Guest Columns

HUDSON: CAREER AMBASSADOR PICKERING A NATIONAL TREASURE

Our options: choose to negotiate a nuclear deal now, or fight an Iranian war later

The Colorado Statesman

World Denver is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to connecting Denver with the world by fostering timely discussions of world affairs. Last Monday night, together with the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, World Denver co-hosted a talk by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Dr. Jim Walsh of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Securities Studies Program at the Brown Palace fresh from their Denver Post commentary (1/12/14) “A Delicate Dance with Iran.” Their op-ed strongly admonished the U. S. Senate to back off on its threat to impose additional sanctions against Iran. The lecture topic was a recounting of the unfolding negotiations to ease sanctions in exchange for verifiable limitations in the Iranian nuclear program. Pickering, a career diplomat by way of Bowdoin College and Tufts University, is an 82-year-old powerhouse who exudes strength, competence and an appetite for contentious debate. Not only has Pickering served in key diplomatic posts for both Democratic and Republican Presidents, but also the State Department’s fellowship program was renamed in his honor following his formal retirement. Most recently he and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, conducted the internal review of the Benghazi fiasco. When America needs a truth teller, he has become the go to guy in the diplomatic community. (In the interests of disclosure my father worked with him at the State Department some 40 years ago and was a huge fan.)

Pickering seems to have his fingers in every foreign affairs initiative, council and research organization you can name. Most germane has been his chairmanship of The Iran Project, an informal and unofficial dialogue with key counterparts in the Iranian government. Started in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks, these discussions became a stand alone project under the auspices of the Foundation for a Civil Society in 2009. The content of these discussions has been regularly communicated to both the White House and Congress. Implicit is the key role the Iran Project has played in paving the way for the budding rapprochement regarding the Iranian nuclear program. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is not only the former Iranian nuclear negotiator, but is also a graduate of Denver University’s International Law and Policy program where he received his doctorate in 1988. A key ally of newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif is working on a short clock as Iranian hardliners attempt to torpedo the current talks and return the weapons program to a fast track enrichment protocol.

Pickering commenced his remarks by pointing out that the Iranian nuclear program has roots that go back to the rule of the Shah, an American ally. The program was allowed to go fallow for a decade following the 1979 Revolution, and was only renewed in the wake of the Iran-Iraq war when the Ayatollahs legitimately feared a potential Iraqi bomb. By the late 90s they were in regular contact with Dr. A.Q. Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program. In 2003 the Iranian government ceased enrichment for two years in hopes of receiving relief on economic sanctions. When they got no response from the Bush administration they reactivated their enrichment centrifuges. Despite the STUXNET virus and other black ops interference, Iran has produced a new generation of super centrifuges that have yet to be deployed. With the recruitment of the Chinese and Russian governments in support of sanctions, the Iranian economy began to tank. Neither super power is keen on a nuclear-armed Middle East. The Rouhani campaign promised to build bridges with the West and improve the performance of the Iranian economy.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering
Photo courtesy of Paul Doktor

The preliminary agreement includes a cessation of enrichment and the destruction of all previously enriched 20 percent fuel in exchange for a halt in further sanctions. The anticipated goal of a final agreement will be a closely monitored mothballing of the current enrichment program by the International Atomic Energy Agency in exchange for a rollback on current sanctions — the specifics to be worked out during the next six months. Pickering was particularly critical of the draft sanctions proposal that enjoys 59 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Colorado’s own Michael Bennet. While the prime sponsors claim their bill is designed to support the President’s negotiating position (if sanctions brought Iran to the table, then the threat of more sanctions will force an agreement), Pickering advised everyone to read all 57 pages of the Menendez/Kirk proposal and you will find that additional sanctions will be imposed immediately in contradiction to the terms of the preliminary agreement. On the other side of the coin, hardliners in the Iranian Majlis are running legislation requiring 60 percent (bomb grade) enrichment. Unspoken was the fact that a collapse of talks appears likely to result in yet another American military misadventure. If Congress were to muddy the waters, Walsh predicted that we might not be able to maintain sanctions with our Russian and Chinese partners. For the time being, Harry Reid says he won’t schedule further sanctions for a vote and the President has promised to veto them if they land on his desk.

When the speakers opened the forum to questions from the audience, the first to wrest a microphone was Norm Brownstein, generous contributor to Israeli causes. He managed to cram about three questions into his statement, including the fact that Senate sponsors were assuring the public their additional sanctions would be automatically placed on hold. Pickering advised Brownstein to “read the bill.” He also pointed out that four former Israeli intelligence chiefs have publicly opposed any unilateral military action as hinted at by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So far as Saudi opposition to a Persian Bomb goes, he said, “The Sheiks will be happy to hold our coat, but they won’t be doing any fighting.” Many of the subsequent questions focused on other issues we would like to see resolved with Iran, including human rights, women’s rights and the persecution of the Bahai. Both speakers acknowledged that an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program was only a first step — noting that the Libyan renouncement of its nuclear program had produced neither expanded civil rights nor genuine democracy. Pickering warned that we were only going to get one chance at avoiding an eventual confrontation and that it was a risk worth taking.

Most conversations about American foreign policy take place east of the Mississippi, often east of the Hudson River. It’s encouraging to learn that World Denver and DU are establishing a public dialogue in the heartland. And, who knew the Iranian ayatollahs were sending their very best and brightest to American universities during the 1980s? President Reagan, perhaps, but certainly not this correspondent.

Miller Hudson is a former state representative and a current public affairs consultant.