April 25, 2006

Iran's Nuclear Brinksmanship

Diplomats met in Moscow this week to talk about how to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions. Representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the U-S, Great Britain, France, China and Russia -- plus Germany, failed to agree on a strategy. But U-S Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said that the participants understood the "need for a stiff response to Iran's flagrant violations of its international responsibilities"
Our Guests:
Elaine Shannon, State Department correspondent for Time magazine.
Alireza Nourizadeh, Center for Arab-Iranian Studies.
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Host: Diplomats met in Moscow this week to talk about how to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions. Representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- the U-S, Great Britain, France, China and Russia -- plus Germany, failed to agree on a strategy. But U-S Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said that the participants understood the "need for a stiff response to Iran's flagrant violations of its international responsibilities." The United Nations has called on Iran to stop its efforts to make highly-enriched uranium, which can be used to make nuclear bombs. Instead, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that the country has already enriched uranium, making Iran a nuclear power. He also threatened to "cut off the hands of any aggressors" who might take action against Iran. President George W. Bush has not ruled out a military strike against the clerical regime or its nuclear infrastructure:

President Bush: "All options are on the table. We want to solve this issue diplomatically and we're working hard to do so. The best way to do so is, therefore, to be a united effort with countries who recognize the danger of Iran having a nuclear weapon. And that's why we're working very closely with countries like France and Germany and Great Britain. I intend, of course, to bring the subject of Iranian ambitions to have a nuclear weapon with Hu Jintao."

Host: What are the diplomatic options? And if those efforts fail, is the U-S considering military options? I'll ask my guests: Elaine Shannon, State Department correspondent for Time magazine; and Alireza Nourizadeh, Director of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. Welcome and thanks for joining us today.

Elaine Shannon, let’s just start with a very basic question of: Why so much effort, energy, and concern about whether Iran gets a nuclear weapon? We see countries like Pakistan have nuclear weapons. Why so much concern about Iran?

Shannon: People don’t know where Iran is going to be in a year, or five years. There’s been very belligerent rhetoric coming out of Iran, as we all know, about wiping Israel off the face of the map. And Iran continues to support terrorism, in the view of the Western powers. And so they just don’t trust Iran with a weapon.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, are you there by phone?

Nourizadeh: Yes, I am.

Host: What’s your sense of how concerned we should be about Iran having a nuclear weapon?

Nourizadeh: [We should be] very much so because in the back of the mind of Ahmadinejad [is] Ayatollah Khomeini. And those who are called “new conservatives” in Iran, or radicals, they have the picture of an atomic bomb and they believe that a bomb -- the kind of bombs that presumably North Korea has -- it’s going to guarantee their staying in power for another twenty-five years, as Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei once said to nuclear experts in Iran.

Host: Elaine Shannon, do you think that thinking is correct? If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, does it ensure the regime stays in power as long as it wants?

Shannon: I don’t know. It’s hard to say what’s going to be in the future. There are those you talk to in the foreign policy community, who think the economy of Iran is going to get worse and that the young population, the intellectual population, the students will ultimately throw out the more fundamentalist older radicals. And so that’s one of the [U-S] administration’s goals here. One of the U-S goals is to stretch the timeline out for the nuclear weapon, hoping that the disappointment in the economy will force a modernizing change in Iran.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, on that question of a timeline for nuclear development in Iran, what’s your sense of how far the regime is from being able to put together the capacity for a nuclear bomb?

Nourizadeh: Based on some reports we received, and my personal experience in conversation to some of the Iranians who worked for Iranian atomic organization, I think they obtained quite advanced technology. And perhaps they would need another couple of years to be able to produce, kind of, I’m not saying a very developed modern bomb, but perhaps, [some] kind of bombs that would be useful for them in order to threaten the West, the Arab countries around Iran, and Israel.

Host: Elaine Shannon, the International Atomic Agency inspectors, when they were still able to do some inspections, had found, among other things, documents that showed how to create a perfect sphere of uranium, which is a technological approach that has one application, and that is in bomb-making. How serious does the inspection community think the Iranian threat with creating a bomb is at this point?

Shannon: Let’s say, first off, that the I-A-E-A has not said they [Iran] have a weapons program. They said they are unable to resolve and explain what they are doing with this stuff, which looks suspiciously like a weapons program. But it’s still all circumstantial and they [Iran] say they are only interested in power a program.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, what’s your sense in how the regime uses the nuclear program for its domestic audience in Iran? Are they trying to convince people that they are just doing a civilian nuclear program or does the regime want Iranians to believe that they are on their way to actually having a nuclear bomb?

Nourizadeh: I should confess that in the past three years they played the propaganda game very well, in the absence of a real propaganda by the West in order to explain to the Iranian people that nobody is against Iran being a developed country with advanced technology. The regime played it very well. They drew a picture for the Iranian people, that “Israel has it [nuclear technology], Pakistan has it, why shouldn’t we? We are the superpower in the area.” And they started to play [it] in a nationalistic way. Also, they never believed the nationalism is something they can rely on, but whenever they need it, they exploit it. During the Iran and Iraq war and then, in the past three years, whenever they talked about this program they said that: “Iran is the greatest country; It’s the biggest country; we have several hundred-thousand years of civilization; Why shouldn’t we be the super-power of the area?” In a way, they created a national pride among the majority of Iranians. Even I have people who are against the regime, but when I talk to them they say: “Why shouldn’t we have the atomic bomb?” In a way, they combined the nuclear program with the secret program, and they drew a picture for the Iranian people, which was to glorify their program. And when Mr. Ahmadinejad announced that Iran was able to enrich uranium, the first thing he said to the Iranians was, “We should be proud of what we did and of young scientists and experts: they managed to do what was impossible.” It is [a] very delicate issue and I’m sure the Western media now, they realize that. And now V-O-A, Voice of America, in the Persian Program, they are paying much more attention in order to explain, to the [Iranian] people [that] President Bush, United States, the West, they are not against a developed Iran, they are not against Iranian nuclear program, but they don’t [trust] this regime. And this is the problem.

Host: Elaine Shannon, let’s talk a little bit about the diplomatic question. Meeting this week in Moscow were diplomats representing the five countries that are on the Security Council -- permanent members -- and Germany as well. What’s the sense at the State Department, at the U-S State Department, of prospects for a diplomatic solution to this crisis?

Shannon: There’s a lot of talk going on. Nicholas Burns, who is the Undersecretary of State, has been over there meeting with his counterparts and he said, I guess today, the reports we’re getting is that most of the countries that belonging to the Security Council and the G-8 are willing to consider sanctions. But considering and authorizing them are two different things. And from what we are all reading, China, and Russia, still philosophically and commercially oppose sanctions on Iran.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, does Iran expect that it’s going to be able to escape sanctions in this case?

Nourizadeh: As a matter of fact, there are people who are saying: “the Americans can’t do anything; they are alone at the end of the day; the Russian(s) and Chinese, they are going to veto any resolution which would be against Iran.” But then, I think the wiser guys in Tehran, they are very worried, and they believe the sanction, if as far as the information is available; if the sanction is going to be a wise sanction, or a political sanction. So they are going to suffer, not the Iranian people, if they are going to freeze their assets abroad, especially the assets of Iranian officials -- the big boys in Tehran -- then they are going to suffer. If the Americans are going to block the gasoline -- Iran imports sixty percent of its needs from gasoline from abroad -- they are going to face problems and they are worried.

Host: Elaine Shannon, does Iran run the risk here of overplaying their hand, of putting too much faith in the expectation that Russia or China is going to veto efforts to bring sanctions?

Shannon: Yes. What we here at the State Department, as my mother used to say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. The U-S would certainly like the U-N Security Council to go along with sanctions. That would require Russia and China, because they have vetoes. But if they say “we’re not going to do it; we’re going to veto,” then the U-S is already engaged bi-laterally in talking to various governments that sell things to Iran or buys things from Iran. Right now they are talking about political sanctions, freezes on assets in foreign banks, barring travel by members of the regime. But if they got into economic sanctions -- gasoline. There are a lot of countries that sell Iran refined gasoline, believe it or not. They [Iran] have oil, but they do not have good refinery capacity. And so to drive their cars and trucks, they need to buy it [gasoline] from abroad.

Host: What’s your expectation, Alireza Nourizadeh, of whether sanctions may actually come to pass.

Nourizadeh: I think, within the next six months or so, the sanctions will be the only alternative to the war, to launching away against Iran. And I’m sure the Americans now they’ve managed to convince the European partners that this is the only way. As far as Russia and China are concerned, I don’t think you can trust that Russians are going to block the American resolution. Or whatever resolution is there. The Russians are now playing with the Iranian card very well [against] Americans in order to get concessions, in order to achieve their own goals. But at the end of the day, when the Russians realize they are endangering their own relation with the West, I’m sure they are going to give up supporting Iran.

Host: Elaine Shannon, you’ve covered the State Department here in the U-S, and there are all sorts of wordings that things take on that have very different meanings. And one of the things that’s been said over, and over, and over again, is that “it’s not acceptable” for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. And yet, it seems in diplomatic speak, “it’s not acceptable” is a way of saying: “we don’t like it, but we aren’t necessarily going to do anything.” On the other hand, we recently had Vice President Dick Cheney say, “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon,” which is a much more direct sort of action-oriented way of saying what the response would be. What’s your sense of how serious the American position is at this point? Is it, the “not acceptable,” or is it the kind of language the Vice President used that the U-S “will not allow” it?

Shannon: And are we going to bomb them or not? Or is somebody else going to bomb them for us, like Israel? Israel says they are not going to. And really, they [Iran] have such good anti-aircraft capability that the U-S -- it would be very hard. Because there are a lot of targets, and there are a lot of hidden targets. What I’m hearing from people who work on this in the government is, the military option -- it’s a military option, but it’s not a military solution. There is very tough talk going on, but all of this is aimed at getting Iran to back down and say: we are going to be better off economically, our regime is going to survive better if we are not isolated.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, what’s your sense on the question of military options?

Nourizadeh: As I said, many people like Ahmadinejad, they don’t mind. They would like to see the American aircraft bombarding Bushehr. Because to their eyes, after that they can mobilize the whole country, and the Arab world and the Muslim world. And they have partners like Hezbollah, the Mehdi brigades, and Islamic jihad: so they can rely on all of these groups in order to sabotage, in order to attack the American interests. This is their idea. And also they would say, if the Americans attack, that’s the end of the superpower. And Mr. Ahmadinejad believes that he is the man who is sent, prior to the appearance of the Messiah, the Mehdi, the Twelfth Imam of Shia, so he wants the confrontation. That’s the end of the world. and [then the] Messiah is going to come. To the eyes and ears of people who are listening, or are watching us in Washington, it is funny. It’s not serious. But it is serious. Mr. Ahmadinejad believes he is a man who has been chosen, and he wants to take the country to the full confrontation with the “Great Satan”.

Host: Elaine Shannon, do you think Iran is actually trying to provoke a military response?

Shannon: He certainly made some very provocative remarks, and that has hurt him with Russia and China. On the other hand, he has not backed down, and he probably knows that if the U-S were to take military action in Iran, the U-S would face a very real risk of attacks on American embassies, attacks on American installations. The antagonism by a lot of people in the Muslim world. The Jordanians, the Saudis, other governments might have a lot of problems with the pictures of suffering civilians in Iran, even though they are Shias and the others are Sunnis. This would be inflammatory and, has been suggested here, probably would help bond disaffected intellectuals to the regime.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, what’s your sense, of how the situation in Iraq has affected Iran’s thinking?

Nourizadeh: It did a lot. I think if in Iraq we did have a government of national unity, a sort of democracy which President Bush is talking about, then the Iranians would be very worried, and they would re-think about their activities and behavior. But at the moment, everybody recognizes that the Iranians have the upper hand in Iraq. They are allies, they are in power, they are forming governments, so therefore they believe they can continue their behavior as long as the Americans are facing problems in Iraq.

Host: Elaine Shannon, what’s your sense of the situation in Iraq and how it complicates U-S strategy toward Iran at this point?

Shannon: He [Nourizadeh] is exactly right. There’s a lot of concern about Iran’s influence and violence against the sectarian factions and how this would be inflamed if the U-S went into another military theater. Now we don’t see a national unity government forming any time soon in Iraq. Condi Rice -- I went with her to Baghdad where she got all these sectarian leaders together, and tried to get them to do it. And it hasn’t happened. This is a very grave problem for the administration, which is another reason this Iran crisis comes at a pretty bad time.

Host: Alireza Nourizadeh, what’s your sense of -- whether it’s a year or two years or another three or four years down the road -- if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, what does this regime do with its nuclear weapons?

Nourizadeh: I think that would be a real disaster. A real nightmare. Quite recently, I was in some Arab Gulf states, around the Persian Gulf. They are very much concerned. And they are really worried. Nobody’s talking about Israel being a nuclear power, and having two-hundred bombs or so, or the Pakistanis. They are very worried about Iran’s intention, and they believe Iran is not going to launch a nuclear attack against Israel. But Iranians are definitely are going to threaten. They are going to force themselves against the Persian Gulf, and this is a nightmare for them. And for the Iranian people -- for the intellectuals, for the activists, the people who are trying to change the regime, or change the mentality of the regime -- for them, it’s also a nightmare. The regime, an Islamic regime, an ideological regime with an atomic bomb: that’s [a] horrible scenario.

Host: Elaine Shannon, what’s your sense of how the power in the Gulf changes once Iran has a nuclear weapon?

Shannon: It changes a lot. The U-S and the Western powers must deal with it in a different way. Unpredictability can be a big asset. In such circumstance Iran is certainly unpredictable. We hear from Rice and her people that the Gulf States are indeed quite anxious about it, and hope that the Americans and the Europeans will solve this problem for them, for the region.

Host: Alirezah Nourizadeh, we have less than a minute, but just in closing: do you get a sense from people you’ve talked to in Iran that there’s a sense of the danger to Iran that becoming part of a nuclear deterrent regime brings?

Nourizadeh: Yes, in the past few days, the Iranians [are] beginning to realize what does it mean, and what does an American attack mean. Now the price of gold and American dollars it gone up on a daily basis and the commodity and other things are becoming dearer to the consumers. Therefore I’m sure they are very worried.

Host: I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today. I'd like to thank my guests: Elaine Shannon of Time magazine, 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 or comments. You can reach us through our web site at w-w-w-dot-v-o-a-news-dot-com-slash-ontheline. For On the Line, I'm Eric Felten.

April 25, 2006 09:22 PM

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