Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Gary Sick's testimony in front of the US Congress regarding US Policy toward Iran.

Statement Before the
Committee on International Relations

US House of Representatives

February 16, 2005

U.S. Policy Toward Iran

Gary Sick
Columbia University

Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to testify on the subject of U.S.-Iran relations. It is a subject that has engaged me for more than a quarter of a century. It has never been more important than it is today.

I am sorry that it was impossible for me to be with you in person today. I would like to thank the School of International and Public Affairs and the Middle East Institute of Columbia University in the City of New York who worked with your staff to give me the opportunity to join you by videoconference.

Historical Notes

The United States first stationed military forces in the Persian Gulf during World War II, when Iran provided the rail route for lend lease aid to reach the Soviet Union. We maintained a small presence there in the years that followed (I first visited the region as a young naval officer with the Middle East Force command in the late 1950s). We played an important role from time to time in the politics of the region, as in 1953 when the shah was restored to the throne by a joint U.S.-British covert action. But it was not until the British withdrawal in 1971 and the oil shock of 1973 that we assumed major political and security responsibilities in the region, and it was only during the late stages of the Iran-Iraq war, in the mid-1980s that we again established a major military presence in the Gulf.

The two U.S. wars against Saddam Hussein – Desert Storm in 1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – have raised our profile in the region dramatically. Together with the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. political and military footprint in the region is overwhelmingly greater than that of any other country. We have become, at least for the time being and for the foreseeable future, the dominant Persian Gulf power.

We are today a neighbor of Iran, with our forces deployed on its eastern border in Afghanistan, its western border in Iraq, and with the Fifth Fleet and extensive U.S. support facilities located throughout the Persian Gulf. We can no longer regard Iran as a distant and exotic country where our contacts are infrequent or by choice. Our contacts today are nearly daily, in one form or another, and there is no way to avoid them.

The United States and Iran have a number of mutual interests, particularly with regard to Afghanistan, Iraq and the narcotics trade. At the time of the Afghan war, Iran cooperated with us – both publicly and privately – in support of the Northern Alliance and the establishment of the Karzai government. In Iraq, the heavily Shia populated south, where Iran’s influence is greatest, has been relatively quiet. In the recent Iraqi elections, the voter turnout in the Shia south was reportedly 61 to 75 percent, and there were few serious incidents. The reason for this is not because Iran approves of the U.S. occupation but because Iran believed it was in its interest to give the Shia population an opportunity to make its voice heard officially and peacefully for virtually the first time in Iraqi political history.

A large part of the narcotics flowing out of Afghanistan passes through Iran, and over the past several years Iran has lost large numbers of policemen and soldiers in what has become a low-intensity war with the well-funded and heavily armed traffickers moving across the 1145 mile border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since this river of drugs flows on through Turkey and from there into Europe and the rest of the world, this battle, which Iran is not winning, is more than an abstract concern for us as well.

It is, however, our differences, not our occasionally parallel interests, that preoccupy decision-makers in Washington, Tehran, and other regional and world capitals. These differences cluster around four major concerns: Iran’s support for groups that conduct terrorism, its opposition to U.S. and Israeli policies in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, and its domestic policies – particularly its abuse of civil and human rights.

I have written an article for the Washington Quarterly outlining my understanding of Iran’s history and background on the terrorism issue. I have circulated this article in advance to the Committee, and I would ask, if appropriate, that it be introduced into the record since it would be superfluous for me to repeat it here. I will also do my best to respond to your questions about Iran’s policies toward Israel and the Palestine question, though I do not consider myself an expert on Israeli-Palestinian politics.

But in this brief overview, I would like to focus primarily on human rights and regional security issues, particularly on Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran and Human Rights

I have been a board member (now emeritus) of Human Rights Watch for more than a decade. I also chair the advisory committee of the Middle East and North Africa division of the organization. I am not here as a spokesperson of Human Rights Watch, but my experience with that extraordinary organization has greatly influenced my views about the human rights situation in Iran, and a succession of talented researchers there have helped keep me in touch with developments on the human rights and political rights fronts in that country.

Iran essentially has two governments: an elected government consisting of the president and his cabinet, the 290-member Majles or parliament, and much of the bureaucracy; there is also a government that essentially elects itself, consisting of the supreme leader, the security forces, the government broadcasting media, and the judiciary. In 1997, the Iranian people were given a choice of candidates and chose Mohammad Khatami by a seventy percent majority. Khatami is a cleric, and he supported change from within the system rather than a second revolution, but he also represented a philosophy of more transparency, more rule of law, more association with the international community, and much greater freedom of expression. The hard-line clerics saw him as a threat to their entrenched position of power, and, after they had recovered from their initial shock, began a systematic attack on the institutions and ideas that Khatami had fostered, using thuggish paramilitary organizations and the judicial system to close down meetings and newspapers, and to jail and otherwise intimidate those who disagreed with them.

Reporters Without Borders now regards Iran as “the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East.” In July 2003, a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist died of a brain hemorrhage while in the hands of Iranian judicial and prison officials, and the subsequent inconclusive trial convinced no one of its fairness or objectivity. But the trial of the Canadian journalist, which was conducted in the full glare of world publicity, reminds us of the routine nature of abuse against Iranian citizens, many of whose cases pass largely unnoticed by world opinion.

The past six months have provided us with a textbook case of how the system operates. Beginning around September last year, Iranian security forces arrested a series of journalists, NGO activists and contributors to various internet sites that promoted civil society and freedom of expression. They were not formally charged, but a judiciary spokesman said that they were accused of “propaganda against the regime, endangering national security, inciting public unrest, and insulting sacred belief.” In December Human Rights Watch reported that torture had been used to coerce public confessions from those who had been arrested, and that the judiciary was using the threat of long prison sentences and other threats to try to cover up its actions. When some of the detainees testified before a presidential commission that they had been tortured, they received death threats from judicial officials under Tehran chief prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi.

In the most recent Majles elections, the clerical authorities in the Guardian Council invoked their oversight responsibility to disqualify nearly all of the reformist candidates, thereby rigging the election in favor of the conservative forces. On one hand, this kind of blatant abuse is a reminder of the fact that the preponderance of political and security power is in the hands of the power structure that has dominated Iran since the revolution in 1979. But it is also a reminder that the Iranian people have not been cowed into submission and that they continue to demand their rights. Despite the jailings and torture and public attacks, courageous Iranians continue to speak out. I was particularly impressed by the fact that Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri publicly commented prior to the election in Iraq that “Iraqi clerics should not interfere in the country's state matters. This is not their field of expertise and should be dealt with by experts.” This kind of comment – explicitly criticizing the concept of clerical rule and therefore the present Iranian government – would have been unthinkable in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In today’s Iran it is risky, but reformists persevere, and ordinary Iranians speak their minds, even to foreign visitors. It is for that kind of courage and perseverance that Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian woman lawyer and human rights activist, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last fall. The West must keep its spotlight on Iran and encourage the true voices of reform struggling to be heard.

The Nuclear Issue

Any analysis of Iran’s nuclear program usually starts with the accusation that a country so rich in oil and gas does not need nuclear power generation. In fact, the economic factors are not so clear. Iran is presently using some fifty percent of its entire oil production for its own internal energy demands. Those demands are certain to increase in the coming years as Iran’s population increases from nearly 70 million today to more than 95 million in 2050, accompanied by vastly expanded electrification of villages. By some calculations, Iran could be a net importer of petroleum within 20 years. For many years, Iran has been actively exploring a number of alternative energy sources, notably including an extensive array of hydroelectric dams, but also wind, solar and geothermal. Iran today is beginning to build modern and highly efficient gas power plants.

As we all recall, Iran began its nuclear development long before the Iranian revolution. I was personally present in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter agreed to sell the shah a U.S. nuclear reactor. The German company Siemens was already well along in its construction of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr in Iran when the revolution intervened in 1979, and then Saddam’s invasion in 1980 led to several bombing attacks on the mothballed facility during the course of the Iran-Iraq war. By all accounts, Ayatollah Khomeini opposed nuclear development, seeing it as one of the shah’s fixations on Western technology. But after Khomeini’s death in 1989, the Iranian government returned to the issue and began seeking companies that could complete the Bushehr plant. Because of U.S. opposition and pressure, Iran could find no takers except Russia, and a Russian-Iranian engineering crew resumed work on Bushehr in 1995.

The key point that needs to be made here, however, is not about economics. Iran is an ancient and extremely proud nation. The pressure from the United States and the West to prevent Iran from having access to virtually all aspects of nuclear technology was regarded as a direct blow to national pride. As a consequence, the nuclear issue is one of the few areas of national policy where the “two nations” rule does not apply. When it comes to Iran’s right to have peaceful nuclear technology, Iranians are almost entirely united, including all flavors of opinion within the country, and extending even to much of the opposition expatriate community in the United States and elsewhere. Virtually any government that one can imagine for Iran – from clerical to reformist to nationalist to monarchist – will insist on the right to pursue nuclear technology.

Both Iran and the United States are among the original signatories of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As you will all recall, the NPT was based on a bargain between states with nuclear weapons and those without. In Articles I and VI, the nuclear “haves” promise that they will not provide nuclear weapons technology to other states and that they will pursue nuclear disarmament. In Articles II and IV, the nuclear “have nots” renounce the pursuit of nuclear weapons, accept safeguards, and are assured of access to peaceful nuclear technology. Iran has always invoked Article IV, which states that it shall be “the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination…” and that “All the Parties to the Treaty undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

Mohammad el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which manages the safeguards associated with the NPT, has reported that Iran is in compliance with the Treaty, but that there are two specific problems with Iran’s declaration of its nuclear program. First, there is evidence of highly-enriched uranium on some equipment that was never declared during the eighteen years that Iran pursued its nuclear development in secret. Iran says that this HEU is a residue from its country of origin (probably the A.Q. Khan network of Pakistan), and there is some evidence to support this. Second, the IAEA is not satisfied that Iran has fully disclosed its work on development and use of the P2 centrifuge, also probably from Pakistan. That is still under investigation.

Pending the outcome of these investigations, Iran is in compliance with the NPT and is, according to the Treaty, guaranteed the right to develop a full nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment and reprocessing – a point that Iranian representatives make at every opportunity. They point to the fact that many other countries have exactly the same capabilities that they are developing, some with discrepancies in their own past that are at least as bad as Iran’s, and they are tolerated with little dispute.

The fundamental issue, of course, is not one of legal niceties but rather of trust and confidence. But in our discussions of means of dealing with Iran’s program, we must at least be cognizant that our efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear development are, in effect, an effort to revise drastically the terms of the NPT without ever saying so. One of Iran’s most deeply felt grievances is that, during the Iran-Iraq war, when Saddam Hussein used massive poison gas attacks against Iran – contrary to well-established international conventions – the international community and the United States never raised an objection. Some believe that it was that experience that led Iran to first start its drive toward a nuclear program, convinced that Iran should never again rely on outside assurances for its own defense, but rather should create the capability of defending itself, including the nuclear infrastructure that would permit Iran to move independently to the development of a nuclear weapon if circumstances should require it.

I think there is widespread agreement that, knowing what we know today about how quickly a nation can move from peaceful nuclear development to weaponization, we would never have drafted the Treaty as we did. But even if that is accepted among many of the NPT signatory states, we should at least consider the potential repercussions of a possible total collapse of the NPT regime, which has many extremely useful functions, in our single-minded efforts to solve the Iranian dilemma. There is an NPT review conference coming up in May, and I suspect that this issue will be very much on the minds of many of the members who may be concerned about selective application of its provisions.

What to do?

In considering how to deal with Iran on the nuclear issue, there may be some advantage in starting with the things that work in our favor. Despite all the bad news out of Iran, the reality is that Iran is a signatory of the NPT, it has signed (though not ratified) and permits implementation of the so-called Additional Protocols that permit more extensive inspection by the IAEA. There are inspectors in place as we speak, keeping tabs on the nuclear infrastructure that has been declared, and present to check out any convincing evidence of non-declared activities. Iran is engaged in negotiations with the three European powers on this issue, and has at least for now suspended its enrichment activities. Ayatollah Khamene`i , the most authoritative voice of the Islamic government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces has issued a formal fatwa or Islamic decree: “prohibiting the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons.”

None of these facts, of course, provide any guarantee that Iran will not use its nuclear production capacity to shift to development of a nuclear weapon. These facts are, however, quite unusual among states that in the past have decided to develop nuclear weapons. There was never anything of this nature from Israel, South Africa, India or Pakistan, for example. In effect, Iran has established a set of obstacles for itself that are not trivial. Perhaps this is just to mislead the world. If so, it is not working, and one must ask why they bother.

Perhaps these undertakings reflect the reality that Iran wants to have an autonomous capability to move to a nuclear weapon if and when they conclude that their own security requires it. That may not be a reassuring thought, but it does suggest that there is still some time and some negotiating room that could be explored.

At the moment, the EU negotiations are essentially the only game in town, but it is unclear where those will lead. The crucial question is whether the EU can fulfill a genuine bargain from their side. Most observers believe that the EU negotiators can pencil in the terms of a potential deal, but perhaps a deal that will be only marginally acceptable to the United States, if that. It is less clear that they can close the deal.

In my own judgment, the outline of a realistic outcome to the negotiations would involve a combination of a contained, monitored enrichment program and economic and political integration of Iran with the West. The fear of losing the benefits of integration, together with intensive inspections and controls over fissile material, could inhibit the temptations of some in Iran to use the enrichment program to acquire nuclear weapons. That is not a bargain that is likely to be welcomed either by Iran or the United States, but it may be the least worst outcome.

Another interesting, if radical idea, was proposed by Graham Allison, in his new book Nuclear Terrorism. He contends that there should be an international agreement to end all enrichment and reprocessing, except perhaps under the tight control of some centralized and non-political authority. This would have the advantage of being universally applicable, not just applied to a specific set of nations for political reasons, and it would greatly reduce the chance that fissile materials would find their way into the hands of terrorists.

The President’s statement that “We are working with European allies…” on the nuclear issue implies a measure of direct or indirect participation in the negotiating process that goes beyond what we have done to date. In order to get Iran to give up or severely limit part of its nuclear fuel cycle, as President Bush has specified in his State of the Union speech, any workable agreement will have to include some positive benefits for Iran, such as a security guarantee, a regional security architecture in which Iran plays a significant role, approval of Iranian entry into the World Trade Organization, and/or potentially some conditional lifting of U.S. sanctions. If any of these, or perhaps other offers are put on the table, it will require the acquiescence of the United States to make it work.

Both the President and Secretary of State Rice have indicated that this is a problem that can be solved by diplomacy. But if it is to be solved in that manner, the United States will have to play a more direct role than in the past.

Let’s look briefly at the options if negotiations fail. The United States has suggested an ultimatum to Iran to eliminate their enrichment and reprocessing or else face referral to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions. It is not clear that the United States can get enough votes in the IAEA to refer the matter to the Security Council, especially so long as Iran remains in compliance with the terms of the NPT. Neither is it certain that the votes can be mustered in the Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran, especially since China has a vested interest in its energy relationship with Iran, and Russia is Iran’s primary provider of nuclear power equipment and fuel. The Security Council route is at best a lengthy and uncertain process.

The other option that has been widely discussed is a military attack. Its appeal is that it would almost certainly set back any Iranian plans for at least several years. The disadvantages are immense. We cannot be sure that we have complete knowledge of all locations where Iran might build a nuclear weapon – now or in the future. In order to make certain, it would require boots on the ground; and Iran, as many observers have noted, is a country nearly four times the size of Iraq.

We could be fairly confident that in the event of an attack Iran would promptly withdraw from the NPT and that IAEA inspectors would have to leave. It is also likely that Iran, using its own scientific resources and its significant financial resources, would go underground and shed whatever reluctance it may have had about building a nuclear weapon. Again, to stop that process would at some point require intervention on the ground.

There is every reason to believe that Iran would retaliate. Exactly how is impossible to predict, but they would surely start with attempts to mobilize Shia partisans in Iraq to try to turn the Iraqi south into an extension of the insurgency in the Sunni triangle. And to stop such an effort across the very long Iran-Iraq border would require intervention on the ground.

It is not difficult to imagine other types of actions that Iran might take, whether in the Gulf itself, in Afghanistan, in Palestine, in the Persian Gulf oil fields, or elsewhere. Iran cannot defeat the United States in a military contest, but Iran’s size, relative wealth, indigenous military production capacity, contact with other Shia populations and organizations, long coast line on the Gulf, and large, highly nationalistic population give it a range of possible responses that probably could not be countered effectively without an invasion and military occupation.

The Iranian people today are remarkably pro-American, partly as a negative reaction to their distaste for their own government and its anti-American propaganda. In my view, that would end with the first bomb. It is worth recalling that when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, he believed that the clerical regime would collapse at the first blow. In fact, Iran at that stage was in post-revolutionary chaos and the military was still oriented toward the shah, so that belief was not entirely implausible. But the Iranian people rallied around the clerical regime, not necessarily because they loved it but because they were Iranians first and revolutionaries second. In my view, Saddam Hussein may have saved the Iranian revolutionary regime by silencing the opposition, rallying the military, and forcing the clerical leadership to organize itself.

There is a very good chance that a U.S. military attack on Iran would be the one thing that would shut down the internal opposition and give the hard-line government the chance it wants to relinquish any pretext of democracy or concern for human rights. Despite all the efforts of the mullahs, Iran today has a vibrant civil society movement that is likely to make its influence felt in time – though perhaps more time than we would like. That movement and all that it represents in the way of internally-driven regime change, would almost certainly be the first casualty of an American attack.

I thank you for your patience, and I would welcome your questions and comments.


1 For a useful summary of the problem, see William Samii
and Charles Recknagel, “Iran's War on Drugs,” Transnational
Organized Crime, Vol.5, No.2, Summer 1999, pp.153-175

2 “Iran: Confronting Terrorism,” The Washington Quarterly
(published by the Center for Strategic and International
Studies & MIT Press) 26:4 pp. 83-98 (Autumn 2003). This
article was republished by MIT Press in the summer of 2004
in a TWQ readers series book entitled Reshaping Rogue
States: Preemption, Regime Change, and U.S. Policy toward
Iran, Iraq and North Korea (pp.227-245).

3 See Reuters, “Journalist group criticizes Iran press
clampdown,” August 14, 2000.

4 The information here is distilled from a series of
reports by Human Rights Watch over the past several months.
The reports can be found at and this particular
quote is from the report on November 9, 2004, entitled
“Iran: Web Writers Purge Underway: Arrests Designed to
Silence NGO Activists.”

5 Christian Oliver, “Iran cleric says Iraq clergy should
avoid politics,” Reuters News, 20 January 2005

6 Treaty On The Non-Proliferation Of Nuclear Weapons,
signed July 1, 1968, entered into force March 5, 1970. Text
available at

7 Statement of Kamal Kharrazi, the foreign minister of
Iran in conjunction with his appearance at the World
Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Global Viewpoint,
February 14, 2005. Available at:

8 In his State of the Union speech on February 2, 2005,
President Bush stated “We are working with European allies
to make clear to the Iranian regime that it must give up its
uranium enrichment program and any plutonium re-processing,
and end its support for terror.” To the best of my
knowledge, this was the first time that the United States
had publicly identified its demands in these terms.

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