October 2019: U.S.-Iran Relations – What’s Next?

October 2019: U.S.-Iran Relations – What’s Next?

October 23, 2019

Speaker: Ambassador Thomas Pickering

   About the Speaker:   

In a diplomatic career spanning five decades, Thomas R. Pickering was U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan. He has held additional positions in Tanzania, Geneva, and Washington, including as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Oceans, Environmental, and Scientific Affairs and as special assistant to Secretaries of State William P. Rogers and Henry A. Kissinger.

He was also U.S. ambassador and representative to the United Nations in New York, where he led the U.S. effort to build a coalition in the UN Security Council during and after the first Gulf War. Prior, Ambassador Pickering served in the U.S. Navy from 1956-1959, and later in the Naval Reserve to the grade of Lieutenant Commander. He was then assigned to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research of the State Department and later to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

He last served as under secretary of state for political affairs, the third highest post in the U.S. State Department. After retiring from the State Department in 2000, Ambassador Pickering joined the Boeing Company, where he was senior vice president for international relations.

He holds degrees from Bowdoin College, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and the University of Melbourne, and, besides English, speaks French, Spanish, and Swahili and has some fluency in Arabic, Hebrew, and Russian. Ambassador Pickering received the Distinguished Presidential Award and the Department of State’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Award.

Currently, he is vice chairman of Hills & Company, an international consulting firm providing advice to U.S. businesses on investment, trade, and risk assessment issues abroad, particularly in emerging market economies. He is also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Furthermore, Ambassador Pickering is active in a number of not-for-profit boards, including the International Crisis Group, the American Academy of Diplomacy, the Washington Institute of Foreign Affairs, and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

   Program Recording:   

You can find a video recording of this program and others here.

  Some of our guest’s main take-aways:  

  • “Iran has some great economic potential to grow with China and it was interesting to hear possible solutions that would involve Trump and China talks. Iranian nuclear power is something to be averted but long standing feuds will make it a long tricky dance.”
  • “Potential nuclear proliferation has been at the heart of tensions between the U.S. and Iran for decades. Neither the U.S. or Iran want war but are on a diplomacy track that might lead to further escalation or miscalculation leading to conflict.”
  • “We need to return to a global diplomatic relations model quickly!!”
  • “Main stream media reporting is often shallower than one would think.”

   Program Review:    

Top Diplomat Says War with Iran Could be Imminent

Ambassador Thomas Pickering breaks down the U.S. – IRAN Relations and suggests our next moves dealing with Iran’s nuclear power.

by Olivia Goodman, RWAC Intern


Back in 2015, the US and Iran made an agreement on what nuclear technology Iran is allowed to hold. Since the U.S. withdrawal from that agreement, the JCPOA, and its imposition of a “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against Iran, the U.S.-Iran conflict has continued to escalate. Despite European efforts to salvage the nuclear deal, Iran recently announced further steps away from compliance with the JCPOA. Trump is obviously not happy about that as he tweeted “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”.

So, people filled the Empire Ballroom at the Jefferson Hotel on Wednesday evening to listen to Ambassador Thomas Pickering’s lecture on how diplomacy should play an important role in the two countries’ relationship.

Ambassador Pickering, who retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2001, is a former ambassador to multiple countries and groups, including Israel, Russia, and the United Nations. He spoke to a packed audience of over 200 people. With recent tensions between the USA and Iran, further exacerbated by the most recent incident of the Saudi oil facility attack with Iranian missiles as the likely culprit, Pickering gave his take on the past, present, and future of our relations with Iran.

Everyone listened closely to the U.S. Ambassador, as he laid out the recent history of U.S.-Iran tensions, the development of the Iran nuclear issue and the so-called Iran-deal, as well as the subsequent U.S. withdrawal from it.  He does not predict a positive future for Iran and U.S. relations. He even suggested that a war could be possible if the two countries are not able to keep communication lines open. “Don’t go out of here feeling that there is a lot of hope,” he told attendees.

To be sure, he added, “neither side wants war, but is dealing with the problem in a way, it hopes, conveys the message that it doesn’t want war.” Without diplomatic intervention, Pickering said, he worries that the U.S. “could be in for a tit for tat military exchange” with Iran, which he called a “puzzling and challenging” country.

So, what is next for the US and Iran? According to Ambassador Pickering, there are two possible outcomes. One is an “accidental war” brought on by either miscalculation, misguidance, misjudgment or misunderstanding. The other more hopeful option would be to negotiate a peaceful outcome, which Pickering claims is the better alternative because it is “better to have a negotiated outcome than an unnegotiated outcome”. After French President Macron recently initiated such negotiations, but failed to get both the Iranian President Rouhani and President Trump to agree on the agenda and basic terms for a meeting, Ambassador Pickering did not disappoint the audience and voiced his own recommendation.

As a first step towards a negotiated outcome, Ambassador Pickering suggests there could be an initial arrangement based on the idea that performance is required by both sides before a meeting. Iran should agree to return ‘significantly’ to its nuclear obligations, and the U.S. side should consider Iran’s capacity to trade oil in a limited way or lighten again the most recent sanctions. If this agreement is kept by both sides, so Pickering’s suggestion, the two would meet for formal negotiations.

After this very serious account of the current status and the dangers going forward, he commented on this, his own suggestion, tongue-in-cheek: “That’s where we are. And that’s what the opportunity is, and my track record is absolutely perfect: Nothing that I’ve ever said to the administration has ever been accepted…

There was an obvious sense of uncertainty from audience members, many of whom said that they are worried about Trump’s unpredictable policies toward Iran. One audience member asked Pickering why we are so concerned with Iran having nuclear technology rather than any of the other countries who are exploring it. The Ambassador quickly answered, “we rate Iran a serious danger because of its political outlook… We’re better about nuclear weapons for our friends and allies.”

Optimistically, Ambassador Pickering thinks that with the right peaceful tactics we can avoid any unnecessary pressure. Clear communication is key. Because a U.S. Ambassador would know better than anyone, “the object of diplomacy is to take challenges and turn them into opportunities.”

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