Exclusive Interview: Buchanan Argues Iran Can Be Deterred

Former presidential candidate and author Patrick Buchanan believes that if the United States and its allies fail to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a policy of deterrence can work against Iran just as in the past it worked against a nuclear-armed Soviet Union and a nuclear-armed People’s Republic of China

On the question of whether the U.S. should launch a preemptive war to prevent Iran from developing such a weapon, Buchanan said: “At this point, I would not say, ‘Yes.’”

Buchanan’s view contrasts sharply with that of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who told Human Events last week that the U.S. would need to go to war if no other means could be found to stop the Iranians from developing nuclear arms.

Buchanan, an adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, went with Nixon to China and with Reagan to his summits with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva and Reykjavik. Human Events Editors Allan Ryskind and Terence Jeffrey interviewed Buchanan last week as part of a series of interviews HE is doing with leading conservatives about U.S. policy toward Iran. Jeffrey worked for Buchanan’s 1992 and 1996 Republican presidential campaigns.

Do you have any doubt that the Iranians are seeking to develop a nuclear weapon?

I don’t have any doubt that they would probably like to have one. I don’t think they are near one. I don’t think they have, right now, the capacity or the ability to enrich uranium even to the point where they can have enough to power a bomb. I don’t think they have the centrifuges. There is no indication that they do. I am not sure they have mastered the technology. I think they are a long way away from enriching uranium.

But I do think in the back of their mind they have the idea that, first, they are never going to give up the right to enrich uranium, which they have under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and secondly, my guess is they are moving to become a nuclear power.

Do you believe that the current type of regime in Iran, with a nuclear weapon, is a threat to the United States?

I certainly do not think it is as great a threat to the United States as Mao Tse Tung, who got nuclear weapons and was talking about 300 million Chinese dead. I think this: It would be an act of utter insanity on the part of Iran, if it did in several years get one or two nuclear weapons, to use that on Americans anywhere. They would invite the greatest massive retaliation in history.

I believe deterrence works. I believe it is already working against Iran. We have been hostile toward them for 26 years but we haven’t gone to war against them for a simple reason: They could have a war in an afternoon, but they don’t want a war with the United States. Why should they?

I think you read the interview we did with Newt Gingrich that was in last week’s issue of Human Events. Gingrich argued that what he called the irreconcilable wing of Islam shows us every day that they don’t care about dying. His argument is that we now have a president in Iran and an Iranian regime that collectively think that way and that, therefore, they really are a threat to use a nuclear weapon. Do you reject the argument that there is an Islamic vision—perhaps even the Islamic vision that is embraced by the current regime in Iran—that actually would tolerate the use of a nuclear weapon even knowing they would suffer a response?

I think if al Qaeda got a hold of a nuclear weapon, they would do their best to smuggle it into the United States. But I think anybody who is in control of a state and a regime would think twice and three times—everybody in a leadership position in that country would think twice and three times—before they ever used a weapon like that on any nuclear power, the United States primarily, but secondarily Israel—which should they use it on the Israelis I think the retaliation would be massive. I believe the Iranians know that full well.
While Ahmadinejad is making a big play for the Islamic street and Arab street and succeeding, other than the rhetoric and the verbiage and the fact that he has made himself sort of a global antagonist of America and Israel, which he wants to be, I haven’t seen any action.

Even if deterrence would work with the current Iranian regime, do we have an interest, short of the use of force, in trying to prevent them from actually developing a nuclear weapon?

Of course. We certainly do. The idea of a nuclear weapon in the hands of the Iranians is a terrible idea, as it is in the hands of the North Koreans. This is why I would not rule out talking to the Iranians. A war between the United States and Iran would be devastating to Iran, and it would be unworthwhile to the United States because of what Iran could do to our position in Iraq with the Shia, with terrorism in the Gulf, upsetting regimes there, with the Shia in the Northwest regions of Saudi Arabia. So, I think the United States and Iran ought to talk just as Truman and Stalin talked, and Eisenhower and Krushchev talked, and Nixon and Brezhnev talked, and Reagan and Gorbachev talked, and Nixon went to China. We have an adversary here, an antagonist, but we both have a vital interest in not letting this degenerate into all out war.

But we had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union during all those talks. Do you believe the United States should have diplomatic relations—that we should open diplomatic relations—with Iran? Do you believe that the President of the United States ought to directly deal with the Iranian leadership?

No. Right now we do not have diplomatic relations. So it is very much like the situation with China in 1972. I think we ought to go through a back channel to the Iranian government, and the President ought to have people he trusts, who are tough-minded—Gen. Zinni is one who comes to mind—to talk with these people and simply lay down the ground rules: Quite obviously, we don’t want a war with you folks, but you don’t want one with us. And lay down the conditions for them.

I think in the long run, Iran is going to dominate the Persian Gulf one day, just as the Americans were one day going to dominate the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Iran’s going to have 100 million people by 2050. What you want to do, I think, is work out some kind of modus vivendi with them. I don’t care about close personal relationships. If they don’t like us, that’s fine. But there is a big difference between that and having a war where you kill a lot of one another.

It seems to me the Iranians have played the United States and the Europeans for suckers on developing nuclear weapons. We are not doing anything about it. There have been a tremendous number of warnings, but Ahmadinejad says you can give us all the warnings you want, but we are still going ahead with our nuclear program—he doesn’t say nuclear weapons program. So, let’s say Zinni goes over there, but then, after a certain period of time, we decide they are not going to do what we want them to do. Then what would you do? What would be your alternative course of action?

Unless they have another secret program we know nothing about, where they have thousands of centrifuges operating and producing enriched uranium that we don’t know about—I don’t believe they do, but unless they have that—they are a long way from a nuclear weapon. But I would agree that if you go over there and you talk to them, and you say we have to work something out here, then you are going to have to give them something as well as get something in return. I don’t rule out the fact that we might succeed with that. But if we failed and they said, “We don’t care about any sanctions or anything, we are going to continue enriching uranium where we are doing it right now,” and we conclude that they are going to reach for a nuclear weapon, then I think you come down to the point of what you do about it militarily. I know Sen. John McCain says keep the military option on the table—and I guess that’s correct as sort of a metaphor or whatever it is—but I would not at this point launch war against Iran.

But what would you do when you realized that they were not being serious, when you realized from the way they were acting that they were going to develop a nuclear weapon down the road, a year or two, or maybe three? Michael Ledeen and others have talked about how we should at least help the people internally, because he believes there are pro-American forces there—

But that doesn’t answer your question either.

But it might help. If they think we are actually going to help internally those who are opposed to them—

My own view is that the Bush policy has been foolish. He should never have gone out before the Congress of the United States and declared we have an axis of evil—Iran, North Korea and Iraq—and these, the world’s worst dictators, are not going to be allowed to get the world’s worst weapons. But he had no policy and no program to prevent it, and he simply alerted the North Koreans and the Iranians that the United States was coming. So, both of them have since broken out of the restraints under which they were operating their nuclear programs. That was a mistake on the President’s part.

He undercut [former Iranian President Mohammed] Khatami, too. We took no advantage of him. Let’s get to the bottom line: Should the United States launch a war against Iran if we believe they are approaching a nuclear capacity or an ability to enrich uranium to a highly enriched state? At this point, I would not say “yes.”

At this point?

At this point, I would not say “yes.” But as for Ledeen’s point, and others’ point, about helping out inside Iran, that’s fine—like we did in Poland. But this is a different situation. We do not want to get into a situation like the Hungarian situation, where you encourage these people and push them to rise up and throw out the mullahs and get them all slaughtered, as Bush’s father did with the Shias, and as we supposedly did with the Hungarians, although that may be exaggerated.

That would call for an engagement with Iran, quite frankly. If you want to get in there and help their pro-Western people, that calls for a measure of engagement with Iran. We can’t do that with Radio Free Tehran.

Should we have a level of engagement with Iran, beside this back channel you’re talking about?

Buchanan: If it were up to me, I believe that the United States and Iran, even with this radical regime, have strategic interests in avoiding a war and avoiding a cut-off of oil from the Gulf and avoiding a general explosion in that region, and that we ought to sit down and talk about it.

Now, when the United States invaded Afghanistan, the Iranians were with us in overthrowing the Taliban. I also understand they were willing to help in picking up pilots, over-flights, and things like that. They’re also delighted by the fact that we overthrew Saddam Hussein, because that helped bring to power the Shia, their friends.
So, they owe us, so to speak. But the point is there are issues on which the United States and the Iranians have common ground even though their ideology despises what we are and what we believe. I think when you have those, you deal with people rather than go to war with them.

Condoleezza Rice has condemned Ahmadinejad. What ought she be doing?

Well, you have to condemn what he said. What he said is outrageous, even though what he is doing is what [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez is doing and [Bolivian President] Evo Morales is doing. They are ticking off the United States because when the United States responds it builds them up with the masses, with the street.

But you don’t know precisely what is going on inside Iran?

Well, we do know this: When the United States was hit on 9/11 there was a tremendous sympathy for this country among young Iranians. We do know that they voted 70% twice against the mullahs, to throw them out, and put in Khatami. We do know that the young people in Iran—no one under 35—has knowledge of Savak or the Shah. To them, the thugs that are pushing them around and denying them freedom and restricting them are the mullahs. So, you have something on which to build. This is where I do agree with Ledeen.

But I am not sure that deliberately confronting them and telling them you are going to be the only nation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty that has no right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes is the way to do it, when all Iranians are united that they are going to retain that right.

But the deal that is being offered, supposedly, is that the Russians will actually enrich their uranium for them.

The Iranians invited the United States to do it about four or five months ago. They said, “Why don’t you Americans come over and do it?”

But I would rather have the Russians do it, so we would have a diplomatic free hand. We could judge it. But why can’t they do that?

The Iranians don’t want these sanctions either. That’s why they are opening the door, a little bit, that maybe the Russians have a good idea. I would favor that. So does the President. I think it is a good idea. I think the President is handling this now pretty well. Unlike Newt.

Do you think there’s a little bit of a mismatch between the President’s rhetoric, including in the State of the Union, that we are going to end tyranny in the world now, and what appears to be the President’s realistic approach to Iran?

Well, it is a realistic approach to Iran. And his approach to North Korea, I think, is the best he can do given the circumstances. But this idea that we are going to end tyranny in the world is Wilsonianism on steroids. It is absurd. We are not going to end tyranny in this world. Maybe in the next.

But I think when the President talks about that what he is trying to do is what Presidents have always done—Lincoln, Wilson. They get into a war for reasons of national interest, and then the war becomes a horrendous, bloody mess, and so then you have got to move it into this much broader concept, where you are fighting for universal ideas and great goals, so even if it goes badly he can say we dared greatly, and this was what was coming anyhow, and he was ahead of his time. I understand what the President is doing—as long as he is realistic about the idea of ending tyranny on this earth. It is not going to happen in his administration.

I think something different has happened. I believe Bernard Lewis, the Middle East historian, is behind all this, even more than Natan Sharansky and others. Because Lewis went down to the White House, and he has talked about bringing democracy to this area of the world, and I think they believe democracy is the big pot at the end of the rainbow in the Middle East. We are going to get Iraq, we are going to turn it into a democracy, and it’s going to change the entire Middle East. I believe they bought into it. It is not just rhetoric.

I agree with you. I believe the neo-cons sold Bush a bill of goods about Iraq: that we are going to march up to Baghdad. It’s not only going to be a cakewalk, but when Saddam goes down they are going to welcome us with flowers and sweets, and democracy is going to break out there, and not only there, it is going to spread to Iran and Syria, and the Palestinians and the Israelis are going to sit down together. The President bought into this, and he was horribly misled. In a way, it has turned to ashes in our mouths.

However, the President has come to believe, has been converted to the idea, that democracy is the cure for terrorism, and that when democracy comes to the Middle Eastern people, they will vote to live in peace and security because that’s what people do. Now, I think the President in the short run is mistaken, terribly mistaken. Some of us warned him against this because we said elections will empower people who according to the polls would like to do two things: Throw us out of the Middle East, and throw the Israelis into the sea.

So what we have is that the Muslim Brotherhood won more than 50% of the elections it contested. The Hizballah won in South Lebanon. Hamas has swept the West Bank and Gaza. The Shiites are winning in Iraq. Ahmadinejad wins in Iran. And even the party in Turkey is a Muslim party beautified. And in those provinces of Pakistan next to Afghanistan, Islamic fundamentalists are in charge.

The President has started a revolution. He has ignited a revolution in the Middle East and what is going to come to power is Islamic fundamentalism.

However, here is where I am more helpful than a lot of people. Any revolution, such as the French Revolution, all the revolutions, reach Thermidor, where the revolutionary fervor is gone and they have to run the show and operate the state, and they become responsible and they become accountable, and at that point, I think, you can come to deal with them.

I think the Iranian revolution was reaching that point before the Axis of Evil stuff, because you had 70% of the people voting repeatedly to throw these people out. But I think we have re-inflamed that situation over there with the invasion and the rhetoric and all the rest of it. But I do think the President has ignited a revolution, and you can’t walk this cat back.