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3/17/2006 Television Panel Discussion
Voice of America - Inter American Forum
The 2006 US National Security Strategy and Iran

Transcript (Translated from Spanish):

Adriana Amat, Voice of America: President Bush this week released an order to renew sanctions that prevent US corporations from doing business with Iran.  This will extend for one more year the sanctions put in place by president Bill Clinton in 1995. Also, the administration on Thursday said that Iran could be the greatest security threat to the United States, given suspicions that Iran is secretly developing nuclear arms.

With us to analyze these issues, we have with us Grant Smith, from the Institute for Research: Middle Eastern Policy, and also the author of the book "Deadly Dogma" that has just hit the market.

I want to first ask you about the National Security Strategy (NSS) just issued by the United States.

Grant Smith IRmep: I read it through last night, it is a document that any who are interested in Iran better read with care. As you've said, it mentioned this threat as the principle threat to the US. It also says that the defense strategy for the United Sates is going to look for channels to the Iranian people, while at the same time blocking and confronting the Iranian government. It is much clearer that any other declaration, that there is a very serious confrontation looming.

I think that it is also important to realize that Stephen Hadley, who presented the document yesterday, is involved in a very important way.  He is one of a group that has communicated over the years about the supposed need for the US to consider its own use of nuclear weapons to counter this type of threat, with "mini-nukes" against underground targets. The National Security Strategy is a very important document for people who want to learn more about the crisis, which is arriving a high point next Monday at the United Nations, and where it is headed.

What we know about the UN Security Council that is going to meet on March 20, 2006, has two member countries that are not completely on the US side in this matter. China, has many energy needs, and Russia, which has a lot of commercial interests in Iran. What we are going to see on Monday is whether these countries really see the threat as "global" or whether there won't be any agreement in the UN.

Pedro Rodriquez, ABC of Spain: The document (NSS) is also guide for multilateralism, it backs up diplomacy between the US and friends, and alliances, and lends itself to a diplomatic solution in the matter.

Grant Smith, IRmep: Yes. But always with the possibility for unilateral action. Acting alone, it is necessary. It has a lot of interesting elements, and one can see that there are some "lessons learned" from the experience in Iraq that are present in the new National Security Strategy, that, by law has to be updated every four years.

Pedro Rodriquez ABC of Spain: But the document defends the use of "preemptive war", in spite of Iraq.

Grant Smith, IRmep: That's right, it says that "preemptive war" won't be the first step, or a solution to all of the US's problems, but it does say that it continues as a way to face that type of threat.

I think that's very interesting, because Barbara Slavin, a journalist with USA Today,   interviewed Iranian President Ahmedinijad, and he had a vision that was almost apocalyptic, in a fusion of nationalism, the desire for a nuclear program, within a larger background of igniting, or re-igniting, the Iranian Revolution of 1979. We know that there is a large population with a western orientation in Iran, that very much likes the United States. But on the other side we have a nucleus, around Ahmedinijad, that includes various other leaders, that has a unified view about the need for nuclear development.

Adriana Amat VOA: But look, if they're going to follow these parameters of preventative war, intelligence plays a very important role.

Grant Smith IRmep: Yes, it is mentioned that intelligence is very important, and that clearly there were "problems" with intelligence with respect to Iraq. There is a recognition in the National Security Strategy that they are never going to have perfect intelligence. But the document is also clear that if there is a great deal of uncertainty, that the very uncertainty becomes a threat as well....

Carlos Chirinos BBC of London: But in the case of Iran, the document is very clear that
they're going to try to "capture hearts and minds" while they fight with the Iranian government. Surely Iranians are going to feel the fight against their government is a threat by a foreign force. Is it realistic to believe that the US can do this?

Grant Smith, IRmep: The NSS says that in various parts of the world it is going to establish some centers, for the development of "effective democracy". "Effective democracy" is repeated through all parts of the document. The idea is to have more diffusion of ideas through radio and internet and television, and some centers to have direct linkages with the people.

Pedro Rodriquez ABC Spain: And it is changing the budget of the US State Department.

Grant Smith, IRmep: Clearly, they are redirecting just about all of the foreign aid budget toward these administration goals. So they want to have a very clear idea if they are achieving the goals with "diplomacy and dollars", and it is a fundamental shift.

Carlos Chirinos BBC of London: How are they going to work effectively with the people of Iran when the US can't be there directly? Won't there be difficulties in achieving that?

The other part of the question for me would be, how exactly can the US justify the position it takes in this confrontation with Iran when two weeks ago, it was dealing with another country, that is not in the Non Proliferation Treaty? Here in Washington, it is considered by many to be a joke..

Grant Smith, IRmep: If you are looking for equilibrium and balance in these matters, I think what is most clear in the National Security Strategy is that the words "international" and "law" are never found together in this document. It is totally based in the ideas of who is a "friend" of the administration and who is moving toward "effective democracy", and who isn't. So nobody who raises these fairness issues is going to receive a hearing at the State Department or from this administration. These comparisons between different countries that India has a program, and Iran should too, that's just not going to gather any type of audience.

But something positive I'd like to mention is interesting. Since 1980, there haven't been any direct diplomatic relations between the US and Iran. Condoleeza Rice just authorized Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador in Iraq, to talk about Iraq matters with Iranian diplomats.  So while there is a cloud of confrontation and immanent collision, there is also an opening of backdoors.

Adriana Amat, VOA: How do you interpret this dialog? Can it be effective if it is only about Iraq? And how much influence does Iran have over the Shiite community?

Grant Smith, IRmep: I think all analysts would agree that Iran has a huge influence. If Iran is helping the US in Iraq, things could go better, if Iran doesn't, it'll be much worse.

But to back up a bit. The flow of foreign correspondents, and western analysts to Iran has not been stopped, there is an ongoing dialogue there. I think that may be a small beginning, restricted but positive, that while there is a war of words, the possibility that US diplomats and others might open new communication channels, maybe even informally, and directly with Iran.

Carlos Chirinos BBC of London: Many are saying that with Iran, the US is following the same script that it started with Iraq. Do you think that's the way it's going?

Grant Smith: That's a very interesting question. There are many more analysts who today don't believe Iraq was such a big threat to the US. It is even in the National Security Strategy which admits to so-called "intelligence failures".

But let's be realistic, with the language of the leader of Iran, and the apparent desire for nuclear weapons, many believe there is a threat.

Adriana Amat, VOA: Well, everyone is clear that it's a great thing that Saddam Hussein is no longer in Iraq. But what a horror it is, what's happening to the Iraqi people....

Grant Smith, IRmep: Yes.

Adriana Amat, VOA: If it comes to that in Iran, is there any possibility of the US taking out Ahmadinejad, without injuring the population?

Grant Smith, IRmep: There is a population of 70 million Iranians. It is a much more powerful, formidable country than Iraq. The thinking in the National Security Strategy and its authors isn't that there's going to be a big land invasion of some sort, or actions to "take out" the leadership, but rather when a certain point is reached, and the year 2010 is approaching, which the CIA says is the date Iran could have nuclear arms, that there might be an air attack. But I haven't heard the first advocate of a massive ground invasion, or "regime change" from that type of military force...

Pedro Rodriquez ABC of Spain: In this edition of the US National Security Strategy, there's very little mention made of Latin America. Cuba appears...

Grant Smith: ...and Venezuela...

Pedro Rodriquez: ...precisely, there is a very "fond" mention of Venezuela in the document.

Grant Smith, IRmep: Yes, and you're joking about "fond" .. I think it is part of, and I'm certainly  not here as an advocate of this administration's strategy...

Pedro Rodriquez ABC Spain: It says that Venezuela is a force for destabilizing the region, that Hugo Chavez is buying influence...

Grant Smith, IRmep: Yes. That's the opinion. Look, we can see that this is a very political document. Here in the US, those who won the elections, get to embed their ideology in the National Security Strategy. Chavez is considered, by many in the Bush administration, to be some type of threat.

I think it is a relief that the document does not include a bunch of specific military strategies and tactics to confront him. If the administration launches more institutions to reinforce regional democracy, and if they're actually credible, with nice budgets, who knows, maybe they'll produce some productive outcome.

Carlos Chirinos BBC of London: What is the concept or definition of democracy put forward in the National Security Strategy?

Grant Smith: This National Security Strategy is very conscious of the fact that Hamas won the Palestinian elections. So this version is now talking about democracy representing the people, that those who feel marginalized who could be terrorists, or turn to violence to meet their objectives, in an "effective democracy" according to the document, these marginalized people are going to seek participation in the government as a channel for grievances, rather than force of arms.

The idea of democracy in this National Security Strategy also includes more metrics to evaluate whether a democracy really does have representation, institutions that are transparent, that aren't corrupt, so there are more measurements to evaluate a democracy.

I think all of those qualifiers are in there because sometimes a government is elected, through a fair process, that the administration just doesn't like.

Jose Carreno El Universal Mexico: In what capacity is the Bush administration able to carry forward its mantra, made several years ago, that "you're either with me, or against me", now that we can see the first results of Afghanistan and Iraq, which are subjects of such considerable debate, and the Bush government is so weak domestically?

Grant Smith, IRmep: Bush continues to be the US president. He has perhaps, 35% to 36% approval ratings, which is, frankly, awful. But he's president for a couple more years. If Bush has this (NSS) as the guiding vision, I don't have any doubts that he'll follow through with it.

But it looks like the administration is seeking more international support. They are reaching out to Germany, Great Britain, and in particular Russia and China to communicate "hey, these are the problems and we've got to work together".

We'll see on Monday if they manage to convince them, or not. That's my response. I think Bush has some huge credibility problems here in the US, but you've also got to look at it this way: in 2006 there are congressional elections, the politicians, and the political party that can corner the issue of "security for the people" will win the elections.

Adriana Amat, VOA: Unfortunately, we are out of time, Mr. Smith, thanks for your participation on VOA's Foro Interamericano.

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