April 24, 2003 | Broadcast

CNN NewsNight

BROWN: Jay Garner, the man in charge of running Iraq for the time being, is promising to quickly reopen Iraqi government ministries, in essence, bringing the machinery of government back online along with the oil wells and the power plants and the rest.

The larger question still remains, though, who runs the government, and what shape ultimately will it take?

Today the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, made it plain the shape it would not take, in his view, a Shi’ite theocracy. Yet so far, Shi’ite clerics seem the best equipped and the most willing to fill the power vacuum, which came a surprise to many.

Here to talk about this and other things as well, we hope, James Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

It’s nice to you again, sir.


BROWN: Do you think the administration underestimated, to some degree, the — both the power of and the willingness of the Shi’ite clerics to assume both a political and social function in the wake of the war?

WOOLSEY: Well, as in Iran, in Iraq there are Shi’ite clerics and then there are Shi’ite clerics. In Iran there is a minority of mullahs who are running the instruments of power of the state, and a large majority, really, of clerics are now opposed to them.

And I think similarly in Iraq, what we’re seeing is people like Hakim (ph) and the others who are with this Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is really run by the mullahs in Iran, I think we’re seeing them assert themselves.

They may well be disciplined and organized, but I don’t think they represent the majority of the Shi’a in Iraq by any means. I think they are effectively Iranian theocratic agents.

BROWN: So the pictures we’ve seen and the words we’ve heard, over — to some degree, over the last two weeks, but certainly in this week, may not give us an accurate reflection of how that 60 percent of the Iraqi population thinks?

WOOLSEY: I think that’s right. The Shi’a traditionally, except in the 10th century in Egypt, have generally separated mosque and state. Khomeini and his revolution in Iran were an exception, and they continue to be an exception in Shi’a Islam, and it’s one of the reasons why they are so unpopular in Iran today, including with one after another of grand ayatollahs who are splitting off from them.

I think the same thing will be true in Iraq. But these people, like Hakim, may be, as I said, pretty well organized and disciplined, and they’re trying to take power. But I don’t think they represent the bulk of opinion within the Shi’a community.

BROWN: Let me, this is absolutely hypothetical, walk away from it if you want, but you could walk away from any question if you want, including the hypothetical ones. If we believe that the Iraqis should decide the future of government of Iraq, and I think we do believe that as a country, and if they were to decide on a theocracy, what right does the United States to have say no?

WOOLSEY: Well, I think we need to stay with this long enough so that the decent and reasonable Muslims in Iraq can assert themselves over those who are essentially like the communists, disciplined and organized to take charge in a chaotic situation.

If you look at Iran as a model, the mullahs are terribly unpopular there, the ones that are running the government right now. They can barely get a taxi in Tehran. They’ve made a terrible botch of the economy. And, as I said, they’re in violation, really, of almost all of the Shi’a tradition.

I think the same thing would be true in Iraq. But if you let there be one vote once, and the more disciplined revolutionaries take charge, I don’t think that’s really democracy. Democracy really requires an appetite for being able to have an opposition, and a rule of law, and being able to lose and still wake up the next morning and not worry about a knock on the door in the middle of the night.

BROWN: Well, we’ve got about a minute. I want to turn to another part of the world here. Doesn’t sound like the talks in Beijing went very well with North Korea today. Are — is the United States government running out of easy options where the North Koreans are concerned, assuming there were ever any easy options?

WOOLSEY: Maybe. I think that the really tough call here will be whether or not we can get China to lean hard on the North Koreans. They did cut off oil for them for a few days a couple weeks ago.

But the North Korean regime really can’t survive without Chinese support, and the Chinese so far have been quite reluctant to work with us on this. If they lean on the North Koreans, we could come out of this peacefully. If they don’t, the — Kim Jong-Il is likely to continue to try to blackmail us, and he may well drive us into some type of hostilities. I hope not, but it could happen.

BROWN: And can there be a hostility in the Korean peninsula that doesn’t do enormous damage to South Korea?

WOOLSEY: It would be very difficult. We could take out Yongbyon with an air strike, but if the North Koreans use their artillery, which Seoul is within range of, killed tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of South Koreans, and thousands of American troops. We would win a war on the Korean peninsula, but would it be a bloody war.

BROWN: It’s always good to talk to you. James Woolsey, the former CIA director. Nice to have you on the program tonight. Thank you, sir.

WOOLSEY: Good to be with you.

BROWN: Thank you, sir, very much.