Former US secretary of state George Shultz ruled out containment as an option for dealing with a nuclear Iran and suggested that the Obama administration should take a more muscular approach to what he called “aggressive” Iranian behavior in the Persian Gulf.
In a bravura appearance, the 92-year-old Shultz — whose government service includes two other Cabinet positions and advisory roles dating to the Eisenhower administration — told the Council on Foreign Relations Tuesday night that the risk of proliferation if Iran develops nuclear weapons is simply too great.
“Look what happens,” he warned. “You have fissile material lying around. You have other states getting nuclear weapons and the probability of a nuclear weapon going off somewhere rises [...] We’ve got to stop it. It’s gone too far already.”
At the same time, Shultz told Al-Monitor after the council session that bilateral messages can be sent quietly to Iran to facilitate agreement and end a stalemate in multilateral negotiations.
He mentioned Abraham Sofaer, who served as State Department legal adviser when Shultz was secretary of state in the 1980s, and who, Shultz implied, passed a variety of messages to Iran while adjudicating financial claims between the US and Iran in the Hague following the 1979 Islamic revolution.
“Have some people who could talk turkey” to each other, Shultz said.
Iran has denied reports that a former foreign minister and likely presidential candidate, Ali Akbar Velayati, has already met with US officials to discuss the nuclear dispute.
While Shultz rejected containment — “Containment of Iran — give me a break!” was the way he put it — he said that the binary choice being presented by some in Washington and elsewhere between an Iran with a bomb and bombing Iran was too stark.
There are ways of stopping Iran that fall short of getting the US involved in another major Middle East war, Shultz said. “There’s something between sanctions and an all-out war that we’re not exercising.”
While he was not specific, he criticized the Obama administration for not responding more forcefully to what he called “very aggressive” Iranian behavior such as recent firing on an unarmed US drone that was flying over international waters in the Persian Gulf. In contrast, he described what the Reagan administration did when Iran mined the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war.
“In 1986, the Iranians were messing around with Kuwaiti shipping,” Shultz said. “So we re-flagged the ships to our flag so we could defend them. When the president of Iran was off somewhere making a speech saying ‘the last thing we’d do is mine the Persian Gulf,’ our Navy was taking pictures of them doing it. So we boarded the ship, took off some mines, took off sailors, sank the ship, took the sailors to Dubai and told Iran — ‘come and get your sailors and cut it out.’ We exposed the lie; we let them know we understood what they were doing and there were consequences, and they cut it out.”
Shultz also addressed the broader challenges in the Middle East, including growing political violence and chaos in Egypt and the murderous civil war in Syria.
On Egypt, he sketched out a relatively modest goal.
“We’d like to see Egypt be a country with a reasonably representative government that has not an extreme Islamic cast to it that’s likely to morph into more or less terrorist things,” he said.
On Syria, Shultz said he thought the Obama administration had been “a little bit behind the curve” in dealing with the more than two-year-old conflict. But Shultz, who served in the US Marines during World War II before beginning his long career in the public and private sector, did not advocate US intervention beyond more help to Turkey and Jordan with refugees and readiness to deal with Syria’s chemical and biological weapons.
“I hope we know where they are,” he said of the weapons. “I hope we have some people poised to do something about it if needed.”
At the same time, Shultz implied that a less centralized Syria would not be a tragedy and expressed sympathy in particular for Kurdish aspirations for more autonomy.
“Syria is an odd country,” he said. “It was put together from very disparate parts. I don’t think it is beyond imagination that it could fall apart […] I don’t think it’s a bad thing if a contiguous ethnic group forms itself into something. They don’t have to be a country, but at least have some identification.”