What Are U.S. Interests When It Comes To Iran?

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Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski says ultimately it is in the U.S. interest to have Iran as a stabilizing regional power. The more immediate interest, he says, is to avoid an Iranian nuclear bomb.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

When diplomats and policymakers embark on a new friendlier relationship with a hostile rival, they sometimes reach for the words of the British statesman, Lord Palmerston. It is a narrow policy, he said, to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow.

So, what are U.S. interests when it comes to Iran? And what should Washington be prepared to abide in pursuit of those interests? Well, joining us to give his answers to those questions and others is former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Welcome to the program, once again.

Mr. ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Former National Security Advisor): It's good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Let's assume that the U.S. actually can have constructive negotiations with Iran. What our are core interests with Iran?

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: I think our ultimate interest is to have Iran as a stabilizing regional power: a power that is not hostile to the United States, a power that can be a friendly partner, a power that can incidentally can also return to the status of a friend of Israel. I think that is the long-range interest. The more immediate interest is to avoid either an Iranian nuclear bomb, which contributes to instability in the region, or more generalized hostility between Iran and the United States.

SIEGEL: Where in the set of our interests in Iran do such things as its treatment of minorities, its treatment of women, its ability or inability to run a fair election, where do those things figure?

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: They're as important in that relationship as they are in some relationships, whether it be, for example, with China or as was in the past decades with the Soviet Union. That is to say these are things we don't forget about, that we try to help, but they don't dictate the nature of their external relationship with the country, because the external relationship with a country involves more fundamental issues of stability and security.

SIEGEL: What if a more accommodating attitude from Washington toward President Ahmadinejad were to, effectively in domestic terms, strengthen President Ahmadinejad or strengthen the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei? Is that something worth the potential cost for the U.S. to see them benefit from that achievement?

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: I wouldn't frame the issue that way because a relationship is not with an individual. It is really with a country. A relationship with an individual actually is only relevant if that individual is truly the critical decision-maker. Ahmadinejad, I think most American's forget, is in fact a second or even a third-level official. The supreme leader is the top leader. And next to him are a number of officials who wield considerable power over whom Ahmadinejad does not have any power. So we shouldn't make Ahmadinejad the sort of focal point of our negotiating tactics.

SIEGEL: So many people are pessimistic about these talks that are beginning and assume that Iran will not budge on its nuclear program. How does the U.S. best proceed in that case given that it is very unlikely to see it short-term goals met in anything resembling a short term?

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: I think first of all we have to be patient and avoid some arbitrary deadlines. Because if we start being impatient, we're transforming the negotiations from negotiations into the issuance of ultimata, and that's not going to work. Secondly, we ought to have, if possible, a wide agenda so that a number of issues are being negotiated at the same time: regional security, economic relationships, the benefits of the lifting on sanctions and other sort of benefits which would accrue from the flow of Iranian oil westward, thereby also driving the price down, as well, and of course very importantly so, the nuclear issue.

SIEGEL: Of course, critics would say, take away the deadlines and the Iranians will develop nuclear weapons and missiles to put them on.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Look, for about 15 years now, we've been told over and over again, and especially by the parties that are the most alarmist, that Iran is on the brink of having nuclear weapons. Most recently, Secretary Gates, whom I trust, said it could be anywhere from one to three years. Well, one year is fairly close, but it certainly gives us more time than just negotiating for a few weeks or even for two or three months.

SIEGEL: Zbigniew Brzezinski, thank you very much for talking with us.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Nice to have been with you.

SIEGEL: Dr. Brzezinski, former national security advisor, is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And one final note on Iran. The country's foreign minister visited Washington today. It is the first time in years an Iranian official has visited the capital, though the State Department could not say exactly how long it's been. A department spokesman said Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki would not be meeting any representatives of the U.S. government. He was given permission to visit the Pakistani embassy, which handles Iranian interests here. And you can hear an interview with Mottaki tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.

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