The Asia Society Welcomes Iranologists: Can U.S. Be ‘Trusted’?

The Iranian nuclear issue has dominated international headlines for some time now, competing with, or in some cases complementing, news of the latest outrageous statement from Iran’s fiery president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the Bush administration’s early June about-face on Iran policy, from the dream of marching on Tehran to an implicit recognition that Iran’s bargaining power has grown exponentially with every American death in Iraq, has been followed by a remarkable lull in rhetoric from both sides.

Until last week, that is, when President George W. Bush renewed his somewhat threatening tone in a speech at the Merchant Marine Academy, telling Iran that they had better accept the deal, and soon, or else. Not to be outdone, Mr. Ahmadinejad went on Iranian television and in a matter-of-fact way said that Iran would respond to the West’s nuclear offer by, say, Aug. 22. Without a deadline written into the offer, there was very little that an astonished Mr. Bush could say, other than: Gee, that seems like an awful long time.

Regardless of the outcome of the latest round of diplomacy, a nuclear-powered (if not nuclear-armed) Iran is in the cards, and the debate on what can be done to mitigate the dangers posed by an Iran that is vastly more powerful now than when it was initiated into the “axis of evil” will continue for some time. Appropriately, the Asia Society dipped a toe into the debate waters at a recent dinner, part of the society’s “Asia On My Mind” series of events.

On hand were David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, a former U.N. weapons inspector and frequent commentator on Iran’s nuclear program, and Lawrence Scheinman, head of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

As a benefit for the society (with tickets going for $500), it was a rather small gathering, befitting neither the topic nor the presence of two distinguished and experienced experts on nuclear-proliferation issues. Held in a ninth-floor room of the University Club, a smattering of wealthy Iranian-Americans joined a slightly larger number of interested Americans and the president of the Asia Society herself, Vishakha Desai. The guests seemed to be mostly from the world of banking, perhaps reflecting investment-banker host Saman Adamiyatt’s own background. The Americanized Iranians—mostly indistinguishable from their American-born counterparts except for their ever-so-slight accents—did nothing to detract from the air of an Old New York gathering.

Milling about pre-dinner, I discovered that none of the Iranians had been back to Iran since the revolution of 1979, a clear indication of where they stood vis-à-vis the Islamic regime. Despite their long separation from their homeland and their ease in American (high) society, the enormously successful Iranians were not, they told me, keen on a military solution to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, but it was difficult to say whether they would oppose it as vehemently as some other Iranians in the U.S., a little less anti- regime, undoubtedly will.

Mr. Scheinman began the evening’s discussion by saying that the recent U.S. offer to talk to Iran is welcome not only because of concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, but because there are a “range of questions to talk to Iran about,” including “their support for terrorism” and “the fact that their president has said Israel should be wiped off the map—drive the Jews into the sea.” With no pro–Islamic Republic people in the room, that comment was left unchallenged by the Iranians, even though the phrase “drive the Jews into the sea” has never been part of the Iranian lexicon and there is much debate, both here and in Iran, over whether Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statement (more accurately translated as “this regime that occupies Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”) can be viewed as a call to arms.

But the “wipe Israel off the map” comment, standard in any discussion of Iran, seems to play well with most American (and Iranian-American) audiences, who, after all, would probably like nothing better than to see the regime of the Islamic Republic itself “vanish from the page of time.”

Mr. Albright spoke next, and he had brought with him a document that purported to outline in detail the recent European offer made to the Iranians (but not officially made public). The offer allows Iran to have an enrichment program, but Mr. Albright made it clear that the conditions for allowing enrichment—namely that the Iranians would have to prove it was not only exclusively peaceful but also economically viable—make it a virtual certainty that enrichment activity could never happen on Iranian soil. As such, he argued, the U.S. position is not as big a shift as it might appear, and he was less than sanguine about the chances for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, particularly since the U.S. continues to refuse to give security guarantees to Iran. However, Mr. Albright said he still believed the change in the U.S. position was a welcome one because it recognized Iran’s right to nuclear energy, and because the U.S. is finally willing to negotiate after years of ruling such talks out.

In response to a question about a “grand bargain” between the U.S. and Iran, Mr. Albright thought there might be too much for such an agreement to handle: terrorism, threats against Israel and, ultimately, the problem of trust. An American woman raised her voice; “Nobody trusts one another,” she said, “but how can you trust the United States?”

“You mean under the Bush administration,” Mr. Albright replied, to the obvious dissatisfaction of one elderly guest, who muttered under his breath, “ I’m offended.” But Mr. Albright, not hearing him, carried on: “We’re looking for signs that the administration wants a negotiated solution. Dr. Rice’s comments came just at the right time,” he said, for the whole diplomatic process had been “in danger of falling apart” just days prior to agreement on the European offer to the Iranians. Still, he added, “The whole thing could explode.” As in bombs over Isfahan was his clear implication.

Professor Ehsan Yarshater, Iranologist and a longtime Columbia University professor, rose to speak. “A year ago,” he said in a frail voice, “if I was asked, I would have said that the majority of Iranians would welcome an attack by the U.S. because it would be a way to get rid of a hated regime.” (Perhaps it’s a good thing he wasn’t asked, for Mr. Yarshater has had far too distinguished a career to deserve the ignominy of having become the Iranian version of Ahmad Chalabi.) But he went on to suggest that the Iraq fiasco has emboldened Iran as it has weakened the U.S., and that Iran’s deft diplomacy in exploiting the differences between the U.S., the other Western powers, the Russians and the Chinese has virtually assured that a military strike is off the table.

Mr. Scheinman stepped to the microphone for some last words. “The Iranian diplomats and negotiators I’ve dealt with,” he said, as if responding to Mr. Yarshater’s view of Iranian diplomacy, “ they’re as good as they get.” It remains to be seen, of course, if they’re good enough to prevent another war.