PBS Frontline: 'Showdown With Iran'

Greg Barker
Greg Barker (Courtesy PBS)
Greg Barker
Wednesday, October 24, 2007; 11:00 AM

Frontline producer Greg Barker was online Wednesday, Oct. 24 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his film, "Showdown With Iran," about the battle between the U.S. and Iran for power and influence in the Middle East, the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear program, and how U.S. efforts to install democracy in Iraq have strengthened Iran's position.

" Showdown With Iran" airs Tuesday, Oct. 23, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Barker's other projects for Frontline have included a segment of the "News War" series that focused on Arab media; the award-winning two-hour special "Ghosts of Rwanda"; "Campaign Against Terror," which recounts the behind-the-scenes story of the U.S. and world response to Sept. 11; and an examination of Saddam Hussein, "The Survival of Saddam."


Reston, Va.: Congratulations on a wonderful program with lots of new insights. How closely where you monitored during your trip in Iran? Also, were you surprised about how much you got the Iranians and few Americans you interviewed to open up about this subject?

Greg Barker: Hi. Thanks for watching -- it was fascinating film to make. Whenever we were filming we were accompanied by an official translator -- so we were monitored but it was a much lighter touch than other countries I have worked in. I've posted an account of our time in Iran on the film's Web site.


Grants Pass, Ore.: What role, if any, did former Secretary of State Colin Powell play in the nonresponsiveness of the State Department to Iran's faxed "Grand Deal" that was discussed in the program?

Greg Barker: It seems he agreed with his Deputy, Richard Armitage, and was generally skeptical of the approach from Iran.


San Francisco: What are a few of the biggest misconceptions about Iran (and/or Iranian people) that you would like to dispel? Thanks.

Greg Barker: The biggest misconception might be that Iranians really believe all the "death to America" slogans -- on the contrary, most ordinary Iranians genuinely seem to like Americans and our culture, even if the disagree sharply with US government policies. The only sense of anger I encountered was when discussing the Iran-Iraq war, in which about 1 million Iranians were killed or wounded -- many Iranians believe the U.S. supported Saddam during the war.


Los Angeles: Iranian people hate the terrorist clerical regime in Iran, which have executed tens of thousands of its opponents and suppressed its people. Don't you think it is time for a regime change? Don't you think it is time for President Bush walk the talk and support opposition groups and Iranian people (mainly the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran as the main and only organized movement) to topple the regime in Iran?

Greg Barker: It's true that many ordinary Iranians don't like the clerical regime -- exactly what proportion is difficult to say for certain. But I have to say that the MEK/MKO does not appear to have much support inside Iran - people seem to remember that the MEK/MKO fought with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and those memories run deep.


Greenville, S.C.: I noticed Nicholas Burns' extreme discomfort when you asked him "is the U.S. using the MEK for any intelligence gathering or any other purpose?" At that point a light bulb went off in my head. So it's the Islamo-Marxist MEK that's providing the U.S. with the stories that Iran has a nuclear weapons program! Is there any reason to believe the MEK is any more reliable and truthful than, say, Ahmed Chalabi and "Curveball" were about Iraq?

Greg Barker: It's a good question, though I do think the U.S. has other sources of intelligence on Iran's nuclear program beyond the MEK.


Washington: Thank you, Mr. Barker, for doing this chat. First I have to say that it is reports like your's last night that make "Frontline" the most informative and finest hour of in-depth reporting anywhere on television. I don't recall this being mentioned in the report, but I've seen elsewhere that a majority of the Iranian population is under age 35, with most not old enough to really remember the revolution. This younger generation is said to be more pro-Western (or would it be better to say "less anti-Western"?). My question comes down to this: If we can hold off on launching any kind of military operation against Iran, is it possible we can just wait out the old men of the old regime? Isn't it in our interest to allow the younger generations of Iranians to lead their own reform revolution, as the old guard ages and crumbles?

Greg Barker: Yes, that's true -- one of the big questions in Iran is whether the youth will "buy in" to the ideals of the revolution ... they are connected to the outside world through media and the Internet (Farsi is the third most-used language online, after English and Chinese.).


Berlin: I would like to know if Iran proposed peace talks in 2003 through the Swiss? Was there ever such a letter submitted to Washington from Tehran, in which Tehran had written that it would stop helping Hezbollah, recognize Israel and even open up its nuclear program to strict checks by the IAEA. Was the letter for real or just a hoax? And if it was real, why didn't CNN/BBC ever mention it? Thanks.

Greg Barker: We've published a copy of the fax on the show's Web site. I doesn't appear to be a hoax; the big question is how much support it genuinely had from various elements of the Iranian regime, especially the Supreme Leader. Its existence wasn't revealed until late last year, but since then various media outlets have covered the story.


It's the little things...: Great job on the Iran piece. For me, the power of the piece was in the little things like Bush's messianic expression (with a lot less gray hair) explaining that a free Iraq will be a beacon to the rest of the Middle East, and the Quds leader's Cheshire Cat grin when hearing the translation of the question about the U.S. forces trying to capture him in Iran. Finally, the notion of U.S. incompetence at a much deeper level than simple policy disagreement.

Quick question, do you get the sense that the Bush administration's internal view on their military window of opportunity to strike Iran in the summer of 2008 to deal with some of the secondary reactions before handing off the mess to the next administration? Is there any projected Iranian response (directly or though proxies) that would tip the cost/benefit scales against a U.S. military strike, or are they going to go through with it no matter the consequences?

Greg Barker: Thank you. Regarding any potential attack, I think it's important to note that it's doubtful any final decision has been made, and the threats one hears from the Administration could simply be meant to pressure Iran to give way at the negotiating table. If it does happen, the speculation (and that's all it is) points to sometime in the Spring/Summer. How the Iranians would respond is an open question; the sense one gets from those in the U.S. who support military action (as well as those in Israel and the Arab Gulf states, where there is also support for military action if diplomacy fails) is that Iran's retaliation could be managed.


Detroit: Your program suggest that there were overtures by Iran to the U.S., on which the Bush administration did not follow up. What evidence is there that these overtures were genuine and were not just meant to allow Iran time to develop a nuclear program?

Greg Barker: That's a good question -- and John Bolton's reaction to the "grand bargain" proposal was exactly that ... that it was essentially a decoy to give the regime more time to develop its nuclear program. There is no definitive evidence that the overtures were genuine, although senior Iranian officials have said the so-called "grand bargain" proposal had been vetted by all levels of the regime, including by the Supreme Leader. We don't know how Iran would have responded if Bush Administration had responded positively to the proposal, because it never received a response.


Kensington, Md.: I am continually astonished at how few of my fellow countrymen are aware that in 1953 our CIA ousted a democratically elected Iranian president because he was about to nationalize their oil (thus keeping control of it from the Western oil companies). How presently does that episode of imperialist larceny linger in the consciousness of the typical Iranian? I think if some country toppled my government so that it could rape our national resources (and installed a repressive dictator to keep the siphoning going for decades), I probably would resent it too.

Greg Barker: Iranians certainly do remember the 1953 coup, and America's close relationship with the Shah. There's a long history of grievances on both sides, and I think that makes it very tough for politicians in Iran and the U.S. to move anywhere close to normalizing relations.


Norman, Okla.: Why are we so worried about Iranian nuclear program when the IAEA clearly has announced that Iran's program is nonmilitary and for civilian purpose only. We know Iranians do not have the capacity to attack the U.S., and if anyone should be worried about it, that should be Russia.

Greg Barker: There is a lot of worry about Iran's nuclear program across the Middle East, especially in Israel but also among Arab countries that are friendly to the U.S. -- such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates etc. Many officials there say they do not want to live under what they see as potential Iranian domination of the region -- at the same time there is great skepticism in the region about the ability of this Administration to execute a coherent policy to contain Iran...


Arlington, Va.: I randomly watched this show last night, and while I've seen countless shows of this sort on Iran this one stood out and was very informative. It was an excellent look into the complex relationship with Iran. I can't help but feel though that the buildup is all just hype. Bush will be gone in a year and I can't imagine him starting another war, without congressional support, and with the current debacle in Iraq.

Greg Barker: Well, you're right -- the tough talk could all be hype ... an attempt to intimidate Iran and force it to give way at the negotiating table.


London: The current U.S. level of ground troops is not maintainable for domestic reasons, so one can see a reduction over a year with little real change in the position of the Iraqi government and people. The middle class has left, and the only real social force to be reckoned with the mosque. Some 20,000 or 30,000 Iraqi clergy who were trained in Qom (Iran) have returned and are running most mosques. What do you think will happen when there is a call for general uprising against the occupation and something like a million people take to the streets of Baghdad, and similar numbers or more elsewhere? What can the U.S. do if their barracks are surrounded by such a popular uprising?

Greg Barker: It's hard to know how Iraqi Shias would react to U.S. attack on Iran. Many observers believe that ultimately Iran and Iraq will revert to generally cool relations, as they have had historically. Richard Armitage discussed this in his interview, which unfortunately we didn't have time to include in the film. A transcript is posted on the show's Web site.


Boston: It sure didn't seem from your interviews with the Iranians that they were going to be cowed by Bush/Cheney threats and felt they were in the cat bird's seat. If true, haven't Bush/Cheney put down their markers and, therefore, have to follow through on their threats with military action or risk losing historical credibility (not that I care, but they seem to)?

Greg Barker: Yes, the Iranians certainly come across as incredibly confident -- I got the sense they feel that their "moment" has arrived. Having said that, I do think that some in Iran are very worried about a possible military strike (and about the ongoing impact of U.N. economic sanctions, which are beginning to bite).

The administration certainly has used strong language, and we'll have to see what that actually means in practice.


Harrisburg, Pa.: What are the thoughts you've heard expressed from experts should Iran develop nuclear weapons? Would one expect they ever will use them, or isn't it more the threat that they have them that might allow them to bully the region? If Iran were to use nuclear weapons, wouldn't there be swift international retaliation?

Greg Barker: That's the big question. Many experts argue that at its highest levels the Iranian regime is ultimately rational and is trying to extend Iran's influence across the region to further their national interests, not to pursue some kind of ideological agenda. If that is the case, these experts argue, then the regime would never actually use the weapons themselves. Others say that given the Islamic Republic's history of supporting terrorist groups, it's not worth taking the chance that they would exercise restraint if they had nuclear weapons.


Grants Pass, Ore.: During your conversations with Iranian policymakers, did you get any sense at all of their views on our current presidential election? Did anyone wish to opine as to whom they thought Iran could make diplomatic progress with? Was there anyone they particularly loathed?

Greg Barker: We didn't really talk about it -- though I think it's safe to say they will be pleased to see the current US Administration pass into the history books.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: What's the climate of the relationship between Iran and Syria like? Between Iran and Turkey? If good to excellent, what's to stop these three from getting together and jointly making war on the PKK? They must all want to see the PKK go into extinction. Wouldn't this help bring down any remaining Kurdish support for the Iraqi government, as the peshmerga is forced to go back to the mountains to expel the invaders? Aside from the Sunni/Shia inability (impossibility) to live together, wouldn't Iran's reputation in the region be enhanced by a successful outcome (above), as an alternative to the U.S. presence in Iraq and the Gulf? Sounds like a win-win for Iran all the way around. Finally, assuming the scenario plays out as scripted, if a nuclear-tipped Iran is going to be the permanent wielder of the big stick in the Gulf, what are we doing there? Besides marking time, that is. Thanks much.

Greg Barker: Iran has a close relationship with Syria at the moment, particularly with regard to Lebanon, and generally normal relations with Turkey. But Iran also has longstanding ties to some of the Iraqi Kurdish groups, and I think Tehran would be concerned that any full-scale action against extremist Kurdish groups could impact stability on the ground in Northern Iraq. Iran has said repeatedly that it wants a unified, stable Iraq.


Wilmington, N.C.: Mr. Gerecht seemed dismissive of the threat to U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq posed by an Iranian response to a U.S. attack. We will "weather" it, I believe he said. Can I assume his interview was not recorded outside the Green Zone in Iraq? Do you have a sense of our Operation Iraqi Freedom commanders' takes on the wisdom of an attack inside Iran?

Greg Barker: We interviewed Gen. Petraeus' intelligence chief from Baghdad, which unfortunately we weren't able to include in the one-hour film -- I think there is genuine anger among U.S. military officials over what they see as conclusive evidence that Iran is arming and training extremist Shia militias inside Iraq. That doesn't mean they support broader military action against Iran, but there is growing frustration over the explosively formed penetrators explosives -- which the military told us now account for nearly 20 percent of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq.


Washington: Does the MEK really carry that much clout, or is this the Iranians having a long memory?

Greg Barker: The MEK remains important, though less powerful now that they were before the Iraq invasion ... when they were disarmed etc. It's an issue that has deep resonance for the Iranian government, which -- yes -- has a long memory.


San Francisco: The vast majority of American casualties in Iraq are because of Sunnis, who are more likely to be supported by Saudi Arabia, than Shiites, who are more likely to be supported by Iran. Why the focus on Iran?

Greg Barker: That's the point Mohammed Jafari made in our interview. You can read it online at the show's Web site.

Looks like my time is up -- thanks for watching and for the interesting questions, and apologies to those I couldn't get to.


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