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photo of pickeringinterview Thomas Pickering

What would it take to open a dialogue, or some kind of constructive relationship, between Iran and the United States?

It's an interesting and important question, and I've thought a lot about it. I think probably tactically it would take a decision on the part of the Iranians to take that step. There has always been a kind of open invitation to take that step and agree to sit down and meet. But behind that, there are a lot more things, as you know. There are differences of view, sometimes fairly murky, in the Iranian government that pull and tug and stress the decision-making apparatus so it doesn't ever seem to be able to address that decision.

On the Iranian side -- and one tries to understand how the other side thinks as you deal with a problem like this, as I did over the last few years that I was in government -- the issue seems to be basically a couple of things: One, a lack of trust in the U.S., some of that coming out of historical experience. And you can understand some of the reasons why there is a lack of trust. [Second], some of it has to be "We need to get something in advance," which, on the U.S. side, seems more a negotiating ploy than it is a serious effort. And the third issue probably is what can we talk about, a feeling of some need for assurance. There's tremendous focus in Iran as it's come through to me -- and obviously, it's come through many filters to me -- in trying to, for example, have a general settlement of conflicting claims left over from the late 1970s period, ... a wish to kind of bring that to quick conclusion.

Thomas Pickering served as U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997 to 2001. He tells FRONTLINE that the United States has always left the door open for talks with Iran, and he emphasizes that the current administration appears to maintain that openness despite President Bush's inclusion of Iran in the "axis of evil." Pickering was interviewed by correspondent Linden MacIntyre on Feb. 21, 2002.

Why do you think this kind of opening up of relations is important?

... Iran is an old country with a great culture, a lot of cohesion, a role to play in the world, tremendous oil resources. [There's] a sense on the part of the United States that large elements in Iran want to reach out and a sense as well that there is a kind of long-standing, deep-seated sense of grievance and hate.

But in the history of the world, those kinds of things don't last forever, and diplomats tend to look for opportunities to improve things and change things when they aren't going very well. And Iran has followed a course with the Europeans and with others of trying to reopen relations. The "Great Satan" seems to be left for last, or left to last except for Israel.

And there's a sense on the part of the United States that, as it looks at Iran, it has a deep sense too of very serious problems -- the problem of Iranian support for terrorist organizations; the problem of Iranian opposition to the Middle East peace process and certainly to a peace process with Israel; and a deep sense of concern on the part of the United States about nuclear proliferation or weapons of mass destruction proliferation in Iran. Those are important problems, and those problems don't get solved by continued division. They don't get solved by not talking. They don't get solved by non-engagement. ...

It seemed as though after Sept. 11, the Iranians made some gestures. They were prepared to allow their country to be used as a transit point for humanitarian assistance. If Americans got stranded there, they were going to be helpful. How important an opening was this?

Well, I considered it an important step forward. In a world of no progress, any millimeter ahead can still look like a mile. So in the comparative terms of the past, it was, I think, something that we welcomed. I think it was officially welcomed by the United States, and it was taken as an opportunity. And some of that was developed further by taking the one forum in which we had met with Iranians, the U.N. "6 plus 2" exercise on Afghanistan, and having a meeting at the ministerial level. And Secretary Powell was able to shake the hand of Foreign Minister Kharrazi, which was a forward step beyond what Secretary Albright was able to do in her time. ...

On the other hand, now you have reports of more Revolutionary Guard in Herat. You have some sense that there is intervention going on in some parts of Afghanistan on the Iranian side. Those are worrying. I don't know that those are proven concerns, but nevertheless, they're worrying.

Some things seem to have slowed down and then, of course, you had the State of the Union message and what it had to say. It drew a line in the sand, so to speak, and I think quite rightly Secretary Powell made it very clear, almost immediately, that didn't mean that we were drawing a line against talks. Rather, I believe, he emphasized the sense that there was a greater need for talks on that particular set of things.

That's been the recent history in very, very brief compass, and I don't think it's left us anywhere. I think we still continue to be in a situation where the United States, at least -- contrary to a position it sometimes takes in these kinds of cases, where you have longstanding differences and there's a pile-up of preconditions -- has tried to eschew preconditions for conversations with Iran. And, I believe, successfully so. On the Iranian side, you don't have quite the ability to reciprocate. And I think that, as I alluded to earlier, there are internal differences in Iran. One can speculate about who's on top and who's winning and who's ready to do this.

Historically, the wrong elements in Iran have tended to benefit from the appearance of an external problem, an external enemy. And I wonder to what extent the line in the sand, whatever it was, may have created conditions in Iran for the conservative, reactionary [forces]. ... The ayatollahs have seized upon the phrase "axis of evil" and run with it for the goal line. Is that cause for some concern in the West? Or is this something that we're going to pass through?

Well, I think it will be something that we'll pass through. I think that, from time to time, it's worthwhile reminding people that there are serious problems. And sometimes that comes with a jolt; sometimes it's exploitable. But I think it's worthwhile reminding them. It is at the same time worthwhile reminding people that the door remains open to possibilities of talk.

Iranian support for terrorist organizations ... opposition to the Middle East peace process  ... nuclear proliferation. ... Those problems dont get solved by non-engagement. And I think often it's fascinating. I watched U.S.-China relations build, I watched relations between the United States and Russia build over a period of time. Sometimes a certain amount of frank, straightforward conversation -- despite the fact that one side or another may take advantage of it with its own public -- is useful to set the stage to keep things clear.

What happens on the main stage is one thing. But as you know from your career, the really important stuff is happening behind the curtain. And I'm wondering what's going on behind the curtain.

Well, I can tell you that, in my government experience, there was almost nothing going on behind the curtain that wasn't almost apparent in front of the curtain.

Well, if we're going by what's apparent in front of the curtain right now, it's not very encouraging.

I would say that my suspicion is that it's close to an empty set. Not very encouraging, no.

The Iranians are less forthcoming on weapons of mass destruction, but they make no bones about the fact that they are supporters of what they call "liberation movements" in Lebanon and Palestine. How serious a stumbling block is that?

I think that if they were purely supporters with information, in social assistance, or even economic aid, of liberation movements in Lebanon and Palestine, that would be one thing. And the European Union is a supporter the same way. So is the United States, in some ways. We provided a great deal of assistance to people living in the occupied territories in Israel. So that's not the problem. The problem has been the use of arms and force and terror. ...

If I were to speculate on that subject -- and I don't want it to be misunderstood, I don't speak for anybody in the government -- I would say basically they would have to take a pretty strong stand, publicly and privately, that they would not be the supporters of the armed folks, the encouragers, the directors of the armed folks, and help reduce the violence and be part of the process of helping the peace process move ahead, rather than the opposite. ...

How optimistic were you in the autumn of 2001 that [some kind of new relationship between the U.S. and Iran] may have become a possibility?

I was not, because I had followed closely from inside the government, until the beginning of 2001, the checkered nature of the relationship, and tended to be doubtful, even if hopeful, that much would happen.

What's it going to take?

It's always unfortunate to have to say, [but] probably more on the other side of the Persian Gulf than on the Western side of the world, because I think the United States has really worked hard to keep the door open. ... I think that there is something inherently mutually respectful about being able to talk without preconditions. The beginnings of mutual trust will begin when people are prepared to accept each other's word that the door is open, and that we're not imposing on you a price to begin talks, and we don't want to pay a price to begin talks. That's not in our common interest. The only price we want to pay is the cost of the air ticket to go and begin talking. ...

How does the United States approach this large and largely opaque issue of weapons of mass destruction? What are they really up to?

I think it's a tremendously important question, and you can chart the course over the last three or four decades. The general practice on the part of the United States and its friends and allies, and most of the states that have the capability to support proliferation, has been to carefully control trade, to use all kinds of political persuasion, at times to resort to sanctions when that has seemed necessary. India, Pakistan have been examples of that. And then to do everything they can through diplomatic channels to talk to countries about not continuing. That was quite successful in South Africa and I think in places like Brazil and Argentina, and maybe in Taiwan and Korea and other places. But it hasn't been successful everywhere, and so there's uncertainties about it.

Now you hear a lot of talk about Iraq, Saddam Hussein, possession of weapons of mass destruction. And, in fact, as you know, the Security Council, for a different purpose, authorized 11 years ago the use of force against Iraq. The use of force resolution has never been withdrawn, so I presume it remains in effect. Whether, in fact, states like the United States or others would move to the use of force to prevent proliferation is a more open question. But it's being widely talked about now.

That's implicit in a lot of the political rhetoric that we've heard from the United States recently, is it not?

I think it is, and I think that when states see a clear and present danger, that might be needed. As you know, the U.N. charter allows for self-defense in the face of an armed attack, obviously, and that condition hasn't been met, although the United States has felt that Sept. 11 certainly constituted that, and the Security Council agreed. So whether, in fact, there is a legal framework for this, there is certainly a growing political interest in it as a way of proceeding ahead -- obviously recognizing that there are critical times when states have to act to prevent greater dangers to themselves.

You seem to be saying that it's appropriate. It's implicit in the recent statements, and it's appropriate to draw the line in the sand and to take a firm position.

I think that states obviously have to consider long and carefully before using military force. But I think that, under some sets of circumstances where they feel there is a justifiable danger -- a linkage between terror and weapons of mass destruction is one of those -- then I think that that's something for careful consideration. I don't think that one can draw a chart and say, "Always go to war here; never go to war there." States have to make up their own minds. But I think, within the international framework, it would be a mistake for a country to rule out that possibility if it felt seriously threatened.

One has heard about jaws hitting the floor in the State Department, because it makes the diplomatic profession a little bit more difficult.

I don't think so. I think that there are rare occasions, and I have watched in the councils of government the lack of appetite for military involvement, and I think, in fact, that remains the case. I think that states need to have that option. But I think that you need, obviously, to try to exhaust diplomatic efforts before you take that option. Sometimes your willingness to consider that option is an assist to diplomatic efforts, as we've seen.

So we can feel a certain comfort that, notwithstanding the political sturm und drang, the diplomatic efforts continue?

I think so, particularly in light of the subject we've been talking about in Iran. But, in fact, I think that the secretary of state's recent statements on the subject are reaffirmation that they remain the primary theatre of operation and that he, certainly, as the president's chief foreign-policy advisor, wants to keep them moving.

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