Gary Sick, a professor in the School of International Affairs at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis.
The author of two books and numerous articles on U.S-Iran relations, Sick is scheduled to speak to the Columbia University Club of South Texas on Thursday. Below are excerpts from a recent interview with Houston Chronicle political writer Joe Holley.
Q: With stories in the news these days about bunker-busting bombs and the potential for Iranian retaliation, do you see a danger of blundering into a war that would inevitably involve the U.S.?
A: I definitely see a danger. Basically, it grows out of the history of this operation. We, some years ago, started sanctioning Iran. The sanctions, which didn't work, have escalated higher and higher, until now there's nobody in Iran who's immune from the effects of the sanctions.
At the same time, we have assassinations going on of Iranian scientists, we have the Stuxnet worm which interfered with Iran's centrifuges, a form of cyber-warfare. Frankly, we have sort of morphed from sanctions into actual warfare.
Q: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting the White House on Monday to discuss the imminent danger of Iran's nuclear ambitions. Do you believe that Iran is an existential threat to Israel?
A: I think Iran is a very strong rival to Israel in the Middle East. They are competing for U.S. attention, and they are competing for relative influence in the region. I don't think they are an existential threat to Israel, because even if they had one nuclear weapon, their ability to deliver that weapon on Israel is quite limited and will be for quite a few years to come.
But, even then, their one weapon against Israel, which has 200 weapons ready to go, would be really the height of stupidity. The Iranians, although you don't like them, they're not stupid.
Q: You have noted that there are some 40 countries in the world that have the capability, if they wanted to, to build a nuclear weapon. When and if Iran joins that 40-nation club, is it possible to erect a regime of monitoring, inspections and oversight that would lessen concerns about them building nuclear weapons?
A: I think the answer to that is definitely yes. For all of Iran's bluster and their being very, very difficult to deal with, the reality is, they have offered on a number of occasions over the last five to 10 years exactly that - in return for the West lifting its sanctions.
Q: Are you still hopeful that a new generation will eventually take (Iran) in a different direction?
A: In effect we've seen the first serious effort in that direction, and they have not been successful. The election of 2009, whether it was completely rigged or whatever, the reality is that there was a very substantial number of people in Iran who voted against the regime, voted for a different kind of leadership.
This was made up very heavily of young people, though not 100 percent. The regime absolutely cracked down on them, brutally and without remorse.
Q: Given your familiarity with Iran, can you envision a stable, confident country, one that respects the rights of its citizens and maintains peaceful relations with its neighbors?
A: You know, in reality, that's what the revolution was all about. Getting rid of the shah was supposed to result in a government that would be more respectful of its people, that would be more open with its people, would be more open to democratic procedures and human rights. That's what was advertised.
And, of course, that's not what they got. One of the things the mullahs have accomplished is quite a remarkable education system. Young people are chafing at the bit. They want to use their education, and the brightest of the bunch end up leaving the country, because there are no jobs, there's no future for them. That is something that's not going to go on forever, but it could go on for a very long time. There's really no short-term solution.