Iran: "A Tougher Nut" than N. Korea

Richard Armitage on the tricky choices the Bush Administration and its allies face as they try to halt the spread of nuclear weapons

Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage is an experienced troubleshooter. A Vietnam veteran with previous stints at the State Dept. and the Pentagon under his belt, Armitage has been involved in everything from handling Philippines' efforts to boot U.S. troops out of the country to the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

He has had no end of troubles to shoot in the Bush Administration. An Asia hand, Armitage helped negotiate the extrication of pilots downed in China early in President Bush's term. He has played a role in everything from Iraq to Iran to North Korea.

Armitage sat down with BusinessWeek Chief Diplomatic Correspondent Stan Crock on Sept. 1 to discuss some of the issues at the top of his in-box, including the challenges in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow in two parts. Here is Part 1 (click here for Part 2):

Q: In Najaf and Fallujah, the options seemed to be between what's portrayed as a military defeat that lets [Muqtada] Al-Sadr's militia melt away and what would be a political disaster: If you went in and holy sites got damaged. The trade-off was made to avert political blowback. A similar calculation was made in Fallujah. But when is the military going to say we're killing ourselves here by letting these guys loose?


Let me differentiate between Najaf and Fallujah. Najaf, I think, by all accounts, is a stunning victory for the Allawi government. The reason I say that is Grand Ayatollah [Ali] al-Sistani came down on the side of the government. And unlike when he was last negotiating with young Sadr, in April, this time he was successful.

He was successful because military pressure had been applied, and both Iraqi forces and coalition forces right outside the compound wall were sitting there immediately after. It's an overall victory.

Al Jazeera went right into Najaf and started photographing and speaking to Iraqi National Guard soldiers in full uniform and full kit. That's the first time Al Jazeera has shown sort of a different face to this conflict.

Q: What about Fallujah?


Sooner or later, Fallujah has to be dealt with. And the Prime Minister knows that. I have no doubt that when his security forces are numerous enough, well-trained enough, and most important of all, well-led, that he will handle that situation.

Q: Is there any reason to believe that North Korea or Iran would actually give up their nuclear capabilities?


Well, they haven't exhibited it yet.... Iran, I think, is a tougher nut, actually, than North Korea. I served in Iran years ago.... And I found Iranians, generally, to be both charming and hegemonistic and very ethnocentric.

The dream of being a player on a large stage is in the breast of most Iranians. So I think they will be a lot more difficult, regarding the elimination of their weapons program.

Q: What is China prepared to do if North Korea remains intransigent?


You'll be seeing them send some real tough messages to North Korea, and at the end of the day, North Korea can't make it without China.

There's a lot going on in North Korea right now. You've read about the cell-phone stoppage -- people aren't allowed to use cell phones anymore. There have been arrests recently. It appears that the handling of the railroad disaster was bungled. North Korea is a pretty dynamic situation.

Q: What odds would you give that --


You can't do this to me because I took my son yesterday -- he's 21 -- to Charlestown, W. Va., and we played the slots. We lost. [Laughter] So don't talk to me about odds and gambling.

Q: You can answer it or not. What odds would you give successful negotiations in these two instances -- getting Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear weapons programs?


I'm not going to answer the odds question, but I'll try to answer your question more generally. In the mid-1980s, late '80s, and earliest part of the '90s, the question for Asian hands was what's going to happen to North Korea? Does it implode, explode, or just devolve?

All of us were wrong. I think North Korea will evolve, and I think [the nuclear-weapons issue] will be resolved peacefully, in terms of the international community. I don't know what will happen internally in Korea, among the North Koreans themselves. Clearly, factions in North Korea are unhappy with the present direction of their country.

Q: What about Iran?


Iran is much more difficult. There are some things internal to Iran that one has to look at. Demographics are one. The Persians are almost a minority in their own country now -- they're like 52% or something. There are many more Azeris in Tabriz than there are in Azerbaijan, just for the record. So that has an effect over time of changing things.

They've developed no new infrastructure since the revolution. That impedes them as a society from moving forward.

Regarding U.S. policy to Iran, we're content to let the EU-3 ministers take the lead. They are the ones who came out thinking they had an agreement with the Iranians and had the Iranians pull the rug out from under them. We'll look forward to the September International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting and then the November meeting.

Q: Are sanctions an option?


There's not much enthusiasm in the Security Council for sanctions. We've seen attitudes in Europe starting to harden against the Iranians because of the ministers who had approached Iran with very good intentions and had the rug pulled out from under them.

We'll continue to push from the outside, and we'll be the tough cop, I would say, so that others can be the good cop -- whatever works. But at the end of the day, we're all policemen. If we're all policemen, something has to give, and we'll be looking to see if we can't move to sanctions, unless there's a change of behavior.

Q: Do some people within the Administration believe that the role of the negotiations is to show that, in fact, they may not work, and we're going to have to go this other route?


There may be people that have all kinds of opinions in any Administration, but the President's opinion is what counts. And what he's saying is we're going to try international pressure. We're getting international consensus on the need for Iran to get rid of their weapons program. And he's going to continue pushing that.

If people push with the motive of showing that the Iranians are hard-headed on these matters and ultimately the Iranians do accede to the international consensus, then it's a good thing. On the other hand, if we try and let others, the Europeans particularly, take the lead, and the Iranians prove unfaithful or unworthy for these discussions, then we will have formed a stronger consensus. So, all roads lead to the right place.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of this interview with Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage

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