|Speakers:||Elliott Abrams, CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies|
|Matthew Kroenig, CFR Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow|
|Ray Takeyh, CFR Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies|
|Presider:||Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org|
November 9, 2011
Council on Foreign Relations
BERNARD GWERTZMAN: Greetings. I’m Bernard Gwertzman. I’m a consulting editor at the Council on Foreign Relations website and I do interviews with prominent experts, including the three men you have — will be talking with today. I’m happy to introduce them.
We have Matthew Kroenig, who is the Stanton nuclear security fellow at the council, and he is an assistant professor at Georgetown and had worked as a strategist in the secretary of defense’s office. He’s a nuclear specialist. And I’ll ask him soon to explain what the nuclear debate’s all about.
And we have Elliott Abrams, who’s the senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the council, who’s a long-time government official, starting in the Reagan administration, many different jobs, and was a senior director for human rights and for the Middle East in the Bush — in the last Bush administration.
And finally, Ray Takeyh, who is the council’s Iranian expert, who is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies and briefly served as a special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia at the State Department.
Welcome, guys. And I’d like to start by asking Mr. Kroenig to give us a short precis on what was in this report from the International Atomic energy Agency yesterday, that’s caused a lot of flurry. And if you — if you wouldn’t mind, Matthew, giving us a summary.
And then to the listeners, I just want to point out Matthew’s going to leave us after a half hour. So those who have technical questions dealing with nuclear materials, try to get your questions in the first half hour.
MATTHEW KROENIG: Great. Well, thank you very much for that introduction. As we all know, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report on Iran yesterday. It’s significant because it’s the toughest report that the IAEA has released on Iran yet, and it goes into great detail — indeed, further detail than any of the previous reports in discussing Iran’s work on weaponization that is the actual work they would need to do in order to build nuclear weapons.
A couple of things I think would be helpful to put it in context is that, in order to build nuclear weapons, by far the most difficult part is acquiring significant quantities of highly enriched uranium. So that’s what Iran has been doing at Natanz. That’s by far the most important part.
But that said, once they had the highly enriched uranium, they would need to be able to turn that into a weapon. And so that’s what that report details, is the steps they’ve been doing to turn — to build an actual weapon.
I think it’s also important to point out that there are two different designs for nuclear weapons: the gun type and an implosion type. The gun type is very simple, is so simple that the United States never even tested it before we used our first one in Japan.
The Iranians, according to the report, are working on the second, more sophisticated type, the implosion type, which might suggest that they feel the gun type is so simple they don’t need to work on it. But regardless, again, the Iranians are working on the second, slightly more sophisticated design: the implosion type.
GWERTZMAN: What is the gun type? Is that a bomb? Because I think of Americans, I think of dropping a bomb over Hiroshima.
KROENIG: Right, so they’re both nuclear weapons. The gun type, what you do is you have two pieces of highly enriched uranium in a metal tube, and you have conventional explosives on one side. And you detonate those conventional explosives, forcing one of the pieces of highly enriched uranium to crash into the other one, causing the explosion.
The implosion type, which is the more sophisticated type, you — what you do is you fashion the highly enriched uranium into a sphere, and then you surround that sphere with another sphere of conventional explosives. And you detonate those explosives simultaneously, which causes the kind of loosely packed sphere of highly enriched uranium to become a highly compressed sphere, which then sets off the nuclear explosion. So that implosion type design is very complicated because you need all of those conventional explosives to go off simultaneously. If one side is a little faster than the other, you just shoot the sphere of highly enriched uranium to one side or the other, and you don’t get the explosion. They need to go off at the same time.
And so the IAEA report details Iran’s work in building that implosion type device in terms of fashioning metal into a sphere, which they would need to do with the highly enriched uranium, and in working on these conventional detonators, working to — that would function to detonate simultaneously around that sphere of highly enriched uranium.
GWERTZMAN: But the report, as far as I can tell, does not say that Iran actually has nuclear weapons right now, right?
KROENIG: That’s right. Iran almost certainly does not have nuclear weapons. But why the report is significant is because Iran has for a long time claimed that its highly — that its uranium enrichment program is for civilian nuclear energy purposes. And so you can use highly enriched uranium for energy. You can also use it for fuel for a nuclear weapon. Iran has long maintained that they only want energy.
The international community has long suspected that they wanted at least the option to build nuclear weapons. So this report makes it pretty clear that Iran has weaponization in mind. They’re doing the work they would need to do in order to make nuclear weapons. So it’s harder for them to maintain the facade that this is purely a peaceful energy program.
GWERTZMAN: Ray Takeyh, you’ve been — you’ve been following the Iranian point of view on this for years. How are they reacting or will react to this latest IAEA report?
RAY TAKEYH: Well, their reaction is, as far as I can tell — which is only a day old, I should note — has been consistent with previous patterns, namely suggestion that the evidence continues to be fabricated, much more of a strident language against the IAEA, namely that it has moved beyond neutral observer and inspection regime and is actually now an arm, if not an instrument, of American conspiracies and American plots, and then sort of a similar degree of denunciations of this report.
I — at this point I don’t see an indication that Iran is prone to retreat from its nuclear program. They have no visible indications to that effect. And you know, it should be noted, as the report suggests, that this is a program of some historical lineage, and they have pursued this program with a degree of discipline and a degree of diligence. And I suspect they will continue along that line.
GWERTZMAN: Some people have suggested that one of the reasons Iran has undertaken this nuclear program is, having suffered through the Iraq war in the 1980s and seeing many of their soldiers maimed or killed by Iraqi use of chemical weapons, that they wanted to have their own deterrent. And do you agree with that view? Or —
TAKEYH: It is true that the program began in the 1980s when Iran was involved in the Iran-Iraq War. But a program of this degree of longevity will have alternative sets of motivations.
In my opinion, that — this is not so much a weapon of deterrence but a weapon of power projection. I realize there’s a continued — there’s a nexus between the two. I don’t think Iran is under the degree of strategic threat that requires a nuclear deterrent. I mean, some countries do face existential threats — Pakistanis also, Israelis also — and that provides them a motivation for nuclear weapons.
I think a combination of things are guiding Iran’s program today. Although, as you suggested to Bernie, it may have began for the purposes of deterrence, and its roots may have in fact been in the Iran-Iraq war — you’re quite right about that — but now I think they’re looking at it as a means of projecting their power in the Middle East.
As a means of even domestic political longevity — I mean, this is a regime that if it feels it has a nuclear weapon, then it can reapproach the international community and demand to be integrated into the global economy and the global society. And I think there will be an audience in the international community for Iran’s reintegration, because the argument is going to be: a country this dangerous should not be left in isolation to nurture its grievances. So there’s some sort of a North Korean calculation here, that this could be a means of relieving pressure on sanctions, paradoxically. And they may be wrong in all those calculations, but I think a complex set of motives have guided a program that is now almost two decades old.
GWERTZMAN: Elliot, we always come back to what should the U.S. do about this, if anything. All I know is that the American officials when they were discussing this at the White House yesterday were saying tougher sanctions. In other words, are the sanctions really effective or is this not going to deter anybody?
ABRAMS: Well, the sanctions have not been effective so far in changing the Iranian nuclear program. They’ve been effective, no doubt, in harming Iranian economic growth. And if that were the goal, then you could say that they’re working. But they haven’t changed Iranian nuclear policy.
The question — or a question now is whether to extend them to the Central Bank of Iran. That’s been done to the central bank in Syria by the EU recently, and there is a debate now about what more — what additional sanctions could you place on Iran. And there’s only two things left, really, I’d say, broadly speaking. One is the central bank, and the other is oil and gas, petroleum sanctions of some sort.
There’s clearly no taste for that apparent on the part of the Chinese and the Russians, and it’s hard to see getting a lot of that through the U.N. Security Council, so you might have to have, as we have had in the past, the United States and Europe do some forms of sanctions on our own.
But I don’t detect a tremendous amount of confidence, even if we do that, we’re going to be able to change Iran’s nuclear policy.
GWERTZMAN: All right, I’m going to open this up to discussion with our call-in audience.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) We’ll give it just a few moments so people can queue up.
GWERTZMAN: All right. Meanwhile, let me ask Elliott another question. Elliott, the Israeli press has been inundated with articles in the last week about a sort of discussion within their security cabinet about whether the Netanyahu government can have permission to use military force against Iran to stop its nuclear program. It’s so unusual in that it’s so public.
What do you think is going on in Israel?
ABRAMS: Well, one piece of it, I think, is an effort to get this back in discussion, first to get Iran’s nuclear program back in discussion, which the IAEA report has certainly done, and second to get this “all options should be on the table” approach back in discussion again.
The Israelis don’t have faith in the sanctions regimes to do this job, and they don’t want Iran to be seen as their problem. This probably backfired in the sense that this discussion once again made Israel and Iran the issue for a few days, rather than making Iran’s nuclear program the issue. So this kind of public discussion there probably doesn’t do them any good.
On the other hand, it’s a democracy, and if they’re going to ever take this very difficult, fateful decision to go after the Iranian nuclear program, then one would have to say that it’s reasonable to have some kind of public debate over whether it’s wise.
GWERTZMAN: Right. Any questions?
OPERATOR: Our first question comes from Andrew Beatty with AFP.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Thank you. I was just wondering whether you get the impression that the administration is — if not choosing containment over stopping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, it is moving more towards a containment strategy?
ABRAMS: Well, one effect of this report, I think, is that it does change the debate from the question of whether Iran is developing nuclear weapons to the question of: What do we do about the fact that Iran is developing nuclear weapons? I think the IAEA report has kind of settled the first argument.
And the — you know, the sanctions regime, I just — it’s really hard to meet anybody who thinks that a little bit of ratcheting up of the sanctions will lead the supreme leader to say, “That’s it; I give up.” So you’re then down to two things: containment, or the military option. And it’s hard to say. I mean, the — there’s certainly been a discussion of containment, and one sees comments here and there by administration officials on how it might be done effectively. But that may reflect — I should say and that may reflect an administration decision from the top down that that is really the only option. If sanctions don’t work, then they’re going to get a weapon, and the question how we — is how we affect their behavior. But that’s not necessarily right.
It is possible that there is — it is likely that there is military planning going on so that the president, if we get to that point, will have an option, and when he asks the Joint Chiefs, “Could I take out this program?”, they will say to him, “Yes, you can, militarily; you know, here’s what we think it would take, and here’s what we think the risks are.”
So I think the administration is leaning toward the containment option, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a military option. Given the power of the U.S. Air Force and Navy in that region, they always have the military option.
GWERTZMAN: Let me intersperse a question here again. And Ray can take this one.
GWERTZMAN: Is it at all — now, the Obama administration came into office full of hope to open a big dialogue with the Iranians. You had this unusual gesture by the president to send a New Year’s message to the Iranian people. That’s all faded. But is there any dialogue possibilities with the Iranians?
TAKEYH: It’s hard to see at this point, Bernie, to be — to be quite honest with you. If the Iranian government is what we assert it to be — namely, the administration has suggested that it — (coughs) — I apologize — that the Iranian government plotted a terrorist attack — namely, they sought to assassinate a foreign dignitary in a restaurant a mile away from the White House. And I’m not disputing the credibility or veracity of the evidence, because I tend to find it credible. If it is what the IAEA suggested — namely, that this is a country that is engaging in rather sophisticated technical aspects in terms of getting nuclear weapon — therefore, the natural conclusion from these two positions is that this is a government that does not respect international norms, international law and its treaty obligations. The conclusion to these arguments is not that, therefore, we should negotiate an agreement with Iran. (Chuckles.)
So I think the notion of dialogue at this point leading to an agreement with a government that’s documented to violate its international obligations, is kind of — is kind of difficult to discern. So there has to be some internal change in Iran before you have a government that can be a credible interlocutor.
And we saw this with the Soviet Union. We finally made progress on arms control agreements with the Soviet Union when there was a sort of a more of a reformist, forthcoming government, namely the Gorbachev government. Then you had the INF treaty in 1987 and so forth and so on. And you remember from those days, Bernie.
TAKEYH: So I think that’s the trajectory that we’re on unless there is some sort of a change in the domestic political calculations within Iran. And that doesn’t necessarily mean regime change, but some sort of a dramatic shift in regime personnel. I don’t know if an agreement contracted with Iranians can be a durable one or a successful one.
GWERTZMAN: All right, let’s take another question from our call-in audience.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Wihu Chin (sp) with China Daily USA.
QUESTIONER: Yeah, actually, I have a related question. Just wondering, you know, why you think, you know, you would not prefer contact exchange with Iran. You mentioned Obama actually intends to do so. Actually, Fareed Zakaria on CNN also said sort of the lack of understanding between the two countries would cause a lot of miscalculation, and he thought this would be disastrous for no contact with Iran. So what do you just make — or would you also talk about what would be outcome if the U.S. choose a military option, you know, finally? I mean, what — is it — is it controllable, you think, if you’re just going to solve the problem with a military strike, airstrike? Thank you.
GWERTZMAN: Elliot, do you want to be a hawk?
ABRAMS: Well, the first part of the question is, I think, largely answered by Ray’s comment. I — it doesn’t — there’s no indication that the supreme leader wants to negotiate with the United States. They seem not to have a strong desire to negotiate with the United States. And certainly their conduct both with respect to the nuclear program and, as Ray mentioned, this terrorist plot suggests that that’s really not the direction they are looking in.
What would be the impact of an American strike? First, I think, it would destroy the — most of the Iranian nuclear program. Yes, they could rebuild it, but they would have to make a decision to do so. It would take them years to do so. And you then get into a debate, which is a very interesting debate, is what is the domestic political impact inside Iran. Does it strengthen or weaken the Islamic republic regime inside Iran?
What do the Iranians do in the face of such an attack is also, of course, a much-debated question. And I have to say I don’t think that their options at that moment are very good. What is it that they’re going to do? If they’re going to go up the ladder of escalation against the United States, they’re going to lose out. If they’re going to close the Straits of Hormuz, there’d be a huge spike in oil prices, but it would come down when the United States opened the Straits of Hormuz. So I don’t think they’re in a particularly advantageous military position.
We — of course, we’re rather far away from Iran. The Israelis have a different calculus to make because they’re within the range of some Iranian missiles and certainly within the range of Hezbollah if the Iranians could persuade Hezbollah to be their second-strike capability.
GWERTZMAN: Next question.
OPERATOR: (Gives queueing instructions.) Our next question comes from Oren Dorell with USA Today.
QUESTIONER: Hi, I’ve got a couple questions. One is — you know, I’ve heard people say that there is — there are moderates waiting in the wings in Iran and that if you just give it a couple of years, that these leaders will — you know, the supreme leader may pass away or fade away and that these other more moderate leaders will take Iran in a different direction. And I guess my other question is about sanctions. You know, members of Congress have complained that the administration is not exercising all the sanctions that are on the books. You know, why aren’t they? And would that, you know, full enforcement of those sanctions that are on the books be effective? And I guess, you know, there’s also the question of should these sanctions — you know, would sanctions that targeted foreign companies that do business with Iran — you know, would that — you know, I guess I’m wondering if — you know, what (sector ?) of sanctions would actually — might have an impact here.
TAKEYH: I can try the first one. Sure, there are — there are lots of moderate forces within Iran. There’s quite a robust and reformist opposition movement, the Green Movement, which has — which is a coalition that features broad spectrum of Iranian political actors and political classes. So, sure, there is that. And even, you know, within the Islamic Republic, there probably are some individuals of some degree of moderate tendencies.
At this particular point, the cast of national security decision makers has narrowed so dramatically that those opinions and those tendencies and those individuals don’t really have a role in national security decision making — particularly on the nuclear issue or perhaps for that — for that matter, on other issues.
Whether in the aftermath of Ali Khamenei’s death they’ll come to power or so on and so forth, I do believe the demise of the supreme leader will put the Islamic Republic in a difficult position, because I don’t think it’s at this point ready for a succession crisis. But that’s going to be a very dramatic moment for it.
On the sanctions issue, I’ll just say something very briefly about this: Well, the sanctions issue often is entangled in all kinds of international disputes. You know, there are a lot of companies that have already left Iran, and the financial institutions that international transactions are required for are increasingly leaving Iran. So outside some Chinese firms and so on, there’s not that much investment going into the country. There are still countries that purchase Iranian oil — the Japanese, the (South ?) Koreans, the Europeans.
But so the — I think we have to start thinking about the post-sanctions strategy — namely, what happens when we reach a point where sanctions are not yielding the strategic reconsiderations on part of Iranians that we hope they would.
Matthew, you’re about to leave us. Do you have any last thoughts? (No audible response.)
Is he gone? (Inaudible.) OK, we’ll take another question —
KROENIG: Hello, hello? Sorry about that. I was on mute there. Can you hear me?
GWERTZMAN: Yeah, I can hear you now. Right.
KROENIG: OK. I guess I would just like to reiterate some of what the other speakers said, is that it seems like the diplomacy and pressure and engagement and pressure track, you know, isn’t yielding any results. We’ve tried for a few years now, and Iran’s nuclear program continues to advance. So it does seem like we’re nearing the point where we’d have to make the decision between military action, but prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and putting in place some kind of deterrent and containment regime to deal with a nuclear-armed Iran — neither of which are attractive options.
But for having done some work on this issue, I would like to say that the military option is a serious one that can’t be dismissed out of hand. There would be benefits to delaying the program. There are things the United States could do to mitigate against some of the worst-case outcomes. So I think it’s time really for a national discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of these two admittedly unattractive options.
I have a question, maybe for Ray.
GWERTZMAN: Why does Khamenei, as well as Ahmadinejad, continually say they have no interest in nuclear weapons? In fact, the supreme leader said there’s a (fatwa ?) against nuclear weapons.
TAKEYH: Yeah, I — you know, my suspicion on that, Bernie, is it’s largely for international consumption. I — you know, as the IAEA report meticulously documented, those statesmen’s statements are not true. So I suspect it’s essentially a means of placating international audiences that still require some sort of a justification for continued entanglement with Iranians. So they don’t — the statements do not seem to reflect proliferation policy.
GWERTZMAN: All right. Next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Alexander Gasyuk with Russia’s Gazette.
QUESTIONER: Hello. I was wondering, as you probably know, Russia has built a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, and I think it has become operational a couple of months ago. And Tehran actually asked Moscow to build 10 more nuclear power plants in Iran. And allegedly Iranians are going to spend as much as 40 billions of dollars for these purposes.
I was wondering, do you see any sort of — any connection between such sorts of activity and such sorts of contacts between Moscow and Tehran and Iran’s nuclear aspirations?
GWERTZMAN: Anyone want to take that question?
TAKEYH: I’ll just say something briefly. The Iranian nuclear program at this point operates outside the boundaries of international legality, in the sense there’s been a series of Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to adjust its behavior, suspend and so forth.
And I think part of those sanctions resolution also call into question nuclear cooperation with a state that operates in defiance of its nuclear international obligations. So I think member states of the U.N., particularly as member of Security Council, such as the Russian Federation, should know that in terms of its continued nuclear transactions with Iran, because they do. And U.N. Security Council resolution and even just common sense suggests that giving nuclear resources, under whatever conditions and auspices — and I don’t think Bushehr is a proliferation threat per se — at this point particular point, that is not — that has to be considered illicit commerce.
GWERTZMAN: Mmm hmm. Well, it’s interesting that the relationship between the United States and Russia on this particular issue — I can’t tell whether the U.S. has encouraged the Russians in Bushehr as a way of diverting Iranian nuclear materials away from military uses or they’re just sort of keeping their mouth shut. Right?
ABRAMS: I think it would be a change in policy if the United States were actually encouraging such activities on the part of Russia, because for many years we discouraged them. We did not want to see them moving forward with Bushehr.
GWERTZMAN: Oh, I see. OK. Because I had the impression that they were interested in tradeoffs of — you know, and when we’re talking about trading their enriched uranium for this —
ABRAMS: Right. But I mean none of this has worked. There were all sorts of formulas that I think were intelligent formulas, and the problem is that Iran has has not been interested in them. They want it all. That is, they want Bushehr and they want a nuclear weapons program.
GWERTZMAN: All right. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Hossein Aryan with the Radio Free Europe.
QUESTIONER: Yes. It seems that sanctions have not worked. You know, we heard that before. Military attack would be disastrous for the region and Iran could follow that. Change of regime or Green Movement that I heard — I’m not sure about that, because I don’t — you know, they’re going to follow their nuclear program again.
What about giving priority to strategic talk and direct talk with Iran, with priority given to the nuclear issue? It seems to me that with Obama government it’s become — you know, the diplomacy has fallen by the wayside. What do you think about this?
ABRAMS: Let me just — let me ask Ray to talk about part of this, but I just wanted to make one comment. Your statement, as a matter of fact, that a military attack would be disastrous for the region is not widely believed in the region. There are a number of Arab governments, as well as the Israeli government, that believe or at least have significant numbers of officials inside them who believe that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program would, far from being disastrous, actually rescue the region from a truly disastrous situation, Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon.
So that’s a disputed view in the region. And a number of Arab governments have said this privately, and some have even said publicly, that Iran should not be permitted to get a nuclear weapon, at whatever cost.
TAKEYH: I just want to deal with a slice of that argument, because I hear it quite often; namely that, you know the Green Movement are at the end the day Iranian nationalists and therefore they would want a nuclear program and nuclear weapons, so on and so forth.
I think to some extent the Green Movement is a successor of the reform movement, not in exact way but in some ways. And as the document demonstrated, Iran’s nuclear program was quite alive during the reformist government. Even you can make a case that it was actually revitalized. Yet it was the same reform movement that suspended the program from 2003 to 2005, in a rather comprehensive and a verifiable way. And even the report indicates that during the period of suspension, Iran did divulge information, submitted to the additional protocol and accepted Code 3.1 regarding announcement of new programs.
So I think that the sort of a successful Green Movement government, if we can speculate that far, will have to look at the nuclear program in the larger context of its international relationships, and it’s in the larger context of its domestic priorities. And in that sense, irrespective of their national tendency — nationalist tendencies, they may have a different approach to the nuclear program and certainly to nuclear weapons component of the program, because I think it’s important to suggest that the international community, including the United States, is prepared to suggest and has accepted Iran having a civilian nuclear program, but not a nuclear weapons program. And there are ways you can differentiate between the two.
So I’m not entirely convinced of the argument that a successful Green Movement or a successful democratic government in Iran or a reformist government in Iran will behave toward the nuclear portfolio the same way that Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad have. I’m just not entirely convinced of that argument.
GWERTZMAN: Is there a consensus among you guys that the Iranians suspended their weapons development program 2003 to ‘5 because of concern about the U.S. being so close in Iraq?
TAKEYH: Based upon what I have seen in terms of testimonials from previous Iranian government officials, the American success in Iraq from March to May of 2003 — you know, that initial success had a quite an important and material impact on Iran’s decision to suspend.
GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with The Mitchell Report.
QUESTIONER: Thanks. A question for either Elliot or Ray, and it sort of tags into the last question.
The — as I understand it, there has been widespread support among the so-called moderates — in other words, across the political spectrum inside Iran for the nuclear program, in large part because Ahmadinejad was able to position it as a sort of technology — you know, we want to be — we want to be on the forefront of technology, not the weaponization part of it, and so that as a consequence, it was a sort of national pride and technology-driven issue that had broad political support. If that’s a correct assumption — and second assumption is that it would — the — we know that the perspective is that if America will keep sort of hands off and out of Iran, that will actually strengthen the moderates, as opposed to if we appear to be more interventionist in some way or another.
Now, those are — those are two suppositions, either of which or both may be wrong. But if I’ve — if I use both of those, my question is even the IAEA report that ostensibly demonstrates with considerable persuasion that there is a weaponization program under way — if the United States were — and/or NATO and/or whoever were to initiate a military attack of some sort, should we assume that that — it will have the same impact on the Iranian public, and particularly the so-called moderates? Or might we encounter less of that anti-American sentiment if those moderates felt that we had some basis for being there because this was, in fact, a weaponization program?
TAKEYH: Sure, I’ll begin on this question. And as mentioned, there were several questions in this, so let me take them in sequence.
Regarding the popularity of the program, I think the question was that the program has sort of gained a lot of national support, and that’s — redounds to President Ahmadinejad’s advantage. We don’t have really reliable estimates of public opinion.
And as I mentioned, the international community is not suggesting that Iran does not have a right to a civilian nuclear program but it merely suggests that some aspect of the nuclear program, such as enrichment, which don’t really make much sense for Iran economically, given its — the expense of actually enriching uranium and also the limited enrichment uranium deposits that Iran has — so it can do without some of those flash points.
Whether or not this — sort of a moderate regime will behave in a different way, I think I’ve sort of briefly touched upon that. But the relationship between state and society, between the government and the public, is actually an interesting one because one of the things that happened in the aftermath of the accusation that Iran was plotting a terrorist attack against the Saudi ambassador is, I didn’t see a whole of lot of national upsurge supporting the regime. I didn’t observe it among the population in terms of demonstrations and so forth. And if you look at the Green Movement declarations and Web pages and so forth, their statement was, we are willing to defend the integrity of Iran but not the integrity of the regime.
So the relationship between state and society is actually quite a curious one because in aftermath of the 2009 election — which, in my view, was a fraudulent one — an important link between the public and the government has been severed, and the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic has been damaged irreparably. Therefore, I’m not quite certain that a nuclear program will revitalize its popular base and, for that matter, even a military strike will salvage its declining national fortunes.
GWERTZMAN: Mmm hmm. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Indira Lakshmanan with Bloomberg News.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Thank you, guys, for doing this call. I’m wanting to know what you think — and I’m asking Elliott first but also Ray — are there alternative means of thwarting Iran’s program other than diplomatic pressure, sanctions or military action? I’m thinking specifically of Stuxnet, and what’s the status of that and or other cyberalternative possibilities?
And then for Ray specifically — and I’m sorry; Matthew, I guess, is already off the call — but what is your estimate of how long it would take for Iran to get a nuclear device at the current rate and how long until they could effectively put one on a missile?
MR. : OK.
ABRAMS: I’m sorry. The question was —
QUESTIONER: The first question was for both of — well, they’re both for both of you, but the first question was what are the other ways of thwarting Iran’s program.
ABRAMS: Ah, right, the — yeah, no, I got it. I’ve — I was just writing it down. Yeah.
The — (audio break) — sabotage, let’s call it, is not a solution. It is a means of delaying the program. And I think one would have to say, on — looking just at what’s on the public record, it has delayed the program. If you asked American officials in 2000 or 2005 where would Iran be in 2011, I think many would have predicted that Iran would be further along and that there was apparently something — some kind of suspension after 2003 but then they have come back to it, and it’s gone slowly.
The production of centrifuges has been lower than many people anticipated. And one of the reasons is that — it’s hard and it’s technically difficult, but one of the reasons certainly seems to be sabotage.
I have to assume that a number of countries are busily engaged in trying to sabotage the Iranian program. And they may have no success. They may have great success. But it doesn’t end the program. It just gives you more time.
It’s conceivable — you know, we were very surprised at what happened in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, Syria. It is conceivable that if you had enough time, if you had enough years, you might have some kind of change of government in Iran and, as Ray said, not necessarily overthrowing the regime but a change in key personnel in the regime. You might have the death of the supreme leader and see what — you know, what does that lead to in terms of the — of Iranian internal politics?
But I would have to say I think that it’s very hard to believe that sanctions will lead the regime to abandon this program fully, and it’s very hard to believe that sabotage, while it will slow the program down, will ultimately defeat the Iranian goal, the apparent goal, of having nuclear weapons.
TAKEYH: I suppose the timeline of when they would be capable of actually producing a weapon and so forth — I really don’t know. I mean, Matthew was the physicist among us. I suspect this will be a problem for either a second-term Obama administration or the first term of a Republican administration.
I think, to piggyback on the point that Elliott was making, sabotage, sanctions, delay are at the end of the day a means of managing the Iranian nuclear program. We are increasingly no longer in management mode, and we should — I mean, we — the management issue is exhausting itself.
During the next administration, whomever it may be, the Iranians will either detonate or they won’t. So it’s time to start thinking about not ways of managing the program, but how do you solve the Iranian conundrum.
QUESTIONER: Does that mean that both of you are supporting military action, if you think that sanctions aren’t going to work, diplomatic pressure isn’t working and sabotage doesn’t really have a future?
TAKEYH: I — in my view, the intellectual challenge here is: How do you get the regime — how do you get Iran to abide by its international obligations without the use of force? And that’s hard to do. I think there are ingredients that we can use. Iranian government’s vulnerability is not economic only; it has far — in my view, substantial political vulnerabilities. There is an opposition movement that is, again, in my view, quite a — quite a substantial and a robust one. There are a lot of levers we have to play.
So the — you know, I don’t think this is a lost cause. I think we can achieve our objectives without the use of force; we just have to be more imaginative and clever about it. But the time is running out for having an actual coercive strategy that has elements of economic sanctions in it but is not exclusively a sanctions-based policy.
ABRAMS: I think you’ll — just to add to that, of course, if you believe — and I think Ray does and I do — that this is a problem that will get us into 2013, this is not something that is going to be addressed in 2012 — that is, the Iranians are not going to declare the possession of, you know, 10 nuclear bombs sometime in 2012 — it’s going to get us through a presidential campaign here, and it’s likely to be a subject that’s raised by the candidates and by the press. And so both the Republican and Democratic candidates I think are going to have to, in a sense, give an answer to the question.
You remember the statement by McCain last time that the only thing worse than bombing Iran is Iran having a bomb. And I think that it’s likely that the president and his Republican challenger are going to be asked that question: Do you agree with that? And that I do think is the right debate to have; not because we want a candidate to declare war during a TV debate, but because we’ve reached the stage now — and this report by the IAEA is a turning point — when there ought to be a serious discussion of what the options are.
GWERTZMAN: OK. Next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Omahi Mendoza (sp) with the Energy Intelligence Group.
QUESTIONER: Hi. Thanks for taking the call. My question is that, given the strong wording and the unprecedented details of this report, it seems to somewhat break from tradition of previous IAEA reports — notably, in 2003, with the buildup to Iraq, when IAEA was a little more cautious about its wording. And I was just wondering if it was indicative of any new political agenda within the IAEA and any new change in management. Or is it purely just a function of the details that have been flowing in over the past several years?
ABRAMS: My answer to that would be that it is the result of the IAEA not having a political agenda and going back to its original function of being a kind of technical and policing agency, trying to enforce international agreements.
I think that nothing in this IAEA report suggests that last week the agency got tons of new information. This has been a slow and steady accretion of information, it appears from the report — over a decade, really. And that suggests to me that — frankly, that the previous management was playing a political role; that is, that Mr. ElBaradei viewed himself as a — as a negotiator, as a peacemaker, as someone who would solve the problem of the Iranian nuclear program, whereas his successor, Mr. Amano, seems to think that that’s not his job. His job is to enforce international agreement and to keep people honest and just report the facts.
GWERTZMAN: Next question.
OPERATOR: At this time we have no further questioners in the queue. (Gives queuing instruction.)
GWERTZMAN: All right. Well, I think we’ve about covered the waterfront, guys. Thank you very much.
MR. : Thank you.
MR. : You’re welcome.
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THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT.
- Matthew Kroenig: Nuclear Zero? Why Not Nuclear Infinity? (online.wsj.com)
- What to do about Iran – CNN (cnn.com)
- Iran working on strategic size nukes, not battlefield weapons (vusafptfs9346.wordpress.com)
- Iran report ‘to detail nuclear capability’ – BBC News (bbc.co.uk)
- Israel: Iran to Pass Nuclear Threshold Within Year – ABC News (abcnews.go.com)
- Israel: Iran to pass nuclear threshold within year (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Israel: Iran to pass nuclear threshold within year (sfgate.com)
- Former Weapons Inspector: Iran Does Not Have Nuclear Weapons Test Chamber (alternet.org)
- There is less than one year of time available for effective intervening a nuclear Iran (nextbigfuture.com)
- Nuclear Infinity Concept Grips Academia? (nationalspacestudiescenter.wordpress.com)