In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL correspondents Jeffrey Donovan and Brian Whitmore, Perle spoke today about Iraq, Iran, and the democratization of the Middle East.
RFE/RL: What should be done about Iran now?
Richard Perle: Well, I'm saddened by the fact that we don't have a political strategy for Iran. It's an unpopular regime -- and deservedly unpopular, because it's an oppressive regime. Most Iranians would rather be governed differently, and we're doing, as far as I can tell, almost nothing to help those Iranians.
RFE/RL: What should be done? What political strategy should be adopted?
Perle: Well, one thing we should be doing is communicating a great deal more with the Iranians and facilitating the communication among Iranians. You and I are broadcasting right now. We should be doing a lot more of that into Iran. We should be working with those Iranians who want to change things inside Iran in a multiplicity of ways. We did it during the Cold War with Solidarity in Poland. We did it in Spain and Portugal when they had dictatorships. We had political strategies for encouraging the evolution of free institutions. And we should be doing that in Iran, as well.
RFE/RL: But in the United States, Iran seems to be threat No. 1 of the day, and you're saying Washington doesn't have a political strategy for the country?
I believe that if democracy takes root in Iraq, it will be noticed by Iraq's neighbors and, one hopes, emulated by Iraq's neighbors. But the immediate task is a rather narrow one. It's to achieve a level of security in Baghdad and a few other places so a government can function and then evolve.
Perle: I'm afraid we have no political strategy at all. And one result of that is that we will find ourselves, because of a failure to have a political strategy, with only a military option.
RFE/RL: Do you think that's a reasonable option right now with Iran -- the military option -- if things reach a critical mass with their uranium enrichment?
Perle: It's important to define what is meant by a military option in the Iranian context. It is not an invasion of Iran. It is nothing like what has happened in Iraq. But no one can exclude the possibility that precision air strikes against critical infrastructure supporting a nuclear-weapons program could be undertaken as a last resort. And I believe that such strikes, if it came to that, would be effective in significantly impairing the Iranian nuclear program. I'm not advocating it. And as far as I know, no one else is advocating it. But in the real world, if you're the president of the United States, and you're informed that the last moment has arrived at which it is possible to stop Iranian nuclear weapons, but it will require precision strikes against a dozen targets, can you rule that out?
RFE/RL: Are we on a timetable? How far away are the Iranians from getting that capability?
Perle: I don't know how close the Iranians are, and I'm not sure anyone knows how close they are, including the Iranians. They are making progress. [Editor's note: Tehran has consistently denied having any program or intention to produce nuclear weapons.] They're making an investment. And eventually they will cross that line. And the line isn't the day they get a weapon. The line may be entirely different. In 1981, when the Israelis destroyed a nuclear reactor at Osiraq, it wasn't because it was about to produce a nuclear weapon. It was years from that. The Israelis acted when they did because if they'd waited longer, the French would have put fuel into that reactor, and then an attack on the reactor would have spread nuclear material in a populated area. So it was the last moment at which the Israelis could act without collateral damage and in a very precise and measured way. So the threshold is difficult to define. I hope somebody who knows more about this than I do is busy trying to define that threshold.
RFE/RL: Do you have any regret, remorse, about your advocacy of going into Iraq and what's happened in the wake of that invasion?
Perle: I have great remorse about some of the things that have followed, but I don't think the things I regret were inevitable. I believe it was right to bring down Saddam Hussein's regime. I wish we had then turned things over to the Iraqis immediately. They can build a country. We can't. We could remove an obstacle, but we can't build the structure. So that's my regret, that we didn't do that. But if you go back and look at what we knew, what we believed -- not everything we believed was true or correct -- but if you look at the information we had then, the decision to manage the risk that Saddam could do grievous harm to us was the right decision.
We went into Iraq in the belief that Saddam [Hussein] posed a threat to the United States. We didn't go into Iraq to bring democracy to the Iraqis. Once we were in Iraq, once Saddam was gone, we had an obligation and a responsibility to try to leave the best possible future for the Iraqis and to encourage the development of democratic institutions. And Iraq happens to be a country with a sizable Shi'ite majority and no great tradition of appreciating minority rights. So it's difficult. But the motive was certainly not democracy per se.
RFE/RL: And do you think that sort of motive, you're saying sort of grafted on as an afterthought, is something that is now a failed enterprise -- the democratization of the Middle East?
Perle: Well, the objective wasn't democratization of the Middle East. I believe that if democracy takes root in Iraq, it will be noticed by Iraq's neighbors and, one hopes, emulated by Iraq's neighbors. But the immediate task is a rather narrow one. It's to achieve a level of security in Baghdad and a few other places so a government can function and then evolve. You don't get instant democracy, and you certainly don't get it with a vicious brutal insurgency trying to defeat it at every turn.
RFE/RL: One last question. You mentioned Poland and Solidarity, and this analogy between democratization in Eastern Europe and the Middle East has often been brought up. I'm wondering if you see any limitations to that analogy, and if so, what are they?
Perle: Of course. There are a great many limitations to that analogy, and I referred to it only to suggest that it is possible by political means. [It's] different in every case. Every case is unique. Poland is not Saudi Arabia, thank goodness for that. [Laughs] So the strategy has to be tailored to the circumstances. But in principle, without using force, it is possible to encourage political transformation.