Zbigniew Brzezinski served as counselor to Lyndon B. Johnson from 1966 to 1968 and national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981. In 1981, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his role in the normalization of U.S.-China relations. On Friday, April 3, he spoke by phone with MSNBC to discuss the framework nuclear agreement the U.S. reached with Iran on Thursday.
MSNBC: The United States and Iran, along with five major world powers, just reached an historic agreement to begin steps to limit Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions. Plenty of details still need to be resolved, and we’re not expecting a final agreement until June 30. But let me ask you, is this a good deal? Is this a deal you would have made?
Brzezinski: On the whole, yes. I think the alternative is far worse.
MSNBC: The alternative being?
Brzezinski: No deal.
MSNBC: And would that have led us to a military option?
Brzezinski: There certainly would have been heightened pressure to rely on a military option. But the military option itself is highly unpredictable in its consequences. It would have led to a sense of letdown and misgivings and uncertainty and accusations and so forth.
So in either case, I think this is a positive development – assuming it holds. And assuming it holds in a variety of ways and among a variety of players.
MSNBC: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a vocal opponent of this deal from the start. Is this actually a good deal for Israel, from your point of view?
Brzezinski: I think ultimately, if it works, it is a very good deal. I think it increases security and stability in the region. I think, moreover, Mr. Netanyahu has really discredited himself by his public attacks on the position of the president of a country that has been the strongest supporter of Israel over the last several decades. I think it’s in a bad taste, it’s in bad form, it’s bad politics, and it’s bad strategy.
MSNBC: Do you think then that there’s something irrational about Israel’s opposition to this deal? Or is this more the result of internal political pressure?
Brzezinski: I’m not sure that what Mr. Netanyahu says is really Israel’s position. I have been reading a lot of statements by former highly placed Israeli officials in the security field, ranging from the military to intelligence and so forth, and my sense is that the Israelis are engaged in a serious discussion, and the kind of demagogic attacks that have come from the prime minister are not constructive.
MSNBC: Obama said Thursday that that the deal “cuts off every pathway” for Iran to develop nuclear weapons and that “if Iran cheats, the world will know it.” How confident can we really be that inspectors are going to be able verify Iranian compliance, particularly as this was such an issue with Iraq under Saddam Hussein?
Brzezinski: We’ll only know by trying. If the Iranians choose to be cooperative, I think that would be viewed very positively and would be reassuring. If they are not, I think that will open up questions at our end. So both parties still have to make the decisive commitment to going all of the way, but we do have some time left now to do that. And my sense is that we’re going to seriously try to do that.
"The Middle East is extraordinarily complex. There are no clear choices anymore."'
Moreover, what is important for the Iranians to recognize is that this is not only a U.S.-Iranian negotiation – although that is the most important aspect of what has happened – but it is also a negotiation between Iran and the international community writ large. If you consider who the other participants to this agreement are, these are the major powers of the world and the ones with the most direct interest in nuclear stability.
MSNBC: Part of the Obama administration’s calculus seems to be that a deal that lifts sanctions on Iran will give the country’s reformist politicians, like President Hassan Rouhani, the political capital to overcome Islamist hardliners and gain power in the 2016 elections. Is it naïve to think that a deal will translate into a better quality of life for ordinary citizens, rather than say, an expansion of Iranian influence through its proxies across the region?
Brzezinski: I think that the intelligent elements of Iranian public opinion – and that applies particularly to large urban centers and most notably to Tehran itself – are eager for change in their overall situation. They are tired of extremism, they are tired of fanaticism, they are tired of continuous back and forth exchanges of accusations. So my sense is that there’s a sense of yearning in Iran – among a portion of its population at least – for a normal status quo. Now whether that is strong enough, whether that is pervasive enough, time will tell. But this agreement certainly gives that orientation a chance to catch its breath and to move forward.
MSNBC: The United States is currently fighting both with and against Iran and its proxies across the Middle East in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. How does this deal impact our strategy in those other theaters?
Brzezinski: We have to recognize first of all that the situation in the Middle East is extraordinarily complex. There are no clear choices anymore. And this is why anything that contributes to greater rationality, to greater normality, to more shared interests is good.
Now it may not work out that way. We’re talking now about something which goes far beyond this particular agreement. I think it’s worth a try. The alternative is a region wide explosion with totally unpredictable consequences.
MSNBC: Can you put that in broader geopolitical context? The Obama administration has been shifting our Middle East policy from a unipolar to a multipolar approach at the same time that there’s an ongoing sectarian war in the region. How is the news of this deal being received in Riyadh? Are they worried that Shiite Iran will become a petro-state to rival Sunni Saudi Arabia?
Brzezinski: Well, that is a fact of life. They are a rival. The issue is to contrive circumstances in which the rivalry is expressed through peaceful means and not by mutual attrition. And that’s the danger that we now face. We don’t know how this will work out. But it’s certainly is worth a very serious try.
The fact that in addition to our immediate allies – the Europeans and so forth – both China and Russia are supporting this – is very important. We have an ongoing, significant feud with Russia, which is producing much anger – from us at them, and from them at us. And yet the fact that they have chosen to go along, at least this far, I consider to be a very important aspect of what has been accomplished. China also has to be involved, and is becoming more involved. Because if the Middle East keeps exploding, state by state, and if that explosion moves northeast, that is directly pointed at China.
MSNBC: Let me ask you a final question. Turning back to domestic politics, if you were involved with these negotiations as part of the Obama administration, what would you be doing to sell this deal to the American people, and to bring Republicans on board?
Brzezinski: Well I think the president is beginning to do that. I think the public has to consider the actual alternative. No one really specifies it very clearly. It’s very easy to attack this because this agreement is truly complex and has to confront a lot of uncertainties. But please spell out an alternative arrangement! The Republicans have not been willing to say it explicitly, but implicit in their statements is the notion that, together with the Israelis, we are going to blow Iran out of the water.
"Let’s have a reasonable sense of what’s at stake, and if you want to criticize it, offer an alternative. I don’t see the Republicans offering up a better alternative, do you?"'
Well, let’s just consider the implications of that. Where does that lead us? What are the consequences in the region, how does that affect our position with other states? What are the moral, human dimensions of that? You have to have an alternative that’s constructive.
This gives an accommodation agenda a genuine chance. It does involve a high degree of Iranian compliance. A lot of the things that have been agreed to involve serious concessions by the Iranians. Concessions that some Iranians might even view – unnecessarily so, I think – as humiliating. That’s a country of 80 million people, which has a lot of pride, which has existed for 3,000 years, and is now going to be making adjustments which surely will be painful to its pride.
Let’s have a reasonable sense of what’s at stake, and if you want to criticize it, offer an alternative. I don’t see the Republicans offering up a better alternative, do you? Is there an alternative; are you aware of any serious alternative that has come forth from the Republicans?
MSNBC: I think some Republicans have been explicit about their preference for military force. John Bolton wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” in which he suggests airstrikes to destroy Iranian nuclear reactors.
Brzezinski: Just think how that would work out in the end, and who will benefit from it the most. I think that is a policy of self-destruction, and lashing out is never a very smart response to complex problems. And I think the public instinctively feels that. That is why public opinion polls that I’ve read recently indicate that the majority of the American people do not want a military showdown with Iran.