Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said he's optimistic that the United States and Iran can conclude a comprehensive nuclear deal and that Israel, which he recently visited, could grudgingly “choke down” an agreement that includes limited uranium enrichment and pushes back the possibility of an Iranian breakout to at least one year. In a wide-ranging interview with Al-Monitor on Monday, Feb. 10, Hadley said both the administration he served and the Obama team have made mistakes in Iraq but “the game is not lost … We need to get back in that game and I’m glad that the administration seems to be doing so.” Hadley also called for more training and weapons for “democratic” rebels in Syria, which he said would give Secretary of State John Kerry better leverage to negotiate a political solution to the Syrian civil war.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
Al-Monitor: What is your view of the interim agreement with Iran and are you optimistic we can get a comprehensive deal?
Hadley: There are real questions about whether we should have done an interim agreement at all and whether we should have used our leverage to go for a final agreement … But the administration made the judgment that it would take too long and they needed to have something that would build confidence and show constituencies in both countries that these discussions could produce. The initial agreement was better than a lot of people expected … [On a comprehensive deal] I am optimistic. Both sides have too much to lose if they don’t get an agreement. The difficulty will be in selling it to domestic critics.
Al-Monitor: You said at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last week that whatever we do, Iran will remain a nuclear threshold state and strongly implied that the comprehensive deal would include some uranium enrichment.
Hadley: Even without limited enrichment, given the knowledge they have and the technologies and know-how they have assembled, they are a threshold state. Would I prefer them to have no enrichment? Of course. The question is, is it realistic? A lot of people who follow this say some enrichment will be part of the deal and a lot of people suggest rightly that the initial agreement signaled as much.
Al-Monitor: You also said that you thought the Israelis could live with limited enrichment.
Hadley: At the end of the day, if we can come up with a limited enrichment capability that really puts the Iranians back so that breakout is a year to 18 months away [instead of the current few months], if the alternative is a military strike and all the international isolation of Israel that is likely to follow that, my guess is that the Israelis will choke down the agreement.
Al-Monitor: Looking at the broader chessboard. There’s a proxy war going on between the Iranians and Saudis. Are the Saudis seeking to get back at Iran through Assad for the loss of Iraq?
Hadley: I don’t think we would have the kind of sectarian conflict and anything like the confrontation we have between the Saudis and the Iranians if we did not have Syria … A number of us have been saying for over two years that the longer this goes on, the more violent and sectarian it will become and the more it will destabilize the neighborhood and the more it will open the door for al-Qaeda. Well guess what?! That’s exactly what happened. In this case, the Obama administration has been very concerned about sins of commission. Well the sin of omission of Syria is much worse.
Al-Monitor: Would you have done a no-fly zone early on?
Hadley: I was not a fan of military intervention with boots on the ground or aircraft. My argument was, you arm the democratic opposition which gives you a way to put pressure on Assad and also gives you a constituency on the ground that’s willing to fight al-Qaeda. The estimates of foreign fighters that [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper made last week are astonishing, much more than there ever were in Iraq. Someone’s going to have to take these guys on and it’s not going to be done through a drone program. It has to be done by people on the ground ... The administration talks about training and equipping. We should have been doing that more actively two years ago.
Al-Monitor: Doesn’t this put us on the same side in some ways as the Iranians and the Israelis on Syria?
Hadley: If the Iranians are concerned about al-Qaeda, they have the wrong policy. Because the longer [Bashar al-] Assad stays in power, the more you keep the situation violent and the more you open the door for al-Qaeda.
Al-Monitor: Are you encouraged by what the Obama administration is doing now and should we be doing more to stabilize Iraq?
Hadley: It is good that we’re now providing weapons and intelligence to the Iraqi government … It’s very important that the administration is encouraging the Maliki government to reach out to the Sunnis. It’s interesting they’ve recognized the only way they are going to take back Fallujah and Ramadi is if they re-engage the Sunni tribes [which are] going to insist this time that they get more inclusion in the government. The administration has also been pressing them to try to come up with an oil deal with the Kurds and the Turks. There are mistakes we have made under both administrations but the game is not lost in Iraq. We need to get back in that game and I’m glad that the administration seems to be doing so.
Al-Monitor: Egypt. It doesn’t seem as though anything we do works.
Hadley: The problem was we let our policy be characterized as picking winners. Mubarak was our man until he wasn’t. Then there was all this press that the administration had decided the Muslim Brotherhood was the horse to back. …What we should have done instead is articulated a set of principles. We should have said we’ve read the Egyptian people as wanting to have a democratic, inclusive government that can stabilize the country and bring economic prosperity … If a government is elected in a free and fair election and pursues that course, we will support it.
Al-Monitor: What can we do at this point?
Hadley: It’s very hard. We need to reframe the policy and talk about our hopes for Egypt and our hopes for the region. We’re going to have to see if the military can get control of the security situation but I’m pessimistic. In some sense, they’ve made the same mistakes the Morsi government did. They had a constitutional process that … was not particularly inclusive. The crackdown is provoking initially demonstrations and increasingly violence. The Egyptian military is not going to be able to stabilize the situation until it sends a message to the country that it is willing to go back to an inclusive outcome, more tolerant and respecting individual rights. Once they start moving in that direction, we should help them.
Al-Monitor: Obama is going to Saudi Arabia next month. What can he say that will calm their concerns and help them adjust to inevitable changes in the region?
Hadley: [Obama] has got to go out and reaffirm the historical strategic relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, reaffirm that the US is and will continue to be engaged in the Middle East, show he’s very committed to the Israeli-Palestinian process and backs Kerry 100 percent and he understands he has a critical role to get that done. … He’s got to say that even if we get a nuclear deal ... we understand that Iran has a hand in every one of the major conflicts in this area … He has to say we are active in Iraq and we are pushing Maliki to include the Sunnis. He’s got to tell [King Abdullah] we’re going to leave troops in Afghanistan. If we go to a zero option in Afghanistan, it’s just going to confirm everybody’s worst fears about us getting out of the Middle East ... He’s got to talk about Syria. I think it would strengthen Geneva II if the President would tell the Saudis and the Russians and the Iranians that we are not prepared to let Syria bleed indefinitely. If Geneva II does not work, we are willing to contemplate a whole series of options to bring this to an end. That would not only reassure our allies in the region but give Kerry a lot more leverage in the negotiations.
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