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Hamilton: Move Toward Iran Talks a 'Positive' Step


Let's talk now with former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who was co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, which recommended the talking with Iran. Mr. Hamilton, welcome to the program.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Co-chair, Iraq Study Group): Nice to be with you, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: How significant is Secretary Rice's announcement?

Mr. HAMILTON: I think it's a very important and a very positive first step to take a diplomatic offensive. What it indicates to me is that we're beginning to move beyond purely a military solution. We understand that at the end of the day you're going to have to solve these problems in that region diplomatically.

So it's a positive and a constructive step. Now there are a lot of things that have to happen here. The parties just sitting down and talking will not solve the problem. These diplomatic efforts will have to be sustained. There will have to be more than one conference. They'll have to be flexible so that you can go into multilateral and bilateral modes as the circumstances dictate. The lines of communication are going to have to be kept open. And I hope, at some point, the contacts will proceed to a very high level.

INSKEEP: Congressman, if you could try to reconcile two things for us, the administration now says it's willing to talk with Iran, at least in this context, and at the same time the administration has been talking very tough about Iran, accusing it of interfering in Iraq, accusing it of killing Americans, accusing it of nuclear transgressions as well.

Mr. HAMILTON: The conduct of American foreign policy is complex. You have to use all the tools at your disposal. I don't think you can solve these problems merely diplomatically. I don't think you can solve them merely militarily or with rhetorical threats. You really have to have a combination of things that have to be integrated and played skillfully. And that's the challenge, really, of getting policy right, the integration of all of the tools of policy. I know there's a bit of an inconsistency there that meets the eye, but diplomacy will not work without pressure and military pressure and the threat of military pressure.

INSKEEP: Are you suggesting that the rhetorical pressure may have made the talks more possible, more auspicious, put the U.S. in a better position to talk to Iran?

Mr. HAMILTON: I am suggesting that the pressure that is applied, rhetorical and military as well, certainly has a bearing on the success or failure, the prospects of success or failure in your diplomacy. These things have to be integrated to be worked effectively.

INSKEEP: Do you believe that Iran really can improve the situation inside Iraq?

Mr. HAMILTON: Well, we just don't know. But why shouldn't we take a chance? Why shouldn't we at least sit down and try? There are very few countries in all the world that have caused us more heartburn over a period of decades than Iran. We've got some very deep-seeded problems with them. That's why these contacts will have to be sustained over a period of time if they're going to be successful.

One of the purposes of meeting is to explore what the possibilities are. And it may be, if the most pessimistic scenario unfolds, you don't make much progress, but at least then the world will know that Iran is holding things up. It may also be that Iran is much more prepared to talk than we had previously thought.

INSKEEP: Would you hope, then, for a much broader engagement with Iran over time?

Mr. HAMILTON: I would hope for a broad engagement over Iran over time, discussing all of the issues between the two nations. I'm not Pollyannaish about that and I don't think these things will suddenly come about. I think this effort has to be sustained. Successful diplomacy requires very careful preparation, very extensive follow-through. You've got to have the right players at the table. Every one of the participants has a unique role to play. I'm personally pleased to see the Iraqis taking the initiative here. But a lot of things have to happen right to make diplomacy succeed.

INSKEEP: Mr. Hamilton, good to talk with you.

Mr. HAMILTON: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: Former Congressman Lee Hamilton, who, along with former Secretary of State James Baker, headed the Iraq Study Group which recommended talks with Iran and Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.