NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
A new generation of Islamic revolutionaries is now in power in Iran. Five months ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad led the right wing to a sweeping electoral victory. The new president called for Israel to be wiped off the map and defied diplomatic pressure from Europe and the United States on Iran's nuclear program. He's recalled 40 Iranian ambassadors and appointed unknowns to head the important government oil ministry. Even some conservatives in Iran have some questions about what he's doing and why. And now comes news of a new initiative from Washington. Twenty-six years after diplomatic relations were severed at the start of the hostage crisis, the Bush administration has authorized the US ambassador to Iraq to contact the government in Tehran. We'll ask how important that might be and focus on the politics inside Iran and the challenge that poses for the US.
Later in the program, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns will join us. If you have questions about what's happening in Iran and why, if you've been there recently, give us a call. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Later we'll also talk to Los Angeles Times correspondent Solomon Moore about his disturbing report today about Shia militiamen who've infiltrated the police force in Iraq and formed death squads to exact vengeance on Sunnis.
But first, Iran. Joining us from the studios of NPR West is NPR foreign and diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster.
MIKE SHUSTER reporting:
CONAN: I wonder about these new talks with Zalmay Khalilzad, the new US ambassador to Iraq. How broad an opening is this?
SHUSTER: It seems that it's very narrow, Neal. We don't know a lot. The Bush administration is not saying a lot. Ambassador Khalilzad has said that the president has given him freedom to consult with Iranian diplomats and officials over the issue of stability in Iraq as the United States goes forward and as the administration contemplates what it's going to do after the December election and all the talk about drawing down troops. This has been an issue, though, of course, ever since the United States invaded Iraq. There were plenty of times when the United States needed to communicate with the Iranian government over what Iran might have been doing in Iraq, and it's been doing plenty. So it seems that the administration has finally understood that it needs to communicate with Iran vis-a-vis Iraq, but it seems that the White House is restricting Ambassador Khalilzad's activities to Iraq only.
CONAN: And how are the Iranians responding to this?
SHUSTER: Well, I don't think the Iranians have responded publicly at all. I was in Iran last spring and worked on a story about Iran's view of what was going on in Iraq, and the Iranians said--I talked to plenty of Iranians, including some in the Foreign Ministry who said that they wanted to communicate and work with the United States to maintain stability in Iraq, especially southern Iraq. The Iranians pointed to a reasonably good cooperation that took place between Iran and the United States vis-a-vis Afghanistan at the end of 2001 when the United States was involved in trying to figure out who would govern Afghanistan, and the Iranians had a role to play in that. And in fact, Zalmay Khalilzad was at the center of those discussions as well. So he's had plenty of experience in dealing with the Iranian government. He seems to be the right official in the right place at the right time to be with Iran right now.
CONAN: And you mentioned southern Iraq, where Iranian influence is strongest, and there, there have been considerable tensions between the Iranians and the British.
SHUSTER: That's right, and in fact, not too long ago, the British accused Iran of being involved in some of the explosions and bombings that have taken place in Basra. It's not clear what evidence there is for it, but the British seem to be pointing to a particular expertise in explosives and a particular kind of explosives that pointed to Iran, they said. Of course, the Iranians denied this, but there's no question that armed militia and armed agents from Iran, probably most of whom have been Iraqi, because there were many Iraqi exiles in Iran during the whole Saddam Hussein period, but probably some Iranian agents as well have been--have infiltrated from Iran into southern Iraq. The border was never sealed and never closed. It's been a very porous border since the US invasion in 2003. And so yes, the United States is naturally concerned about what Iran is doing in Iraq and in southern Iran, and there's plenty of reason to get the talks like this under way.
CONAN: And we should also point out, the Iranians accuse the British of being involved in a series of bombings inside Iran, so...
SHUSTER: Yeah, that's a tough one because the Iranians don't let reporters go to this particular area. It's a city called Ahwaz in southwestern Iran. There have been bombings in Ahwaz. There were a series of demonstrations actually when I was there, when I was in Tehran back in the spring. But there's a great deal of murkiness over what's going on in this particular area. It's important to point out that this particular area has a large concentration of--a minority that lives in Iran, Arab-Iranians, and it was the area that Saddam Hussein coveted when he invaded Iran to start the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, because it's where a great deal of Iranian oil is located. So this is an area that--in both Iran and Iraq that have traditionally been tension areas and could very well be again.
CONAN: We want to focus for most of the program on the politics inside Iran and the challenge that this new regime in Iran is posing for the United States. And as we mentioned, the new president was elected there five months ago and brought a whole raft of right-wingers. They now control the parliament in Tehran as well as the presidency. And you've reported on some tensions within the Iranian government with the powerful clerics there.
SHUSTER: This is a hard story to get at, but there's a lot being written now on various Iran-oriented Web sites around the world. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected president back in June, it was assumed that now the conservatives controlled all the reins of power. The supreme leader is a conservative cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Last year the conservatives gained control of the parliament, which had for the previous four years been oriented toward reform. And now Ahmadinejad had replaced the reformist-oriented president, Mohammed Khatemi. And so there was an expectation that most of the power would fall into the--would be consolidated in the hands of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad was a relative neophyte to politics, and it was assumed that he wouldn't be very strong.
What--the unexpected development is that now there's a lot of talk about a power struggle within conservative ranks in Iran where Ahmadinejad is bringing in a lot of people that supported him that are seen as more a resurgence of revolutionary ideals of the Islamic republic in the early years of the 1980s, challenging some of the more liberal economic policies that have been pursued in the last few years and certainly challenging some of the more liberal social policies that have allowed young men and women to socialize more openly, that have allowed certain dress codes for women to be eroded.
And it seems that this is something that Ahmadinejad and people around him want to bring, and it's made some of the more traditional conservatives, like Ali Khamenei and the former president, Rafsanjani, uncomfortable. And as I understand it, earlier in the fall, Ali Khamenei gave more power to Rafsanjani as--in his position as leader of something called the Expediency Council to pass on all sorts of policies that the government, the president and the legislature were promulgating. And now there are those who feel that this is the beginning of the power struggle for who will really control the government in Iran.
CONAN: Interestingly, those were mechanisms installed to control the previous president, the reformists, and now they're being applied on conservatives as well. A fascinating situation, and indeed, you're talking about a split amongst the clerics as well.
SHUSTER: That's right. There are some writers and analysts who are saying that there is a much more conservative and ultraconservative ayatollah named Mesbah Yazdi, who's the favorite of President Ahmadinejad and that he doesn't look all that favorably on the policies of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
And there's even talk that somehow there might be a power play to replace Ali Khamenei sometime next year. The way the supreme leader is chosen is through something called the Council of--the Assembly of Experts, and this is a nominally elected body that then chooses the supreme leader. There have only been two supreme leaders in the 25-year history of the Islamic republic of Iran, first Ayatollah Khomeini and then his replacement, Ali Khamenei when Khomeini died in 1989. There's never been an effort to replace a supreme leader while he was still alive or struggle over how that process might take place, but there are some analysts writing on these Web sites that think that that might be in the cards now.
CONAN: And in the midst of this, the new president has appointed unknowns to head the important oil ministry, obviously extremely important in Iran, and they have been rejected in parliament. As we all know, he's recalled 40 Iranian ambassadors from around the world, people who were largely viewed as either pragmatists or reformers. He's called very notoriously for Israel to be wiped off the map, and some people look at this and question his leadership. Other people that you've talked to say maybe he's crazy like a fox.
SHUSTER: Well, that's right. Initially there was, I think, a perception that he might be simply naive and not smart enough and not sharp enough and not aware of the power that his words convey--all of them--as the new president of Iran. But there--now an analysis has emerged, a second school of thought, to suggest that maybe Ahmadinejad is provoking a conflict within Iran internally by these moves, certainly by the diplomatic moves and the effort to replace many bureaucrats in other parts of the government and managers of state that run companies in order to provoke this conflict and this clash as a way of forcing the issue and possibly accruing more power to himself.
CONAN: Yeah, but doesn't it make sense when a new faction or new party almost takes control of the government, they're going to want to bring in their people?
SHUSTER: Certainly, and--but I think that the traditional conservatives didn't think that there would be such a wholesale housecleaning because they saw Ahmadinejad as one of their own. As I said earlier, there was an assumption that this might be an easy transition rather than a challenge to the powers that be in Iran. Part of it seems to be that Ahmadinejad was elected and there, of course, are many questions about the purity of the election, but nevertheless, he was elected with support from poor people around the country on a populist campaign against corruption in government. And that campaign is leveled not at reformers but at the traditional conservatives who have been in power and many of whom have become rich over the years.
CONAN: Our focus today is on Iran. Mike Shuster will stay with us after the break. We'll be joined by Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations. Later in the program, we'll also be talking with Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of Political Affairs at the State Department, about what the United States hopes to do in terms of its Iran policy.
If you'd like to join us, our number is (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us, email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. We're back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking today about the new generation in power in Iran and about US policy toward that country. It involves nuclear power, possibly nuclear weapons, of course, oil relations with Iraq, Afghanistan; a lot of important things go on. Of course, the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and has not had for more than a quarter-century. We were talking earlier today about an apparently narrow diplomatic initiative that would authorize the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to open talks with Iran on the subject of Iraq. But we'll hear more about that later.
Joining us now along with Mike Shuster, who's with us at NPR West in Los Angeles, is Ray Takeyh. He's a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies with the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins us from the council's studios here in Washington, DC.
Good of you to be with us today.
Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Council on Foreign Relations): Thank you.
CONAN: And I was interested--you describe this new generation of right-wingers in power in Iraq--Iran as people whose defining experience is not the revolution of a quarter-century ago but the long war with Iraq.
Mr. TAKEYH: Oh, yes, that's right, for Ahmadinejad and much of his Cabinet, whose average age, I believe, is 46. Many of them have a background in security services, military service, and, of course, that led them to the war with Iraq. And that in many ways has been their defining experience and has molded their perceptions of the international community and sort of the strategic requirements of the country.
CONAN: In terms of the international community, you talk about the fact that there were no or very few complaints from the international community when Saddam Hussein's Iraq used chemical weapons.
Mr. TAKEYH: There were almost none. Approximately there were eight UN investigations that resulted in rather conclusive identification of Iraq as the party that employed chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians alike. And nevertheless, there was no sort of international rebuke, sanction or censure of the Iraqi regime, far from it. The United States and its allies provided credits and intelligence to Iraqi government while some European states, particularly France, was the leading seller of armament to Iraq and some firms within Germany were providing Iraq with agents necessary for construction of these chemical plants.
CONAN: And this also is, indeed, part of the rationale you talk about as to why Iran is so determined to develop a nuclear weapon.
Mr. TAKEYH: Well, it sort of has a number of implications for Iran's leadership. First, that the security and safety of the country cannot be predicated on international opinion, international treaties or sort of international diplomacy, that there has to be a degree of self-sufficiency and a viable deterrent capability by the Iranian regime itself.
CONAN: All right.
Mr. TAKEYH: Second of all, as I said, it has led to suspicion of international community's intentions and as a matter of fact, a couple of days ago, Ahmadinejad gave a speech in which he talked about the countries that now are so insistent on weapons of mass destruction but they were rather indifferent before, they're so insistent on human rights; yet looking at the record of their allies and themselves, they have been rather lax in that respect. So their argument of hypocrisy also comes across rather well.
CONAN: Let's get a listener involved in the conversation. Again, our number is (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Farzad joins us from Fairfax, Virginia.
FARZAD (Caller): Yes. I'm an Iranian-American, and I'd like to say that the United States has made a grave mistake not to stay engaged since the start of the revolution with Iran and also not being honest toward Iran, and that that has caused the general policy of the regime to go where it is now. I think that if the United States would have been more honest about Iran and would have admitted to some of the mistakes that they made toward Iran, it could have prevented a lot of problems that are--now we are dealing with.
CONAN: Well, I want to get Mike Shuster in on this as well, but Ray Takeyh, you describe Iran as a place that is--well, at the same time it has a vibrant society, it is also a country that supports terrorism and is involved in a lot of things the United States has a lot of problems with.
Mr. TAKEYH: The traditional American concerns about Iran have been threefold: Iranian proliferation tendencies, Iran's support for various Palestinian rejectionist groups and organizations such as Hezbollah which have used violence in their opposition to Israel, and finally some issues on human rights and domestic political abuses as well. And that's a fairly long list, and it's an onerous list, but that essentially defines American objections to Iran. I guess to that you can add Iranian policies toward Iraq that may conflict with certain aspects of American perceptions there.
CONAN: At the same time, would you agree with Farzad that the United States made a mistake by not talking more to Iran?
Mr. TAKEYH: There were a number of attempts in the latter stage of the Clinton administration to rationalize--I don't like to use the word `normalize,' given where we are--but those efforts largely came--they came and went, given the fact that neither political systems was prepared for that sort of a far-reaching agreement. We're today at a rather unique junction in US-Iran relations in that neither side is particularly interested in embarking toward a rapprochement or normalization. Iranian government, by its declared objectives, seems rather indifferent to the United States, if not actively hostile, and the United States government obviously has a policy that is based more on coercion and isolation as opposed to engagement and negotiations.
CONAN: Mike Shuster, would you say that's right? You were talking earlier about engagement with Iran in Afghanistan and now we hear about Ambassador Khalilzad.
SHUSTER: Well, the--most diplomats and officials will say that the interaction between the US and Iran in late 2001 over Afghanistan was a successful one, but then neither side seemed much interested in taking it further. It was true that there was an effort--a real effort on the part of Bill Clinton in the second term, especially after President Mohammed Khatemi was elected in Iran in 1997, to move things forward, and by the end of Clinton's term, the president and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had practically begged for some kind of serious diplomatic process to get under way. And Albright made a speech in the late '90s in Washington in which she all but apologized for the 1953 coup that the CIA engineered in Iran that is such a point of contention for the last half-century between Iran and the United States.
But the situation in Iran at that time was that the reformers were in office but not in power. They were blocked by conservatives and by the supreme leader from pursuing improved relations with the United States. And when I went to Iran over the last two years--I've been there twice--Iranians always told me that there are many, even among conservative ranks, that would like to see improved relations with the United States at various points over the last few years, but they didn't want the reformers to get credit for it. So there was a belief that perhaps when conservatives ended up in all the offices of power, that there might be some opening to the United States. But I agree with Ray that there doesn't seem to be on either side much taste for it right now.
CONAN: Farzad, thanks very much for the call.
FARZAD: Yeah, thank you.
CONAN: And let's talk now with Ron, and Ron's calling us from Goldsboro, North Carolina.
RON (Caller): Good afternoon, and thank you for taking my call.
RON: The question I had--according to National Geographic, BBC, various news agencies, in the early '90s, it appeared that the majority of the Iranian population from ages 16 to 30 were seeking democracy, and my question is, why didn't the US step in at that time and help this group of people?
CONAN: Ray Takeyh?
Mr. TAKEYH: Yeah, there is actually a considerable appetite within Iran and its rather sophisticated population and its literate population--unlike many other countries in the Middle East, Iran's literacy rate is about 85, 90 percent--for a more representative political system. And that's largely an internal struggle, and it has to move on its own pace and with its own dynamic and direction. I'm not quite sure if an external power such as the United States at any point, whether it's in the 1990s or today, can do much to install or accelerate those democratic trends. Iran will change, but it is a change that has to come from inside and on the initiative of the Iranian peoples themselves.
CONAN: I'm--thanks, Ron.
RON: Thank you.
CONAN: The--obviously the reformers, Mr. Khatemi, were--well, they were--a lot of them were prohibited from running for election last time around. Pragmatists were defeated in the election. Ray Takeyh, you describe a situation where politically, Iran's got a lot of internal problems, economic problems as well, and now all of a sudden, the right wing is going to be responsible for everything.
Mr. TAKEYH: In--both elections of 1997 that led to the rise of the reformers and President Khatemi and the election of 2005, were both important elections in one respect. In 1997, Iranians voted for political change and political accountability. In 2005, to the extent that Iranians voted, they voted for economic justice and economic accountability. So this new regime in Iran does have a mandate, and it is a rather--an onerous mandate, namely to resolve Iran's economic situation, to provide more for the population and deal with its material grievances. I don't believe it can achieve those objectives, and so like every other administration in Iran's post-revolutionary period, eventually Iranians may be disappointed with the government that they elected because of its inability or unwillingness or incapacity to actually deliver on its political pledges.
CONAN: And what about the opposition groups? And we've referred to them broadly, I guess, as reformers and pragmatists. There's obviously a lot of factions in there.
Mr. TAKEYH: Yeah. The reformers have to essentially go back to the drawing board and think what happened. In 1997, they got about 75 percent of the vote and in the 2005 election, they got maybe about 20 percent of the vote. So along the way, they lost touch with the public. They have to go back to the think tanks or the research organizations or to the grassroots organizations and once again reconnect with the Iranian public, a connection that they lost while they were in power. And one of the reasons why they lost it is because the reform movement was rather an upper middle-class elite movement that focused on lofty political ambitions such as reconciling democracy with Islam, and it never really had an economic agenda, and for many Iranian people who were struggling with difficult economic times, that was an important shortcoming.
So the reform movement now has an opportunity to go back, rethink its strategies, reformulate its strategies and maybe re-establish a connection with the Iranian people. There's efforts to do that. I'm not sure if they'll succeed or not, but that's the only possible way that the reform movement can come back. It cannot come back with the slogans of the mid- to late-1990s. It has to come back with a very different agenda that has a populist appeal.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And, Mike, I know you've talked with some of those people in various kinds of opposition groups as well.
SHUSTER: Yeah. I think that they're quite confused at this stage of the game. They fought for some eight years, those outside of government, those in the parliament. They were--they tried to implement reform policies that were often blocked by the other governmental structures dominated by the clerics. I think economic policy is of central importance in Iran, and every time I've been there, people have told me that. But there's an ongoing struggle. There's a deep-down division within Iranian society and those who hold office, both on the clerical and on the political side, about just what kind of an economy Iran ought to be. There is a sense among some that the Iranian oil wealth ought to be used to be redistributed to the people, and a kind of Islamic socialism exists in part in Iran, but over the last five or eight years, that's led to a stagnant economy and economists and other analysts say there needs to be much more of a modernization of the economy and opening it up. And most analysts that I've spoken to do not think that President Ahmadinejad and those who support him are gonna pursue policies like that, thereby expecting that Iran's economy will continue to stagnate despite the fact of very high oil prices which, of course, benefits Iran.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're talking about Iran and US policy towards it. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, Ray Takeyh, I wanted to ask you about the way ahead. The United States has sort of been playing bad cop in the--to the European good cop in the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programs, and at the same time Iran, most people believe, is working very hard, as fast as it can, to get a nuclear weapon. It may be five to 10 years away by most estimates. You say that the United States really cannot try to bully or use hard-line tactics, sanctions, those kinds of things, to pressure Iran to abandon this approach?
Mr. TAKEYH: There is no purely coercive solution to this. The threats of sanctions, however they may be enacted at whatever level of intensity has no particular impression on Iran's new government. They're rather indifferent to threats of coercion and threats of rescission of foreign investment. So the idea that this IAEA process will go to the Security Council and some sort of a multilateral sanctions are going to be enacted, which they're likely to be rather watered down if enacted at all, that is not something that's likely to make an impression on Iranian government.
For Ahmadinejad's government, the nuclear calculations are predicated on domestic factors. On nationalistic factors, namely that Iran is being mistreated by superpower bullying. By ideological factors, namely their distrust of the international community leads them to try to achieve a deterrent power that is convincing and powerful. And, frankly, some of their attachment to a nuclear deterrent has been buttressed by the events in the Middle East in the last four or five years where United States has intervened militarily to displace governments that obviously did not have that type of a deterrent capability.
So the argument that one requires nuclear weapons, the strategic option to deter the United States, does have some validity. Iraq, that did not have nuclear weapons, is subjugated and occupied, while the United States is trying to craft a viable package of strategic and economic concessions to a North Korea regime that does have nuclear weapons. That does make an impression on domestic calculations and nuclear policy of any government, Ahmadinejad or otherwise. I actually see a great deal of continuity between the nuclear diplomacy of the current Iranian government and its predecessor.
CONAN: And, Mike Shuster, you could probably add, you know, that there's continuity back to the shah of Iran as well.
SHUSTER: Yeah, well, the US nuclear cooperation with Iran began during the shah's period in the 1970s and, in fact, leaders of the current Iranian government and its predecessor have often cited that, to say that they have the right to pursue these technologies. What's interesting now, I think, is that the--Russia has come forward with a proposal that's very interesting, even novel, it seems to me, and there might be some room for further negotiation on that. Russia essentially has proposed that it and Iran together finance, build and manage a new uranium enrichment facility for Iran exclusively, but on Russian soil. The idea would be that the international community would grant that Iran has a right to this nuclear technology, but should see it in its interests at the moment to produce enriched uranium for a civilian nuclear power program in Russia, that then the nuclear fuel would be sent to Iran, used, and then the nuclear waste would be sent back to Russia so that the plutonium in it couldn't be reprocessed. Iran has initially rejected this, but the United States is on board for this and is urging Iran to continue to talk about it.
CONAN: And we'll see where that continues to go. Thank you both very much for being with us.
Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, joined us here in Washington.
Appreciate your time today, sir.
Mr. TAKEYH: Thank you.
CONAN: And NPR's foreign and diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster joined us from NPR West in Los Angeles.
SHUSTER: OK, Neal. Good to be with you.
CONAN: More on Iran after the break, including a conversation with Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.
I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. The nation's first big winter storm has left tens of thousands without power in the Dakotas. Sections of Interstate 70 remain closed in Nebraska and Colorado as the storm moves towards the Midwest. And President Bush said today in El Paso that it would be a terrible mistake to pull US forces out of Iraq without having achieved victory. The president was, as I mentioned, speaking in El Paso where he's touring the Mexican border, and he's scheduled to make what the White House is describing as a major address on Iraq and the war against terrorism tomorrow in Annapolis. We'll have coverage of that tomorrow at this time on TALK OF THE NATION, including analysis of what the president says in terms of the way ahead in Iraq. Of course, he's been asked a lot to provide a plan.
Today, Iraq's neighbor, Iran, is our focus. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255. And joining us now is Kaveh Ehsani, and he's a research director of the Jomhur Cultural and Social Association in Tehran, and he joins us by phone from his home in Chicago, Illinois.
And nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. KAVEH EHSANI (Jomhur Cultural and Social Research Association): Good to be talking to you.
CONAN: You were last in Iran in October, and we were talking a lot about the various political factions in Iran. How are people there reacting to the new government and the new presidency?
Mr. EHSANI: Well, I think there's a lot of ambivalence. I--you know, I have talked to a lot of people who actually voted for Ahmadinejad across the board, you know, people in the provinces, working-class people or even intellectuals, and I think by and large what I really detect is an increasing sense of disillusionment.
CONAN: Disillusionment with what aspect?
Mr. EHSANI: Well, with many aspects because, you know, people--officially 17 million people voted for Ahmadinejad, and these 17 million, you know, most of them came across the spectrum of a very complex society, so the reasons people voted for him are very different, and therefore, you know, there is--disillusionments are different. But by and large, I think, you know, what I can--you know, the way it can be generalized is that his campaign platform of fighting against corruption and presenting a new face, you know, in the executive branch and also, you know, kind of a toned-down version of moral conservativism was what attracted a lot of voters for him and, you know, they feel that they have been betrayed by his belligerent rhetoric, the fact that nothing has changed within the economy, that the deadlock within the government and the states has continued and even gotten worse despite the fact that even the--that, you know, the parliament and the presidency are now being controlled by the same conservative, you know, factions.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's get a listener involved in the conservation. This is Nahid(ph), Nahid calling from Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
NAHID (Caller): Yes. I just wanted to make the comment. I am Iranian-American and I go to Iran every year. I was there in July. And the domestic problem in Iran right now is not like how the women dress or what is the relationship between the young. They are just struggling now to go through day-to-day life. The economy was very bad, and each year I go it has gotten worse. And I think all the oil money's going to mullahs' pockets; if not all, at least half of it. Some of them have all these big accounts in Europe and in Canada and they are just putting the oil money there. So Iranians are just suffering. Of course, the politics are very much in their mind. They talk about it a lot, but they cannot do anything about it for the time being.
CONAN: Kaveh Ehsani, would you agree?
Mr. EHSANI: Yes, although, I mean, you know, I think one of the tendencies in my country, and I mean Iran, is to kind of--the tendency to simplify things. I mean, the economy is bad in Iran, no doubt about it, but despite one of what I heard--just the end tail of one of your previous interviewees mention that, you know, Iran is really kind of--you know, its economy is in the boondocks. And this is a country that's been having a regular 5 to 7 percent increase in its GDP and growth rate over the past few years.
So, you know, the problem is that despite the fact that the economy's growing and it's not just the oil, you know, but it's also industry and, you know, other sectors of the economy have been growing. The fact is that it doesn't trickle down, and the reason that it doesn't trickle down is not because mullahs--the so-called, you know, mythical mullahs have accounts, you know, in, you know, foreign bank accounts. I mean, that kind of corruption exists in pretty much every society that I know of in the developing world, and it's something to be abhorred and kind of resisted and fought over. But the reason is, you know, we have entrenched interests, you know, from the military to political class to other speculators who basically control significant parts of the economy and, you know, do not allow basically a more open economic sphere that would allow, you know, greater employment and, you know, trickling down of this wealth. Number one.
And secondly, you don't have--did have in the 1980s a major war which really kind of affected the economy and it had a huge population boom. I mean, the population basically doubled from the early '70s to, you know, the mid-90s and, you know, this has put tremendous pressure on the resources of the country while those resources have been shrinking regularly. So this has to be taken into consideration, aside from the fact that Iran is under international sanctions, continuous international sanctions, primarily by the US.
So this--you know, the fact that people are aware--you know, in Iran are aware that--of these difficulties, but at the same time do want to gain the benefits of, you know, employment, of, you know, getting jobs, of better, improved economic situation really has kind of created a sense of pented-up anger, and it's kind of--it is being directed toward the political class, but I think part of the--and, you know, this was kind of reflected in the popular vote for Ahmadinejad.
Mr. EHSANI: But I think part of the disillusionment that people are feeling now is that they're realizing that there's no golden solution to Iran's economic and social problems, you know, that, you know, a populist leader, despite the fact that he's a new face, despite the fact that he has all the populist words, all--you know, fighting against corruption and maintaining the independence of the country and so on and so forth, cannot really deliver because, you know, the problem is far more deep-rooted than just a bunch of, you know, corrupt clerics, you know, maintaining bank accounts abroad.
CONAN: Nahid, thank you very much for the call.
And, Kaveh Ehsani, thank you for your time today. We appreciate you.
Mr. EHSANI: My pleasure.
CONAN: Kaveh Ehsani's research director of the Jomhur Culture and Social Research Association in Tehran. He also is a researcher with the University of Illinois, Chicago, and he joined us from his home in Chicago.
Well, with us now is Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns. He's at the State Department.
Thank you, sir, very much for being with us today.
Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs): Good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: We heard news of Mr.--Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, being authorized to--what is he authorized to do in terms of his contacts with Iran?
Mr. BURNS: Well, you know, Neal, we haven't had diplomatic relations with the Iranians for 25 years, since they took over our embassy and imprisoned our diplomats for 444 days. You all remember that. I certainly do. But we do talk to the Iranians from time to time. We have for the last 25 years through various channels, and obviously as Iran has direct interests in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan, from time to time we discuss with them some of the challenges that we face in trying to provide stability there.
CONAN: And so this is going to be talks limited to the situation vis-a-vis Iraq?
Mr. BURNS: Yes. I mean, we do not have an embassy in Tehran. We do not have a normal diplomatic link with Iran. We don't--it's the only country in the world with which we don't have any sustained diplomatic contact. There are a lot of reasons for that, but from time to time we do have talks and, of course, when it comes to stability in Afghanistan, stability in Iraq, that's one of the major focuses of American foreign policy.
CONAN: As we heard earlier from our correspondent Mike Shuster about an offer from Russia to reprocess or enrich uranium in Russia for its nuclear power program, and this would presumably prevent that enrichment--uranium enrichment from being used for nuclear weapons. The Iranians have initially turned this down. Do you have hopes that they may reconsider?
Mr. BURNS: You know, it's hard to tell. The Iranians are very isolated in the world today concerning their nuclear ambitions. They insist on the right to have nuclear power plants, but they're also insisting on the right to enrich and reprocess and to perform all the functions of a nuclear fuel cycle within Iran itself, and that's dangerous, because the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is headed, by the way, the current Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei, has said that Iran withheld information for 18 years from the IAEA about its nuclear research program, and most countries in the world, including many of Iran's friends, believe that Iran is actually trying to build a nuclear weapons capability behind the guise of a peaceful civil nuclear program.
So the Russian offer to the Iranians, as we understand it, is designed to, in fact, say to the Iranians, `You can have civil nuclear power, but none of us really trust you to have that--have the enrichment and reprocessing done on Iranian soil.' That should all be done beyond Iran. And we think--as President Bush and Secretary Rice said the other day, we think this proposal has merit, and we hope very much that it will--that the Iranians will be open to it. But, you know, so far the Iranians have been very dismissive. They've said, `Well, we'll be willing to talk about this, but we insist on our right to have all this happen on our own soil,' and I think that's a non-starter for nearly all the international community.
CONAN: And what happens if the Iranians insist on this position, what they say is an issue of national sovereignty?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I think that there's so much distrust of the Iranians on this issue--and this is not just from the United States. It's from all the European countries, and increasingly, I think, from Russia, China and India, three very large countries that have been involved in these talks. I think then if the Iranians simply won't go along with the general will of most countries, and that is to cease and desist from these activities, there's gonna have to be a debate in the UN Security Council, and there'll have to be a consideration of some kind of diplomatic action against Iran, such as sanctions. That is what the United States has long believed is one of the most viable options, but we've worked very hard this year to give diplomacy a chance, and we very much would like a diplomatic resolution of this problem.
We've been backing the Europeans as well as the Russians in the talks, but the Iranians have not given much of a response, and part of that may be because of their elections this past summer when they elected a very conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and he had taken the country on a quite radical course, deviating from many of the policies of the past, and he's concerned a lot of people around the world.
CONAN: I know you have to leave, but quickly, talk of sanctions on the nuclear side; at the same time you're hoping for cooperation on the Iraqi side. This is gonna be difficult.
Mr. BURNS: It's a difficult relationship to manage, Neal, you're right. We've got three major challenges with Iran. The first is to try to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons power. No one around the world wants to see a theocratic regime like the one in Tehran with nuclear weapons. It would be far too dangerous.
Secondly, Iran has been, for many years, probably the leading supporter of state--of terrorism in the Middle East. They directly support and they finance Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah and Hamas. And so we've got a real beef with them because those terrorist groups are attacking Israel, Lebanon, and they're making life difficult for the Palestinians who want to have a peace process with Israel.
And the third problem we've got, which is different from the first two, but it's very important, is that there's a significant democracy and human rights deficit in Iran. It is not a democracy, as you know. It's very much an authoritarian state, and there is not freedom of the press, for instance. People like you couldn't have a radio show like this if you were at all critical of the government. And there have been cases of journalists being thrown in jail without charges, and some journalists even being murdered in jail.
So we are working on all of those issues, and we have tried to bring together a different set of countries on each one of them to put some pressure on the Iranians to see if they can change their ways, but with this new government, most people don't have a lot of hope that we're gonna see an improvement any time soon. So I think you'll see a very strong focus on the part of our government and many around the world in trying to blunt the policies of the new Iranian government, and we've got to do that in a very assiduous way, and Iran has become for many of us one of the most important foreign policy challenges that we face today.
CONAN: Nicholas Burns, thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. BURNS: It's a great pleasure. Thanks very much for having me on your show.
CONAN: Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of political affairs at the State Department.
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