the toughest. I asked Richard Murphy, who is currently the
Senior Fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, to comment on the
domestic political aspect of U.S. Persian Gulf policy.
MURPHY: Well, some of this is built into our own system. At the moment, or we have
left behind us the old philosophy of Senator Vandenberg that foreign policy formulations or
criticisms should stop at the border. And that it wasn’t, that it really was the president’s
responsibility to lead and to articulate foreign policy with the advice and consent, of
course, of the Senate. And the House has always had its authority, House of Representatives
in its control of budget. But the rivalries between the White House and the Congress have
sharpened over the years. And today, with the Democrats in charge of the White House and the
Republicans in charge of Congress, foreign policy is another arena of contention for, at
times, domestic purposes which need not necessarily relate to the substance, the worth of the
issue in foreign policy. It’s, it’s a reflection of the tensions between the White House and
Now what can be done about that? I think you have to take the charges, we’ve been talking
about Iran, you take the charges we’ve laid at Iran’s door, we have to find a way to
demonstrate that those charges are valid and we’re going to do something about it. Or that
they’re not valid and we can have a different approach and a different relationship. But the
unfortunate thing is that in the contentious, given the contentiousness between the Congress
and the Executive, there now are laws such as the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which have sought
to limit the flexibility of the President, to limit if not to eliminate his, his ability to
decide what is in the American national interest. And it’s not going to be easy to affect
the present difficult relationship between Tehran and Washington, from our side. Again, I
remind that there’s got to be a willingness for some alteration in Tehran towards Washington.
So perhaps quietly, whether it’s done through diplomatic channels, between our two governments,
perhaps through Track II diplomacies such as the Israelis and Palestinians used to great
advantage at Oslo four years ago, we should find a way to discuss what each of us could do in
terms of sending the other a signal of our seriousness, the seriousness of our desire for a
better relationship, a more normal relationship. And I visualize, let’s call it a package,
that we might take a step and Iran would be taking a step. Which, neither of which would be
large enough and unsettling enough to our respective publics as to set off fire alarms that
we’re abandoning principle, etc. But a serious enough signal that, yes, it looks like the
other party is interested in improving ties.
MARTIN: My guests in this edition of Common Ground have been Richard Murphy,
Senior Fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Eric Rouleau, former
Ambassador-at-large for France, and a long-time Middle East correspondent for Le Monde.
For Common Ground, I’m Jeff Martin.
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