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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Some hostility is evident in the rhetoric of both sides in recent days. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened severe retaliation if the U.S. attacked his country. Vice President Dick Cheney sent Iran a warning from aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: We'll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating this region.

INSKEEP: For analysis of this situation, we turn to Gary Sick. He was a member of President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council. He's an expert on Iran. Mr. Sick, welcome to the program.

Mr. GARY SICK (Senior Research Scholar, School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University): Pleasure to be with you.

INSKEEP: Why would the two sides talk tough now?

Mr. SIC: Well, I think both sides have decided that they actually need each other. Actually, the Iranians have been angling to talk to the United States since, really, 2003, when they made us an offer that we ignored. We have been very coy about it, and we keep saying we're not going to talk, but now we in fact are getting ready to talk…

INSKEEP: Well, of both sides needed…

Mr. SICK: actually do share certain objectives, and we need to help each other out.

INSKEEP: Well, if both sides do need each other, why the bluster?

Mr. SICK: I think that's the standard procedure for going into negotiations. Both sides want to look tough. Both sides want to look as if they're not giving away anything, and as if they're supremely comfortable of their position. In reality, as long as the talks go ahead, that's just fine.

INSKEEP: Vice President Cheney, in an interview with Fox News, and I'm paraphrasing here, appeared to indicate that maybe the U.S. and Iran that are going to talk about Iraq, but it's only about Iraq. And other issues, there's still a major conflict. Is that an accurate description of what these talks are going to be about?

Mr. SICK: I'm sure that's an accurate description of where they're starting. But once you start something like this. If you, for instance, do start talking about Iraq and you suddenly find that you really have something to say on the subject, that you can cooperate to some degree, the pressure grows immensely to deal with the other problems, which, in many ways, are even worse and perhaps also soluble, such as the nuclear file. Which right now Iran is enriching uranium at a fairly fast clip, and I think the administration is going to have to consider why not talk to them about that as well. So I don't think they're starting out to do that, but I think that may be the outcome of this once the ice is broken.

INSKEEP: Now the vice president, as you know, traveled around the Middle East recently and says that U.S. allies in the region, that their top concern is dealing with Iran. Is he right about that?

Mr. SICK: It is a concern, for sure. The administration, I think, is trying to put together a coalition in the Middle East where everybody would say the greatest threat in the region is Iran. And the Arabs would then subordinate their opposition to Israel. That's a perfectly reasonable position for the United States to try to take. I don't really think that it's going to work quite so easily.

I think that still the Arab countries see Israel as their number one threat. And, in fact, the Saudis have really chosen not to play the U.S. game. They've invited Ahmadinejad to Riyadh. They've sent their negotiator to Tehran. And they're actually talking to each other on the side about what they can do together in Lebanon.

So I don't think that they view Iran as such a threat that it'll change their entire Middle East policy.

INSKEEP: Mr. Sick, we only have a couple of seconds, but I want to mention that Iranians recently arrested an American scholar. You know her, I believe. Is she likely to be released anytime soon?

Mr. SICK: Well, Haleh Esfandiari is a marvelous scholar. And I think she's the victim of an internal struggle that's going on inside Iran between the hardliners and the people who would actually like to open up to the rest of the world. In the past, what has happened is these scholars have been taken - and she's certainly not alone there, there have been many others - and they're held for a while. The outrage in the West grows and Iran eventually lets them go.

INSKEEP: Gary Sick, thanks very much.

Mr. SICK: Okay. Thank you.

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