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Expert: Iran Has Territorial Ambitions


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Talks between the United States and Iran over Iran's nuclear program continued this week. The U.S. hopes Iran will agree not to develop nuclear weapons and thereby avert an arms race in the Middle East. But Stephen Carter, the Yale professor of law and novelist, says whether or not Iran becomes a nuclear power, it has grand ambitions in the region of which the U.S. should be aware. Stephen Carter, who's also a columnist for Bloomberg View, joins us now from Yale.

Stephen, thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN CARTER: Well, it's a great pleasure to be back. Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You noticed something that an adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei said.

CARTER: Yes, there've been a couple of statements like this. And there was a conference in Tehran a couple of weeks ago where Ali Younusi, one of the top advisers, said, and I quote, "Iran is an empire once again at last and its capital is Baghdad. It is the center of our civilization, culture and identity, as it always was along the course of history." That's not an isolated statement. There were a lot of statements over the past couple of years from leaders in Iran suggesting this size of their territorial ambitions. And most experts in the field seem to think that Iran is realizing those ambitions, certainly now, being the dominant military power in the region with or without nuclear weapons.

SIMON: What are the implications of that, as you see it?

CARTER: Well, there are a couple of different ways of looking at it. On the one hand, one could argue that every region needs a dominant power, but the truth is that for a long time U.S. policy in the region was to use Iraq as a bulwark against Iran being - remaining the dominant power in the area. Iran has always been surrounded by hostile neighbors. Now its neighbors are pretty much in disarray and that has to mean that other countries in the region, with Iraq not available as a bulwark and indeed falling under Iran's influence, are going to begin to see Iran as an even greater threat. And this is independent of whether it develops its own nuclear weapons or not.

SIMON: Is it possible the results of the Israeli elections might make some people in Iran feel, well, the U.S. might be more or less done holding Israel's coat?

CARTER: I don't know. I don't pretend to be an expert on Israeli politics. I think Iran's ambitions in the Middle East are in a sense quite independent of Israel. That is to say that the desire of Iran to expand its sphere of influence would, I think, be taking place whoever had won the election in Israel, and frankly, whatever the U.S. policy to what Israel might be as well. One has to look at this as an assertion of Iran's self-interest. Part of the self-interest there in Iran, by the way, may also be - because the economy has been weakening because of the sanctions and of course because of the falling price of oil - that it's always useful, as we see in the case of Vladimir Putin, to tell your people we're going to be expanding outward to create, in a sense, an external enemy as way of creating a nationalistic fervor that can help the regime staying in power.

SIMON: Has the Obama administration, in your judgment, been prepared for the rise of Iran?

CARTER: It's hard to tell externally what the internal calculations of the Obama administration actually are. One remembers that one of the criticisms leveled against the Bush administration, I think quite fairly, was that what everyone might think about the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the administration prepared poorly for the aftermath. It hadn't fully thought through what would happen once Saddam's regime was toppled. And in the same way, I think whatever one might think about the merits of President Obama's decision to withdraw all American forces from Iraq that the Obama administration clearly had not fully thought through what would likely happen on the ground in Iraq afterwards. And one has to say in both cases, there are plenty of outside experts pointing out that one had to think much more carefully than both presidents seem to be doing about the aftermath of these decisions. And those two decisions together have left us with a fractured Iraq, with a dominant Iran, with a growing ISIS and with other countries in the region having to think seriously about rearmament or even regaining weapons of mass destruction of their own because they're worried about what their neighbors are doing.

SIMON: Stephen Carter of Yale and Bloomberg View, thanks so much for being with us.

CARTER: It's always a pleasure, Scott, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.