Interview of Gordon Mitchell by Ann Devlin on Night Talk

Topic: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Pittsburgh Cable News Channel (PCNC/WPXI-TV), Pittsburgh Pennsylvania

June 30, 2005, 8:00 p.m.


ANN DEVLIN (AD): When Andrea Mitchell, who is one of my childhood heroines in journalism growing up in Philadelphia, says that that picture of those blindfolded hostages is iconic, isn't that absolutely true? Doesn't it kind of make your heart harden and get angry all over again thinking about what happened to those men? Now as this question is put on the table tonight, could these two individuals be one and the same? It is provocative because of what might happen to our view of Iran to think that someone who was once a captor could now be president. Would it affect foreign policy? It probably would affect our hearts for sure, but should it affect foreign policy? Yet at the same time that this question surfaces, I have to believe that with all the guys who can do the metrics on faces, with all the scanning and everything else to identify people these days, I have to believe that our CIA had to know this guy was coming, had to know everything about his background, down to what kind of toothbrush he used as a kid. They must know who this guy is. So that leaves me with an even bigger question—why is this issue even on the table tonight? If the CIA doesn't know whether or not this guy was that guy, then we've got to go back to square one and start asking, again, the long hard questions about the CIA operation. The same kind of hard questions we asked after 9/11. With me in the studio tonight is Gordon Mitchell from the Ridgway Center at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is also an Associate Professor of Communication and Director of Debate. Am I so far off base? Am I like overly confident in the CIA? I have to believe we know who this guy is. Why would we, and the administration, be letting this question linger tonight? They know he is either that guy or he wasn't that guy.


GORDON MITCHELL (GM): This whole story is really the mouse that roared. Do the two people represented in those pictures match up? I think we're going to find out in the coming weeks that the answer doesn't really amount to a whole lot in the larger scheme of things. But the fact that Scott McClellan left those questions lingering and is now priming this story really says a lot about a pattern of this administration. This pattern is to latch onto iconic images to tap into the emotions of the American public. Iraq war not going so well? Stage and amplify the rescue of Jessica Lynch. Questions about the insurgency? Have Bush land a plane and proclaim "Mission Accomplished." It's the same thing here. The references to 1979 and the imagery that goes along with them are evoking emotions that basically enable the Bush administration to create some white noise that drowns out the fact that it doesn't really have an Iran policy.


AD: One who might be skeptical might ask the next question: Is it that they don't have an Iran policy today, or have they formulated an Iran policy and they need to shift public sentiment, do something that softens public sentiment that has built against war and military engagement in that part of the world, to turn the public perhaps more in favor of taking a harder line stance against Iran? When we come back I'll let you answer that question. Thanks so much for joining us. This is Night Talk.


[Commercial break]


AD: Continuing the conversation here with Gordon Mitchell. He is from the Ridgway Center at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is also an Associate Professor of Communication and Director of Debate. Let's go back to the two pictures. Are these two pictures the same man? Why is that an important question? Because the man on the right is the new president of Iran, and we don't know how well we even like the fact that he's the president. He's a hard-liner. Our government has been raising questions all week long. Is he the same man who held Americans captive for 444 days during the Iran hostage crisis? That is the question tonight.


[off-mike technical discussion regarding photos with producer]


AD: As we heard from Andrea Mitchell before the break, one expert says they don't have the same eyebrows; it's not the same person. Some of the individuals who were former hostages maintain that they recognize his face right away, that it is the same person. Gordon Mitchell is here tonight; we're going to talk more broadly, not just about Iran but also Iraq and Afghanistan, with the helicopter downing there. Here's the question. I have to believe that the CIA knows everything about this guy before he was elected president. Obviously we've got Iran in our sights, and we've been watching them for an awfully long time. This can't be news to us. The CIA has to know who he is and what he's done in his life, probably more than he knows about himself. Tonight, why would the administration be letting this question stay on the table? The President himself says he "has no information, but obviously his involvement raises many questions." Why would the president be leaving this open question on the table when they have to know the answer, when sophisticated computer analysis is available now to these agencies that deal with terror all the time who can put two faces in and measure every feature, and they can come up with an answer probably faster than we would ever believe. You're saying this question is being left on the table because maybe they don't have a policy formulated for Iran. Is it possible that they do have a policy formulated for Iran, that they are thinking about taking aggressive action sometime in the future, and they put this out there so that we all remember how angry we felt while our Americans were held hostage for 444 days in that country, to resurrect that emotion?


GM: I'm not sure there's been any allegation of a connection between the Bush administration and the actual hostages, in terms of them "putting it out there." It was not a direct linkage, as far as anyone has said.


AD: No, I'm saying they have left it . . .


GM: Let it linger, right. Whether the photographs match is a small issue. It's not rocket science; you can hop on Google news right now and find out that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a member of the Office of Strengthening Unity, which was the student group that took the hostages. He has a long history of anti-American sentiment. Actually in the planning stage of that group's activities, he suggested that they try to occupy the Soviet, not American embassy! So was he on the inside? Was he in a planning role? The Iranian government admits that yes, he was a part of this group that played a role in the hostage taking. More recently, he walked over a picture of the American flag on the way to polling booths in the recent election. His first press conference after being elected was not translated into English—the first time that's happened in many years in Iranian politics. He has no love lost for the United States. That's clearly established in the record. The additional fact that he may have been inside the embassy in this photograph is somewhat of a red herring.


AD: Now Iran is denying what the hostages are maintaining. The hostages are maintaining that their captor is now the president of Iran. Iran is denying that it's the same guy.


GM: That's right. Even if the Iranian government was incorrect on that point, I don't necessarily see a huge upshot of that. Furthermore, there is really no incentive for the Iranian government to deny this and not be forthcoming about the information.


AD: Suppose it is the same person. Does that have any impact on US policy?


GM: As I said, the record clearly establishes that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a staunch, anti-American hard-liner. He has a long history of antipathy toward the United States. If it is eventually shown that yes, he was inside the embassy, I think that could have a symbolic impact, in these sense of linking the current political structure in Iran to the events of 1979-1980.


AD: Help me understand you point. You're saying that symbolically, it could be strong. But to do what?


GM: It's hard to tell how that would spin out. Some other examples of photo-ops or iconic events that capture the American public's imagination certainly have shaped the trajectory of public dialogue and decision-making on matters of war and peace in the recent past. You could speculate. For example, let's say that John Bolton gets a recess appointment to become UN ambassador. I could definitely seem him going to the United Nations, and in an attempt to try and get Iran referred to the Security Council for sanctions, bringing this up as an example, saying that since this recently elected president has a terrorist history and was involved in the holding of American hostages in 1979-1980, therefore the Security Council should vote to sanction Iran.


AD: Back in a moment. We'll continue this conversation. Thanks so much for joining us. This is Night Talk.


[Commercial break]


AD: Professor Gordon Mitchell in studio here. He is at the Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is also an Associate Professor of Communication and Director of Debate. We're talking about these two pictures. Was the individual who helped to keep our countrymen hostage in Iran for 444 days now the same individual who is the new president of Iran? We're going to continue that conversation and go on to Iraq and Afghanistan. Later in the broadcast—beach reading. Stuff to keep kids amused in the car while traveling this holiday weekend. One of our friends from Borders here for you. And a little bit later in the broadcast, something new for the South Side. You may not have heard of it. It can ease your way up and down Carson Street. We'll tell you about it later. So here we talk about possibilities. If this Iranian president, who we already know is a hard-liner, and has been a hard-liner throughout his early, active years, ends up being a captor, it could be provocative, it could have an influence on American policy if people get all hyped up and the administration says this is a terrible thing, this guy was not only a hard-liner, but he also held our countrymen hostage. He was one of them. Ultimately what could happen? What could the United States make a move to do if John Bolton ends up getting that recess appointment to the United Nations? You said it could possibly provoke us to ask for, and this is all pie in the sky now, could be a move to ask the UN to impose sanctions on Iran.


GM: As your viewers probably know, John Bolton's nomination is currently pending in the US Senate. It looks like he probably will not be confirmed before the holidays.


AD: Democrats have said he's too much of a hothead; there's too much trouble in his past to be the person we want to represent our country at the United Nations.


GM: Let me just bring in some material relating to Iran. In February 2004, Bolton asserted that Iran had a "secret nuclear weapons program," but didn't provide a source for the claim. In the run-up to the Iraq War, it was reported that Bolton said, "everyone wants to go to Baghdad, but real men go to Iran." Bolton also orchestrated an attempt to try and remove IAEA Chief Mohamed elBaradei. When combined, those three factors point to the likelihood that placement of Bolton as UN ambassador would signal a significant shift in US foreign policy toward Iran, in terms of trying to get Iran referred to the Security Council for sanctions, and then after that, who knows. The blueprints of preventive war strategy in the Bush administration call for first-strike military action to change the regime in Iran.


AD: Do you see parallels between the years leading up to the Iraq War and this moment in time with Iran?


GM: If you look at the 2004 Congressional resolution on Iran, that's one definite parallel. That resolution contained language authorizing "all appropriate means" to deter, dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry. That terminology is often used to authorize preemptive attacks. Furthermore, in terms of the demonization of the Iranian regime, we are seeing a lot of the same argument patterns recurring—tying Iran to 9/11; pointing to the fact that since Iran has deceived inspectors in the past, we must therefore conclude that they have a secret nuclear weapon program; and also, of course, President Bush questioning the legitimacy of the electoral process in Iran. So the ducks are really lining up in a way that parallels the run-up to the Iraq War.


AD: At the same time, the American public is increasingly questioning what is happening in Iraq.


GM: Not only that, but the military is questioning. We're in a different a situation now, stuck in a quagmire in an insurgency war, with 140,000 troops that can't be moved from Iraq in the foreseeable future. That means that the prospect of a conventionally force-intensive, regime-changing type of preventive military intervention in Iran is highly unlikely. Short of boots on the ground and US troops going in to change the regime, the other military options entail standoff strikes—Tomahawk cruise missile strikes, bombing runs on alleged nuclear facilities. We've learned through history though that those kinds of attacks are not really effective. In fact Iran has learned from the 1981 Osirak case, where Israel bombed Iraq's nuclear facility. On the surface it appeared to be a successful mission, but in reality it only derailed the program for a small amount of time and it convinced Saddam Hussein to conceal weapons and move them around the country for protection. Iran has done the same thing, making a preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities very difficult. So the military options are quite poor.


AD: Wow. Last question—Afghanistan. This chopper being shot down, the Taliban claiming responsibility, claiming that they actually killed the soldiers on the ground after some of them survived the crash. There were reports on the wires that the Taliban took video of this and will release the pictures. Our government is responding by saying look, we're going to put more soldiers into Afghanistan. We knew the activity against us was going to heat up in the summer time. We expected that the Taliban would be taking shots at us. Your perspective?


GM: Regime change warfare looks a lot better on paper than it does in the battlefield. That's one of the lessons of the helicopter being shot down in Afghanistan. This is coupled with recent news on Iraq, with generals testifying on the hill that the insurgency could last from 10 to 12 years. It's one thing to say we should get rid of an evil dictator and that will make the world safe for democracy. It's another thing to consolidate a military operation that changes a regime, by following up with nation-building and providing the security that is necessary to enable a country to recover following the traumatic experience of being invaded. So Afghanistan and Iraq should definitely be coloring people's perceptions of the arguments on the administration's Iran policy.

AD: It's so much to think about. It's more, too, for military families to worry about tonight. Dr. Gordon Mitchell, thanks so much for coming and sharing your time with us. I look forward to continuing this conversation in the near future.


GM: Good talking with you.