More successful Iran will calm the region: Powell aide

July 5, 2015 - 0:0

TEHRAN - Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff for Colin Powell at the U.S. State Department, believes that a more economically successful Iran can keep the volatile Middle East region “quiet” and prosperous”.

“I see Iran as a more stable, mature, increasingly successful, economically successful power, and if she becomes more successful economically, financially, regionally, and so forth, I think she’ll become a more mature power, able to handle things like keeping the region quiet, and keeping the region prosperous,” Wilkerson tells the Tehran Times in an exclusive interview.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: You’ve said in one of your articles that after the fall of Iran’s Shah, Saudi Arabia couldn’t protect US’ interests in the Persian Gulf, in spite of the fact that the monarchy was much more stable and powerful at the time than it now. Was this failure due to geopolitical reasons or because of the structure of power in Saudi Arabia?

A: There are a lot of implications to it. First of all the military dimension; Saudi Arabia has never had a very professional, very effective military force, never. Not then, not now. Saudi Arabia is not a formidable military power. We’ve been working with the Saudis, indeed I’ve worked with the Saudis for some period. They’re not the kind of the military force one depends on in a significant crisis. Yes, they can march into Bahrain. They can keep Bahrain from revolting and so forth. But when it comes to a real war, when it comes to a significant display of force, even when it comes to a conflict like Iran-Iraq war, the Saudis would be quickly rounded. That’s a straightforward military fact.

So the idea that Saudi Arabia would be a formidable military force that could balance almost anyone else in the (Persian) Gulf other than, say, a country like Qatar or the UAE, is, in a military stance, nonsense. Saudi Arabia is not a balancing force. Lot of money, lots of power that they can buy with that money, but not a formidable military force.

Second part of it, outside the military dimension, is the fact that the Saudis are not trustworthy. They will go one way on Monday, and another way on Tuesday, and they they’ve got another way on Wednesday. I’m sure that the Saudi leadership, the royal family feels the same way about the United States, and I wouldn’t blame them if they did. But I have to look at it from Washington’s point of view and the Washington’s point of view is that you really can’t trust the Saudis.

So any idea that, militarily or trustwise, one could substitute the Saudis for Iran under the Shah, or for what we’ve done now to augment and supplement the Saudis, create the Gulf Cooperation Council, which I still don’t think is militarily formidable and capable of standing up against a major military force like Iran, is in my view nonsense. Saudi Arabia or the GCC do not balance Iran. It just doesn’t work.

Q: How is the U.S. maintaining the balance of power in the Middle East now that the Saudis are not powerful and there’s no Iraq?

A: Right now there isn’t one. We destroyed it. When we took out Saddam Hussein we destroyed the balance of power which was essentially between the Arabs led by Saddam Hussein—at the time the fifth largest army in the world in number of tanks and so forth—and Iran. We took that out. We took the balance of power out. The balance of power is now collapsed. And into that collapse has come ISIS, al-Qaeda and a host of the very turbulent forces that are tearing the region apart.

Q: You have said that in the Iran-Iraq war, the United States tried to prevent Russian access to the Persian Gulf by openly supporting Iraq in the war. Why wasn’t the U.S. able to achieve its goals or at least win the war?

A: It was a very difficult time in 1987-1988 in terms of determining what was happening in the Persian Gulf. The United States had been, in my view, very devious. It supported both Iran and Iraq. Supporting Iran, for example by selling TOW missiles and Hawk missiles to it, and in other ways that I can’t discuss because they’re still classified. But it also supported Iraq by selling Iraq precursor materials for its chemical weapons, by giving Iraq intelligence and so forth, through the CIA. So the United States was supporting both sides. At some point, it was supporting both sides simultaneously, at the same time!

By the time we get to, roughly, 1987-1988 when we discovered that Iran is serious enough to mine the Persian Gulf and the critical waters thereof, thereby threatening not just the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf but also threatening at this point an ally of the United States—who was speaking to the U.S. about that threat, and this is Kuwait of course, the United States had a choice to make: Would it protect the Kuwaiti tankers or would it not, realizing that if it did, it would be perceived ultimately as entering the Iran-Iraq war, and probably on the side of Iraq, because the threat to those tankers was coming from Iran.

The United States deliberated about this for a time, and I think the interim decision was “No. That’s a step too far. We’re not going to do that.” But what the Kuwaitis did, as countries often do or did during the Cold War, was turn to the Soviets and ask them if they would protect their shipping. As soon as that happened, Washington went apoplectic. Washington could see the Soviet warships in the Persian Gulf, escorting the Kuwaiti tankers. More than that, they could see Soviet access to the Gulf in a way that they never had before, or never tried to achieve before. So we went crazy. There is no other way to look at it. Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, Ronald Reagan ultimately, they went crazy. They said, “No, no, no. The Soviets can’t be allowed to enter the Persian Gulf. No, no, no.” You have no idea how many times I heard someone shout, “The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming.”

So we decided to reverse our previous “neutrality,” if you will, and we decided to go ahead and reflag the Kuwaiti tankers and protect them. The Kuwaitis became deliriously happy, because they really didn’t want the Soviets but they used the Soviets to get us to come in. That’s how stupid we are. So we came in, reflagged the Kuwaiti tankers, and began to protect them. You know what happened after that; we wound up fully on Iraq’s side, even after Iraq hit one of our warships with “two” Exocet missiles and killed, I think as I remember, 39 Americans. And as I’m told, if it’s a true story, the ultimate hemlock for Ayatollah Khomeini was when we shot down the Iranian Airbus and killed all those civilians.

Q: The shooting down of the Iranian civilian airliner over the Persian Gulf on July 3, 1988, was a tragic act that many believe caused Ayatollah Khomeini to “drink the hemlock.” Why were the Americans forced to make this decision? Was there no other way to end the war?

A: I’ve made some study of that, and so have my students. That was completely an accident. It was an accident that was, you might say, preordained by the state of alert we put our sailors on, and the positioning of the Vincennes in the region the way she was, and certainly the lax attitude of the leadership on Vincennes. It was a tragic accident. It was NOT intentional. It was a tragic accident.

Q: Many believe that United States foreign policy and its wars in the Middle East are shaped in a way to help Washington gain control of the energy and oil in the region. Is there really no other factor, such as ideological reasons, behind these policies?

A: I think there are some ideological issues involved, but they do not outweigh the energy issues. I dealt with this for 30 years in the military, and I’ve dealt with it since then out of the military; the energy issues trump everything else. In particular, energy getting to our allies like Japan, western Europe, and so forth. It’s not so much energy getting to us anymore, as it is energy getting to our allies. But it’s more than that. It’s a bigger picture than that. It’s oil getting to the world at a reasonable price, and on a constant flow. And no single state of combination of states being able to control enough of that oil to dominate the price and dominate the access.

In that stance, the American policy is very enlightened. It’s not necessarily for ExxonMobil, Total, Pemex, it’s not really for the oil companies. It’s so that everyone has access to the oil, at a reasonable price, and on a consistent basis. And basically for four or five decades, that policy has been relatively successful. But there are ideological components to it and they stem from the democratic nature of the revolution in Tehran.

I must tell you that I have a lot of Iranian-American friends who are very successful in this country, who are very wealthy now even, in many cases, they’re professionals, they’re financial consultants, they’re professors, and so forth. And they don’t want confrontation between Washington and Tehran that leads to war. They want the negotiations that are ongoing right now, for example, to succeed. They want a better and closer relationship.

Q: The Americans took over nuclear negotiations with Iran which the Europeans started. These have also proved to be the longest negotiations the Americans have had in their history. Do you think this is really because the U.S. is worried Iran might build a nuclear bomb, or is it because Washington wants to pressure the Iranian government to make certain changes, becoming a reliable and strong ally for the United States in the region?

A: I don’t think there’s a wishful thinking about a strong ally for America in the region. I think that’s beyond the possibilities. I think what we’re striving for, is a closer, more meaningful, more trusting relationship between Washington and Iran that then would lead to a solution to many other problems in that region that are hurting a lot of people right now. That goes from Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Syria. And ultimately it goes to Egypt, elsewhere to North Africa.

You’re not going to get, over the next 10, 15, 20 years, stability in the region, development in the region, prosperity in the region, without Iran playing a significant part in it. I think Washington has realized that. I hope Tehran realizes that. We may not be close friends, and we certainly probably won’t be allies, but at least when we have common interest, we can work together, and not against one another.

Q: Because of the nature and goals of the Islamic Republic, the United States will never be happy with Iran’s presence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, or Yemen. How can they work together, other than Iran changing its behavior?

A: I’m not convinced that Iran has revolutionary goals that extend beyond the borders of Iran other than to secure the countries that have significant Shia populations like Iran. That’s my view of what Iran’s purpose is. I wouldn’t have said that in 1980, 1981, or 1982. I think the leadership in Tehran has matured. There are some people who still, leadership in the IRGC for example, who still hold those kinds of revolutionary goal, that is, spreading Islam across the face of the earth, but I think basic tendency in Tehran is to be more reasonable; it’s to secure the revolution for Iran; it’s to make life better for the Iranian people; it’s to make life more stable, more prosperous, more successful for the Iranian people; and ultimately to build Iranian power in the region, and ultimately in the world. Of course, not for the purpose of spreading some Shia ideology across the face of the earth, as I would say is the purpose of Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabist Salafist Sunni philosophy.

I don’t see Iran as that kind of dangerous threat the way some others do. I see Iran as a more stable, mature, increasingly successful, economically successful power, and if she becomes more successful economically, financially, regionally, and so forth, I think she’ll become a more mature power, able to handle things like keeping the region quiet, and keeping the region prosperous. I think it’s inevitable that Iran… and Turkey too, I throw Turkey in there too, and I’m glad to see Erdogan lost so significantly his majority in the Turkish parliament, because Erdogan was becoming a tyrant, a dictator, and he needed to be trimmed; he needed to be set back. Without Turkey and without Iran, and without them operating maturely, wisely, and basically democratically, there is not ever going to be any peace in that region.

Q: Some people have talked about a second Sykes–Picot agreement in the Middle East in which Americans dictating a break-up of Saudi Arabia. What do you think was the reason behind the Saudi attack on Yemen, and why is the United States supporting Saudi Arabia?

A: These are all good questions and I’m not sure I have answers to them. I think my immediate answer would be because we don’t seem to know any other thing to do, and that’s not a very good answer. It’s certainly not an effective policy. I think the Saudis are doing it because their leadership, the royals were being made to look weak in the face of their significant problems within their own country, not least of which is their restive Shia population, but also Saudis themselves who are not necessarily beholden to or beloved of the royal family, and who have no other prospects in life now. Because Saudi Arabia really doesn’t have a very diversified economy, and as the oil runs out, everybody realizes that Saudi Arabia is going to be a basket case, because there is no real way to produce wealth in Saudi Arabia other than through oil.

So the Saudis are feeling very very concerned right now. First of all, they’ve got a 50-year ally, the United States, that they cannot trust, and I don’t blame them. Second, they’ve got an increasingly restive population and when that restive population is exacerbated by conflict on the borders of Saudi Arabia, read “Yemen,” that makes it even worse in the eyes of the royals. And third, they’ve got no real prospects for the future. Once their oil is gone, they’re gone. This is a very very paranoid state. Saudis felt like they had to strike out at something and Yemen was as good a place as any to prove that it still could do it, and it still has power and could act. I think it’s as simple as that.

Why the United States is following that course? It’s ridiculous, absurd, and inexplicable to me. I can’t pretend to understand that policy.


The purpose of Saudi Arabia is promoting the Wahhabist Salafist philosophy.

You’re not going to get, over the next 10, 15, 20 years, stability in the region, development in the region, prosperity in the region, without Iran playing a significant part in it.