(photo credit: Courtesy)
America's former ambassador to Israel, Thomas Pickering, supports the US opening diplomatic relations with Iran, which were cut off in 1979, as a means to solve the dilemma over Iran's right to develop nuclear capabilities.
The military option, said Pickering at a lecture he gave Sunday during a visit to Israel, "would have a negative impact. If the US joined talks it would give the US and Iran the opportunity to engage not only on the nuclear issue but also on security and regional issues," said Pickering, in an unspoken reference to Iran's support for the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Pickering's unusual lecture, titled "Iran and Iraq: Challenges and Opportunities," which he gave at the Fisher Brothers Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies in Herzliya, was full of recommendations that ran counter to current US policy. He supported similar tactics of diplomacy, not military attacks, towards the Syrian government and with Iraqi insurgents to end the violent conflict in Iraq.
The Syrians should be invited to join an international forum that should be established to solve the Iraq conflict, said Pickering, an executive at Boeing.
As for the supporters of the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and other nationalists fighting the US and Iraqi forces, the US should "help them enter the political process."
Pickering, who was jointly invited by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute Center, also gave a critical evaluation of US ability to train the Iraqi security forces, which he called "lamentably bad," to gather intelligence that he said "seems less than what we would have hoped for," and to reach out to nationalist and Ba'athist insurgents.
"In my view it is important that there be a program to help [the nationalist and Ba'athist insurgents] enter the political process," said Pickering, in contradiction to the US and Iraqi government stance.
The US set up a de-Ba'athification unit as part of the Iraqi government whose task is to remove high-ranking Ba'athists from government jobs. Last month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told Iraqis at a national reconciliation conference in Cairo that he refused to speak to supporters of Saddam Hussein and said the Iraqi government would not negotiate with the insurgents.
Pickering said his criticism and recommendations were based on outside, not inside, observations. "So if we are doing all these things, then we must do them better and more effectively," he said.
Pickering would not say whether he supported the decision to invade Iraq. Instead, he said, "With Saddam Hussein gone, a new situation is at hand with a new set of problems. We need to focus on the future." The future, he said, required a "broad and coordinated international effort."
Pickering suggested a plan similar to what former US presidential candidate John Kerry suggested: forming an "international contact group," which initially would include the US and European allies, "followed by Russia and China, then Germany, Japan and perhaps India and eventually Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey."
He added, "Over time even Syria should follow in that group," Pickering said it would be "an important forum for cajoling Syria on other issues."
After the event ,he told The Jerusalem Post that, regarding reforms in Syria, "while the military option should not be taken off the table, the diplomatic option should be used first."
Pickering never said the military option should be taken off the table for Iran either. Rather, he said using it "would have a negative impact in Iraq and a negative effect on the image of the US among Iranians, but there is no reason to give up at any point. Military force has limited strength [while] diplomacy still has some capacities that need to be used."
Speaking to an audience filled with many former foreign diplomats, Israeli military industry giants and former Israeli generals, Pickering recommended that the US offer trade benefits to Iran in return for its agreement not to acquire the ability to enrich uranium and plutonium.
Iran said it planned to develop nuclear power for energy so it did not have to use its valuable oil and gas reserves and could instead export them for high revenues.
"This rings a little bit hollow," Pickering told the audience. "The fear is that Iran will acquire the [two] processes then back out of the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]."
He further suggested that the US trade embargo on Iran be lifted on goods ranging from nuts to carpets.
According to Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli analyst who owns a Middle East consulting company called MEEPAS, US involvement in talks with the Iranians would "throw the Iranian government in disarray."
Commenting after Pickering's presentation, Javdanfar, whose expertise is economic and political analysis, said, "those in the Iranian government supporting dealing with the US would have a stronger hand."