Speaking at Sunday's IDC Herzliya International Institute for Counterterrorism's Seventh Annual Conference on "Terrorism's Global Impact," former NATO supreme allied commander Wesley Clark said there was no distinction between terrorists and criminals - a view seconded by Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who spoke afterwards.
"Terrorists are not warriors; they are criminals and should be denied the legitimacy of combatant status and brought to trial," Clark said, referring to the US detention of al-Qaida operatives at Guantanamo Bay.
But what of terrorist regimes?
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Clark, a likely contender for a top administration position should a Democrat win the White House race next year, said he shared Israel's assessment of the Iranian leadership as a "terrorist regime." He suggested ways of grappling with it, including via direct US diplomacy - "serious discussion," he called it, rather than "negotiation."
The successful outcome of the Kosovo experience - the centerpiece of his 1997-2000 NATO stint - could be a useful lesson in defusing the Iranian crisis, he argued.
"We had a lot of problems with the Serbs, too. Ultimately we indicted the Serb leadership for being war criminals. They did a lot of terrorist things in Bosnia, and yet we were able to work against them successfully."
Do you think the two situations are comparable?
No, not exactly, but I think there are parallels. I think there are lessons to be learned. Ahmadinejad's is a minority government. He's lost huge public credibility and support. By public opinion polls, Iranians are the most pro-Western of any of the states in the region.
Will anything short of military force stop the Iranians?
We've got an obligation to the people of the region to try. ... Military force should be the last resort. As we discovered in Iraq, when you use military force, you get some often unanticipated consequences.
Iran does have a history of using talks as a cover for continued weapons development, and in general a history of deception.
So did Slobodan Milosevic. He played European ministers like fiddles. And yet when the US really engaged, we were able to bring it to a conclusion. But a threat personally delivered is a lot more effective than a newspaper outburst.
What about Iraq? Are you in favor of a withdrawal of US forces the way things stand now?
I'm for a different strategy in the region. The whole discussion on Iraq has been about tricks and tactics, and as I've told people for years, that's a mistake. What we have to have is a different strategy in the region. Iran is a nation of 75 million people. It's here whether everybody likes it or not. And if we don't like its behavior, then we need to try to change its behavior. But the best way to change that behavior is to confront it, to engage it, directly, and that starts with an attempt at dialogue.
We've tried isolation for 30 years; it hasn't worked. Have isolation and economic sanctions prevented them from moving ahead and developing nuclear weapons? No, it hasn't. You must undertake serious diplomacy, because war has to be the last resort.
It's not up to the US to determine whether or not diplomacy will succeed - that takes both parties. But it's up to the US to seriously initiate it and stop giving Iran a chance to hide, as the US is doing with half-hearted measures and occasional visits. The US should put a full-court diplomatic press on it, should demand the Iranians come to the table, accept delegations, work the issues - let's get it resolved. If it has to be war, fine, but we'll do everything we can to avert it. We know who the loser in that war is going to be. It will be Iran. And the Iranian people. Iran is the biggest threat in the region. Iran was the threat before the US invaded Iraq, and I testified about that to the US Congress.
When is the point at which diplomacy may be too late? What is the timeline here?
We sent a diplomat to Slobodan Milosevic on the eve before we began bombing in 1999. Because if you want to sustain international legitimacy and you want to maintain the support of your people behind an operation, you must [employ] every possible means before you use force. Unless, of course, you're about to be attacked by surprise. But in this case there is no surprise. We can see this coming. It's time that the US faced up to its responsibility.
Last week the commander of British forces in Iraq said his men were, in effect, fighting a proxy war against Iran. Do you consider the UK, US and Israel currently at war with Iran?
Some people have called it a "cold war." There's a lot going on. But what's not going on is the kind of dialogue that we took up with the Russians during the Cold War. And you know, what we found in the case of Iraq was, because the administration didn't try to avoid war and didn't exhaust all diplomatic alternatives, when it was time to reach down and sustain the support of the American people, they had a great deal of difficulty doing that. So this time, if we're going to do this, we've got to do it the right way - and that is to exhaust every other alternative before it's too late.
Now, all we have to do is stall and continue to stall, and eventually the clock will run out and the Iranians will have what they need, whatever their preconditions are: They have got to acquire their nuclear weapon, they have to consolidate their position further in Iraq, they have to strengthen [their involvement in Lebanon], increase their grip in Gaza. At some point, their preconditions will be met, [but] right now they're not where they want to be. There may be some common interests [for the US and Iran to discuss now regarding those goals] - who knows?
You are the former commander of NATO. What is that organization's role regarding Iran?
NATO will have to take a very serious interest in Iran. But NATO is a collection of sovereign states, and it starts with American leadership. Iran should have a look around at the powers that NATO, the US, and other allies have arrayed around it.
What role can China and Russia play?
I see China and Russia waiting on the sidelines to exploit what happens. I wish it weren't so.
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