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Tonight's program will feature on the U.S.-Iranian relations, our featured speaker is Reza Aslan, author of the book No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and future of Islam. Over the past two and a half decades, the United States has sought to contain Iran, and during this period the country's clerical regime has strengthened, it's continued its hold on political power and secular democracy does appear to be a distinct, a distant prospect. Tonight's discussion will focus on a question of whether it's time to take a new look at our policy toward Iran, whether we should look at engagement rather than containment to bring Iran out of its isolation with the hopes of reversing its nuclear, its possible nuclear weapons program. Reza Aslan is a research associate at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy. He is a Middle East commentator on National Public Radio's Marketplace, and he's a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion from Santa Clara, a Masters in theological studies from Harvard, a Masters in fine arts and fiction from the University of Iowa, and he is currently a doctoral candidate in the history of religions at UC Santa Barbara. He has written numerous publications, including, for numerous publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, Nation Magazine, and he's appeared on Meet the Press, Hardball, The Daily Show, The Tavis Smiley show, and Nightline. He was born in Iran, and he now lives in both Santa Monica and New Orleans, and we're going to find out how precisely he does that. Please welcome our guest. Thank you very much and thank you all for coming out here this evening. It's such a distinct pleasure to be back at the World Affairs Council of Northern California. I was here, I think, almost a year ago in April. This won't be as good as last time, I just wanted to... and I've been looking for an excuse to get back here, and I'm very very happy that Mary Anne contacted me and that I've got an opportunity to come back here and address you all once again. The topic this evening, a little bit different than what I talked about last time, We're gonna, I wanna talk to you a little bit about the future of U.S-Iran relations, of course this is something that I think is on a lot of our minds, and a lot of different ideas and opinions out there about what to do, and particularly with Iran's nuclear program and what appears at least as the radicalization, further radicalization of the Iranian government with regard to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and I'm certain that a topic like this is going to elicit a lot of questions and a lot of interesting comments, so what I'd like to do is make my opening remarks fairly brief, give you some things to think about, and then hopefully we'll be able to engage in a discussion about this topic. So I think it's important we begin by just laying something out on the table right away and that is that there can be very little doubt that the strategy of the United States over the last two and a half decades, twenty-six years now to sanction, isolate, and contain Iran as a means of bringing down the clerical regime has been, unquestionably, a miserable failure. As a...yes, that's a good way to start, is what's not working. As a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations has concluded, this strategy has not only strengthened the hand of the clerical regime, it's accelerated the country's weapons program and it's made the attainment of full democracy there, as Jane reminded us a few moments ago, a more distant prospect. Why? Well, Iran has, so far, managed to use its trade relations, its burgeoning trade relations with Russia, China, and India to offset most, certainly not all but most of the economic disadvantages that would normally result from U.S. sanctions. And Iran of course is not alone in starting to look East rather than West for its trade partners, that is taking place, I think not just the Middle East, but even throughout Africa, throughout central Asia and that, I think, is a very worrying sign for those of us who are part of this part of the world. And Iran has used its virtual isolation from the international community, this imposed isolation to ward off really any serious consequences for its continuing human rights violations. I mean the question is, how much further can we just continue to isolate Iran in hopes that it will change its policy on human rights? And finally, Iran has taken advantage of its containment in what is unquestionably an unstable and volatile region to foster the clerical regime's paranoia against both external and internal threats, and to justify its, not just its repression of the opposition in Iran, but also its pursuit of nuclear technology. So not only has the last twenty-five years of U.S. policy with regard to Iran completely failed to change the country or bring down the clerical regime or make Iran more democratic, it has done the exact opposite, so that the clerical regime is now stronger stronger than it has been in more than a decade. The democratic opposition and the reform movement is weaker, and perhaps even dead and buried, and the economy is on the verge of collapse. Now I want to stop for a second here, and focus on this last part because I think it's very important, this issue about the economy in Iran. It needs to be emphasized because the fact is that while U.S. sanctions have failed to completely destroy Iran's economy, it has nevertheless created a situation in which nearly a third of the population is unemployed, and official figures put that at 40 percent. 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and, when you have an annual rate of inflation of 24 percent. Indeed it is Iran's crumbling economy, I think perhaps more than the mass arrests of the political repression that should be blamed for the Iranians' widespread disenchantment with the reform movement. Most of us know that the reform movement, while a very robust and vibrant movement throughout the late nineties, has really collapsed in many ways. And I also think that we should recognize that it is the economy that more than anything else explains the stunning and unexpected victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Again, this is, I think, something that is important to recognize because although there is much talk about Ahmadinejad becoming president because of widespread fraud or because reform minders, reform-minded voters decided to boycott the election, of these did play small roles, the fact of the matter is that this man became president because most Iranians, and particularly younger voters in major urban centers like Tehran, who should have been the natural constituency for the reform movement, for the reform candidates saw Ahmadinejad as the only candidate willing to talk about what nearly everyone in Iran, of class, piety, or political affiliation, is most concerned about, and that is mass unemployment, high inflation, soaring housing prices. And so while Rafsanjani and the other half-dozen or so presidential candidates stumbled over each other during the elections with promises of social reform and reproachment with the West, all those things that political analysts both inside of Iran and outside of Iran, including myself, thought were going to be the dominant issues in the presidential election... while this was going on, Ahmadinejad promised simply to stop corruption in the government, distribute aid to the outlying provinces, to promote health care, to raise the minimum wage, and to help the young with home and business loans. In other words, he had a one-issue platform: The economy, the economy, the economy. He spoke about nothing else. And considering the fact that he had never really run for office before, he was a complete unknown in many ways, this was a message that really rang loudly in almost every sector of Iranian society. So it made all the talk of head scarves and pop music from the frontrunners, Ahmadinejad's message had enormous appeal, not just for Iran's poor, which certainly did flock to him, but also for the country's youth, many of whom were attracted to Rafsanjani's promises of reform, Rafsanjani of course was in most of our minds the frontrunner for the presidential elections, but who ultimately decided to vote for their pocketbooks, for Ahmadinejad, and many of whom, I think, woke up the next day in quite surprise that this man actually became president because in many ways a vote for Ahmadinejad was more than anything else, a vote against Rafsanjani, against the establishment, if you will. Most of you know who Rafsanjani is, but just in case I think it's important to understand that this man is not just a cleric, and Ahmadinejad is a simple peasant, essentially, but the most powerful man in Iran, the head of all the real sources of power in that country, and the richest man in Iran, in fact, Forbes has placed his personal wealth at one billion dollars, and let me tell you something: you do not raise a billion dollars in a country like Iran ethically or legally. So the reason I wanted to stop and talk about the economy for a moment, I think it's important to recognize the, in many ways, awkward as it might sound, the United States must share the responsibility, not only for Ahmadinejad's victory, and the collapse of the reform movement, but more importantly it must share the responsibility for the current wretched state of affairs in Iran. All right, so back to what we were talking about. So if it is true that the last 25 years of U.S. policy to sanction, isolate, and contain Iran has been a miserable failure, what should it now do to promote democratic change in the country? Now I say this, knowing that we're not gonna do anything, we're just gonna continue the status quo, but let's assume someone in the government is scratching their heads and thinking, "Hm. Twenty-five years of failure, maybe we better try something else." Well, a number of different options have been discussed, and we've been hearing a lot about these options in the Press. The first one and the one that I think is the most troubling in many ways is this question of targeted military strikes. Now this is something that has been on the table for a long time but is being resurrected because of Iran's nuclear program. According to this view, shared by much of the Pentagon and particularly by Vice-President Cheney, the U.S. could target and bomb specific nuclear sites as a pre-emptive move. This would be a very difficult thing to do, it would require a lot of bombs, because, of course, Iran has learned a lesson from the attacks on the Iraqi nuclear facilities and has managed to dig its nuclear facilities deep, deep underground. Nonetheless, we do have the capabilities to reach them, and if not destroy them, seriously, seriously cripple them The thought is that these attacks will not only deter Iran's nuclear program, at least postpone Iran's nuclear program, but they will also demonstrate the weakness of the clerical regime, it'll loosen their tenuous hold on government, and it will encourage Iranians to rise up and overthrow them in a moment of weakness. Yeah. Yeah. Do I need to continue on this one? It's like a joke you all know the punch line to, right? I mean there are obviously a number of reasons why this is such an absurd point of view, not only because Iranian nationalism is something that is difficult to explain to non-Iranians. Iranians are not Iraqis, their country was not created by an outside force. This isn't a fabricated state. It's not a fabricated nationalism. In fact, if anything, Iranians have an exaggerated sense of nationalism, almost comically so, that reaches back two and a half millenia. And if there is one thing that Iranians have always rallied to, it's times of national crises, and I think the Iran-Iraq war is a perfect example of this because of course that war was launched by Iraq within less than a year after the end of the Shah's regime and the Iranian revolution and the formation of the Islamic Republic. It was launched at a time in which the Islamic Republic was just beginning to define itself, and essentially put an end to that self-definition and rally the Iranian people to the strong man in this case, and at that point the strong man was the Ayatollah Khomeini, and really created the situation in Iranian politics now where all of the power, including the power over the military, is in the hands of the clerical regime. That occurred because of this, you know, this war on Iran, and that exact same thing would happen again. And of course, as we all know, in times of national crises, there is no more room for debate, or dialogue, or dissent, or opposition. And that would be devastating to the opposition movement in Iran, it would put an end to that discussion altogether. But more importantly, I mean let's just pretend that we have the troops to invade Iran... more importantly we have to understand that Iran, especially over the last three or four years since the war on Iraq has become a far more powerful force in the region, and I don't mean militarily. I mean, the Iranian military does not have a chance against either the American military or the Israeli military, and Iran knows that. And because of that, it has done a marvelous job of making sure that its proxies are in, really ah, are in a situation geographically speaking, to make sure that there is no kind of pre-emptive attack either by the Americans or by the Israelis. Iran of course, has enormous influence over Hamas, and even some influence over Islamic Jihad and it would loosen those forces upon Israel in a devastating way. It has enormous influence over Hezbollah as well, and Hezbollah would take any attack on Iran, and they have made this very clear, as a, they would use that as a means, as an opportunity to attack Israel. More importantly, however, as we hear increasingly from the Pentagon, there are a lot of Iranians in Iraq and they have an enormous amount of influence in that country, both for good and for bad, I think that's important to understand. Yes, groups, militias like the Sauder (sp?) militia are being funded by Iran, being supported by Iran, and that could be bad for us because it adds to some of the destabilization in that country. That said, Iran has actually done quite a good job of maintaining some kind of support and stability in southern Iraq, in the heavily Shi'a Iraq. An attack on Iran would be for them, an excuse to essentially 'unleash their dogs' upon the American forces. That would be the end of Iraq, any hope for any kind of stability in Iraq, the United States knows this. And really, truly, honestly, any foreign policy analyst, even in this administration knows clearly, in their heart of hearts, the military option is not an option. And when you hear that it is an option, it's really just an attempt to ensure that Iran knows that we're willing to back up our threats with military means, though we're not. The second option that's been talked about a lot is this idea of continuing to provide material support for opposition groups outside of Iran. In fact, Condoleezza Rice I think announced not two weeks ago a new program to give 50 million dollars to pro-democracy forces, not inside of Iran, of course, that wouldn't work, but outside of Iran. Again let's, for a moment, stop and ignore for the moment what a paltry sum 50 million dollars is and the fact that it's really... it couldn't do anything at all, it's just a token move by this administration. The more important question is, "Who does this money go to? What. Who do we support? Who are these pro-democracy forces outside of Iran, and what is it that they're doing?" There is, of course, a very large, very powerful, very wealthy Iranian immigrant community in this country, and they have been fighting for decades to create change in Iran, but of course a lot of that has been in conflict with one another. There are different groups, there are Pahlavists, or monarchists who somehow still believe that the Pahlavi regime, the monarchy, will be reinstated somehow. There are communist groups, there are social democrats, there are secularists. And these groups really have very little in common with each other, there's no real unity amongst these groups. There is this idea that perhaps we can continue this propaganda, the Voice of America, the satellite stations in Iran and Los Angeles in Westwood and Beverly Hills, what we refer to as 'Tehrangeles', and most of you, if you have an Iranian friend, you've seen these programs. They're very popular, there's about six satellite stations, again, competing with one another, they've been 24 hours of news and entertainment to Iranians and they're incredibly popular in Iran, I mean there are hundreds of thousands of viewers in Iran, perhaps millions of viewers in Iran in Tehran and Shiraz and Islaham, the large cities, but also in the smaller villages. Now of course satellite dishes are illegal in Iran, but that doesn't, you know, lots of things are illegal in Iran... doesn't seem to matter. Every once in a while the authorities do come by, they make a sweep, they collect satellite dishes, they find their owners, but those satellite dishes make their way back almost immediately, mostly because they're sold back to their owners by the people who confiscated them. Now these satellite stations, I think, are doing a wonderful service in a sense that they're providing Iranians with quality Persian-language entertainment, which is very difficult to come by in Iran and for that they should be praised. But it's not exactly clear what their political agenda is and even if that agenda is very helpful. I think a perfect example of this is what happened in the parliamentary elections four years ago, in which these satellite stations launched a boycott of those elections. And yes, they were unfair elections for a number of reasons but these satellite stations launched a very effective boycott that showed how powerful they actually are, because Iranians were told in no uncertain terms by most of these stations that if they stayed home and did not vote in these elections, the democracy in Iran would be seen as what it is, a sham, and the international community would not stand for it and that it would illegitimate, in other words, de-legitimate, I should say, the Iranian government. So most Iranians stayed home, did not vote, and of course the conservatives swept into power in the Parliament and nothing happened, of course, nothing ever does. Another group of course are these dissident groups, these dissident opposition groups, and there's many of them, the most popular and the most powerful is a group by the name of the National Council of Iranian Resistance. Now of course, the NCIR is really the friendly face for the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq. Some of you know who these people are, the MEK, an organization, a Marxist organization that has been on the terrorist watch list in both the United States and the European Union for years, because of their attacks on American forces in the seventies and also because when they fled from Iran after the revolution, they fled because they were Marxist, they were being targeted by the clerical regime, they fled into Iraq. They were given sanction by Saddam Hussein, who used them not only during the horrific eight-year war against Iran, but when that war was over, used them as his primary militia to massacre not just the Shi'a in the south during the uprising, but also the Kurds in the north. Now, interestingly enough, this must be the only terrorist organization in the world to have its offices next to the treasury department, and an open door to some of the most powerful voices in both the Senate and the Executive Office. For instance, the former Attorney General, John Ashcroft, a senator from Kansas, Sam Brownback, a number of congressmen, they make a very large amount of donations to members of both parties and so they have in many ways the ear of this administration, again, from this idea that our enemies' enemies are our friend. Well, in this case, unfortunately that is not the case, because not only is this a terrorist organization, it is also a fanatical religious cult. In fact, is a cult of personality based in Paris but also, until recently, in Iraq, that is centered on absolute devotion to its husband-and-wife leaders, Maryam and Massoud Rajavi. Now, like most cults, of course, it's incredibly difficult to break through the veil of secrecy that shrouds the MEK, but based on the research of a wonderful professor, Erwand Brahamian, who's written extensively on the group, and the testimony of former members that have been given to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, there has been a very clear and horrifying history of terrorist activity, mass murder, human rights abuses in this group. The members who have criticized the Rajavis or their organization have been detained against their will. Some have committed suicide to escape, those who refuse to be rehabilitated used to be forced to make videotaped confessions of their disloyalty, then hand it over to Saddam Hussein as Iranian spies to be tortured. Now, again, so we're talking about a terrorist, religious... a fanatic terrorist religious cult with its offices next to the treasury department being... it really flooded with money in order to pursue its goals, and the reason for that is because they have been actually responsible for a great deal of the intelligence that we have gotten about Iran and about their nuclear program. A lot of this intelligence has turned out to be true, a lot of it has turned out to be false. And the problem is that by using the MEK in the same way that we used the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi in the Iraqi National Congress, you know, this idea that we have this organization that is unquestionably tainted by its own personal interests, we really risk falling into the exact same trap that we fell into in Iraq. So if neither of these options are feasible, then what to do? I think that it's time for a new approach to Iran, one that replaces America's failed sanctions policy, with a package of security guarantees and economic incentives in exchange not just for international monitoring of Iran's civilian nuclear program but also for international cooperation with Iran's civilian nuclear program. In other words, the exact same package that we are offering to North Korea, a country that is a hermit kingdom run by a megalomaniac who actually has nuclear weapons and who has threatened to use them on a number of occasions. Now, unlike North Korea of course, Iran is a technologically savvy and highly sophisticated country. It boasts a literacy rate, amongst men and women that approaches nearly 90 percent. The vast majority of Iranians, I think, the current estimate is 70 to 75 percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 30. The vast majority of them are not just fiercely pro-American; in fact, I would say that this Iran is probably the most pro-... Unquestionably the most pro-American population in the Middle East, probably the most pro-American in the Muslim world, and very likely the most pro-American population in the world. I can't think of a European country that is more pro-American than the Iranians are. And more importantly, the majority of Iranians would like nothing more than to put an end to the clerical regime. It's very difficult, again, to express to you the hatred and the loathing and the anger the Iranians have for the clerical regime. I was in Tehran for eight weeks recently; I did not once, not once see a cleric on the street. Not once. And I asked someone about this. I asked my cab driver about it, and he said, "Are you kidding me? They don't dare show their face in this city. I mean, we would run them over if we saw them on the streets." The problem of course is, again, in a country in which nearly a third of the population is unemployed, and which has a 24 percent annual rate of inflation, and which 40 percent live under the poverty line, most Iranians are just frankly too concerned with trying to make a living, working two, three jobs at a time, to consider rising en masse against the government. And again, as we all know, it is... Revolutions happen essentially by the middle class and it's the middle class that decides whether a revolution succeeds or not. That's precisely why the 1979 revolution worked is because it captured the imagination of the bazaar merchants, the middle class. Iran really doesn't have a middle class anymore, if by middle class we mean a leisure class. The middle class in Iran works three, four jobs a day in order to make ends meet. And it's precisely for this reason, by the way, that the clerical regime continues to just balk at the threat of more economic sanctions, because they know that the longer Iran remains isolated from the rest of the world, particularly economically, isolated the longer they will remain in power. That is, of course, how tyrants hold on to power, is, you isolate your population. So there is another way, I think, around not just the current nuclear impasse, but around this lack of reconciliation and this ideological breakdown between the United States and Iran, but it begins with the United States putting aside its ideological reservation and confronting Iran the way it confronted the Soviet Union, the way it confronted China, the way it is now currently confronting North Korea, and that is with an aggressive policy of interdependent trade relations in the hope that rapid economic growth will foster democratic change. Now when I talk about this, this idea in foreign policy circles is often referred to as, 'the China model' because it's precisely the path that we took, the policy that we took with China. And it is one that people often criticize because they say, "Well yes, it's true that we took this policy toward China, and China is a freer country for it, et cetera, but it's certainly not a democracy. There are certainly a lot of problems with regard to religious rights in China, and certainly freedom of the press, and in many ways China has managed to essentially ignore any kind of real pressure for political change by emphasizing the country's economic development." Well that's all true, but I think it's really difficult to argue with the fact that China today is a far cry from the China of ten or twenty years ago. Even more importantly, unlike China, again, unlike North Korea, Iran is built upon a representative constitutional framework, I mean, albeit one that has been hijacked by the clerical oligarchy, and again, unlike China, has in place the democratic institutions necessary for dramatic sociopolitical change. But the problem is that these institutions can only exert themselves if Iran is forced, I mean literally forced, out of its political and economic isolation. If recent history has proved anything, I think, it is that usually, some sort of representative government, plus some sort of free-market economy equals some sort of national stability and success. Now how would this work, with regard to, of course, to Iran's nuclear objectives? The truth is, Iran probably does not want nuclear weapons but it certainly wants the opportunity to develop them fairly quickly if need be, and why not? It's learned the lesson of its fellow Axis of Evil members. One of them didn't have nuclear weapons, and it's occupied by American forces. The other one did have nuclear weapons and it's being fed, money is being thrown at it, and nations around the world are begging it to come to the negotiating table. Iran does feel threatened, I mean, it is literally surrounded by American troops. It does have an arsenal of nuclear weapons pointed at them from Israel, and I think for that reason, it has been, at least over the last eighteen years or so, doing a lot to lie, and cheat, and steal in order to hide the size of their nuclear program, though again, the uncomfortable fact of the matter is that thus far, it has yet to do anything illegal. Thus far, it has yet to actually violate the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which gives all member states the right to develop civilian nuclear weapons, I'm sorry, civilian nuclear power, in return for the promise they will not develop nuclear weapons. So the problem is there's just simply no way that Iran can be legitimately referred to the U.N. Security Council as violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. There really is not any strong legal case against Iran unless the smoking gun suddenly appears, and of course the IAEA just completed a very long, very thorough examination of Iran's nuclear program, and while it did say that it cannot rule out the possibility that Iran does have some sort of subversive weapons program, the fact of the matter is that the investigation and the facts on the ground have not proven that there is anything like that. Again, this doesn't mean that they don't have one, but unfortunately, according to the international law, they have yet to actually do anything wrong. Now, that's a problem with the law. Okay, first of all, that's a problem with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, that you can lie and cheat your way around it for eighteen years, and you get to actually break it. I mean, that's another issue that we should really think about, but the thing is, is that even if Washington could figure out a way to get a majority vote in favor of sanctions, there are a number of countries that would be very upset by this, not to mention India, because of its trade relations, but also Brazil, South Korea, countries that. whose nuclear program, civilian nuclear program, is actually, in many ways, more advanced than Iran's civilian nuclear program and the idea that if you can under the rules of the treaty that you can continue to do what you're doing until the U.S. decides that you can't, I think would be a threat to other states, who aren't looking for nuclear weapons but are certainly, you know, have a civilian program. So, what to do? I'm just going to end it here, I've spoken for about twenty-five minutes, and so I wanna make sure there's plenty of time for questions. I think it's important to understand that at a certain point, we need to start treating Iran the way that we would treat any other nation. Stop thinking of the clerical regime as somehow irrational animals responsible for all the evil in the world, and treat them like the heads of a state. And like all heads of state, their primary agenda is to secure their own economic and national interests. We just need to get over that. Sometimes those interests don't match our interests, but in order to actually do something not just about Iran's nuclear program which cannot be stopped, I think this is an important thing to bear in mind. There is nothing that anyone can do to stop Iran's processing of uranium for civilian nuclear energy. Nothing is going to s