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Despite Iran's Charm Offensive, Is Containment The Best Policy?


Are there real prospects for a new relationship with Iran? The Iranian President Hasan Rouhani addressed the U.N. General Assembly yesterday. He's made an appearance on CNN. But what has to happen next to address and conceivably resolve the contentious issues between Washington and Tehran? Well, Kenneth Pollack, a former intelligence analyst, argues in a new book in favor of a policy of containing Iran.

He's in Portland, Oregon today and he joins us from there. Welcome to the program once again.

KENNETH POLLACK: Thanks so much for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: Ken, there are plainly new improved atmospherics in Iran. But thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions was U.S. policy before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad started denying the Holocaust or the existence of homosexuality in his country. How much change can there be in substance when it comes to Iran's nuclear program?

POLLACK: Well, I don't think we know and I think that is the great issue out there. I think that we've seen a very important change in tone from President Rouhani. And I think that we've also seen some interesting developments with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who also is suggesting a willingness to at least talk about making compromises on Iran's nuclear program that we haven't heard before. And obviously this could all be nothing but talk. But I think it's absolutely an opportunity worth exploring.

SIEGEL: Well, if indeed it's worth exploring, what's a step the United States could take at this point? And what's a step that it could ask Iran to take that might test the waters?

POLLACK: Well, I think this is exactly the issue is we've got to figure out small things that either side can do. And there are obviously a variety of different ways to do that. One of the ideas that apparently has been floated would be a partial deal on the nuclear program. For instance, the Iranians would agree not to enrich uranium beyond five percent purity. And in response, the West would lift some of the sanctions on Iran. In particular, there's some talk about lifting what's called the Swift Sanctions, which prevent Iran from using the international electronic money transfer system, which could be very important to the Iranians.

And those are two things that both sides could suspend and good resume, if they found the other side weren't complying or weren't moving further. But I think it would show both sides that they were serious about doing so.

SIEGEL: There are hard-core skeptics when it comes to Iran. They're in Congress. They're in Israel. They're in the Arab States of the Persian Gulf. I think they might say, well, Iran would say they would do that but you can't trust them - they wouldn't live up to the promise.

POLLACK: Sure, I think that those skeptics have a point. And I think that this is very much one where we're going to need to do a lot of verifying. We also need to recognize, though, that the Iranians have their own skeptics. And they are just as skeptical of us and they have their own version of history, which they read as the United States wanting to overthrow their government and hurt them in every way possible.

And so, this issue of time is going to become a very important one because both sides are going to have to demonstrate early on to their own skeptics that the other side is negotiating in good faith. It's one of the reasons why I think that the first set of meetings that we're likely to have between Iran and the international community - the permanent five members of the Security Council plus Germany - probably will happen at some point in October.

It's going to be very important in those first few meetings that both sides are willing to come to the table with some new offers, some new - new willingness to work together, and some concrete ideas. So that each can show the other side's skeptics that there's something meaningful here, something tangible, not just talk.

SIEGEL: Do you think there is room for new ideas on the American side of the relationship with Iran, short of abandoning the policy of preventing Iran from going nuclear and adopting the policy you favor, which is containment of a nuclear; the way we contained a nuclear China or nuclear Soviet Union?

POLLACK: Exactly. I don't know is the honest answer. I think that the administration, the whole U.S. government is justifiably fixated on the negotiations themselves, and I think they're right to do so. It would be best for all involved - for us, for the Iranians, the Israelis, the Saudis, all of our allies - if we could find and negotiate an end to this problem. Diplomacy is by far the best track.

The real question mark will come if that fails; if at some point we decide, you know, we're just not going to be able to get the deal we want from the Iranians, they are determined to acquire this capability. And then we're going to have the hard choice to make. And so far, what we've heard from the administration is we're not thinking about that right now, we're focused on the diplomacy. And the president has made clear, he said, you know, basically I'm not going to allow Iran to acquire this capability. We will see what that means if/when we come to that point.

SIEGEL: Ken Pollack, thank you very much for talking with us today.

POLLACK: My pleasure, thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Kenneth Pollack, who is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is the author most recently of "Unthinkable: Iran, The Bomb and American Strategy." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.