The Coming Crisis with Iran

CAP Event Examines Engagement and Confrontation with Iran Against Backdrop of Local Elections

Against backdrop of local elections in Iran, experts discuss the opportunities to engage Iran in talks and the dangers of military confrontation.

Some of America’s most distinguished experts on Iran and the Middle East gathered late last week at the Center for American Progress to discuss the coming crisis with Iran. The five panelists, who discussed the findings in their set of white papers just published by The Century Foundation, took to the stage on the eve of important local elections in Iran—the results of which served to underscore some of the panelists’ most trenchant observations.

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering opened the discussion alongside the three other guest panelists: former National Security Council staff member and Middle East expert Flynt Leverett; Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and war strategist scholar Colonel Sam Gardiner; and Barry Posen, Director of Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. CAP’s Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy, Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert, moderated the discussion.

(To view the complete video of the event or the individual presentations of the participants, please see the video links at the end of this write up. The panelists’ white papers prepared for the event are also accessible online below. A complete audio presentation of the event is also available below.)

Ambassador Pickering opened the discussion before a standing-room only crowd of Middle East experts, congressional staff members, journalists, and students by urging the United States government to diplomatically engage Iran and use both “carrots and sticks” to shift Iranian policy. Pickering’s policy suggestions presuppose that the U.S. can influence Iranian diplomatic, economic, and nuclear calculations due to the fluid nation of that nation’s internal politics.

His views expressed at the CAP event dovetailed several days later with initial returns from key local elections in Iran, where the results suggest that most Iranians reject the confrontational rhetoric of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in favor of a more moderate course. News analysis of the election returns in Iran highlighted the success of the moderates in turning the election into a referendum on Ahmadinejad’s confrontational diplomatic rhetoric and failed populist economic programs.

Flynt Leverett, who recently served on the staff of the National Security Council and who has clashed with the Bush administration over its own hardline rhetoric directed at Iran, then presented the findings from his white paper, “Dealing With Tehran: Assessing U.S. Diplomatic Option.” Leverett also called for a comprehensive approach to solving the difficulties between the U.S. and Iran, arguing that more incremental and “issue specific” negotiations have failed.

The last two panelists on the program turned to the flip side of the debate within U.S. foreign policy circles, examining the consequences of a military confrontation with Iran. Col. Gardiner, who while in the U.S. military participated in the U.S. military’s highly important war game scenarios on the Korean peninsula and who, upon retirement, crafted a U.S.-Iran war game for The Atlantic Monthly, warned that “the plan to attack Iraq is on the Vice President’s desk.” He warned such a move would be disastrous for the U.S., the details of which he presented in his white paper entitled, “The End of the Summer of Diplomacy.”

Professor Posen of MIT took a different but complementary tack, examining how the United States could deal with a nuclear-capable Iran. Posen argued that the U.S. can successfully work with its allies in the Middle East to find a mutual solution to the Iranian issue. In his white paper, entitled “A Nuclear Iran: A Difficult but Not Impossible Policy Problem,” Posen said the U.S. should adopt a Cold War policy of “containment” against Iran.

To view the event in its entirety or only select portions of the presentation, or to access the white papers, please go to the links below. The complete biographies of the participants are also below.



Read the white papers by the participants.


On May 27, 1997, Thomas R. Pickering was sworn in as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. He holds the personal rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the United States Foreign Service. Prior to becoming Under Secretary, he served as the President of the Eurasia Foundation, a Washington-based organization which makes small grants and loans to the states of the former Soviet Union in support of democracy and economic reform. He previously served as Ambassador to the Russian Federation from May 1993 until November 1996. He also served as Ambassador to India from 1992-1993, Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1989-1992, Ambassador to Israel from 1985-1988, to El Salvador from 1983-1985, and to Nigeria from 1981-1983. Ambassador Pickering was born on November 5, 1931, in Orange, New Jersey. He received a bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin College and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Melbourne where he received a second Master’s Degree. From 1956 to 1959, he was on active duty in the United States Navy and later served in the Naval Reserve. In 1983 and in 1986, Ambassador Pickering won the Distinguished Presidential Award and in 1996, the Department’s Distinguished Service Award. In 1984, he received an honorary doctorate-in-laws degree from Bowdoin College. Subsequently, he has been similarly honored by 10 other universities.

Flynt Leverett is a senior fellow and director of the Geopolitics of Energy Initiative in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. He is also a visiting professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Between 1992 and 2003, he had a distinguished career in government, serving as senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, Middle East expert on the secretary of state’s Policy Planning Staff, and senior analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is the author of Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire (Brookings Institution Press, 2005), a study of politics and policymaking in Syria that also offers recommendations for U.S. policy toward this critical country. He has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Financial Times, The National Interest, and numerous other publications. He has appeared on a wide range of news and public affairs programs, including “Hard Talk”, Lou Dobbs Tonight” and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

Sam Gardiner is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, Air War College, and Naval War College. He was recently a visiting scholar at the Swedish Defence College. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he was a regular on CNN, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” BBC radio and television, and National Public Radio. In 2004, he conducted a war game organized by the Atlantic Monthly to gauge how an American president might respond, militarily or otherwise, to Iran’s rapid progress toward developing nuclear weapons. He also has conducted war games on North Korea.

Barry R. Posen is the director of the Security Studies Program and the Ford International Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He serves on the Executive Committee of Seminar XXI, an educational program for senior military officers and government officials. He has written two books, Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks and The Sources of Military Doctrine, which won two awards: The American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award and Ohio State University’s Edward J. Furniss Jr. Book Award. He also is the author of numerous scholarly articles, including his most recent, “European Union Security and Defense Policy: Response to Unipolarity,” Security Studies (Spring 2006) and “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security (Summer 2003). He has been a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow; Rockefeller Foundation International Affairs Fellow; Guest Scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow, Smithsonian Institution; and most recently, Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Joseph Cirincione is Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress. He is one of America’s best known weapons experts, appearing frequently in print and on FOX News, CNN, ABC, NBC, PBS, NPR, BBC, and occasionally on Comedy Central. He is the author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons (Columbia University Press, Spring 2007), Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, (Second Edition, 2005), and co-author of Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security (March 2005). He teaches at the Graduate School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Prior to joining the Center in May 2006, Mr. Cirincione served as director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of numerous articles on nuclear weapons issues, the producer of two DVDs on proliferation, and is a frequent commentator on these issues in the media. He has held positions at the Henry L. Stimson Center, the U.S. Information Agency, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. He is an honors graduate of Boston College and holds a Masters of Science with highest honors from the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

The Century Foundation conducts public policy research and analyses of economic, social, and foreign policy issues, including inequality, retirement security, election reform, media studies, homeland security, and international affairs. The foundation produces books, reports, and other publications, convenes task forces and working groups, and operates seven informational Web sites. With offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., The Century Foundation is nonprofit and nonpartisan and was founded in 1919 by Edward A.Filene.

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