"The discussion today is on the Greater Middle East," Council on Foreign Relations official Gary Samore (suh-MORE-ay) said last week, "and I've always wondered what's so great about it."
The crowd laughed.
"It seems to me it's a part of the world where most of the fanaticism and violence and conflict and tension somehow seems to have become concentrated. So the president doesn't have so much of an inbox as he has a Pandora's Box to deal with."
Samore's view: The Obama administration should meet as soon as possible with a representative of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to see if they can begin a dialogue.
And that Pandora's Box is now Samore's to deal with as well.
As first reported by Foreign Policy's The Cable blog , Samore has been tapped to serve as President Obama's point person on weapons of mass destruction in the National Security Council -- or "WMD Czar" in media shorthand. Samore served as Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton and Senior Director for Nonproliferation and Export Controls on the National Security Council from 1996-2001 and has been focused on non-proliferation issues throughout his career. He recently served as editor of three International Institute for Strategic Studies "dossiers" on weapons programs in Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.
He's been very vocal about his views.
In a recent panel discussion about the challenges facing President Obama , Samore said "the Obama administration may have a stronger bargaining position than President Bush did, in part because of the collapse in oil prices, in part because of the relative stability in Iraq, in part because President Obama may be in a better position to appeal to the Europeans and the Russians and Chinese to support stronger sanctions if Iran rejects a reasonable U.S. offer, and finally in part because the Obama administration I think is going to be less conflicted than the Bush administration was about directly engaging Iran without conditions, starting a broad dialogue, and offering to improve bilateral relations as part of a nuclear deal."
You can listen to that panel HERE .
Samore said that since Iran is only one or two years away from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability "it's going to be very hard to persuade them to stop working on their enrichment program. And it's very clear how the diplomacy is going to shape up: ... the obvious Iranian position is 'We're happy to talk to you, and while we're talking about all these many complicated issues -- nuclear and Iraq and Afghanistan and Arab-Israeli and so forth -- we're going to keep building our centrifuge machines and expanding our enrichment capacity.'"
So early on, Samore said, "the Obama administration is going to need to propose to Iran that both sides suspend their hostile actions as a way to create space for a truly comprehensive effort to resolve issues, and in that kind of double suspension, the U.S. would suspend sanctions which the Bush administration has already put in place, and the Iranians would suspend enrichment activities, and however long that double suspension lasted, there would be a true negotiation to see if these many difficult issues could be resolved. So I think we'll actually find out pretty soon whether or not the Iranians are prepared to accept that offer. I think within this year that will become apparent...
"I don't think we can afford to wait," Samore continued. "I think Iran is moving ahead so quickly that we should at least try to find a way to engage Iran without helping Ahmadinejad take credit for bringing the Americans to the bargaining table. And I guess the way to do that is to try to make a direct approach to the Supreme Leader, who is, after all, the most important figure in terms of making decisions on foreign and defense policy. So I think, just tactically, it would make sense to try to have a representative of President Obama meet with a representative of the Supreme Leader and see if they could begin a dialogue. But however we do it, as I say, I think very early on it's going to become apparent whether Iran is prepared to stop working on their nuclear program as a basis for having a real negotiation, or whether they're intent on basically delaying while they acquire a nuclear weapons capability."
Samore also spoke at great length about North Korea last December (Listen to it HERE ).
His basic view: "We've got many more urgent and difficult problems to deal with, especially in the Middle East. And so for me, managing the North Korea problem, if it means capping it and not necessarily making progress toward disarmament is better than trying to force the issue and dealing with the potential consequences, which could be war."
Samore says "at some point, I think, the North Korean regime is likely to fade and collapse. So our game is to sort of manage this process until it eventually disappears."
"The Obama administration will inherit a mixed hand," Samore said. "On the positive side, the Bush administration has established a diplomatic mechanism, both direct talks with North Korea and the six-party process, which has been successful in constraining North Korea's nuclear weapons programs and, in particular, further production of plutonium. n the other hand, North Korea has acquired a small nuclear arsenal and very unlikely to give it up in the near future. So I think the first challenge for the Obama administration will be to reassure countries in Asia that the U.S. has not given up on its ultimate objective of achieving nuclear disarmament. The abrupt change in the Bush administration's policy after the North Korea nuclear test and then the subsequent concessions that the Bush administration has made to keep the process going has really created doubt in Japan and South Korea and China that the U.S. is serious about achieving disarmament."
Thus, regarding North Korea, "the first immediate step for President Obama when he comes in is through statements and speeches to reassure the Asian countries and to warn the North Koreans that the U.S. is not going to fully normalize relations with North Korea, sign a peace treaty with North Korea until it gives up its nuclear weapons."
Samore said that he anticipated the "North Koreans will allow sampling to verify their plutonium declaration because I think they probably are not worried about having the fact that they've got 39 to 40, you know, kilograms of plutonium being verified. From their standpoint, that's not a bad thing. They want us to know that they have a nuclear deterrent. So it will be a question of haggling over the price and not setting a precedent that would allow us to go searching around the rest of the country, you know, looking in every bunker and cave. So I think at the end of the day, they will allow their declaration of plutonium to be verified, and that will include access to a number of sites at the Yongbyon nuclear facility."
The new WMD czar said he's "less optimistic on enrichment because the only way we're ever going to have even a small degree of confidence that we have a handle on that program is if the North Koreans come forward and tell us about the magnitude of the program, location and so forth. And I don't see any evidence so far that they're prepared to do that."
Samore also said the U.S. government is "never going to be able to verify, through cooperative measures, that they're not providing assistance to somebody else" in terms of another government or terrorist group. "Whatever assurances the North Koreans give us are worthless."
As for further nuclear tests, Dr. Samore quipped, "from one standpoint, the more they test, the better. You know, use up their plutonium."
Samore said the Bush administration failed in establishing a "coherent and a cohesive interagency team" to deal with the North Korean problem. "And the result has been sometimes dysfunctional decision-making and a lot of personal animosity. So putting the right team together, getting the right person, you know, to lead the negotiations and making sure that all the agencies -- Defense, State, NSC, DOE and so forth, CIA -- are all really lined up together, working for the same objective. I think that would tremendously improve our performance in terms of, you know, our ability to negotiate with the North Koreans."
Good luck, Dr. Samore!