September 12, 2006

On The Line: Iran Defiant


Host: Iran defied a U-N Security Council resolution requiring it to stop efforts to enrich uranium, which can be used to make nuclear bombs. President George W. Bush says, "The Iranian regime is pursuing nuclear weapons in open defiance of its international obligations":
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President Bush: "We know the death and suffering that Iran's sponsorship of terrorists has brought, and we can imagine how much worse it would be if Iran were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons."

Host: President Bush said that Iran promotes terror both abroad and at home:

President Bush: "The Iranian regime arms, funds, and advises Hezbollah, which has killed more Americans than any terrorist network except al Qaeda. The Iranian regime interferes in Iraq by sponsoring terrorists and insurgents, empowering unlawful militias, and supplying components for improvised explosive devices. The Iranian regime denies basic human rights to millions of its people."

Host: Mr. Bush says that the U-S and its allies are "determined to deny weapons of mass destruction to outlaw regimes and terrorists who would use them without hesitation." But how? I'll ask my guests: Gerard Baker, Washington columnist of the Times of London; Elie Krakowski, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council; and joining us by phone from London, Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. Welcome and thanks for joining us today.

Gerard Baker, President Bush has given a series of speeches about terrorism, and devoted a lot time to talking about Iran [and] not just al-Qaeda. He said specifically that: “nuclear armed terrorists would blackmail the free world and spread their ideologies of hate and raise a mortal threat to the American people. I'm not going to allow this to happen.” Is this new rhetoric coming from President Bush?

Baker: It is. It's significant. It's the first time he has said quite explicitly that the United States -- or as he put it, the free world -- will not stand by and allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. And that is, although there have been, remarks to that effect, that is the first time the President of the United States in a formal statement like that has made that a clear objective of the United States and its allies. And that is very significant and as you say in the context in talking about terrorism, as he's been doing all this week, he's right to focus on Iran. Iran is one of the world's major sponsors of terror. And the whole -– of course we are at a time when we are commemorating the anniversary of nine-eleven. At a time when U-S foreign policy has changed over the last five years, and has had to change because of what happened on 9-11. It has changed in a way that is determined to deny the ability of terrorists to attack America with weapons far, far greater than those that were used on 9-11. And it is Iran, at this moment, that poses the greatest threat to global stability, and the greatest threat to freedom and the Western way of life. So the President is absolutely right to focus on that. And absolutely right to say that it is now the explicit commitment of the United States and its allies -- we hope its allies -- to deny Iran nuclear weapons.

Host: Alirezah Nourizadeh, are you there by phone?

Nourizadeh: I am here.

Host: What do you make of President Bush's elevation of the threat that he's perceived from Iran?

Nourizadeh: This is not new to the ears of Iranians. President Bush, many, many times referred to the Iranian regime as a threat to stability and peace in the region. And this time the only thing new that this time President Bush is quite openly talking about Iranian policy, which aims to throw out the United States from the area and destroy the state of Israel. Openly he's talking about this policy. This is exactly the Iranian policy. And they believe after what has happened in Lebanon, also now there are lots of reservations by Lebanese politicians about what Hezbollah claims as its victory. The Iranians consider they have the upper hand in Lebanon, in Iraq, and they are looking now at Bahrain, which is going to have the election. And Iran is spending millions of dollars in Bahrain in order to buy votes in order to encourage the Shiite clergymen to participate in the election. And they believe they manage to control the Palestinians by helping Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They believe they are in a strong position and they are able to dictate what is going to happen in the area next. So, therefore-President Bush realized that, and he thought it's necessary to give Iranians a tough response to their policy.

Host: Elie Krakowski, do you believe Iran has the upper hand at this point?

Krakowski: I think that Iran is playing now a game a brinkmanship that will have extremely dangerous consequences. I would agree with the previous speakers and go further in saying they are operating on the basis of what they themselves call, Shiite strategy. Israel is a mere diversion. They are aiming to control all resources, sources of energy, not just in the gulf, but out in the central Asia and the Caucasus region. And they aim to do that, as what was just stated in regard to Bahrain, by agitating Shiites [and] threatening various Sunni regimes. It's no accident that the Saudis and Egyptians were very upset when Hezbollah started with Israel because they were the ultimate target. We are facing, therefore, an extremely dangerous situation and that because the Iranians in fact do believe they are now getting the upper hand. They believe they have the upper hand because the Western Europeans are not really reacting and not trying to appease Iran. They see the United States as polarized and paralyzed and therefore feel they have fairly free reins. And they are, in that regard, also trying to coordinate activities in as many parts of the region and beyond with North Korea as possible. The problem is that in the United States people, seem to view this justification of a polarization and paralysis. The real tremendous danger is, in the end every American will see what is happening, and will then react. At that point, it may be too late, and therefore we may be facing a truly global and “hot” war.

Host: Let's see what George Bush had to say this week about his strategy for how to deal with Iran.

President Bush: "The greatest threat this world faces is the danger of extremists and terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction. And this is a threat America cannot defeat on our own."

Host: Gerard Baker, a threat that the U-S “cannot defeat on its own”? What's the strategy for enlisting allies to confront that threat?

Baker: The strategy remains as it has really now for the last two years as it remains essentially to work with allies. This is something the United States, the decision of the United States consciously took two years ago, after the problems that it confronted over Iraq. It decided against going down a more unilateral route as it did over Iraq and working instead, with the European Union in particular, the main three countries in the European Union: Britain, Germany, and France. Trying to get a diplomatic resolution to this. Trying to persuade the Iranians, backing the European effort to persuade the Iranians that somehow a combination of political and economic and commercial incentives would actually work for them and would be a more realistic [route] for them to go down rather than develop a nuclear weapon. The problem has always been with that process, the Iranians are determined to go ahead with their nuclear weapons. And as Mr. Krakowski says, if they sense there is a weakness and an unwillingness on the part of the West –- there certainly is [an unwillingness]. One of the problems you have at the moment is that the Europeans are so divided from the United States. Not on this specific issue of Iran, all the governments are saying all the same things. But essentially there is so much distrust of the United States in Europe at the moment, it has reached levels that I've never seen in thirty years. There's so much distrust of the United States, that as unbelievable as it may seem to people here [the U-S] there are many people in Europe prepared to listen to Iran, and to let Iran do what it wants rather than try and side with the United States and let it do what it wants. The problem here is; can that process work with European opinion so reluctant to force the Iranians down that route and with European governments frankly with limited resources unable to do that. That is always been the question in this diplomatic process, which has always been put off so far and at some point is going to have to be addressed.

Host: Alirezah Nourizadeh, what's your sense? Is Iran at all worried about any kind of sanctions, or pressure coming from Europe, that as Gerard Baker describes as separated from the U-S at this point?

Nourizadeh: They are more worried about sanctions than the war. There are groups and people within the Iranian hierarchy, which they believe a war would be something to welcome. Because, at the end of the day, they say “the Americans are going to bombard four hundred or five hundred sites. And at the end of the day we can destroy all the American bases in the area. We have short-range missiles. Let them come.” But the sanction is something that makes them very worried. Especially if the sanctions consider preventing Iran from having access to the world market for gasoline and because Iran relies on seventy percent imports of gasoline and benzene from abroad. If there is a real sanction or the wide sanction as they call it, then the Iranian regime is going to suffer. And they cannot tolerate and for them just four months, or five months, being without gasoline, means the collapse of the Iranian economy. So rather than being worried about the war, they are not worried. The war, for them, is something which is going to rescue them. But the sanction is something serious.

Host: Elie Krakowski, do you think there is any likelihood of sanctions that would be targeted where they would pressure the Iranian regime most? And actually be serious enough sanctions to make a difference and yet pass muster with Russia, China, and other U-N [United Nations] players.

Krakowski: I'm not a great believer of sanctions in general and the only way sanctions would work, would be if they were universal. If the main players, the key players were to abide by them, we have a significant problem with Russia and with Western Europe, chief among the various states in the world. And I think that also goes to Mr. Baker's point before about European publics -– what has happened in Europe and Russia is that regimes, the governments, and the people have the perception that in the final analysis, the United States will always pick up the pieces. When push comes to shove, the United States will come and save the day. And the Russians in particular but Western Europe as well, thought, “why not make a buck in the process, we will do business as usual. We will be the nice guys in the bad cop/good cop routine and the United States will always come.” That plays in the end, of the sort of psychological warfare. And builds the wrong perceptions, so I would say, one of the prescriptions I have would be for the United States, to for once -– because this was a case before with Iraq and Saddam Hussein. I don't think the Europeans or the Russians have paid any price for the fact they were opposed to the very last moment and the Russians even supplying advice on how to deal with the American military threat. The United States needs to deal with that, in the sense of saying, this is it now. We have finished doing things the way we were. And you have to be much more brutal that if they want to continue like that, they will have to suffer the consequences.

Host: Let me ask Gerard Baker, about that. Which is, in Europe, how much of the threat from Iran is perceived as being a threat to Europe? We see the premier of Germany, Angela Merkel, saying that Iran's response is not satisfactory on this demand that Iran stop enriching uranium. And yet, it's not satisfactory because it means there's a threat to Germany. To her, she said the international community won't stand by and watch as Iran harms the rules of the U-N [United Nations] nuclear authorities. Is there a threat perceived in Europe beyond one to the authority and niceties of U-N procedure?

Baker: I don't think there is. One of the unfortunate things about this is the perception of public opinion and to some extent, government. To be fair, governments especially the French government, have been much tougher on the Iranian question probably, than any other government in Europe. The problem with the public opinion in Europe is that Europe is, I hesitate to call it defeatist -- that's a very controversial term -- but perhaps it's fatalist. It says there is a broad sway of opinion in Europe that says, look, we can't stop the Iranians getting nuclear weapons because the consequences of us trying to stop the military action would be absolutely disastrous. Sanctions aren't going to work because they never really work anyway. Tehran is going to get these nuclear weapons. We've got to live in a world in which Iran has nuclear weapons. After all, North Korea has nuclear weapons. We had to get used to a world in which the Soviet Union and China had nuclear weapons. That, in my view, ignores the very unique and very special and different threat that Iran would represent if it got nuclear weapons. But I fear, that is the mentality in much of Europe -- look, it's too late, they're too far down that track, it will be too abominable to try and stop them. So let's just find a way of containing them and dealing with them as a nuclear weapon state.

Host: There was a recent poll done by the German Marshall Fund that found that, of all things, in French public opinion there was a willingness to consider military action against Iran as a last resort to stop Iran from having nuclear weapons. In fact a higher proportion of French citizens saying that than U-S citizens. Is that finding significant?

Baker: The French have a different view [than the rest of Europe]. They've had a long and very uncomfortable history with the Iranians going back to the time when of course, they had the Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris during the reign of the Shah, and that created all kinds of subsequent political problems for them. They've had terrible problems with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Remember, they, as much as the Americans, were confronted by terrorism in Lebanon in the early nineteen eighties. The French were too. The French regard, the French have a long colonial history in Syria and in that region, they regard Hezbollah as a fundamental threat to their interests in that region and they regard Iran -- rightly -- as a principal supplier of Hezbollah. So they see very clearly and President Chirac, remarkably said earlier this year, he hinted that France would actually be prepared to use nuclear weapons itself against countries that were sponsoring terrorism against France. The position in France is slightly different. I fear, however, the position in my own country -- in Britain -- and in Germany and most of the rest of Europe is a fatalist, perhaps not a defeatist, but a fatalist one. Look, they are going to have these nuclear weapons, we can't do very much about it. Let's deal with them as a nuclear armed country.

Host: Alirezah Nourizadeh, I wanted to ask you, a little bit about statements that we've seen and heard coming from Iran. And in particular we've had a lot of comments from the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad –- calling for the elimination of Israel -- Israel being wiped off the map, [and the] denying [of] the Holocaust. Most recently seeming to threaten President Bush. And yet at the same time we have former Iranian President Khatami who’s visiting the U-S. And while in the U-S has been saying things like “Iran never really practically, seriously considers being a threat to anyone.” What do we make of these different messages that we get from Iranian officials and former officials?

Nourizadeh: Unfortunately, these contradictory messages managed to fool the European and the international public opinion. Unfortunately, because always there were voices coming from Iran. The good man, the bad man, you know dividing the road among themselves. And what Mr. Khatami is saying. Khatami? Who is Khatami at the moment? Nobody. Khatami has no cover. And even the wife of the government spokesman wrote such a brutal and terrible article against Khatami. And she asked that Khatami's position as a clergyman should be withdrawn, that he be barred from wearing a black turban. And this is what happening. So, Khatami [is] representing just a small group of reformists, whom have no power. Even when they were in power they had no real power. Why Mr. Ahmadinejad relies on the Revolutionary Guards. Ayatollah Khameini is supporting him. And Ahmadinejad during the past year or so by this kind of propaganda, this kind of approaches. He managed to have an audience. A vast majority of the Arab and Muslims. They are listening to him. And they consider him as a hero. Ahmadinejad is so happy. That he has managed to build himself such an image. While the Iranian people, nobody in Iran wants to eliminate Israel. Ahmadinejad is looking not to the Iranians, but the Arabs worlds, to the Muslim world. And he has succeeded in order to gain himself popularity among ordinary Arabs, ordinary Muslims. But at the end of the day, Ahmadinejad, real Ahmadinejad is the one who really denies the Holocaust. He hates Jews and he believes that the final confrontation is coming and he is the man who has to announce the appearance of the Twelfth Imam of Shia Islam, the disappeared Imam.

Host: Elie Krakowski is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as dangerous as this apocalyptic rhetoric that he uses would suggest?

Krakowsky: Most definitely. And the entire Iranian attitude with Khatami is an illustration of a very simple thing. They consider that the West is made up of naïve idiots. And I am blunt, but that is exactly what it is. Khatami, regardless of whether he has or doesn't have any influence of power, he's now a pawn of the regime. He's acting for the regime, I was in Tehran in December 2003 and I saw what Iranians outside have said time and again. There are either those whom are inside or those whom are outside. The reformists and conservatives, have differences in nuances because there are different nuances. They are all in one boat of extreme nationalism. Now, dangerous delusion of thinking that they are now winning. They are not. There is a dangerous period because the West is feeding that perception. Especially with as a perception of Khatami --

Host: I'm afraid that's all the time we have for today. I'd like to thank my guests: Gerard Baker, Washington columnist of the Times of London; Elie Krakowski, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council; and joining us by phone from London, was Alireza Nourizadeh, director 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.

September 12, 2006 09:19 AM

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