Khalilzad’s cautious optimism

A native of Afghanistan and veteran analyst and foreign service official, Zalmay Khalilzad is the United States ambassador to the United Nations, appointed to that position by President Bush. He was in Los Angeles last week to address the World Affairs Council. Jim Newton, editor of The Times' editorial pages, and Marjorie Miller, The Times' foreign editor, visited Khalilzad at the Century City hotel where he was staying, and spoke about Iran and Iraq, as well as America's standing at the United Nations and the world.

Below, excerpts from their conversation:

Iran sanctions still on?

Marjorie Miller: It seems like the prospects for tougher sanctions are a little bit dimmer at this point (since the release of a National Intelligence Estimate which concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, undermining the Bush administration's claims that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat).

Zalmay Khalilzad: We'll have to see. Of course, as you know the NIE dealt with the covert military program, which as a footnote of the NIE said…the definition of the program talked about the work on the design of the weapon and work on how the weapon can fit on top of a missile and some uranium processing. But a nuclear weapon system has got the fissile material, whether uranium or plutonium, you've got the warhead issues, the design of the bomb, and then you've got the delivery. And what the NIE said with high confidence was that they were covertly and in an undeclared way in violation of the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], working on a bomb….

That they've stopped, which we think is positive…. It was done in the context of moving Iraq at that time, in the context of what Libya did. And it was fearful it was going to be discovered. So it stopped, which is good. But the work on the fuel part and the missile part continues….

The same sort of pressure and talking to them could produce, we hope, a similar change in their approach here. Now, I'll have to wait and see frankly what my colleagues [think], I'll have to negotiate this. It will take a lot of my time in the coming weeks. But I'm going to make the case the way I've described it to you, that we welcome that. That now we have come to a judgment with regard to the program, but they need to deal with this problem, suspension.

Jim Newton: I assume that's a particularly hard sell with Russians and the Chinese? Zalmay Khalilzad: We will see. I just saw today in your paper or one of the other papers that Mr. [Russian President Vladimir V.] Putin saw Mr. [Saeed] Jalili, who is the new negotiator [for Iran], and the foreign minister was quoting from that meeting and that Putin said they need to comply with the Security Council and suspend their enrichment program.

I'm not trying to say it's going to be easy. No. But I feel that I can make a case for this two-track approach: pressure, willingness to talk…. They need to suspend, as demanded by two security council resolutions….

They do worry about pressure. They do worry about being isolated. So that we can diplomatically come to an agreement with them.… It will be much harder to get to that point if we don't work together with the Chinese and the Russians. If the Iranians can play one of us against each other, I think it will be a lot tougher. But I don't think the Russians want them to have nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons capability. So therefore, while it's going to be tough, I'm cautiously optimistic that we can get something.

Marjorie Miller: But they don't want tougher sanctions because they don't want to lose the business.

Zalmay Khalilzad: That's the dilemma of sanctions, of course: For sanctions to be effective, they need to be broadly supported and be painful. That's unfortunately the reality….

But they know that this is very important. I don't think any of them would like Iran to have nuclear weapons. That's one thing. Two, they know that this important for us. The Europeans are much more focused on this then they were on Iraq, for instance. Also, we're all dependent on the Middle East, the Chinese, the Europeans, everyone. We don't want to destabilize this region. Imagine if Iran gets nuclear weapons or gets closer. Other countries in the region will also want to. The region is dysfunctional enough already. Add nuclear weapons, several nuclear powers in the middle of this is something that none of us would want….

Iran is a rising power. It wants regional preeminence or hegemony. Iran has a self-image that it is a special country. A number of others have it, too…but they belong to that group with a sense of self, of history and civilization. I benefited from Persian civilization myself. I was born in Afghanistan, and I know Persian literature very well. They have dominated that region at times in history. They are the biggest country in the Gulf, largest population. So they think there are some things they are entitled to. Maybe some of them think nuclear weapons are part of that….

Jim Newton: Critics of the Iraq war have spent years beating up on the intelligence that the administration used to justify the invasion, and now we have the spectacle of conservatives and those who believe Iran should be addressed militarily criticizing the intelligence with respect to Iran. Is a legacy of this administration a bi-partisan discrediting of American intelligence capability?

Zalmay Khalilzad: Well, people shouldn't be surprised. It's not just during this administration that we've had this intelligence issue…. You can go back to Truman and the analysis of the Soviet Union.

This is not a partisan issue. You wish you had perfect information, and you don't. Often information is contradictory. People try to deceive you. You try not to fall into that trap, but sometimes, perhaps one does. I am surprised that people are surprised that we run into this problem every now and then.

We were shocked by what happened in Iran before the Revolution. President Carter a few months before the revolution was visiting Iran and said "This is an island of stability." Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — President Carter said it was the most surprising thing. I could go on.

This is a hard business. People can conceal their true intentions or their activities from adversaries.

Marjorie Miller: So, what do you think about this estimate? Do you think it's closer to the truth?

Zalmay Khalilzad: We have to assume that, until you find something to the contrary. I'm a government official, one of the consumers. I spend a lot of time every day reading and being briefed by these people. I have a lot of confidence in them, and I have no way myself independently to check these…. I respect them as professionals. They do the best they can.

The U.S. and the U.N.

Jim Newton: How would you describe America's prestige or standing at the United Nations these days?

Zalmay Khalilzad: I think we're doing well there. I have gone there with a kind of field perspective on the U.N. I worked in Afghanistan, Iraq and now here. Those are my three embassy experiences. I found the U.N. extremely competent and useful in the field in Afghanistan….

So I come from the perspective that the U.N. can be useful, useful for us. And that we can be useful for the U.N. We contribute 22% of the budget, and that's important.

I came with a view to get the U.N. more involved in Iraq, especially on the reconciliation part because politically that's a huge problem in Iraq and regional engagement. Because internal reconciliation and regional engagement interplay significantly. And we got that, a unanimous resolution saying that the U.N. should play a big role there….

Given our relative role in the world, the most important power, the pre-eminent power in the world, there's some resentment and hostility. Some people don't like our policies in certain areas. Some people don't agree with us on reform areas….

We can work with people. My approach personally is to engage and be result-oriented, not just posture.

Hope for Iraq?

Marjorie Miller: Is there any ground for optimism about political reconciliation in Iraq?

Zalmay Khalilzad: There are some shaping things that have happened that are positive, although at the national level there hasn't been any significant progress in recent months. In terms of things that could shape a positive outcome, I would emphasize the following:

One is Al Qaeda's weakness…and the Sunni-Arab estrangement from Al Qaeda….

Second thing that's positive, and I worked very hard on this while I was there, is for us to develop a working relationship with the Sunnis. They thought that we had come with hostile intent towards them, and they didn't participate in the process at the beginning. But now our relations with them have become more normal, better. And that's also a shaping factor, to be able to deal with all sides…on political and economic issues. So that's positive.

And that the U.N. is going to play a bigger role, that's positive.

But at the national level, so far nothing of great importance has moved in the last many months. The oil law has not been completed. De-Baathification, reform of it, has not been completed. Constitutional amendment process…has not happened. You know all the list of things, the benchmarks, have not been implemented. But they say from a bottom-up point of view, people are going to each other's areas and talking to each other. That's good.

Ultimately, you need a national reconciliation. Otherwise the danger is that the successes that have taken place on the security front could be put at risk if politics doesn't catch up.

Marjorie Miller: What do you see it looking like down the road? Is it a loosely knit federation? Is it splintered?

Zalmay Khalilzad: I ultimately see Iraq as working. I am strategically optimistic. You probably are a student of history, too. Look at the history of Germany, France, Italy — countries made up of different power centers becoming a single nation-state.

It's not easy, and they face very tough issues. How to share trillions of dollars? It's not a poor country. How do you divide it given that resources are not divided equally. Where should the borders of the country be internally? Saddam [Hussein] changed borders as a means of facilitating control.

On the political system issue, it has to be federal. There is no question about that. But what kind of federal is really the issue. There are several models that different Iraqis have in mind. They just need to come to agreement. Some say there should be a federal system that has two parts to it that has two parts to it, an Arab and a Kurdish part. Because the Kurds will not want to be cooperating or be even a part of Iraq, perhaps, if there is not a federal system where they can run their own local affairs…. A lot of Arabs now accept that, that the Kurds are unique.

Then when it comes to the rest of Iraq, some say the rest of us should be one unit. Some say it should be three, a Kurd, a Shia, a Sunni. Some say that organization is too ethnic and sectarian, "we should be more like America. Each province should be a federal unit, not based on sect or ethnicity."

There are a few still who believe in a strong center, but I don't think they're dominant. They're nostalgic for a strong, central state.