TAMPA — The White House Situation Room, Gary Samore said, feels like a windowless cubicle, very small, with the president, the secretary of state, the heads of defense and the CIA positioned around a table in the center.
His seat was along the wall, he said, but when the president called on him, it was still plenty nerve-wracking. As the former White House adviser on weapons of mass destruction, Samore dealt with countries that posed a threat to the United States, like Iran and North Korea. He was tasked with preventing terrorist groups from acquiring nuclear weapons and managing relations with nuclear powers like Russia and China.
Samore visited the University of South Florida in Tampa on Thursday night to talk to about 200 USF students, faculty and members of the public. He touched on everything from the crisis in Syria to America's relationships with Iran, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Samore, 60, served as President Barack Obama's coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, proliferation and terrorism until February. Now, he's executive director for research at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, and a frequent face on television news.
During his time in the White House, he worked closely with Iran. The country has a new, more moderate president, elected in June. Hassan Rouhani has started what many are calling a charm offensive, saying he hopes to resolve nuclear tensions and improve Iran's relationship with America. In September, leaders of both countries spoke on the phone for the first time since 1979.
"I happen to be cautiously optimistic," said Mohsen Milani, executive director of USF World's Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. "I think you are a little less optimistic than I am. Please try and convince me why I shouldn't be cautiously optimistic."
Samore agreed that U.S. sanctions have caused great public unhappiness in Iran.
"My question is whether the supreme leader and more conservative factions, including the Islamic Guard, will be willing to give Rouhani enough flexibility so that he can offer the kind of nuclear concessions the U.S. will demand as a condition for sanctions relief," Samore said.
The key to reducing Iran's nuclear capabilities lies in small steps, Samore said. The country could be doing more with its nuclear program right now, he said, but leaders are deterred by the threat of American force.
He called diplomacy the bridge between attacking and acquiescing.
"My advice to the negotiators is to start with small agreements," he said. "Modest sanctions relief for modest nuclear constraints … supreme leader doesn't want to get bombed and President Obama doesn't want to bomb him. So at least there's some basis … to avoid a conflict."
Inside an auditorium at USF's Patel Center for Global Solutions, the second half of the talk turned to Syria's ongoing chemical weapons crisis and civil war. Did Samore think president Bashar al-Assad's agreement to dismantle chemical weapons was sincere?
"When the agreement was first announced, I was very skeptical that Assad would cooperate," Samore said. "What has happened since then over the past month has been pretty impressive. … The best explanation I have for his behavior is that he may have concluded that the chemical weapons are really not necessary or useful for him. He's winning the civil war with conventional weapons, with heavy artillery and planes and so forth. And to use chemical weapons, he now knows it's extraordinarily dangerous because it could provoke an American attack on his forces that could affect the balance of power in the civil war.
"… Even if we get only 80 percent, that's still a tremendous achievement," he said.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.