September 16, 2004

Mideast Iran's Nuclear Brinksmanship

متن برنامه (اون لاين ) صداي آمريكا

Host: Iran’s foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi announced that Tehran has restarted its effort to build uranium-enriching centrifuges. The enriched uranium from those centrifuges could be used to make nuclear weapons. The move comes after the International Atomic Energy Agency condemned Iran for breaking a string of promises to limit its nuclear program.

British, French and German negotiators met with Iranian diplomats in Paris at the end of July, but gained no new assurances. “It is our judgment that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon,” said U-S Secretary of State Colin Powell. “The world has to take note of this.” President Bush said, “We are working with our friends to keep the pressure on the mullahs to listen to the demands of the free world.” Will pressure stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions? I’ll ask my guests, Afshin Molavi, author of “Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran” and a fellow at the New America Foundation; Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council; and joining us by phone from London, Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. Welcome. Thanks for joining us today.
Afshin Molavi, is Iran building nuclear weapons? Molavi: You know, without access to the intelligence information, it’s shear speculation. So allow me to speculate for a second. I mean if you look at Iran’s neighborhood, I mean, there are four powers in the neighborhood that do have nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, Russia, and Israel. If you’re a strategic planer in Iran and you look around at that neighborhood, you say, “Well, you know, perhaps we’ll need a nuclear weapon of our own.” Secondly, what Iranian officials have said to western diplomats and to journalists is the following: of the three axis of evil countries, the one that did not have nuclear weapons --

Host: What are axis of evil countries?

Molvai: Sorry, sorry. Of the three “axis of evil” countries which were named by President Bush, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, the one that did not have nuclear weapons was invaded by the United States, the one that did was not. So this is something that probably could go into their foreign policy calculus as well.

Host: Ilan Berman, why doesn’t Iran just come out and say, “Yes, we want nuclear weapons. We’re out to get nuclear weapons”?

Berman: I think the operative principle here is caution. Certainly the Iranian regime can be expected to be developing nuclear weapons. Also because they’re following the North Korean model, they want to not take the route of Iraq. They want to take the route of North Korea. They clearly see that the United States is having difficulty rolling back the North Korean nuclear program. And they understand that in that ambiguity, nuclear ambiguity, is the key. If they come out and say it, it becomes a rallying issue around the world. There’s also speculation -- and again as Afshin said, there’s not a lot of hard intelligence, and so all we can do is speculate -- but there’s a lot of signs that say that what they’re trying to develop is not a full-blown nuclear potential, as in an arsenal, but rather all the components necessary for a quick nuclear build-up. They’re trying to step up to the nuclear threshold and to cross over it whenever they decide it’s necessary.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, are you there from London?

Nourizadeh: Yes, I am.

Host: What’s your sense of how far along Iran’s nuclear program is at this point?

Nourizadeh: I quite agree with the other two gentlemen, but I just want to add something. In front of me there is a text of Mr. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s speech which never was broadcast by the Iranian media, and that was the basis of an article I wrote for Asharq Al-Awsat about a year ago. In this encounter, Mr. Khamenei says to the Iranian scientists working for the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization: “Look at North Korea, because they have nuclear weapons and the Americans cannot force any policy on them. And they have bargain chips in their hand and they can play it very well. I wish you are able to deliver the same thing to me.” So that is the clearest sign that Iran is after the nuclear bomb, and they are trying to achieve at least the technology of building a bomb in a matter of, you know, months or so. I have some other evidence and some information passed to me by people working for the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization as well as for Iranian military industry. And they are all confirming that the plan is there and they are, day and night, they are trying to achieve or to get to the point at which they will be able to build the nuclear bomb.

Host: Afshin Molavi, what happens when Iran does have a nuclear weapon? I mean, how does it change things both within Iran and how they deal with their neighbors?

Molavi: That’s right. You know I think what will happen is before we even get to that stage, there’s probably going to be some sort of serious confrontation with Iran. U-S intelligence estimates put the year 2007 and 2008 as a possibility for Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. There has been talk of Israeli military strikes on Iranian nuclear targets. The United States, what they’re looking at right now, is taking the issue to the Security Council, and asking the Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran. So I think there’s going to be some sort of confrontation before we get to that stage even. The one model that is often brought up is this Israeli strike on the Osirak, Iraq nuclear reactor in 1981. The difference in Iran is that Iran’s nuclear program is more diffused, and it’s spread out across the country, and people don’t sometimes appreciate how difficult the Osirak operation was in 1981.

Host: Ilan Berman, how much sense is there that there might be some effort, whether by Israel or someone else, to try to take out Iran’s nuclear capacity?

Berman: I think that’s the key question, the sixty-four-thousand dollar question, particularly when people here in Washington begin to think about this. Because the U-S intelligence community does say that an Iranian nuclear capability, a self-sustained capability, is several years out, but when you’re doing this sort of strategic planning, you cannot go by those sort of estimates. You have to go by the estimates of your most skittish members of the coalition. And the Israelis have said, in fact the head of the Mossad, the external intelligence service, gave a speech last year to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in which he said that by 2005, next year, Iran will have achieved a self-sustained nuclear capability, which means they will no longer need to seek nuclear components from North Korea, from Russia, from China, in order to develop their program. Once that happens they’ve reached what the Israelis call a point of no return, after which time, it’s just a matter of time, until they’ve developed -- they’ve harnessed a know-how that they have within the country, and they’ve developed a nuclear weapon. So I think that time-frame –- the time-frame that the Israelis are laying out -- is very important, particularly as the Bush administration moves to begin to seriously think about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, how does the fact of nuclear weapons, when they come into place in Iran, affect the situation, the politics, the power struggles, within Iran itself, who has control over them, and how will struggles over control of those weapons affect any effort for reform in Iran?

Nourizadeh: I have no doubt that a responsible Iranian government would not have any control of a nuclear capability. I think the Revolutionary Guard is going to be the, you know, the key player in this game. And I just wanted to add a few more things, I mean I’m sure the Israelis, they have a plan to strike against the Iranian nuclear plant, and other places, and, I mean, in the last five-six months there were lots of reconnaissance flights over Iran, it was even reported by Iranian media. But what I’m trying to say: Iran would not as easy a target as Iraq. Iraq was fighting with Iran, Iraq was involved in an bloody war with Iran, when the Israelis [made their] strike. And at the moment I think the Iranians, also they have some sort of weapons which they can [use to] respond to any attack against their nuclear plan. That’s why the future seems to be very gloomy and very frightening. And if the Israelis strike then the Iranians would respond, they have missiles, they have all sort of warheads -- I mean they don’t have nuclear at the moment -- but they have chemicals, biological, and others. And for a country like Israel to be hit by several missiles by the Iranians -- I think it would be terrible and it will, you know, bring chaos to the whole Middle East.

Host: Afshin Molavi, Alireza Nourizadeh mentions the Revolutionary Guard, and that they would be in control of these weapons, do you agree with that, and what does that mean?

Molavi: I do agree with that assessment, and what is interesting to note over the past year or so we’re noticing the Revolutionary Guard injecting themselves into the political sphere with more and more aggression. There are several Revolutionary Guard affiliated members of Parliament. The Revolutionary Guard recently took over the recently opened Iranian Imam Khomeini International airport, because they viewed -- the security for the airport was a Turkish firm -- and they viewed that as an affront to national security and national dignity. We’re noticing the insertion of Revolutionary Guard into the political sphere more and more.

Host: Ilan Berman, what’s your sense of the growing power of the Revolution Guard in Iran at this point?

Berman: Well I think that’s exactly right, and one of the key things that I think we need to talk about here is the fact that the Revolutionary Guard historically over the course of the Iranian regime, the current Iranian regime, have been the principle contact point with groups like Hamas, with groups Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, with terrorist organizations. And that means that any sort of know-how, nuclear, ballistic missile, chemical, biological, that these forces acquire within the regime, you cannot rule out the possibility that they will hemorrhage over into the capabilities of terrorist organizations. That should be a very frightening thought, it should be keeping people up at night.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, do you think that the Revolutionary Guard would share either bombs or technology or materials with terrorist groups like Hezbollah?

Nourizadeh: I would not go as far as that. But I’m sure if they feel threatened they are going to use all their, you know, whatever they can, whether it is al-Qaida or Hezbollah or the other terrorist organizations. As Afshin Molavi mentioned, the Revolutionary Guard, now they have forty-two members in the Iranian new Parliament -- and they have, they’re controlling radio and television, Ezzatollah Zarghami is now the director of radio and television. They control different intelligence organizations. So they are very powerful and if they have atomic bomb and then I’m sure if they feel the regime is threatened or they are threatened I’m sure they are going to use it and unfortunately you don’t have too many wise men among them. You know they just showed in the past that if the time comes they are going to go you know as far as possible in order to protect the regime and to protect themselves.

Host: Afshin Molavi, let’s talk about that in terms of where things are in internal Iranian politics at this point. [It’s been] mentioned that an ex-Revolutionary Guard head is now running T-V and radio in Iran and we just had after this recent trial of the killers of an Iranian-born Canadian journalist who was killed in custody in Iran, and the trial found that there –- you know, assigned no guilt to anyone. And a couple of newspapers that reported on this within Iran were promptly shut down by Iranian authorities, so what’s the state of play in Iran for basic freedoms?

Molavi: What we’re seeing right now is a conservative counter-attack which has been largely successful against the reform movement that was engendered with the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997 and was re-enforced with his re-election in 2001. The conservatives still control the key levers of power in Iran, and this is a fundamental point because outside observers wonder, “Well these reformists made all these promises, why weren’t they able to deliver?” Because the conservatives control the judiciary, the same judiciary that jails these editors and closes down these newspapers. The conservatives control the security services, so they have a monopoly on violence. The conservatives control the office of the supreme leader which has a virtual veto power over all matters of state. So essentially what the conservatives have been doing over the past year or two is reasserting their strength, flexing their muscle, and the rise of the Revolutionary Guard is of a piece with this whole calculus.

Host: Ilan Berman, when people are negotiating -- when Britain and France and Germany get together to negotiate with Iran -- are they negotiating with the people who really hold the power in Iran or are they negotiating with the people who represent the sort of denuded civilian government there?

Berman: I think that certainly is an issue and one can say that at any given day, it depends. It depends on sort of who the regime decides to put forward as their best face. But, at the same time, and this is what I find striking about the European efforts to defang the Iranian nuclear genie, so to speak, is the fact that they do not understand, just like we’re having trouble understanding in North Korea at the time, that the nuclear power, the nuclear capability, is viewed by the powers that be in Tehran as an element of regime stability and it has been for a long time, the nuclear program started in the early 1970s. At the time it didn’t worry us too much because the Shah, Reza Pahlavi, regardless of what his failings were, was viewed by the West as a reasonably responsible leader. The current regime, we don’t have those sort of track-records to draw from, with human rights, with terrorism, with pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and so a bit of this international debate, at least in my opinion, is somewhat beside the point.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, what’s your sense on, in terms of the West trying to confront Iran over this growing nuclear capability, trying to sort out, you know, who actually has the power to deal with over this issue?

Nourizadeh: As you mention in your question, I think the Europeans, most of the time, they were dealing with the people with a good intention, with a nice smile, but they are not the people who hold power. They are not the people who can make decisions. Mr. Hassan Rowhani, as the secretary of the Iranian National Council, Mr. Rowhani was received very well by Britain, by Germany, by France, and he had successful negotiation in Europe and in Tehran, okay. But when Mr. Rowhani returned to Tehran, there was lots of criticism published in the newspaper close to the leader, and close to the radicals, and they were all criticizing him: “Why have you given up our rights for enrichment of uranium?” And so Mr. Rowhani then was changed for another guy who is Mr. Hoseyn Moussavian, he was former ambassador to Germany, very close to Mr. [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and also close to [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei. He was the one who had the discussion last Thursday in France with the European representative. But anyway he was not again successful in his dealing with the question and with the request by the Europeans. Therefore, I think at the end of the day, the people who can make decisions, they all go back to the leader, and the leader is the one who decides whether Iran has to cooperate with the international atomic agency or with the European country, and it seems that the leader is very upset, and he doesn’t want this cooperation to be continued, at least the way the Europeans demand, and the way the United States wants.

Host: Afshin Molavi, what does the West do then?

Molavi: Yeah, what does the West –- that’s the tough question. I think this idea of going to the Security Council is probably the right one for now. I think what you have to do is take it to the Security Council and see how Iran reacts to that. Sanctions would be devastating to the Iranian economy, Iran has a very young population, two-thirds of Iranians are under the age of thirty, half are under the age of twenty-one. They need jobs. There’s fifteen percent unemployment. Some independent economists put it close to twenty-five percent unemployment –- I mean to put that into perspective, in America during the Great Depression, it was fifteen to twenty-five percent unemployment. So sanctions, you know the threat of sanctions, you know could possibly work. Now in the end, I don’t think it will work, I mean if you look at, and it’s not just the Islamic republic, if you look at any Iranian strategic planner, whether it’s a secular nationalist in power or a cleric in power, they’re going to look around, and Iranians will look around and they’ll say, “We’re the most populist country in the Middle East. We are this old civilization, and we do not have the natural power that we should have.” And in the cold calculus of real politic in the Middle East, one of the ways to enter that club of powers, is to enter the nuclear club.

Host: Ilan Berman, Afshin Molavi raised the question of a Security Council resolution, the idea of taking it to Security Council, and what are the chances with you know Russia and China which have been selling technology to Iran for nuclear weapons or rather for nuclear program, to then turn around and impose sanctions?

Berman: Personally I think it’s rather slim, at least in the near future because at least from the Russian side, and I’ve had quite a bit of dealing with the Russian government and Russian officials, they’re pretty much committed to the nuclear relationship. They’re pretty much committed to the strategic relationship overall between Moscow and Tehran, but certainly the nuclear end of things. And President Putin, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, has come out and publicly said that you know it’s a source of pride that we continue our relationship with the Islamic republic in contravention of American requests. And so I think there’s more than one country playing a zero sum game here, and it really immensely complicates matters, particularly when you’re going to a multilateral institution like the United Nations. I think the United States, in particular, needs to begin to think about a strategy of its own, not hinged on Security Council authorization, not hinged on General Assembly resolutions, but one in which itself can take mitigating steps that would reassure allies of the U-S in the Middle East that they’re protected from Iranian nuclear blackmail, that would reassure countries in Central Asia and the Caucasus for example, that Iran is not making incursions unopposed on their ethnicity and also on their energy future. Things like that would be supremely instructive also to let the leaders in Tehran know that people are watching.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, we’ve got a little less than a minute left. Do you think the U-S is in a position to help box Iran in on this question?

Nourizadeh: I have no doubt. I think that the United States is the only power which can force the Iranian regime to accept the terms and conditions put forward by the international atomic agency and then the European countries also are looking to the United States after their failure in convincing the Iranians it’s in their interest to accept these terms and conditions.

Host: I’m afraid that’s going to have to be the last word. We’re out of time for today. I’d like to thank our guests: Afshin Molavi of the New America Foundation; Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council; and joining us by phone from London, Alireza Nourizadeh of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. Before we go, I’d like to invite you to send us your questions and comments. You can reach us through our web site at For On the Line, I’m Eric Felten.

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September 16, 2004 08:36 PM

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