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Interview: Ex-Ambassador Crocker Says U.S. Needs Action From Iran

Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to a handful of countries including Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan
Ambassador Ryan Crocker is one of the most experienced U.S. officials of his generation in Middle East diplomacy.

After serving as Washington's ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, and Pakistan, Crocker was assigned to the post of top U.S. envoy in Iraq (2007-09) and, most recently, in Afghanistan (2011-12). During those two assignments Crocker at times communicated and facilitated U.S. cooperation with Iran.

This week, Crocker was invited to the UN General Assembly in New York by the Iranian mission. There, he met privately with "senior Iranian officials" as diplomacy over the country's sensitive nuclear program took center stage. Crocker, who is now dean at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, spoke to RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash after his time in New York.

(Editor's note: Ambassador Crocker is a member of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the body that oversees U.S. government-funded international broadcasting, including RFE/RL.)

RFE/RL: It was Iran week at the United Nations. The speeches by U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rohani were highlights of the General Assembly, then there was the 5+1 meeting with Iran, and then the meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Where do you think things stand on the nuclear issue?

Ambassador Ryan Crocker: It was a good week, I think, in terms of showing some of what may be possible with the Iranians. Now we have to see whether what's possible may actually be implemented. The Iranian president's performance has been called a "charm offensive." I think it's more than that. But it obviously stopped short of any concrete commitments, so we have a stage set more propitiously than I have seen it.

But now we need the action and the follow-through on President Rohani's commitment to provide every necessary assurance to the international community that Iran is in no way seeking a nuclear weapons program. That has to be made concrete. That's going to take a lot of hard negotiation, given all the doubts that have emerged in the past. I heard in New York from Iranians' discussions that they will bring a proposition to the table aimed at satisfying Western concerns over their nuclear program. Well, we'll see if they do that. So [this is] a good beginning -- but a beginning.

RFE/RL: Rohani said this week that he hopes to reach a deal with world powers on Iran's nuclear program in "three to six months." He also said he is "fully empowered to finalize the nuclear talks" by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. What do you think has brought Iran to this point?

Crocker: As President Rohani and his foreign minister said at several points -- I certainly heard it -- the path that we have been on for the last eight years or so has not been a productive one, neither for the international community nor for Iran. At one point he said something along the lines of "No one can say that either of us is better off now than we were eight years ago, so it's time to try something new, moving from a zero-sum calculation to a win-win." And "win-win," as I understood it from the Iranians, is an outcome in which the international community is satisfied that they are not seeking and will not possess nuclear weapons, while they are able to maintain a peaceful nuclear energy program with enrichment levels within [International Atomic Energy Agency] norms.

RFE/RL: You recently described to "The New Yorker" what sounded like covert communications that you and other U.S. officials had with Iran after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, concerning both Afghanistan and Iraq. How much back-channel communication between Washington and Tehran do you think occurred in the lead-up to the UN meetings?

Crocker: Let me be very clear: The talks I had with the Iranians after 9-11 on Afghanistan, and subsequently on Iraq, when I was ambassador there, were in no way covert nor clandestine. They were officially authorized, they were handled discreetly; but if you check the record carefully, there were occasional references to them in the media. The media was simply not focused on them in particular and there was never a big story. I want to be very, very clear on that.

I would imagine there were also some quiet talks that helped prepare the ground for the 5+1 ministerial meeting. It's the first time it has been done at that level, so it would be hard to imagine that there wasn't some prior preparation as, presumably, there was for the meeting between Secretary Kerry and Minister Zarif. The essence of this is out in the open, because it starts with the public exchange of letters between the two presidents. That is direct communication, if not outright negotiation.

RFE/RL: How much "discreet" communication do you think may be going on right now between the United States and Iran concerning Syria?

Crocker: I have no direct knowledge. In my conversations in New York, the Iranian leadership spoke of Syria, spoke of the need of the international community to work together to find some way to end what they termed "the horrific loss of human life." And, of course, the Iranians were pretty clear [on] where they stood on use of chemical weapons, having been victims of that themselves in the 1980s. I would expect that the Iranians, directly or indirectly, had a voice in the discussions that produced yesterday's (September 26) [UN] Security Council resolution on chemical weapons and, if so, I think that's a positive sign.

RFE/RL: What impact could some normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations have on the wider region? How would that be received in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Crocker: I think in those two countries, both of which I served as American ambassador in, it would be warmly welcomed. The Iraqis have regularly felt kind of caught between the U.S. and Iran. They have, of course, their own history and their own problems with Iran, but it is, obviously, a very major country right on their border. I'm pretty confident, because I've heard it from them directly in the past, that a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran could only make their lives easier.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, when we did have discussions with the Iranians directly on how we could work together for the benefit of stability in Afghanistan, the Afghan authorities were very welcoming. I think there are other countries in the region that would be more deeply concerned; and in the event there was a rapprochement, we would have some work to do in making it clear that any understandings between the U.S. and Iran were for the benefit of stability in the region at large and not part of some new axis that Israel, the Arabs, or anybody else would have to worry about.