05 February 1999 - 07 February 1999

Iran and Iraq: prospects and policies

Chair: The Lord Wright of Richmond GCMG

with the RAND Corporation

Our conference, renewing Ditchley’s fruitful cooperation with the RAND Corporation, considered two major regional countries which posed for Western policies separate and in some ways dissimilar issues, but at the same time interacted significantly and shared common elements.  Their size and population made them the key regional elements – and the main factors in any possibilities for long-term power balance not dependent on external ring-holding – for the politics and security of a region which itself would long continue to be deeply important to the global economy, above all on oil account;  however development in the Caspian basin might fare, it would not fundamentally alter this reality in any policy-relevant timescale.  Both countries, in different ways and degrees, were partly alienated from the international system;  and for both too the Arab/Israeli peace process raised keenly-felt political and ideological concerns. The complexities resulting from all this generated uncomfortable difficulties matched hardly anywhere else for the cohesion of Western policy approaches.

Our discussion recognised nevertheless that policy consideration must start with the features peculiar to each country.  Iran was a highly distinctive nation, with a dynamic people conscious – even amid an ethnic make-up more diverse than outsiders sometimes realised – of an exceptionally long history and old culture.  It sought international acceptance and respect – a desire which might be at least as powerful a motivator of military build-up as any specific security concern – and currently felt itself unjustly denied these.  The centrepiece in this outlook was a love-hate relationship with the United States.  Most of us felt that the policies of containment and isolation pursued towards Iran in recent years had failed, or at least were no longer well fitted to the realities in Iran;  we regretted the general absence of inter-governmental dialogue, and were disposed to welcome any search for collaborative opportunities.  That said, Iranian behaviour on key international issues still set grave stumbling-blocks for Western and particularly US policy.  Public rhetoric deeply opposed to the Peace Process and indeed to the existence of Israel had been sporadically moderated in recent years, and our discussion found differences of judgement about how far Iran remained a supporter of external terrorism.  But at least the hardline religious elements within Iran’s non-homogeneous government remained deeply committed to anti-Western hostility in these respects, as a defining stance made the more intractable by being rooted more in ideology than in any alterable calculation of national interest.

Much turned, we knew, upon the prospects of President Mohammed Khatami and the more open and cooperative attitudes he embodied.  For all the strength of the popular support manifested in his election, there remained marked limitations upon his effective power and room for manoeuvre in liberalising the political system and the economy and building more normal relations with the United States and others.  Some of us wondered whether his efforts were keeping up momentum, but we noted encouraging recent successes in the rule of law.  It seemed clearly in the general interest of Iran’s global reintegration that he should succeed and prevail;  but it was important that his movement should remain evidently home-grown, and not over-indebted to external preferences or support.  Economic advance would be a crucial element in how he fared;  and in this regard the Iranian picture was at present mostly gloomy, with high unemployment and little growth.  Oil prices still low, and unlikely to rise much, constrained the resources available (and we noted incidentally that at least in theory any full-scale return of Iraqi oil to the international market should be no more welcome to Iran than to other producers in the region).  Some of us sought consolation in hopes that economic stringency might prompt salutary reform remedying the structural and managerial shortcomings which – so it was argued – hampered advance at least as much as did direct Western sanctions.  We were in two minds about the impact and appropriateness of these sanctions.  It was suggested that they did have some probable effect in moderating Iranian external behaviour, albeit not in reversing it;  and the absence of US investment – prevented, we were reminded, by Presidential executive order rather than by Congressional legislation – clearly hampered the development of oil resources (we were less sure of any pent-up foreign urge to re-enter other sectors of the Iranian economy).  If the West sought to improve the prospects of the “Khatami” component in Iranian policies, it was in this field, and perhaps in respect of IMF help, WTO accession and debt management, that a shift of approach might be most productive.  But we recognised here a continuing difference of judgement or emphasis – about means, not ends – between the United States and Europe.

We doubted whether (even if there were a score to settle with Saddam’s Iraq) Iran posed a military threat to its neighbours – Gulf states probably feared Iran as revolution rather than as aggressor.  Iran itself had security concerns, and felt friendless in its region.  The West might do well to seek better understanding and dialogue about these concerns – some of them shared – not least in order to improve whatever chance there might be of heading off or slowing down Iranian activity in regard to weapons of mass destruction.  Iran was a party to agreements on nuclear non-proliferation and on the prohibition of biological and chemical weapons, and a desire for international acceptance and legitimacy ought to work as a constraint upon any activity in breach of these agreements;  but there seemed nevertheless evidence of effort at least towards keeping options open in respect, for example, of nuclear capability (where Iran already had a significant civil infrastructure) and of long-range missiles.  We were not sure what likelihood there was that Western bargains or reassurances might yield dividends here;  a desirable element of a different kind could be to seek better restraint in Russian support of Iranian programmes.

As our attention turned towards Iraq we recognised that Western and indeed United Nations policies now faced acute difficulties.  Whatever view might be taken of the merits and success of the punitive air strikes of Operation DESERT FOX – and we heard judgements that the effects had been very substantial in setting back some aspects of military power and objectionable weapons programmes – it was far from clear that strategies based around UN monitoring and sanctions were achieving their aims, or could retain general support among Western governments (many of whom, it was vigorously argued, were already bearing too little of the burden of difficult tasks) and public opinion.  But it was easier to see the inadequacies of current policy than to identify more promising options, whether hard or soft, for securing the twin goals of denying Saddam Hussein the power to molest his neighbours and of helping to protect Iraq’s population from the worst effects of his oppression.

In pure logic, we knew, the question whether Saddam retained power was ancillary to these two aims;  but in practice, given the character and intransigence of his régime, the international community could not feel at ease on either score so long as it persisted.   There were however wide differences of view about whether (propriety quite aside) his removal was a feasible enough option to be made – as some US opinion envisaged – a major element in active international policy.  Policy could not be predicated on any early expectation of internal coup or revolution.  For all that his hold was brittle and its core arguably shrinking, it was exercised with fierce determination;  and its focus on Sunni solidarity, the deliberate tribalisation of political activity and the demoralisation of the middle class all worked in Saddam’s favour.  Most of us were unpersuaded by proposals to bring him down by external fostering of opposition groups, currently small and highly fragmented, or the broadening of areas in which his writ did not fully run.  We conjectured that the least unlikely removers were the Republican Guard and other security services;  but even if, perhaps improbably, these were thought an attractive basis for the construction of a less disagreeable post-Saddam régime, attempted Western support might actually harm the domestic credibility of any counter-force.  The underlying reality, urged more than one voice, was that internal change in Iraq could not be dependably managed or channelled from outside.

And even if removal were thought feasible, the problem would remain of what sort of Iraq was likely to emerge afterwards.  Many of the possibilities were by no means benign, even though several conference participants thought conjectures about break-up implausible – Iraq was not Yugoslavia, and there seemed neither external nor internal impetus towards fission.  Saddam’s long tyranny had apparently destroyed almost all the elements of a satisfactorily-functioning civil society.  The international community should seek to be poised to render whatever help it could, for example in the economic and social field;  but it was hard to give much concrete form to such ideas as yet.

We mostly found it difficult to be optimistic about either main component of existing containment policy.  Sanctions (including air strikes) had in some degree limited Saddam’s power to maintain or enhance his military capability;  but there was little evidence that they had hurt him directly or weakened his hold, and indeed it was arguable that they had worked to his advantage both through the apparatus of day-to-day control that enforced rationing had entailed, and through the opportunities he continued to exploit to present the situation as one of brave national resistance to alien oppression.  There was mounting public unease in the West about the impact of sanctions on a population that could not influence Saddam’s behaviour.  Some of this impact might well be Saddam-contrived, and it related anyway to decaying healthcare and perhaps education rather than to any actual starvation, but these were real penalties in human terms;  and though we recognised uncomfortably that any easing of sanctions would be trumpeted by Saddam as victory, international will to sustain them seemed clearly fading.  We heard reference to UN studies of more sharply targeted sanctions;  but it was hard to have high expectations of such concepts in the circumstances of Iraq.

Dilemmas reached also into the field of WMD monitoring.  It was difficult to suppose that an effective UNSCOM could be re-introduced, and not clear that a lighter régime could yield net advantage.  Some of us felt that Saddam’s effective capability for external aggression was often overrated, and that it would be better to emphasise robust deterrence of WMD use rather than pursue in respect of WMD possession a verification task which could never guarantee success against so determined an evader, and which in its conduct gave him repeated opportunity for divisive manipulation.  But any abandonment of intrusive monitoring might risk giving the appearance of acquiescence in illegitimate retention.

We exchanged views on the interaction between Western (or Western-led UN) policy towards Iraq and Western influence in the region as a whole.  Arab governments had mostly refrained from criticism, and some had even given a measure of explicit support;  but several of us suspected that their public opinions were much more inclined towards sympathy for Iraq, even under Saddam.  Just as in respect of Iran, issues about Israel, the Peace Process and perceptions of Western double standards deeply infused popular feeling.  Whatever might be thought of the merits of such attitudes, constructive advance in the Peace Process would certainly profit Western influence in and around the Gulf.

We were uneasily aware, as we ended our conference, that we had found our way neither to confident policy prescriptions nor to consensus, save on the unhelpful perception that Western policies towards the two countries were not doing very well yet that better ones were hard to pin down.  There were significant – perhaps even growing – divergences between the approaches of the US government and most others;  and for all that there might occasionally be some advantage in the hard-cop/soft-cop partnership, most of us hankered after more coherent understanding, cooperation and burden-sharing across the Atlantic than seemed evident at present.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: The Lord Wright of Richmond GCMG
Chairman, Royal Institute of Internal Affairs;  formerly Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Head of Diplomatic Service

Professor Amin Saikal

Director, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (Middle East and Central Asia) and Professor of Political Science, Australian National University

Mr Paul Dingledine

Director General, Middle East Bureau (GMD), Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
Dr Peter L Jones
Project Leader, Middle East Security and Arms Control Project, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute

Madame May Chartouni-Dubarry

Research Director, Institut Français des Relations Internationales

Dr Volker Perthes

Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik
Professor Dr Udo Steinbach
Head, German Orient Institute

Dr Ali Ansari

Lecturer in political history, Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham
Dr Shahram Chubin
Executive Director, Research, Geneva Centre for Security Policy
Dr Ziba Moshaver
International Institute for Strategic Studies, London
Mr Vahe Petrossian
Middle East Economic Digest

Dr Mustafa Alani

Middle East affairs consultant and strategy analyst

Ms Golda El Khoury

Iraq Country Programme Director, Save the Children Fund

Mr Kerim Uras

Political Counsellor, Turkish Embassy, London

Mr Ian Black

Diplomatic editor and Middle East correspondent, The Guardian
Mr Edward Chaplin OBE
Head, Middle East Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Rear Admiral Richard Cobbold CB
Director, Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies
Mr Suresh Khanna
Director, Middle East, Near East and North Africa, Department of Trade and Industry
Mr Philip McCrum
Head, Africa & Middle East Department, Confederation of British Industry
Professor Timothy Niblock
Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham
Mr Charles Richards
Regional Adviser, Greater Middle East, British Petroleum Company plc
Mr John Roberts
Senior Partner, Methinks Limited, Edinburgh (consultancy services on Middle East, Caspian and energy security issues)
Ms Barbara Smith
International Editor, The Economist

Mr Henri J Barkey

Policy Planning Staff, Department of State
The Honorable Howard L Berman
Lawyer;  Member, House of Representatives
The Honorable Dr Lynn E Davis
Senior Fellow, RAND Corporation
Mr David C Gompert
Vice-President, National Security Research Division; Director, National Defense Research Institute, RAND
Dr Jerrold D Green
Director, Center for Middle East Public Policy, RAND
Dr Geoffrey Kemp
Director, Regional Strategic Programs, The Nixon Center, Washington
Dr Zalmay M Khalilzad
Director, Strategy and Doctrine Program, Project AIR FORCE, RAND
Ms Ellen Laipson
Vice-Chairman, National Intelligence Council
The Honorable David G Newton
Director, Radio Free Iraq;  formerly Ambassador to Iraq.
Professor A Richard Norton
Professor, Middle East Politics, Department of International Relations, Boston University
The Honorable Dr Bernard D Rostker
Under Secretary of the Army
Rear Admiral John F Sigler
Director, Plans and Policy, HQ Central Command
Dr James A Thomson
Presidident and Chief Executive Officer, RAND
Dr Harlan K Ullman
Chairman, Killowen Group;  also Centre for Naval Analysis