Iran and Beyond: An Interview with Gen. Wesley Clark

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RealClearWorld recently interviewed Wesley Clark, retired general of the US Army, about the current situation in Iran. General Clark is a fomer Supreme Allied Commander Europe of NATO (SACEUR) and, in 2004, was a Democratic presidential candidate.

RCW: You were on Fox News last week to discuss Iran, during which you outlined some key considerations. "[The situation] is exacerbated by what is obviously some degree of a split at the top and in the clerics. I think the real question is, how does that split infect the organs of power? Does it get to the police to the military? Where else other than in young people on the streets is this unrest going to be reflected?"

As the situation evolves both in the short term and long term, how should officials from the United States and the international community consider the answers to these questions when making decision on how to deal with Iran?

Gen. Clark: These are still important questions, and what we've seen is basically a continuation of the long-term trend of dissatisfaction by urban elites and young people with a more fundamentalist Ahmadinejad regime.

By the responses that we've seen on the streets over the last week, it would appear that the split did not significantly impact the organs of power of the state. If for example you look back to 1979 and you look at what happened with the revolution in Iran then, the military as an institution dissolved and starting with or indicated by 5,000 Iranian air force cadets who just refused to follow orders and basically wouldn't support the government and basically let it collapse. And Khomeini took power. It was the end of the Shah's regime totally.

RCW: In the same appearance, you praised the caution of President Obama. "We don't know how deep [the split at the top] and how strong it is. The President's response is correct."

This week the President expressed stronger support for the protesters. Do you think this was an indication that his administration believes there is a stronger split within the Iranian leadership?

Gen. Clark: I think the administration was gauging the efforts of the protestors and wanted to encourage whatever elements of resistance to the Iranian hard line regime might emerge. But I think fundamentally that the administration understood that while it in expressing the sympathies as it did, it wasn't.

On the other hand calling for or expecting a total takeover by the government because the basic calculus remained the same that it would only strengthen the hard liners if the administration enabled them to portray legitimate popular grievances in Iran as all stemming from intervention by the United States.

RCW: In the eyes of many analysts, the Iranian opposition seems to be fading. Today, Charles Krauthammer wrote, "Right now the Iranian revolution has no leader. As this is written, opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi has not appeared in public since June 18. And the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad regime has shown the requisite efficiency and ruthlessness at suppressing widespread unrest. Their brutality has been deployed intelligently."

Do you agree, that at least in the short term, that the opposition seems to be fading?

Gen. Clark: Well let's put it this way. The public signs of the opposition have faded. That doesn't necessarily mean the opposition has faded. It just means or it may mean that they are regrouping, they are ducking down to reduce their prominence to preserve their capacity to organize and form and act later. We just don't know.

RCW: From the beginning President Obama said that he refused to be used a political talking point for Ahmadinejad. But after the President's statement supporting the protesters, Ahmadinejad responded by saying there is no difference between Obama and President Bush.

Even though he was receiving a lot of pressure to express his support for the protesters, do you think, by possibly allowing himself to become the foil, the President might have made a misstep?

Gen. Clark: Well no, I don't think he's made a misstep and I don't think he allowed himself to become a foil. I think from the time he gave his speech in Cairo that was warmly received in most of the Islamic world and throughout the Arab world, the Iranian hierarchy objected to it and found fault with President Obama and his statement. So this is just more of the same.

RCW: Also in response to President Obama's support for the protesters, Ahmadinejad made a public statement directed to the President. "I hope you [Mr Obama] will avoid interfering in Iran's affairs and express regret in a way that the Iranian people are informed of it. Will you use this language with Iran? If this is your stance, there will be nothing left to talk about."

Given this statement, if Ahmadinejad remains in power, should the Obama Administration still try to pursue diplomatic talks with Iran?

Gen. Clark: I think it's going to be necessary. Let's see how the policy evolves. It's several months before we're ready to really move forward on these issues. Let's see what the situation in Iran is at that time. We don't know. But certainly for the sake of the people of Iran, we ought to continue to hold options open. We shouldn't be foreclosing options at this point, because the alternative is something that would be worse for the people of Iran.

RCW: Let's follow up with a question about the alternatives. If not talks what are the other options to engage Iran?

Gen. Clark: Well there are a variety of different ways to do talks. There are many different ways of opening a dialogue or sustaining a dialogue once it's been open. And there are many different things to talk about. The leadership in Washington will gauge the situation and I believe we can count on this President to make the right decisions for that. The real burden falls on the leadership in Iran. For them to refuse and persist in seeking nuclear weapons is to choose a course that really drives the nations of the west to no alternative but contemplating the use of force.

RCW: Let's transition into how the Iranian situation relates to the region, starting with a September 2007 Washington Post Op/Ed in which you wrote, "The most likely next conflict will be with Iran, a radical state that America has tried to isolate for almost 30 years and that now threatens to further destabilize the Middle East through its expansionist aims, backing of terrorist proxies such as the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and far-reaching support for radical Shiite militias in Iraq. As Iran seems to draw closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, almost every U.S. leader -- and would-be president -- has said that it simply won't be permitted to reach that goal."

Since writing that Op/Ed, how has your own your perception of the Middle East situation evolved?

Gen. Clark: Iran essentially decided it needed to pause in the destabilization of Iraq. Step by step it's cut back on its material support for the militias who were destabilizing and targeting the Sunni populations inside Iraq.

On the other hand, it's continued to move forward with its nuclear programs, installing thousands of centrifuges to enrich uranium. It's approaching the time when it will have enough highly enriched uranium to create a nuclear device. Whether their engineering has been adequate enough to turn that nuclear device into a weapon is unknown. Probably not, but we don't know fully what information they may have gleamed from North Korean or Pakistani efforts to share nuclear technology. So it remains uncertain. The situation remains deeply troubling.

We're approaching the point at which absent either some diplomatic breakthrough that curbs their nuclear programs or some other meaningful non-military intervention; that serious, serious study of military options will be taken.

RCW: As stated in your Op/Ed, the primary goal for the United States, our Middle East allies and the global community, has been to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Even if Mousavi -- considered the father of the Iranian nuclear program -- somehow gains momentum and replaces Ahmadinejad, how much progress will the United States have made toward this goal?

Gen. Clark: We just don't know. That's a real question. There are contradictory signals based on the Mousavi's record and his background and the hopes of the people that are supporting him inside Iran. Honestly, we just don't know.

RCW: Last couple of questions - geopolitical questions. To its west, Iran borders Iraq. Is there any relationship between the gradual stabilization of Iraq and the civil unrest occurring Iran?

Gen. Clark: I think that's a very important question, and the truth is what happens in Iran will have enormous consequences in Iraq. If the hard liners consolidate power and further repress the opposition inside Iran, and then that gives them the capacity at their time of choosing move to increase their power in the region and their power vis-à-vis an Arab government in Iraq.

On the other hand, if the opposition were to succeed in taking power that would probably encourage greater compromise among the contending factions inside Iraq. That's speculation. It really remains to be seen what the makeup of a future government it would emerge, and what would it objectives be, and how would it view it securities situation to the West and Iraq? I mean Iraq is a terrorist neighbor. Iraq has invaded. Iraq is going to be a permanent bone of contention in Iranian politics for security reasons, for religious cultural reasons, for the conflict for leadership of the Shi'ism between Najaf and Qom.

So these are important questions but all we can do right now is ask them. There aren't answers.

RCW: To its east, Iran borders both Afghanistan and Pakistan. If there is any progress made in Iran - even if it's slow progress - how will that affect the situations in those countries?

Gen. Clark: It probably helps us work more effectively with the government of Iran, and it probably promotes greater effectiveness in working with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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