Iran is the "most-vexing" problem the world faces, says former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. While the international community should indeed continue to pressure this "poster child for support of terrorism," it will probably be its own people that topple the totalitarian regime.
Rice's comments came in a talk Feb. 18 before an overflow crowd of Stanford Graduate School of Business students. Part of the student-organized View from the Top speaker series presented through the school's Center for Leadership Development and Research, she spoke about lessons learned from serving as the United States' chief diplomat during the Bush Administration and also made pointed comments about the future of both Iran and its neighbor Iraq.
Rice, who was U.S. secretary of state from 2005 to 2009 and national security advisor to the president from January 2001 to 2005, returned to Stanford University a year ago. She is a professor of political science and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution. She was Stanford provost from 1993 to 1999.
About Iran, which is expanding its uranium enrichment facilities — a move viewed as a precursor to developing nuclear weapons — Rice called for the international community to exert force "to do whatever it can do to reaffirm it's the world against Iran," including U.N. Security Council resolutions. International pressure should come to bear financially "to deny them insurance coverage, spare parts for their creaky refineries — you've got enough power … to make it very difficult for them," she said.
The Obama attempt at establishing talks is fine, Rice said, but "you know, the Iranians said no. I take no for an answer."
Economic pressures from the outside, coupled with the unrest of its own citizens might be enough to push the present regime aside, Rice said. Student uprisings last June showed the government "is a shell, a military dictatorship. It has no legitimacy, the clerics are at each others' throats … and it's only a matter of time until somebody in the Revolutionary Guard refuses to fire on his fellow citizens, and at that point the regime is done."
Rice was asked whether a stronger Iran might be moved to act more responsibly, and her answer was no. She said she didn't see any evidence that the country was moving from wanting to destroy the international system toward becoming a stakeholder in it. Rather, she said, the evidence was to the contrary.
"What Iran is doing is using its leverage for potential nuclear weapons to try and buy its way into a major regional role in the Middle East, at the same time it continues to use its terrorist arms to destabilize the Middle East," she said. "The problem is that Iran has a fundamentally different view of what the Middle East ought to look like than we do. I see Iran as a revolutionary or revisionist state that will not be satiated by simply being given a role in the existing system but would rather use that role to try and undermine the existing system."
In contrast, Rice praised the gains Iraq has made, saying if "a multi-confessional, multiethnic democracy" emerges it could "transform the Middle East. It would be a country that is a friend of the United States and would not invade its neighbors and would not seek weapons of mass destruction, and given the way the Iraqis hate the Iranians, would be a much more effective bulwark against Iran."
And she indicated that although there were costs in lives lost and irrevocably changed by the decision to invade Iraq that "we can never repay," the outcome has been worth it.
Rice acknowledged that "in retrospect, I'm very regretful the intelligence was wrong" about nuclear weapon stockpiles in Iraq. "I don't regret taking Saddam Hussein out. He was a festering problem for the international system for 20 years. He was a danger to his own people and a danger to his neighbors, and he was in the most strategically important country in the Middle East."
The United States might have been content with trying to strengthen the containment regime against Saddam Hussein, but then Sept. 11 happened, she said. "It tremendously changed the conception of risk and how much risk you could tolerate in the international system."
Because Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons, he and "weapons of mass destruction were inextricably linked," Rice said. "The question was how imminent it was. If we had known there weren't stockpiles, might that have changed the calculations? Probably. But not knowing whether there were stockpiles, and assuming that there were, and assuming that the chances of some kind of transfer of those weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, al Qaeda, or others, was a real possibility, after 9/11 it was a risk you couldn't take," she said.
Rice said the Sept. 11 attacks reinforced the notion that it was important to "to try to keep focus on decisions and concerns that really were fundamental for the long run. For us that meant, first and foremost, defending the country."
Secondly, it was to stay focused on "the strategic issues that lead to the ability to pursue terrorists and keep them at bay. The problem is that they only have to be right once and you have to be right 100% of the time. And that's an unfair fight. That led then to concerns about helping failed states heal, like Afghanistan, to concerns about the nature of the Middle East itself."
But the most important lesson she learned, she said, was that "Today's headlines and history are rarely the same, and if you're too focused on today's headlines then you will do nothing that will lead to a favorable judgment by history."