Suzanne DiMaggio is the Vice President of Global Policy Programs at Asia Society. Previously, she was Vice President of Policy Programs at the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA).
How can the U.S. best address the nuclear threat posed by Iran?
Well, I think that because of the mistrust that has existed in this relationship over the decades, I believe that the best way to address Iran’s nuclear program is through a broader discussion; a broader negotiation on a range of issues that actually go beyond the nuclear issue. Of course, the nuclear issue is the key priority at this moment, given the timeline that we are facing. But the fact is that the Iranians know that when they make progress in a nuclear negotiation, at the end of the day they are going to have to give something up, and they recognize that. That’s why I think that they need to discuss other issues; regional security issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where there is at least the beginning of a common set of issues between the two countries. I happen to think Afghanistan would be a very productive area for U.S.-Iran bilateral conversations, for a couple of reasons. One is because Iran has actually cooperated with the United States on Afghanistan following 9/11, so there is a precedent of positive Iranian conversation here. But unlike the nuclear issue, this is a discussion that would allow the Iranians to come to the table with some dignity, and they know at the end of the day they don’t have to give anything up. They can be a productive member of that negotiation, so I think context is important. And I would like to see us approach our negotiations with Iran beyond the nuclear issue.
How can Iran specifically help us with in Afghanistan?
There are a number of ways, I think, that Iran can play a positive role in Afghanistan. One is in terms of helping to stabilize the border, the long border that exists between Afghanistan and Iran, where there are a number of issues; most notably problems with refugees, but also narco trafficking. In the past, the United States has gained cooperation from Iran on drug trafficking, and the Iranian officials both here in New York and in Tehran agree that this is an area of cooperation that they would like to see move forward. So there are some practical ways that the U.S. and Iran can begin cooperation. My feeling is that areas, where there are common interests, are far more likely to succeed than the nuclear issue, where the views are so divergent. And also where, let’s face it; the Iranians know that they haven’t behaved in a way that not only the United States, but the entire West, sees as productive. So that’s a problem.
Why does Israel see Iran as such a threat?
Well, I think the history of hostility between Israel and Iran goes back quite a long time. The fact is that the relationship has not been helped by a lot of the fiery redirect that has been put forward, ether by President Ahmadinejad or more recently by one of the vice presidents of Iran. So I think on a rhetorical level, the Iranians have not helped themselves when it comes to the Israeli situation. In fact they’ve inflamed things. The first thing that they could do to help ease that tension is for some one like the Supreme Leader Hamine to come forward and say that in fact it is not Iran’s policy that it wants to see Israel whipped off the map. Some clarification, especially from a high level cleric, I think would help and would dramatically reduce those tensions. But as long as we keep hearing these comments from Iranian officials that are aggressive, I do not see any chance of an improvement in the relationship.
And why is it that we don’t see any backtracking on harsh statements like that?
I think a lot of that language and rhetoric that we’ve seen people like President Ahmadinejad perform is not so much for an Iranian audience, but perhaps more for the audience in the region. It plays well on the Arab Street. So I think in particular, Ahmadinejad has used it to that effect. But I think for the Iranians they are faced with a really big dilemma. The cost of talking in such a language and being blustery, even if they don’t act on it, I think has probably has put them in a situation that’s untenable at this point. When you throw in the nuclear program; the Israelis have made it clear that any step towards militarization is a red line that would result in military action. That attitude really makes the situation all the more tense. The likelihood for a military option to deal with a nuclear issue becomes much greater if Israel does indeed feel that Iran is an existential threat to them.
As we seem to get closer and closer to that military option, how are the efforts of the international community working?
Well, for the first time in years, we have been seeing negotiation attempts with the Iranians through the permanent 5 +1 mechanism through the United Nations. In the past, when this forum has gotten up and running, we’ve seen one meeting at a time. Then it would sputter out and be quite a long time before the next one. In this instance, we are seeing regular meetings over the course of months. I think that’s a positive step forward; any effort to engage the Iranians on a sustained basis is a positive move. The fact that the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, of course, makes this all the more difficult of a situation. So, I think given the stakes, every effort should be made to actually ramp up diplomatic relations.
In the interest of protecting our ally, Israel, should the U.S. ramp up it’s response?
I think the U.S. action and policy towards Iran, particularly over these past few years, has really gone beyond supporting an ally, meaning Israel. I think it is really a way of advancing U.S. interest. The current administration has made clear that Iranian weaponisation, moving towards a nuclear weapon, is a redline. President Obama has made it clear that containment of a nuclear armed Iran is not an option. So we have a very strong indication that if Iran actually crosses that threshold, it will be met with military action; whether that is Israel acting on its own or in consort with the U.S. still remains to be seen, what that strategy would be. What we do know is that even if Israel went out on a strike on its own, Iran and even the larger world would see the United States as being part of that effort. So I think at this stage there is a lot of attention, and rightly so, focused on managing Israel’s reaction and making sure that the United States is not inadvertently sucked into a military action it doesn’t want. So this is a very tough situation.
We have gone beyond diplomacy and had some covert actions, have they been successful at all?
Based on reports, at least in the media and some intelligence reports that have been made public, Iran’s nuclear program has been set back due to covert activity, technical problems that it has encountered. So, judging by those reports, it has had an impact. Going forward, now that this covert action has been made more public, I think it’s going to be more difficult to move in that direction. And we have to ask when it will be more difficult to manage this spiraling conflict.
Can we live a nuclear armed Iran?
I think both the key governments, the United States and Israel, have made it clear that they can not live with a nuclear armed Iran. They have both designated weaponisation as a red line and they have both indicated that containment is not an option. That leaves diplomacy on one end of the spectrum and military action on the other; the Iranians know this. So the question that we need to answer is: Is there time for diplomacy? Judging from the intelligence reports, not only from the United States but also from Israel, they vary to some degree. But weaponization by Tehran doesn’t seem to be possible, at least for another few years. So that to me does indicate that there is time for diplomacy. So this is the moment where I think all of our diplomatic tools should be used to engage Iran on the nuclear issue and on other issues that matter to them; regional security issues. I do think that this approach, only engaging on the nuclear issue, is not going to work.
So you wouldn’t say that a nuclear armed Iran is inevitable?
I think at this moment in time, if we frame the question as: Can we live with a nuclear armed Iran? The answer is clearly yes. We are doing so with a nuclear armed North Korea whose leadership is a concern. Could we put up with a nuclear armed Iran? Probably, but if we go by the statements of the various governments, primarily the United States and Israel, they have both made it clear that an armed Iran is not something that they would tolerate. We have to take those sorts of statements, because they are very serious, in a serious way. And I do think that this makes the situation all the more urgent. The time frame for diplomacy is limited. We know that. Judging from reports, I think its safe to assume that Tehran has taken a decision to gain the technology and know how to acquire nuclear weapons. The big question is: Have they made the decision to make that transition towards weaponization? Many experts say that they haven’t and many intelligence reports say that they haven’t. So if that is indeed the case, then this is the time for diplomacy. I think for the Obama administration, the focus has really been a dual tract diplomacy and sanctions. The problem with that approach is that in order for the sanctions to really work, we need to have some traction on the engagement side. We really don’t have that; so we see sanctions being ratcheted up almost weekly now. We see the effects on the Iranian economy, and they are dire, but we haven’t seen any change in Iran’s behavior when it comes to their nuclear activity. So in that instance we call it a failed policy, because it hasn’t achieved its objectives. So that’s all the more reason to put as much effort, if not more then we have, in the diplomatic tract to incentivize the Iranians to come to the table and negotiate.
You headed up an Asia Society study on Myanmar. What did you find?
The Asia society put together a task force back in 2009. This was at the point when the Obama administration said that it was ready to try a new policy towards Myanmar, one more focused on engagement rather than the approach associated with sanctions, which it had been following for decades. So at the Asia Society we decided that this would be the perfect time to think through what a potential U.S. strategy would be towards a more open Myanmar; not only how that process would unfold, but also what the United States could do to actually encourage that process to unfold. At that time, and again that was 2009,2010; I don’t think any of us imagined that we would be witnessing the dramatic changes that we are seeing in Myanmar right now. The fact remains that the leadership of Myanmar took a decision that it wanted to move in a new direction, that it wanted to up-end the system of military rule towards something now that is a quazi-democracy. It’s in a very fragile state, so now the big question for the United States is how to further encourage that positive movement, and how to consolidate it.
What policy options do we have to encourage a more open Myanmar?
Since the government of Myanmar has taken the decision to move towards a more democratic structure, the United States has basically been following an action-for-action policy; whereby when the government of Myanmar takes a positive step, like releasing hundreds of political prisoners, the United States has been responding with a carrot, or some other reward. That has been ranging from improving and ratcheting up diplomatic relations – the United States now for the first time in twenty-two years has an ambassador in Myanmar – and on the other end of the spectrum, it has been very notable that the United States has suspended some major sanctions against Myanmar. So this calibrated approach, towards encouraging reform and also improving a bilateral relationship, has been very successful in terms of getting the results in a rather timely way. Going forward, I do believe that the United States needs to find a way to get beyond this transactional relationship, this tit for tat relationship, and get towards a normalized relationship, but that’ll take some time.
What are our interests in a more open Myanmar?
U.S. interests in a more democratic Myanmar are really multifold. First and foremost, I think greater U.S. engagement and opening of the country itself is leading to human rights for the people. It is also leading to greater awareness on the importance of rule of law, a greater awareness on why anti-corruption measures need to be put in place, and also more awareness that the country is in desperate need of economic development. The per-capata GDP in Myanmar is about $1200 per person, which is dire poverty. So how to best lift the country out of poverty through democracy friendly development and human rights friendly development, I think, has got to be priority.
If you were to identify the top policy goals for the U.S. in the coming years, what would those be?
I think moving forward, U.S. policy priorities in Myanmar are pretty much a continuation of how the administration has been engaging Myanmar today. And that will be focusing on bringing economic development to the country. It’ll also focus on more human rights and more political rights. But I think it also has to focus on helping to encourage the government to resolve its ethnic problems. Myanmar is a very ethnically diverse country; there are about 135 ethnicities and many of the groups have been at war with the government. The government has brokered now about ten cease fires with the various groups. One remains, and they’re working on that. So I think there is a general recognition that unless the government can really resolve these issues through a process of national reconciliation, many of the reforms that we’ve seen can actually come to a screeching halt or even reverse, so this is a big priority.
What should we expect with Myanmar’s role in the region? Also, how can the U.S. work with China to achieve some of the policy priorities?
One major interest of the United States, in re-engaging Myanmar, is finding a way to keep China’s influence in the country in check. While the U.S. and the West were heavily sanctioning Myanmar, China was in the country building economic relations and trade ties. Today, China is the biggest foreign investor in the country, and I do think this did not sit well with the United States. Myanmar is situated in a very geostragicly important part of the world right between China and India, Asia’s two giants. I do think part of the rational to engage Myanmar at this point was to somehow curtail China’s influence in the country, so this was a big part of that. Looking ahead, I think the United States has a vested interest in seeing that Myanmar has a successful term as chairman of ASIAN in 2014. This will be a major test for Myanmar, to see how far its come. Could it chair a major regional grouping like ASIAN in a way that is both responsible and effective? So, I do think that judging by the government of Myanmar’s statements on ASIAN, they are placing a lot of importance; I do think its in U.S. interest, not only the United States but other Asian countries, to make sure that Myanmar succeeds.