National security expert offers perspective on Iran

“We have had no definite Iran policy for the past thirty years except to say that as a nation, we don’t like them,” said Gary Sick – a member of the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan – during a lecture Thursday night on American-Iranian relations. Speaking to a large audience at Wege Auditorium, Sick proceeded to detail the history of America’s relationship with Iran, highlighting several missed opportunities for reconciliation between the two countries. Sick explained the substantial increase in Iranian power and political clout over the past ten years. “Iran has become the pivot of Middle Eastern politics, the balance of power” he said, pointing to a general shift in American strategic investment from Israel and Lebanon toward the Persian Gulf.

He attributed Iran’s recent and rapid rise to American intervention in the region. “We made Iran what it is today,” Sick said. “In the wake of 9/11, through our getting rid of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, Iran lost its worst enemies to the East and West.” He repeatedly emphasized that Iran is to the Persian Gulf what Israel is to the Mediterranean region, identifying them as the two ideological poles of the Middle East. Sick paid special attention to the way the Americans tend to demonize the Iranian nation. Most Americans’ images of Iranians were formed during the Iranian Hostage Crisis when they saw “bearded men on television shouting ‘Death to America.’” The truth is far less one-sided, according to Sick. The Iranian government actively cooperated with the U.S. in 2001 following our invasion of Afghanistan and was instrumental in the establishment of new government to fill the void left by the Taliban.

“If it had not been for the Iranians, it is not clear we would have succeeded,” he said. However, mere months after this act of Iranian good will, President Bush branded the nation as a sponsor of terrorism and a member of the Axis of Evil, creating an obstacle to amicable relations that persists to this day. “America’s relationship with Iran has been strange, very strange right from the beginning,” Sick said. Prior to the 1970s, Great Britain was the main power that policed the Persian Gulf region. As Great Britain withdrew from the region, President Nixon “gave the Shah [Mohammad RezÄÂ? ShÄÂ?h Pahlavi] a blank check with which he could get any military technology from the U.S. that he wanted, with the one condition being that [the Shah] furthered American interests in the region,” he said. Iran, thus, effectively became the sole defender of American interests in the Persian Gulf region.

When the Shah was overthrown during the Iranian Revolution, America’s entire security structure in the region collapsed. America’s interventionist dealings with Iran directly contributed to the perception of America as “The Great Satan” within Iran, according to Sick. Sick was careful not to paint too bleak a picture. There is hope, he said, for American-Iranian relations. Over the last few years, our administration has undergone “an invisible 180 degree turn” about Iran. He mentioned the appointment of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, noting that Gates was firmly against military action and instead favored diplomatic engagement with Iran. The American Department of State has also moved toward reconciliation, cooperating with Europe on talks with Iran. “The Bush administration has finally started to shift away from its ‘Axis of Evil’ position and has adopted an Iranian policy very much in line with the plan that Senator Obama has for Iran,” he said. Sick concluded his discussion with a question and answer period. Concerning Iran’s nuclear program, he pointed out that, while Iran is certainly opposed the state of Israel, its development of nuclear capabilities is not an existential threat for Israel. “This is not a nation looking for national suicide,” he said. Sick also drew a clear distinction between gaining the capability to produce nuclear weapons and gaining nuclear weapons themselves. “If the world knows you can do it, you get the same benefit,” he said.