GPS: "From the moment the first American tank crossed the...border to march on Saddam's Baghdad, America was, by default, at war with Iran."
Fareed's show this week focused on Iran. He started with an interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister. Following that was a panel discussion, with Christiane Amanpour via video from London, while Vali Nasr and Michael were in the studio.
The first section of the panel discussion dealt with how to deal with Iran diplomatically -- the recent EU proposal, the Iraqi SoFA, etc.
The second part focused more on Iran's threat against Israel and the possibility that Israel is preparing to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE: I've called in some experts and colleagues to help me understand what Foreign Minister Mottaki had to say, and we'll talk about other important international developments, as well.
Joining me now, the scholar Vali Nasr of Tufts University; CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour; and CNN's Baghdad correspondent, Michael Ware.
Welcome to all of you.
Vali, what was the bottom line from that interview you took with Mottaki?
VALI NASR, TUFTS UNIVERSITY: Well, some of it was standard Iranian response to various things, but some of it was new.
It was clearly a very new tone, an interest in reopening at least talking about talking, which seemed to have stopped, sending clear signals that perhaps Iran is not interested in attacking Israel imminently, although it is not backing away from its position regarding comments it's made about Israel's right to exist, et cetera.
And that it also would like to maybe engage the U.S. on Afghanistan, engage the United States on Iraq. And it would like to back away the United States from contemplating military action, and create some more room for Iran to continue to follow the diplomatic line that it has.
So, I would say a lot of it was a charm offensive. But within it, it had strains that the U.S. or the Europeans could pick on, in order to see how serious Iran is actually about talking.
ZAKARIA: Christiane, I was struck by how many times he praised Solana and the E.U. proposal as constructive, new in its modalities, new in its substance.
What did you make of it?
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I've just learned from Western diplomats here in Europe connected with this -- he wouldn't say publicly the proposal -- but I've just learned that it contains the following: that the E.U., Javier Solana, in an undisclosed proposal so far, has agreed to allow Iran what it wants to do, which is to continue its enrichment at the current level. In other words, it's somewhere around 3,000 centrifuges -- not to add to the 3,000 centrifuges, but to still allow it to continue enriching at that level for the next six weeks, or for a period of six weeks.
In return for that, the E.U. will promise not to engage in, or request from the U.N., any further, any new sanctions for the period of six weeks. And this will enable what you heard him say, which was talks about talks.
So, that is the news of what's going on with this new proposal.
Of course, what it does is allow Iran to continue at this level of enrichment. And as you know, if you've been picking up all the signals from Iran over the last several years, their raison d'etre in this nuclear program has been to win the international right to actually enrich. And that is what they think that they have now secured.
ZAKARIA: But the proposal I thought was published, because certainly the one I saw did not mention this twist that...
ZAKARIA: ... that you have mentioned. So, there was a secret part to it.
AMANPOUR: Well, this is what I'm told.
You heard Mottaki talk about a letter, and you heard him not talk about the actual proposals. So, this is what a Western diplomat is saying.
But of course, this is between the E.U. and Iran. This is what was presented, according to this Western diplomat. It is not between the United States and Iran, although I'm told that the U.S. has given tacit agreement to this.
This is not negotiations. This is not about the full resolution of the nuclear program. This is about the talks before the formal negotiations.
And those formal negotiations, according to both the United States and the E.U., require a suspension of their enrichment. And that as yet -- well, we haven't got to that point yet.
ZAKARIA: Michael Ware, I was struck by the fact that he repeated his public opposition to the Status of Forces Agreement. That seems as though it was a very clear, public Iranian position. They could be saying this privately. They have been saying it.
What's going on here? Why is this so important to them?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT: Well, in many ways, this agreement, should it be struck, is going to be a very useful barometer to guide us as to the success or failure of the U.S. mission.
I mean, look, let's face it. From the moment the first American tank crossed the Kuwaiti border and the Saudi border to march on Saddam's Baghdad, America was, by default, at war with Iran.
Now, the only problem is, Iran knew that, but America did not. America didn't start waking up to this until 2006, when it started to create its amendment to the campaign plan, countering Iranian influence.
So, Iran's gains had already been secured. It's in a position of strength.
ZAKARIA: But I heard, Michael, that Iran has been having some trouble with the government recently, which is one of the reasons...
WARE: Of course they will.
ZAKARIA: ... they've been supporting Sadr for a while.
WARE: Oh, of course they will.
ZAKARIA: The visit with -- Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq did not go well.
So, clearly, they're also searching for some degree of control, which is maybe why they're publicly saying, "Guys, don't sign this."
If they sign the Status of Forces Agreement, will that be a defeat for Iran?
WARE: No, it won't be. It'll depend on two things. One is the terms themselves.
And there's a couple of key issues to look at there, to gauge the level of Iranian influence. And I would point primarily to the fate of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service.
Right now, technically, it's not even on the table. This is Iraq's CIA. But it's owned, funded, operated by America's CIA. It doesn't answer to Maliki.
In the meantime, Iran has helped the Iraqis set up their own competing intelligence agency. Under SOFA, whatever happens to the INIS is going to be a key indicator of who has the real influence.
ZAKARIA: Vali, I was also struck by his comments on Israel. Without renouncing what Ahmadinejad has said, without negating it, he seemed to be signaling, look, we have no intention of attacking Israel.
Would that be a fair interpretation?
NASR: Yes. I thought that what he was saying very clearly is that Iran would not attack Israel unless it is attacked first. But he also did not want to distance himself from what has already been said.
I think domestically, it is not possible for the Iranians to easily or brazenly move away from the rhetoric. And also, on the Arab street, Iran has made some gains by its very strong, anti-Israeli position, which I thought he still was playing to.
You clearly see the dilemma of the Iranian regime in Mottaki's comments, that when they want to come to the middle in order to engage the West, how do they move away from their own revolutionary rhetoric without losing the political capital that goes with it?
So, it's a balancing act.
ZAKARIA: Christiane, there is this kind of internal balancing act you sometimes feel when you're listening to Iranian diplomats, where they're positioning themselves in part to address domestic criticism or comments.
Did you pick up any of that listening to him?
AMANPOUR: Well, yes, I mean, clearly, in the comments about Israel. But I'd slightly disagree.
I mean, you have -- I've interviewed Ahmadinejad. Other people have interviewed Iranian officials. They've never actually said they're going to go out and launch an attack. I mean, they've always sort of couched it in this, you know, this is an illegitimate regime. They've always sort of said that.
In view of the current nuclear negotiations, what's really interesting is that it has been now discussed quite a lot, according to reports from inside, on Iranian state television. It's been discussed more openly perhaps than it has been before, less belligerently than it has been before.
And if you remember -- and he mentioned Mohamed ElBaradei of the IAEA. A couple of years ago, maybe more than a couple of years ago, this kind of proposal was on the table. And at that time, it was just 20 centrifuges. It was, Iran just wanted an R&D, a slight experimental, let's have strict verification, and let's proceed. But, of course, the United States said forget it, nothing unless they suspend uranium enrichment.
And now it appears we're at more than 3,000 centrifuges, and perhaps they're going to go back to this formulation that Mr. ElBaradei had more than two years ago.
ZAKARIA: Michael, you see them up close in Iraq. One of the things people are trying to figure out: Fundamentally, are they trying to destabilize the region, or are they just trying to be an important player in it?
WARE: They want to have influence over the region.
Now, they'll use instability when it suits. They'll use support when that benefits them.
I mean, the Iranians have proved to have a very savvy, strategic mind. They're not of one ilk. They know how to use the carrot and the stick.
I mean, let's just take Iraq as a microcosm. These Iraqi militias that are trained and armed and equipped in Iran, supported by Iran, their attacks go up and down, as though someone is turning on and off a faucet for the attacks.
And this is their form of dialogue, not just with the Americans, but with the region.
And there's nothing anyone can do to stop them on this issue or on the nuclear issue. America has no military alternative, and Iran knows that.
ZAKARIA: And we will be back to talk about all this and more in just a moment.
ZAKARIA: And we are back with our panel.
Vali, what do you make of the recent reports about Israel, Israel planning to strike? I mean there's a scenario you could concoct, which is, you know, Israel is striking a deal with Hamas, exchanging prisoners with Hezbollah, talking to Syria, talking to Egypt -- and then makes these military maneuvers.
It almost seems as though there's a kind of diplomatic clearing of the decks, establishing some goodwill with its other neighbors, and perhaps preparing for an air strike against Iran.
NASR: No doubt. I mean, there's been a strategy on the table for a while, of trying to build an Arab alliance against Iran, that would support military action or very tough diplomacy against Iran. Iranians, on the other hand, have been trying to both bully the Arabs away from such a position, but also to get their goodwill.
So, there has been a charm offensive with the Arab world. At the same time, Iranians have threatened some smaller Arab governments, in case if they support military action. Or as Michael suggested, Iraq is obviously a very clear playing ground here. And therefore, what we're seeing is sort of Israel now taking this strategy much more seriously, trying to mend fences, not only with its neighbors -- Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria -- but also more seriously taking care of the Palestinian problem at a level that would pacify the Arab street, in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. That then, those regimes could come out, more forcefully defend tougher action against Iran.
So, now the ball is in the Iranian court. Can the Iranians do anything to offset this Israeli initiative?
And one of the ways in which they do it is this tough rhetoric against Israel. So, you have a rhetorical war for the Arab hearts and minds going on.
ZAKARIA: But what I've always thought is you have to think of the rhetoric the Iranians use on Palestine as part of a political strategy to gain credibility on the Arab street.
If you go to the Arab world, I'm struck by the fact that Ahmadinejad is something of a folk hero in, you know, Cairo, in Amman. And this is strange -- he's a Shiite, he's a Persian.
And the reason is, he is seen as a defender of the Palestinian people in a way that the Arab regimes can't be, because they are worried about Washington.
NASR: Exactly. And that deficit, Israel is trying to help with.
In other words, by being more forthcoming on Hamas, on Hezbollah, and on engaging Syria, they're hoping to help pacify the Arab street. And that would allow the Arab governments to come out much more.
And Iran, on the other hand, is trying to both bully them, as well as try to buy their support as well.
ZAKARIA: Christiane, what do you make of the Israeli strategy?
AMANPOUR: Well, there are several things here. One, Ahmadinejad is also a folk hero, if you like, on the Arab street, because of his opposition to the United States. And that has played extremely well over the last several years, of course, with the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East and in the Arab and Muslim world.
But I think what's interesting is what Mr. Velayati has been saying publicly now -- former foreign minister, very close adviser to the leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.
President Ahmadinejad has been quite quiet over these latest proposals, and Velayati has come out and said, "Look. We need to show the world that we want to address this diplomatically, because the world -- the U.S. and its agents," he said, "is trying to say that we want war. And we need to show the world that we don't want it, and we need to address this diplomatically."
Now, in terms of Israel, there were the reports of its massive military maneuvers over the last several weeks or so, but also the very real issue of last September, when Israel went and struck the Syrian, apparently nuclear, power plant under construction.
And that was termed at that point, and deemed, not just to take out that plant -- although we'll never really know what was in that plant, because it's been bombed -- but also as a message to Iran. And I think that has been exceptionally clear.
But I think what's really interesting right now is the different tone that's coming out of Iran.
And look at the tone coming out of the highest levels of the American military. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has just said that it would be a high-risk operation that would destabilize the Middle East. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for any attack.
ZAKARIA: Michael, does General Petraeus worry that if there were to be an Israel or an American strike on Iran, that what would happen would be Shiite militias in Iraq would start ramping up the killing of American soldiers?
WARE: Well, that's clearly one of many ways that Tehran could respond to a strike.
But let's just think about it. What's the point of a strike? Do you think Iran doesn't expect it? Do you think this in any way would actually cripple their programs or their military?
ZAKARIA: It would delay...
WARE: It does not...
ZAKARIA: Yes, it would delay. It would not destroy...
WARE: Oh, you know, and it would -- it would consolidate, to some degree, internal support and external support on the Arab street.
AMANPOUR: What's really interesting is an article that actually a former Israeli foreign minister has just published, Shlomo Ben-Ami. And he has, basically in a nutshell, talked about how often the U.S. and Israel tends to downplay the risks and the repercussions associated with military action -- as they did in the case with Iraq in 2003 and subsequent years -- and they exaggerate the challenges faced with negotiation and diplomacy.
Look what the U.S. has achieved in North Korea recently by diplomatic negotiations.
NASR: I was going to say that, you know, Iran also has a unique advantage compared to many other countries in its situation, that it can deflect an attack by responding not on its own territory or its own turf, but somewhere else. And in a way have proxies -- in Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan -- bog down the U.S., at least in terms of subsequent, follow-up attacks.
And there's also all sorts of questions about, you know, it might be possible for Israel to carry out the first attack on Iran. But then, what about next attacks? How is it going to get over Jordan, Egypt, you know, Turkey, to get to Iranian territory, if Iran is able to mobilize the Arab street in those countries?
So, what the attack would do is, more than anything it's going to change the tenor of relations. In other words, we have sort of the two countries right now being aggressive with one another, but within certain red lines and within certain bounds.
Once you attack Iran, the gloves come off.
And I think the point that Christiane was saying about Ali Velayati is very important, because Velayati is now part of a troika, including Iran's speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, who are going to take Ahmadinejad on in the presidential elections in June.
And it's not only the U.S. that's going to have a change of leadership. Iran may well have a change of leadership.
And people like Velayati do not want a radical change in context as they go into elections, for the Iranians to rally to the flag behind Ahmadinejad, behind the incumbent.
They'd much rather follow the line that Mottaki was giving today -- let's talk about talking. Let's find a way to keep the ball rolling, and let's not end up in a military conflict that then is going to change the nature of this relationship.
ZAKARIA: So, tensions in Iran will cause rallying around the flag, which might benefit Ahmadinejad. So, these guys, for purely domestic reasons, also are trying to diffuse the tensions.
NASR: Absolutely. I mean, everybody -- they also would like to be the ones to talk to the United States. They think Ahmadinejad is toxic. They would like to have the opportunity to deal with the next administration.
And there is no doubt, Iranians probably will react like any other people would, in the middle of a war, issues of economy, democratic rights, Ahmadinejad's management style will all fall by the wayside. And they may rally behind an incumbent, and that would basically favor him in a presidential election.
ZAKARIA: Michael, bottom line, do you think the Status of Forces Agreement will go through? Will there be some deal between the United States and Iraq?
There has to be. Otherwise, U.S. forces can't stay.
WARE: No, that's not entirely true. I believe, if I was a betting man, that, yes, there will be some kind of an agreement. Will it be on terms that America is entirely happy with? That's the real question, because there are other routes.
Indeed, the American ambassadors, who are sitting at the negotiating table, clearly acknowledge the legal validity of another route. And that's using hangover legislation from the Coalition Provisional Authority of Paul Bremer, that allows for the Iraqi government to go to its own parliament, create its own legislation, that dictates the terms under which any foreign force can be present in its country, as any other nation on the earth can do.
So in essence, they have the choice, or at least to use as a stick in the negotiations, to jam down the throat of the next president the conditions in which he can conduct his war.
ZAKARIA: And we will all be watching this. Thank you all. Christiane from London, Vali and Michael Ware, thank you.
We'll be back.