Former Iowa Congressman Jim Leach says he is "extremely pessimistic" about U.S. relations with Iran.
"We've administered a policy analogous to the same policy we've had towards Cuba, both attitudinally and in effect, of not talking and of basically refusing to deal on a respectful basis," the head of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government told Iowa Independent. "Isolating a potential foe .is in many circumstances counterproductive. Just as we should be having more civil relations as much as we disagree with Castro, I think if we had more civil relations with Iran we'd be in much better circumstances to achieve a diplomatic outcome."
"It's the most awesomely awkward issue in the world in many regards," Leach said. "To the United States a nuclear Iran is exceptionally difficult. To intervene militarily, on the other hand, could be a calamity for all sides, including the United States."
In his Iowa Independent interview, Leach also discussed some of the presidential candidates.
Leach said Iran's agenda includes both power and respect. "They want to make it clear to the world that they have an old civilization and a sophisticated society that needs to be factored into any regional discussion, he said." The country also wants to play a larger role in regional affairs:
They want to project power in the region and around the world, and they are particularly concerned that the United States wants to play an interventionist role in their country specifically but in other parts of the Middle East. As far as Iranian security is concerned, possession of a weapon of mass destruction is a reminder to the United States that they can act out. They in effect become the first country in the world with the opposite ends of strategy, one strategy being a potential nuclear weapon, the other strategy being total anarchy through Hezbollah type activities. This would be novel to world affairs. That is one of the reasons why Iran is currently so dangerous.
Leach said it's not clear to the West, or even to the Iranians themselves, where the real power in the country lies. "Five years ago it was certainly very clear that the ayatollahs held more power than (then-president) Hatami, that Hatami was the political government," he said. "Today, one has the sense that the political arm is gaining increasing authority, but probably still doesn't match the ayatollahs. They have a lot of power but it's hard to know if it's total power."
Leach described current president Mahmoud Ahmedinijad as "a classic kind of political demagogue" and said his anti-Israel rhetoric is in part for domestic consumption but should also be taken seriously. "He's in a very powerful position within his country and increasingly within the Muslim world," he said. "Ahmedinijad himself is a classic kind of political demagogue who is tapping into some of the fears and aspirations of some of the Iranian population".
Leach described a meeting he had five years ago with Sen. Arlen Specter and the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations.
This was under the prior government of Hatami. Hatami would be considered in Iranian terms a moderate, Ahmedinijad a radical. The discussions that Sen. Specter and I had related to how the United States and Iran can get along better in the world, and I suggested it would be very difficult for any American administration to proceed in a forthcoming way with Iran as long as they were funding Hezbollah activities and other anti-Israeli insurgencies. To which the ambassador responded Iran would be perfectly content to cease such activities once an Israeli-Palestinian settlement was reached which had the support of the Palestinian people. In a way that was an optimistic thing to say, in a way it was a very threatening thing to say. The optimism being once a settlement occurred perhaps Iran would shift gears; the threatening aspect being they wouldn't shift gears unless and until an agreement was reached.
In any regard, whether or not that was the real position of the Iranian government four or five years ago, you have a different government today with Ahmedinijad being of a very different psychological ilk than Hatami.
The Islamic world understands that any American admin has to be completely committed to the viability of the state of Israel. That doesn't mean that on every issue there is total agreement, but on the basic issue of the viability of the state there is. The role of the United States should be to help try to help precipitate a modus vivendi that is stable, if that is possible. These issues involve timing; they involve leadership of various parties, and lots of imponderables and uncertainties. But the United States certainly should make it clear that it's always on the side of trying to reach a credible resolution that is acceptable to all sides.
Leach said Iran might not be the only country trying to fill a void once U.S. forces leave Iraq.
There could be problems on more than one border. You've got the possibility that Turkey will attempt to expand influence in the northwest, partly in response to certain actions that the Kurds have undertaken against Turkey and also potentially for other reasons. On the eastern border, certainly, Iran has some possible influence that it wants to expand and we all understand that the Shia population particularly in the south of Iraq has some kind of religious kinds of ties to Iran that are not slight. By the same token, there is an Iraqi nationalism as there is an Iranian nationalism. A shared religion is important but it's not the only thing. And so some suspect that Iran is going to try to play the same role in Iraq as Syria is in Lebanon, but I don't think it's likely to be quite as dominant or influential as Syria is in Lebanon.
We're in a world that anything is possible. We all understand that when American troops leave fully Iraq, whether it be in one year or 20 years, they're be destabilizing implications for the country of Iraq. We also understand that Iraqis are perhaps unable to reach certain compromises if they can rely on American troops being there, and American troops presence can be considered offensive in and of itself. And so what we might see as stabilizing, someone else might perceive as destabilizing.
Leach has been at Harvard since September. He spent the earlier part of 2007 at his alma mater, Princeton, in the Woodrow Wilson School of Government, following his 2006 defeat for re-election.