ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For more on Syria and other complex diplomatic challenges in the region, we're joined now by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering. He served as undersecretary of state and before that as U.S. ambassador to Russia, Israel, Jordan, India, El Salvador, Nigeria and the United Nations, and he's now a trustee of the independent group the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Welcome to the program.
THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: I'd like to ask you about the prospects for diplomacy with Iran in a moment, but first Syria, which you've been hearing about.
SIEGEL: One question facing the U.S. appears to be: Should Washington continue to maintain a distance from the Free Syrian Army, the actual armed resistance, or recognize it? What would you say?
PICKERING: It is a little difficult for us to support the Syrian national opposition, which has its own links with the Free Syrian Army and to maintain a distinction that has really - that is really a difference. I would say that we should go slow on the military side for the moment, but that's in the hands of the Syrians. And in the Syrian sense, I think they believe that they have to ratchet up the military effort because they're being opposed by an increased military effort.
SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you about Iran right now, which you've written about recently, and you've compared the need right now for a breakthrough with Iran to Richard Nixon, President Nixon's breakthrough with China back in the early 1970s. In that case, both sides had policy objectives. Neither side got all of what it wanted, but both sides got something. Let's say we actually talk to the Iranians at some point soon. If they're not having nuclear weapons or something that the U.S. both wants and really needs, what should the Iranians - what do you think they really want and need for that?
PICKERING: The Iranians would very clearly like something that looks like the U.S. is not pursuing regime change as its favorite policy, and they would like a relaxation of sanctions. So one could see, Robert, here a series of steps that could be taken in which increasingly each side could move toward its objectives. It's fascinating that the Iranians continue to make the statement that they don't want nuclear weapons, but they do want a civil nuclear program. We ourselves have, as the secretary said a few months ago, begun to open the door to permitting Iran to have a civil nuclear program provided we get adequate assurances and, I hope, adequate inspection, which I think is very important now, that they don't go ahead and, in fact, betray whatever commitment they might make to us.
SIEGEL: And presumably something that the U.S. would seek in that relationship would be at least an absence of declarations against Israel or calling for Israel's disappearance or some actions in that regard?
PICKERING: Oh, I think so. And I think that, in many ways, that could be an important reassurance to Israel if it put high priority. The problem that we now face is that both - the relationship is fractured by deep mistrust fueled by serious misunderstanding and...
SIEGEL: The U.S.-Iranian relations?
PICKERING: The U.S.-Iranian. It's in a downward cycle. The Israelis aren't going to take anything the Iranians say on its face. They're going to want to look very carefully. We are, too. The Iranians, in the same way, see a series of actions that they believe is taking place in Iran that they believe is sponsored by the United States and perhaps by Israel that, in effect, indicates to them very clearly that the policy is only regime change. So one of the things we might need is an intermediary that is trusted by both sides that could begin the process of building contacts. Contacts themselves can build trust.
SIEGEL: Do you think that the Iranian leadership, either Ali Khamenei or President Ahmadinejad, is even remotely interested in the kind of diplomatic dialogue you've described in a way that Mao Zedong...
SIEGEL: ...yes, you do.
PICKERING: Yes. They do. Because why would they have made these proposals. They're following a two-track policy. They'll threaten us on the Straits of Hormuz. They'll threaten us against military activity. They'll use some of their own clandestine capabilities to try to achieve objectives. At the same time, they seem from time to time at least to be willing to open the door to a deal. And unlike us, they're prepared to try to propose things that might be starters rather than nonstarters. And I think that that's important. I also think that on the history of this, each of us has our own faults. We've each come to a meeting, rejected the views of the other side, but never sought to negotiate.
SIEGEL: Why hasn't the U.S. been more open on this? And why hasn't the U.S. been more open to negotiating with the Iranians?
PICKERING: I think two things have played a very big role in the U.S. hesitancy. One, the deep mistrust of Iran and, indeed, the lack of Iranian reaction from time to time on ideas that we have put forward. The second is that we're in an election year. In fact, I think, Robert, we have sort of been in an election year since the day after the last election. This means that given the intensity of differences and concerns and the high focus on Iran, anything that looks like it's appeasement, diplomacy is considered by many on the hard right as appeasement.
SIEGEL: Well, John...
PICKERING: ...is going to have a problem.
SIEGEL: John McCain has been accusing the president...
SIEGEL: ...selling out to Iran when...
SIEGEL: ...the U.S. didn't rush to the side of protesters...
SIEGEL: ...after the last election.
PICKERING: Well, we have all of that. And another thing that would help us greatly and I think we're getting there is get the full support of the international community, but that would come certainly for any constructive proposal we put on the table I feel sure, including, certainly, Russia and China.
SIEGEL: Retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, thank you very much for talking with us.
PICKERING: Thank you, Robert. A pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.