Obama's Approach To U.S. Relations With Iran President-elect Barack Obama said repeatedly during the campaign that he would seek engagement with Iran without preconditions. After Obama was elected, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent him a congratulatory letter. How is the U.S. relationship with Iran changing?
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Obama's Approach To U.S. Relations With Iran

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Obama's Approach To U.S. Relations With Iran

Obama's Approach To U.S. Relations With Iran

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. For 30 years now the United States and Iran have been enemies, the great Satan and a charter member of the Axis of Evil. We supported the Shah who was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini. They seized the U.S. Embassy and 52 hostages. We supported Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. They supported Hezbollah in its war against Israel. U.S. military forces constrain Iran's power in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Iran wields powerful, and sometimes, deadly influence in Iraq. And there are fundamental disagreements over democracy, human rights and over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Today, we begin a series of conversations about the foreign policy challenges that face the new administration, and we start with Iran. In a moment, NPR News analyst Ted Koppel and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski join us, and we want to hear from you. Where do U.S. and Iranian interests coincide? Where do they clash? Our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us at talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel joins us from his home in Maryland, and Ted, welcome back to the program.

TED KOPPEL: Thank you, always a pleasure.

CONAN: And President-elect Obama got a note of congratulations from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He stressed diplomacy during the presidential campaign. Does he not now have an opportunity for a fresh start with Iran?

KOPPEL: Well, he does. But I think it's incumbent upon all of us to understand a little bit about the past that exists between our two countries. You mentioned a moment ago, what happened back in 1979 when the Iranians took 52 of our fellow citizens' hostage at the U.S. Embassy. Dr. Brzezinski's former boss, Jimmy Carter, used to kiddingly say to me, the only two people who ever-benefited from that were Ayatollah Khomeini and I because "Nightline" was born out of that hostage crisis. It was an extraordinarily difficult, painful time.

There are many Americans who have a, not forgotten about it and b, not forgiven it. But the Iranian's memories go back even further than that. They go back to 1953 when there was, you were talking, Neal, a moment ago, about democracy and a free election, the Iranians had a free election. They had a prime minister by the name of Mohammed Mossadeq, who was overthrown through the combined efforts of the CIA and the British counterpart, MI6. The Iranians have not forgotten that and have not forgotten the many years of rule under the Shah that followed that. So, you know, there's a lot of history between our two countries, a lot of bitterness, a lot of anger. But you ask is there a possibility now for a new era? I think there is.

CONAN: Well, let's bring our guest into the conversation. Zbigniew Brzezinski, as just mentioned, served as National Security Adviser to President Carter. He's now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University, both of those here in Washington D.C. He joins us from - on the phone from CSIS and Zbigniew Brzezinski, nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies): It's good to be with you.

CONAN: And is it going to be possible to get past that difficult history and have a fresh beginning?

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: I think Ted is quite right in emphasizing the historical context. It cannot be disregarded. There is unfortunately a history of painful relations between the two countries. But having said that, I think there's also the potential of some shared interest. Not just between us and Iran, but even between the Iran and Israel. I was impressed by the fact that more than a decade ago, shortly before he was assassinated, Prime Minister Rabin of Israel, said that Israel and Iran are natural allies in the region.

So if we are smart about it, if we are willing to negotiate seriously, if we are willing to reinforce the negotiations with the potential of sanctions when they fail, if we as true threats, military threats which implied under negotiations aren't being conducted under duress and therefore it makes it more difficult for the Iranians to negotiate seriously, then I think that there is at least a chance that things might move forward.

CONAN: You mentioned that Prime Minister Rabin in Israel, it's been quite a while since then and of course since then, Iran has become the principal sponsor of Hezbollah, which fought Israel in a war just a little while ago. As of today, Iran called on all parties in Lebanon to unite against Israel and its President Ahmadinejad calls for Israel to be wiped off the map. Clearly, there's ground to be covered here.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, yes, but at the same time, when asked to have a sense of proportion about these things. First of all, President Ahmadinejad sounds very impressive, but he's not really the president of Iran. He's roughly a third-level official who happens to have the title. He neither commands the Iranian armed forces nor is in charge of the Iranian foreign policy even. The country is ruled by higher echelons culminating in the supreme leader. So we shouldn't exaggerate what he says. He is also a politician who is campaigning for support from the most extreme and incidentally the most backward elements in Iran. So we shouldn't elevate him into some sort of a dominant figure in Iran. If there are negotiations, if there are going to be serious negotiations, they'll be conducted, so to speak, above his grade level.

CONAN: Ted.

KOPPEL: I think Dr. Brzezinski may agree that the relationship between the United States and Iran has been filled with missed opportunities. Let me give you just one. A number of years ago right after the incident of 9/11, the United States turned to Iran and said can you help us with al-Qaeda? Particularly in Afghanistan. Iran and Afghanistan, of course, border one another. And the Iranians were within limits, but they were helpful. They did things that actually made the U.S. job in Afghanistan somewhat easier. A few months later, President Bush in his State of the Union Address, included Iran in the Axis of Evil. I know when I was in Iran a couple of years ago, several officials said to me, what the heck was that all about? You ask us for help, we give you help, and then we find ourselves in an Axis of Evil. Missed opportunity.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, I'm sorry to say but Ted is absolutely right. I think it was a missed opportunity, and it's to be regretted. There's something further to be said here, namely, we sort of have an image of Iran as a country of crazies because we have so much focused on Ahmadinejad and his fulminations. The fact of the matter is, even if you look in a statistical yearbook, this is a relatively highly educated country with the reasonably high percentage of its population in colleges and universities, including incidentally more women in universities than men.

It even has a woman vice president, just below Ahmadinejad. It's a country which in many respects, is potentially comparable to Turkey, in terms of its potential for further evolution, and then eventually identification with the west. It doesn't see itself as part of the Arab world because it isn't. And so I think if we are clever about it, if we're smart about it, we can actually over time reshape the geo-strategic landscape in the Persian Gulf region. But it will take some time, it will take some patience, it'll take sustained negotiations, perhaps lasting as long as the ones we have had with North Korea.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. And let's begin with Raj(ph). And Raj is calling us from Boston.

RAJ (Caller): Hi, Neal. I just had a quick question. You were actually asking about barriers between Iran and the U.S. And I'm curious, you know, what the panelists think about how visible it would be to overcome what seems to be a certain religious Orthodoxy among the Iranian leadership and what role a President Obama, who in the U.S. has been discussed as, you know, a sort of transformative figure, might have in confronting those barriers?

CONAN: Well, let me ask you, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Of course, Iran is a Shia country. At the moment, its religious base is in the holy city of Qom, a place where it's believed among many other students is Muqtada al-Sadr, the fiery anti-American cleric from Baghdad.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Yes. But you know, in the Iraqi government, for example, there are Shias with whom we're working very well. So, let's again not generalize from a single factor into some sort of a universal principle. Not all Shi'ites are crazy fanatics. Not all of them are virulently anti-American. And in the case - specifically, the Iranian society, a good part of that society, according to all reports and especially younger people, are rather tired of this kind of Orthodox fundamentalist, religious veneer that has been imposed upon them, and they would like the country to change. But it will not change if we maintain disposition that Iran is part of an Axis of Evil, that if we may bomb it someday unless it accommodates us. That simply unifies the Iranian's true nationalism against the outsiders and specifically, us.

CONAN: Ted?

KOPPEL: I think most Americans, Neal, would be astonished to discover, as I did when I was in Iran, how many Iranians are genuinely pro-American.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Yeah.

KOPPEL: Genuinely love the United States and would like nothing better than to see the two governments reestablish diplomatic relations. Dr. Brzezinski was referring a moment or two ago to the young people over there. The fact of the matter is - I expect maybe you know the percentage. It's a huge percentage of Iranians who are actually under the age of 30. I think a vast majority of Iranians, indeed, are under the age of 30.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: That's right, and you're absolutely right about their outlook. You know, I have dealt with the Iranians in the most unpleasant phase of American-Iranian relations, and I know they're can be tough, they can be difficult, they can be devious. I'm not arguing from the standpoint of some sort of unrequited love affair with Iran. But I do think that we have the potential for geopolitically transforming the relationship if we're clever about it. I think over the last eight years, we have not only missed opportunities, we have made things worse by threatening, by belligerently accusing them. Perhaps even according to some reports, engaging in some covert activities, which to some extent match their activities against us.

KOPPEL: And it hasn't all been covert either, Neal. I mean, if you go back to the 1980s when Iran and Iraq were in their devastating war, I think about 800,000 young men were killed on both sides. During that period, the United States was in some cases, surreptitiously, in some cases, quite openly supporting the regime of Saddam Hussein against the Iranians.

CONAN: And just...

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: And to make things even more ironic at that time, Israel was supporting the Iranian regime, even though it's headed by Khomeini.

CONAN: Raj, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Which is really kind of historically ironic, isn't it?

CONAN: We're talking about the challenge of Iran to the incoming Obama administration. More with Ted Koppel, our NPR news analyst, in a moment and with former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join the conversation. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This week, the economy is the top issue for President-elect Barack Obama. He's announced several key economic appointments, where he'd given us a broad outline of a stimulus package, but he also faces a series of challenges on foreign policy, not the least of which is Iran. Their nuclear ambition and support for Hezbollah and Hamas, interference in Iraq. It will all fall on the new president's shoulders, come January 20th.

Joining us to talk about those challenges and the options are Ted Koppel, our senior news analyst. Also Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Carter, now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Of course, we want to hear from you. Where do U.S. and Iranian interests coincide? Where do they clash? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's get Mike on the line, calling us from Milwaukee in Wisconsin.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MIKE: And if I could, I'd like to express my appreciation to both Ted Koppel and Dr. Brzezinski. I've been a fans of them for quite some time and I'm hoping that Dr. Brzezinski will play a formal or informal consultation role under President Obama's administration. But to the point in hand, the Iranians are very serious people and a very rational people. It's in their interest to maintain this kind of seeking posture of nuclear weapons, but it's not in their interest to actually have them. For one thing, it would subject them to - and subject their facilities to an attack on Israel, but not only that. Their Arab rivals would also want to nuclearize, and they would expect us to help them. So you know, I - and I think they know that, and they're just waiting for someone to come in and talk to them. Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thanks for the comment, Mike. And Zbigniew Brzezinski, do you believe that the Iranians are serious about pursuing nuclear weapons? Or are they, as Mike suggested, just interested in seeking nuclear options?

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, I'm not sure there's really that much difference between the two except in terms of timing. I suspect, but I have no way of proving this. This is - I emphasize - a suspicion. They are interested in having the capability to produce nuclear weapons if they felt the need arose for such weapons, and they would like to be more or less, not too distant from that capability. A little bit like - contemporary Japan. You know, Japan has respected the NPT, but it is in a pro-talk nuclear posture, that is to say, if it chose to go nuclear, it would probably go nuclear - weapons nuclear in about half a year or so. My guess would be and this again, I emphasize, purely a guess - that it is something along these lines that the Iranians would like to achieve.

CONAN: Let me ask you question that a lot of people ask us during programs like this one. What would be so wrong about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons?

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: I think if they acquired nuclear weapons and actually went nuclear, it would create a greater anxiety in the Middle East. It would prompt perhaps some of the Arab countries in the neighborhood to try to seek nuclear weapons. There could be some sort of a collision, perhaps an abortive preemptive collision between Israel and Iran. So in that sense, it is certainly not something to be welcomed. But, but I will also add that in fact, deterrence in the past has worked. We deterred the Soviets from using nuclear weapons. Incidentally, they also deterred us from using nuclear weapons. We deterred the Chinese from using nuclear weapons and again, vice versa.

Last but not the least, both the Pakistanis and the Indians have become more cautious ever since they respectively obtained nuclear weapons. So I don't think it is such an unmitigated disaster that it makes it worthwhile even to go to war with Iran to prevent it. I think if the Iranians unfortunately go too far, we'll have to ostracize them, we'll have to extend the nuclear umbrella over the neighborhood, and we'll have to make them pay very, very heavy economic and financial price for years to come.

CONAN: And...

KOPPEL: One other brief point, Neal. And that is you have to take a look at the object lesson that North Korea presents. You know the Iranians are looking at North Korea and saying, wait a second, now they got nuclear weapons. And all of a sudden, United States, which had refused to negotiate with North Korea, gets back into the negotiating game. You know, life is better if you're negotiating from the position of strength. So, I can understand why they're coming at it from that point of view, but I agree both with the caller and with Dr. Brzezinski. It would make life very awkward.

CONAN: Let's get Memet(ph) on the line. He's calling from Alexandria in Virginia.

MEMET (Caller): Hello. Gentlemen, I just wanted to put one point - two points across, if I may, and get your comments on them. First of all, we know that everybody who we brought into power in Iraq, lived in Iran, were allowed to go there and joined the Iranian secret police and don't - according to Frontline, don't drink a glass of water without getting their permission. We know that when we decided to set up, according to CNN, a secret police organization for the Iraqis, the Iraqi government immediately went to Iran and asked the Iranians to set up a parallel one. Now, the question is which one is going to take over? At the same time, we know that the Iranian government is a one-party government.

The name of the party is Hezbollah, and no other party and no other opinions are allowed in Iran. So all this talk about, you know, elections, you know, makes it sound like they're - they have more than one party and the party is something other than Hezbollah. Hezbollah is what rules Iran. The other thing is comparing Iran with Japan. You know, Iran is the global headquarters for terrorism. And according to Putin, you know, Iranians don't put return addresses on their bombs. They subcontract everything. According to Putin, the danger is the big Iranian contact in South America with the drug dealers is that they would give nuclear weapons to drug dealers in order to effectively neutralize us and they go to Russia and they call us, the world arrogance and they say what are we doing all over the place with them and...

CONAN: Well, Mr. Putin seems to be happy to sell them a nuclear reactor, in any case. But there's quite a bit there and there is enormous - Memet has said some things that I'm not sure that we do know. But nevertheless, there is enormous Iranian influence in Iraq. There is a strong evidence that Iran is supplying some Shi'ite groups in Iraq with weapons that have been used not only in (unintelligible) battles, but to kill Americans. And Zbigniew Brzezinski, this is certainly a bone of contention.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: What is a bone of contention?

CONAN: The Iranian influence in Iran, which is not always positive.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: The Iranian influence in Iraq, you mean.

CONAN: Yes. Excuse me. Go ahead.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, you know, the Iranians who live right there may say there is some concern on their part about the American presence in Iraq. I mean, they are in the region we're not exactly living next door. But you know, the caller simply mixed some facts with some other fiction. First of all, about the internal Iranian politics. He seems to think it's a one-party state. Well, in fact, there are serious political conflicts in Iran, which are in some cases, resolved in the ballot box. Think of the competition between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad. Think about the elections for the supreme leader and so forth.

Look at the recent vote of the Majlis, their parliament and seeking Ahmadinejad 's Minister of the Interior. If it comes to democracy, I would rather live in Iran today than for example, in Russia under Putin, where assassinations of political opponents are relatively widespread. On the atomic bomb being given to terrorist groups and that it is the center of world terrorism. Again, that is propaganda or fiction or a combination of the two. Iran is not stupid. Iran is not going to give its first or even its second or even its fifth atomic bomb to some terrorist group when we have nuclear forensics, and we could trace the origin of the weapon, and therefore, we would know who originated some lethal attack. And Iran would then be the victim of a massive retaliatory strike.

The Iranians are calculating, deliberate, tough, but they're there. They're part of the geopolitical picture, and we have a choice of either getting into a stupid conflict with them, which I take it the caller would like, or we can try to change the relationship with them thereby benefiting geopolitically and incidentally, even economically. Just think what would happen if Iranian oil and gas was fully available to its capacity to the world market? How the situation would dramatically change in terms of the price structures.

CONAN: And I know you have to leave us in just a moment, Dr. Brzezinski. But I did want to ask - you drew a comparison to Turkey or at least, the potential for Turkey. Yet of course, you would accept that many in the opposition in Iran are not permitted to run for office.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: That's right. It's not the perfect democracy by any means. I made the point of saying it's better than some, but it certainly is false to claim that it's dominated by one party that has the same name as an Iranian-sponsored movement, Shia movement in Lebanon.

CONAN: Dr. Brzezinski, we thank you for your time. We know it's precious. We appreciate it.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Good to talk to you. I enjoyed also talking to Ted.

KOPPEL: Thank you. Good to talk to you, too.

Mr. BRZEZINSKI: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, a national security adviser to President Carter, a counselor now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, with us today by phone from CSIS. And Ted, I know that the caller made some statements, a fact which are not matters of fact. Nevertheless, there is enormous suspicion of Iranian activities, not just in Iraq but in Lebanon and in Gaza along with Hamas.

KOPPEL: You mean if it was on the CNN, it's not necessarily true?

CONAN: Well, I'm not so sure.

KOPPEL: No, I think there is a serious point to be made here, and that is, folks, you've got to have it one way or the other. Iran would love to become a nuclear power. If it were a nuclear power, it wouldn't have to place as much emphasis on the support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah. Hezbollah is the kind of organization that is brought in to being and supported and generated because it is up against a superior military force. Opponents of Israel in southern Lebanon do not have the capacity. They don't have their own air force. They don't have their own navy.

They don't have the capacity to fight Israel in a conventional war. They can fight them and they do fight them, and they did a couple of years ago as we know, fought them to a standstill by using unconventional means, in some cases, what we would describe as terrorist means. Iran supports organizations like Hezbollah precisely because it is not in a position to confront the United States' conventional military power to conventional military power.

CONAN: Here's an email question now from Jim in St. Louise, I was wondering about the necessity for Iran now that Iraq is no longer a threat to it, to have an enemy in order to focus the Iranian's public attention away from internal problems.

KOPPEL: Well, I mean, that's always the case, isn't it? Whenever an autocratic government needs to distract attention from domestic problems or internal or economic problems, you point to an external enemy, that's not unknown, even the governments like our own.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR news analyst, Ted Koppel, of course, the long-time anchor of ABC News, "Nightline," a program which got its origins as he noted just a moment ago in the Iranian hostage crisis some 30 years ago. We're talking about the challenges that Iran represents to the United States in general and to the incoming Obama administration in particular, its nuclear ambitions, its support for groups like Hezbollah and Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. If you'd like to join the conversation our phone number is 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation coming to you from NPR News. And let's talk with Sayid(ph), Sayid with us from Green bay in Wisconsin.

SAYID (Caller): Yes, good morning. Prominent Iranian dissidents like Mr. Botevi(ph), Mr. Ganji, the leaders of the one million signature movement, the leaders of the Iranians Tehran City bus driver's trade union would all disagree with Mr. Brzezinski about the status of democracy in Iran. The principal political contention in Iran is not between the various factions of the Islamic Republic. But it is between those who believe in the (unintelligible) and those who are trying to displace this government and bring democracy to the Iranian people. We are at inflection point in U.S.-Iranian relations.

There are a certain elements of the U.S. foreign policy elite of which Mr. Brzezinski is one, which I would classify as the grand bargainers. These people are lobbying for a broad-based detente with the Iranian Ayatollahs. It would be well - America would be well-advised to remember the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, and how and at all times in the United States sides with tyrants against the people of Iran, the outcome is never good. The basis of our commonality between Iranians and Americans is in that - the deep desire of Iranians to be free, a desire which has eluded them since the 1906 constitutional revolution.

CONAN: So, you would argue, Sayid, that the popularity of the United States in Iran is precisely because it opposes the Iranian government?

Mr. SA'ID: Exactly, not because it opposes Iranian government per se, but because America is one example of democracy and the desire of Iranian to be free is profound. It is a - they recently - a joint expert statement on Iran that came out of this, the folks that are arguing for detente acclaims that, the current Iranian regime is stable. This could not be further from the truth. The Iranian regime is a government of a minority over an unwilling majority.

CONAN: A regime change - a policy that's hard to sustain in this country after a recent experience in the country next door, but...

Mr. SA'ID: I'm not talking about military efforts like in Iraq. What's I'm talking about is effort - is creating a milieu like it was created around Eastern Europe, so that the indigenous movements in Iran can succeed.

CONAN: Well, let's get Ted Koppel, you were there a couple of years ago, Ted, and you talk to a lot of people.

KOPPEL: I was and I absolutely agree with Sayid's contention that there is a great yearning for democracy in Iran. Having conceded that point, however, let me first of all parenthetically - he doesn't need me to defend him, but I think Zbigniew Brzezinski was saying, is simply that there are countries that give even less opportunity for genuine democracy and to my surprise he said Russia, only - I'm surprised not because I been there lately and know anything he doesn't know, quite the contrary. But that he would say something like that is actually quite provocative and says something about the bad state of affairs in Russia today. But the notion that negotiation, if I understand Sayid correctly, should be off the table. A military action against Iran is off the table. I'm not quite sure what lies in the middle, what is it you're suggesting, Sayid?

SAYID: What I'm suggesting is, for example, there are several states in the Unites States that have passed legislations for divesting investment and companies that do business in Iran. This is a movement in the right direction. I am talking about efforts to support human rights in Iran. There are brave Iranians who are standing up to this tyranny, who are going to prison, who are getting tortured, who are getting killed and their stories are never told. No one in the world knows what's going on in Iran. Even the well-informed people like Mr. Brzezinski - of what is it - how can it be a democracy when a panel appointed by the Supreme Ayatollah disqualifies 6,000 applicants for the presidency?

KOPPEL: No, no, no. You're quite right. He did that. But I don't think Dr. Brzezinski described or defined Iran as being a democracy. I think he was simply making the point that there is more than one political party in Iraq.

CONAN: And Sayid, we thank you for the phone call. We'll take another couple of calls about Iran when we come back after a short break. So, stay with us, also your emails and comments about the programs that we produced over the past week or so, so stay with us. I'm Neal Conan with me is Ted Koppel, NPR's senior news analyst. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And here are headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. President-elect Barack Obama said today budget reform is a necessity, then named the current head of the congressional budget office as his budget director. Yesterday, Obama unveiled the rest of his economic team. And Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson today unveiled two new programs to thaw the frozen markets for consumer debt. The $800 billion plans are aimed at freeing up auto, student, and credit card loans. Details on those stories and of course much more later today on All Things Considered.

Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, it's our Wednesday visit with the political junkie with the Senate run off in Georgia and a recount in Minnesota. Democrats still hope for a filibuster proof majority. Joe Biden's friend, will warm Delaware's Senate seat and Virginia gets even bluer. Ken Rudin is taking a breather. So, Matt Bie(ph) will pinch hit, as our guest political junkie tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. In a few minutes, we'll read from your letters.

Right now, though, were wrapping up our conversation about foreign policy challenges of the Iran with NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel. And our phone number, if you'd liked to join us, 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. We got this email from Jennifer. Your guest mentions that women are over half the college students and the vice president is a women, yet he doesn't say anything about the brutality Iranian women endure. This is entirely misleading making Iran sound egalitarian, to poor listeners who don't know any better. And I think those presentations were made in the context of Iranians are sometimes presented as crazies. And nevertheless, there is - there are other developments which are considerably saner looking in Iran. But Ted, she's right. Iranian women are still subjected to laws and practices that we would find unacceptable in this country.

KOPPEL: Absolutely, look, I think one of the points we have to make Neal, is that everything you have heard during this program has an element of truth to it. It is still an enormously brutal country. Political enemies of the regime, those who are perceived as not supporting the national goals are imprisoned and treated brutally in the prisons. At the same time, it's also true to say that I have rarely been in a country that some see as being a pure dictatorship where people are more eager to talk to a foreign visitor and tell nasty jokes about the president. I mean, quite - and I mean, their president not out president. It is a place where, yes indeed, women are still treated as second class citizens. And yet, what Dr. Brzezinski said is also true. You have to be careful. None of these is a truth in and of itself.

All of these things seen together begin to present a picture of Iran today. And if I may, Neal, I would just sort of suggest that we go back to the initial question that you been posed at the top of the program. And that is this question of whether or not the president-elect can afford to engage in negotiations or consultations with the Iranians, and whether that will lead anywhere. And I'd like to say again, I think it will. I think we have shown for the past 29, almost 30 years now, how pointless it is to have a relationship in which there is no diplomatic contact. We haven't made any progress in the Persian Gulf with regard to the Iranians. They haven't made any progress. I think both nations stand to gain a lot from some diplomatic interchange.

CONAN: And that's not to say that they're going to be invited to join NATO?

KOPPEL: Not only that. But I think it's wise to point out that the Persians historically are among the great negotiators in the world. There is a wonderful Iran - I'm sorry I can't say it in Farsi. I can't even give a precise translation. But the notion of it is that you try to put a watermelon under your - under both your adversary's arms. In other words, you're - by presenting him with a gift that is going to incapacitate him. Putting a watermelon under both arms is incapable of doing anything and yet, he has to be grateful to you if having given him the watermelons

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Mac Dudd(ph) calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. And I hope I have not mispronounced your name too badly.

MAC DUDD (Caller): No, you've done pretty good. My name is Mac Dudd and I thank you for taking my call. I've watched Mr. Koppel's report and the videos that he broadcast when he was visiting Iran and I'm quite grateful for him portraying very pictures and what Dr. Brzezinski was. I can only hope that you know you - I had the chance that - I could have talked to Dr. Brzezinski because I really want to ask him if he truly has an experience, you know, politician he knows the difference between theocracy and democracy.

I think Mr. Koppel knows the difference. I think when he visited Iran he knows that the Iranian people know the difference. But it's amazing and surprising and quite, you know, I guess disappointing that a superior politician like Dr. Brzezinski does not or cannot distinguish between theocracy and democracy. I really wish that Mr. Koppel would make a comment on that. Did you notice that - or did you feel that Mr. Brzezinski could distinguish between these two concepts?

KOPPEL: I think he understands. Look first of all, I don't have to remind you but it's been a very long time. Dr. Brzezinski was National Security adviser to the president of the United States at the time of the hostage crisis back in 1979, 1980 and up until '81 when President Carter was replaced by President Reagan. He understands how difficult it can be to deal with the Iranians. He also understands I know the difference between a theocracy and a democracy. He was simply making the point that in terms of some democratic standards perhaps he'd rather live in Iran than in Russia. I think it would be a tough choice. I'm not sure which one I would pick.

MAC DUDD: I agree with you. I think Mr. Brzezinski would have noticed several cranes, you know, erected in the middle of the city with Iranian youth hanging from them. He would have noticed the stoning, he would have noticed that even the choice of color for clothing is not possible and then he would have probably bought a ticket to go to Moscow. But that's beside the point. I really appreciate your comment. I really appreciate the report that you made in Iran. And I'm truly your fan and I think you're doing a great job. Unfortunately, I could not say the same about Dr. Brzezinski.

CONAN: Well, Mac Dudd thanks very much for the phone call. Let's get back to the prospects for the new administration as we continue to remind ourselves how important all this history is, not just to Americans and to Iranians but to Iranian-Americans, and we're getting some calls from them too. But of course this history is vital to it all. Nevertheless, the opportunity now exists for as we suggest that new opening, where might it begin, Ted Koppel? What issues might the two administrations, the two regimes, find in common?

KOPPEL: Well, I'm not sure that they're necessarily going to find many in common if both sides in the systems starting on nuclear issue. But when it comes to the issue of trade remember now the reason that we have invested so much blood and treasure in the Persian Gulf, in Iraq in particular right now, but previously in Iran - is precisely because of oil and natural gas. It continues to be the world's largest supplier. I'm talking about the whole Persian Gulf region - Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the Emirates. And establishing some kind of political balance, some kind of tranquility in the Persian Gulf, is ought to be the one area in American foreign policy on which there really should be bipartisanship. The question is not whether we need peace in that area of course we do. The question is how we get there. What we've now had - what it has been - five years plus of war in Iraq and perhaps it is time to give - to use that the old 1960's phrase, to give peace a chance.

CONAN: Interesting statement today out of Iran suggesting at least one potential area of cooperation. An Iranian chartered tanker was among the vessels seized by Somali pirates off the horn of Africa and they were - well you can only say very angry statements from Tehran about this which they might find a very welcome audience in other parts of the world, where their ships have been taken to and cooperation on this issue of piracy on the high seas which affects of course any country doing commerce in that part of the world.

KOPPEL: I was going to say, Neal, maybe you found out one area of agreement that we can begin to talk about, anti-piracy.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, thank you very much. In the coming weeks we hope to talk about other foreign policy challenges that are facing the incoming Obama administration. They are many. They include of course, the Middle East, they include Pakistan and Afghanistan, North Korea and Far East Asia. Well, we could talk about piracy too perhaps. Ted Koppel, thank you as always.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel joining us from his home in Potomac, Maryland. You're listening to Talk of the Nation which is coming to you from NPR News.

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