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Wednesday’s assassination of another nuclear scientist in Iran comes amid escalating sanctions and a growing push in the U.S. for military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. As Iran and the U.S. both head toward elections, Kojo explores the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose for the West and asks what the United States should do about it.
- Barbara Slavin Senior Fellow, The Atlantic Council; author of the book "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.” (2007)
- Trita Parsi President of the National Iranian American Council; author of the book A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (2012, Yale University Press)
- Colin Kahl Professor of Security Studies, School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University; former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, 2009 to 2011
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. On Monday, Iran's judiciary sentenced an American ex-Marine to death, calling him a CIA spy. His family says he was visiting his grandparents. On Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Nicaragua, the second stop on a Latin American tour that also includes Venezuela and Cuba. And yesterday, a car bomb killed another Iranian nuclear scientist, the fourth such attack in two years.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe week's news comes against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Iran and the rest over Iran's uranium enrichment program, which officials here worry to be a first step toward making nuclear weapons. As Iranians leaders lash out verbally against tough new economic sanctions. There's also a growing drumbeat in the U.S. for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome analysts say relations are at their lowest point in decades and worry that we are heading for a showdown, but others insist that diplomacy can still work to diffuse tensions. Joining us in studio to discuss this is Barbara Slavin. She is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the book, "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, The U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation." Barbara Slavin, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. BARBARA SLAVINThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of the book, "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." Trita Parsi, thank you for joining us.
MR. TRITA PARSIThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Colin Kahl is a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He's a senior fellow at the Center for A New American Security and a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011. Colin Kahl, thank you for joining us.
MR. COLIN KAHLGreat to be here.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation we'd be happy to have you join by calling 800-433-8850. What danger do you think an Iran with nuclear weapons would pose to the region and to the world? 800-433-8850. Colin Kahl, yesterday an Iranian nuclear scientist was killed when someone on a motorcycle stuck a magnetic bomb to his car. That scientist was a 32-year-old academic who also worked at one of Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. What do we know about the attack and who's to blame?
KAHLI don't know that we know much more than what's been reported in the press. It's similar to previous attacks, motorcycle driving up, putting a magnetic bomb on a car exploding, killing somebody related to the nuclear program. In this case, someone who worked at the Natanz nuclear facility is my understanding. In terms of responsibility, no one has claimed responsibility, although I think it's noteworthy to note that the administration was pretty quick yesterday to come out and make clear that they had nothing to do with it. I think they're keen on trying to de-escalate things a little bit, given all the tensions you mentioned at the opening of the show.
NNAMDIWhat happened to the alleged assailants? It's my understanding that there were one, two people on a motorcycle. They sped off.
SLAVINTwo people on motorcycle, one driving, one who put the bomb on the car. And I have no indication that they've actually been arrested at this point. I mean, it's a rather horrific crime when you consider that this was a 32-year-old father. And others, of course, have been killed as well. As was mentioned, I think this is the fourth in two years. And the means was similar in several of the cases. Tehran's traffic of course is notorious and you have to wonder whether any Iranian connected with the nuclear program is going to dare drive around the streets of Tehran anymore given that they all seem to be marked.
SLAVINThere was another aspect of it that I found particularly troubling. Apparently, the man who was killed had spoken recently to the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, about aspects of Iran's nuclear program. And there have been charges from the Iranians that he was somehow exposed or fingered in a way. People found out about his identity and that marked him for assassination.
NNAMDITrita Parsi, what do you make of this string of covert attacks that seem to be aimed at Iran's nuclear program?
PARSIWell, it's very difficult to speculate. We have to be very clear that this would be only speculation about who potentially is behind it because we don't have any clear evidence. But I think the primary contender at the end of the day seems to be the Israelis because they are the ones who, on the one hand, have a clear motive, have declared interest and approval of these types of methods. Have a long history of having engaged in these types of things as well and also have the capabilities to conduct these things.
PARSII think part of the reason why the administration came out so quickly yesterday, and I think it was a very positive step, to come out and condemn it is precisely what Colin said. There is a fear right now, the things are escalating out of control. There may have been a suspicion that those who were behind this actually wanted things to escalate even further. And one way for the administration to push back against that is to come out quickly, categorically, deny any of their involvements in this and condemn the act in and of itself.
NNAMDIBarbara, earlier this week a 28-year-old American who was a former Marine was sentenced to death in Iran after being convicted of spying for the CIA. That sentence coming four months after Iran released two American hikers who had also been charged with espionage. How is this week's death sentence different from prior incidents?
SLAVINWell, I think it's different because, as Trita pointed, the level -- and as you pointed out in your introduction -- the level of tension between the United States and Iran is about as bad as I've seen it since the hostage crisis after the 1979 revolution. And so, this poor fellow really is a pawn in a much larger game. I think what Trita said about the administration denying the assassination, that's fine. But we have seen really sloppy language on the part of the Obama administration in recent weeks. I wrote a piece about this yesterday.
SLAVINLast week, two administration spokesmen talked about sanctions and that the goal of sanctions was to, quote, "tighten the noose," unquote, around the Iranian regime. This sort of language combined with the unprecedented sanctions now that the United States is imposing, which have the intent of basically stopping anybody from buying Iran's oil and paying them in hard currency for it I think have contributed to a feeling that things perhaps are just, you know, getting out of control. Obviously, the intent is to get the Iranians to curb their nuclear program. But one wonders whether this technique is going to be successful.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. How do you feel about economic sanctions against Iran? Are they too tough? Not tough enough? 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Colin Kahl, you just spent three years at the Pentagon as an adviser on Middle East policy. How does the United States view the threat from Iran without and potentially with nuclear weapons?
KAHLI mean, I think that the United States sees the challenge that Iran poses in the region as the number one challenge that the United States faces and arguably the most important region, at least to our economy at the moment. I think the administration is clearly concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions, which they're pretty convinced are putting them on a path to eventually acquire a nuclear weapon.
KAHLBut they're also very concerned about Iran's destabilizing activities in the region, its support subversive actors, support for Shia militant groups in Iraq, support for Lebanese Hezbollah, support for Palestinian militants. So, Iran is a major challenge, and I think the concern is that if they were actually to acquire a nuclear weapon, then all the things that we worry about Iran would kind of be supercharged in a world where they actually...
NNAMDIThe Obama administration has described an Iran with nuclear weapons as unacceptable. Why?
KAHLWell, I think for the reasons that Iran without a nuclear weapon is already a pretty big headache for the United States. So I think the concern is that -- I think it's less that Iran would use a nuclear weapon or transfer a nuclear weapon, but that it would set off a cascade of proliferation in the region. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt might get the bomb. It could set off a very unstable nuclear competition between Israel and Iran. And it would fundamental limitations on the ability of the United States to project influence in that part of the world.
NNAMDITrita, you have said that Iran's nuclear program is not such a big threat, at least not as big as policymakers in the West seem to believe. Why not?
PARSIYou know, actually I don't know if those are the exact words that I've been using. My view is that I think there is a level of hysteria in the debate and in the discourse that is actually unhelpful. I think an Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a very negative development in the region. I think it will be negative not only for the reasons that Colin pointed, but also I think for internal matters. I think a nuclearized Iran is also going to be a country that's going to have greater difficulty moving towards a more open political system.
PARSIBut I think this level of hysteria, this language that this is unacceptable and that it would Armageddon, or that this is an existential threat is actually constraining our own maneuverability and our ability to find alternative solutions. It's a language that pushes us increasingly towards only conflict-oriented policies. And that's part of the reason why we are in the current situation in which the tensions are getting so high that even the administration is starting to be quite worried that it may actually lose control over events.
SLAVINYeah, this -- sorry. This sort of a conflation of aims on the part of the Obama administration, you know, they started out by saying they wanted to engage, they wanted a diplomatic solution. But increasingly, what we're seeing put into place is a containment strategy as though Iran had already developed a nuclear weapon.
NNAMDIWhat political leverage would nuclear weapons give Iran in the region and how likely would it be to use them?
SLAVINYou know, that's such a good question. People don't really think about it. I'm not sure it really gains them that much. It might provide some greater protection, some greater deterrence against a massive American or Israeli attack on Iran. But I'm not sure that that's what is being contemplated frankly. In terms of the way Iran deals with the region, it uses conventional and asymmetric means, it's not going to be able to use a nuclear weapon. That would suicidal.
SLAVINThere would be a total devastation in Iran if they try to use it, for example, against Israel. I think it's really -- it's something that's developed a momentum of its own. It's largely connected with internal prestige. Iran does not want to see itself as somehow inferior to Israel or to a country like Pakistan, say, which has nuclear weapons. So, it's developed this momentum of its own. And the question is, how do we provide some off ramp for the Iranian government from this policy? And are the policies that we're putting into place now and this covert shadow war that goes on, is this really helping or is it hurting?
NNAMDIColin, as the U.S. and its allies grapple with how to respond to Iran, there's a lot of buzz in foreign policy circles about the desirability of a U.S. military strike to knock out Iran's nuclear facilities. Several of the Republican presidential candidates are talking about it. How would a military strike work and what would it accomplish?
KAHLWell, it's a good question. You know, both Secretary of Defense Panetta and previous to him, Secretary Gates and the former chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, have been on record suggesting that a military strike wouldn't prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, but it could knock the program back one to three years. So, the question is, how destabilizing would a strike be relative to the advantage of delaying the program for one to three years?
KAHLAnd I think that you've heard administration officials say, look, Iran having a nuclear weapon is a catastrophe which is why they're so committed to preventing it. But military action has also a very undesirable outcome, which is why I think they've turned to alternative, what the military would call non-kinetic means, pressure, sanctions, isolation. The question is, what's the diplomatic end game moving forward?
KAHLAnd I think I don't -- I disagree with a lot of the commentary that's come out of the last week that the Obama administration has slid toward seeing sanctions and pressure as end in and of itself. I actually think the Obama administration is very open to talking to the Iranians. They simply have been frustrated by the fact that the Iranians haven't been very open to talking to them in the last year.
KAHLAnd what's interesting is there has been some overtures through the Turks in the past week. I think there is a window of opportunity on both sides to de-escalate the tension and get back to the negotiating table, perhaps brokered by the Turks.
PARSIIf I could interject two points there?
NNAMDIPlease do, because your book is called "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran."
PARSII think one thing that we shouldn't forget when we're talking about these things is that there's usually a couple of drivers for a country to develop a nuclear weapons program or a nuclear deterrent. It could be prestige as Barbara suggested and I think that is one component driving the Iranian nuclear program. But you also have a sense of a threat that the Iranians are seeing and as a result a desire for a nuclear deterrence.
PARSIPart of the reason why an approach that is so pressure or threat-centric is very difficult is because while you may be successful in curbing some of their capabilities, delaying the program, you are at the same time risking to increase their desire for a nuclear deterrence. At the end of the day you can not threaten a country into feeling secure. So the more we pursue that path the more we're going to have a desire on that...
NNAMDIWhy are we seeking a nuclear capability? Well, obviously we've been threatened.
PARSIAnd the other thing on the diplomacy that I think is very important to point out, I think the Obama administration stepped into the White House with very genuine intent and desire for diplomacy with Iran. I think however it was faced with a lot of difficulties from the very outset. Some of the U.S.'s allies in the region are not particularly excited about diplomacy, fearing that the U.S. would strike a compromise that would compromise their interests and their security.
PARSIMoreover, pressure from Congress did a lot to curb the Obama Administration's political space and perhaps most importantly what the Iranians did in the '09 elections with massive human rights abuses, really complicated things for the administration. The same situation exists on the Iranian side, in which the political space for diplomacy is very limited, even though there may be desire on both sides to pursue it at times, the courage and the will to push forward with diplomacy in the manner that is needed to succeed to resolve a conflict that is essentially more than 30 years old, so far in my assessment, has not been existing in either side.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation about the U.S. and Iran. Are we on the brink of something? 800-433-8850, you can send email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about Iran and the U.S. with Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council and author of the book, "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and author of the book, "Bitter Friends: Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."
NNAMDIAnd Colin Kahl is a professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He's a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East from 2009-2011. We were talking about the threat that Iran perceives itself to be under a threat that, in fact, it sees coming from the United States. Colin Kahl, you wanted to pick that up?
KAHLYes. I mean, before the break, Trita was noting that whether Iran is pursuing it for a nuclear weapon or nuclear weapons capability for prestige as opposed to say regime survival and if it's the latter then sanctions threatening the regime actually incentivize them to develop nuclear weapons. I actually think there's a third motivation, which is I do think, Iran has hegemonic ambitions in that part of the world.
KAHLAnd I don't think it's a choice between prestige, protecting the regime and these hegemonic ambitions. I think it's all of them, which is why the Obama administration is in such a bind. To some degree, increasing the pressure does increase the threat, which can motivate them in some ways. But on the other hand, reducing the pressure before they make a meaningful compromise signals weakness, which may actually lead them further down the road.
KAHLSo I think one argument is that we need to increase the pressure dramatically now because the same factionalism and divisions within the regime that Trita mentioned, if you just do incremental things, they'll never make a decision. You have to force them to make a decision and the only way to do that is to create a stark choice that they either can pursue a nuclear weapon and be isolated and economically crippled or they can negotiate with the West and re-enter the community of nations.
NNAMDIBut the United States is the most powerful nuclear power in the world, Trita. How does it signal weakness?
PARSIThat's a good question. I think when we're in a conflict dynamic one of the things that happen is that the psychological cost of constraint and restraint actually increases quite dramatically. There's a lot of worry that if you don't respond or if you're passive or even if you deescalate that that can signal weakness and that tends to create a gravitation towards further escalation rather than staying at the status quo. And that's very dangerous. It's a very typical thing the situation with Iran is in no way unique.
PARSIBut I think what Colin said is a very prevalent thought within the Obama administration and it's also something that the U.S. is hearing from some of its allies. The idea is essentially, that the only time the Iranians really have stepped back has been when there was a very credible military threat against them and that was back in 2003. So the argument then has been, once one accept this premise and I have some question marks about it, is that one has to recreate that sense of a very emanate and credible threat in order to sharpen the Iranian choices and to recreate essentially what happened in 2003.
PARSIEven if one accepts the premise, it creates a couple of major question marks. One is, it is a very difficult instrument to fine tune. It could very easily get out of control, particularly when the other side may misread the situation and this is something that Admiral Mike Mullen's seemed to be quite worried about in some of his public statements, that we could have an accident in the Persian Gulf that would get completely out of control and actually could spark a larger conflict, a larger war.
PARSIThe other aspect of it is, if that was true once in 2003 and the Iranians did step back but it actually didn't resolve the issue. In fact, they were faced with even greater amount of pressure afterward, then what drives us to believe that they will think that that failed strategy suddenly will become a successful strategy today? There is a learning curve there that will probably push them toward thinking that any type of a compromise will actually invite further pressure and perhaps even lead to a conflict.
NNAMDITo what extent are sanctions a part of that threat, Barbara Slavin? Please explain the sanctions that the U.S., the UN and Europe have imposed on Iran and Iran's threat to black the Strait of Hormuz, a major oil (word?) in retaliation.
SLAVINSure, sure. I will. But I want to make one further point. And that is that in terms of the diplomacy that we have seen between the United States and Iran, I've yet to see any kind of strategy that might really work with the Iranians. We've had only confidence building measures suggested that would require Iran to send out most of its stockpile of low and rich uranium. I think what we haven't seen is a real roadmap to reducing tensions.
SLAVINSomething that would offer Iran sanctions relief, specific sanctions relief in return for specific actions such as agreeing to cap enrichment at five percent, U235 or to implement the additional protocol to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, things like this. So I still see a lot of flaws in the Obama administrations strategy in terms of using the leverage that sanctions provide. The sanctions that we've seen, particularly in the last year, have been quite dramatic. And here it's a combination of the Obama administration, but really mostly Congress which has kind of forced this down the administrations throat.
SLAVINThere was a vote in December, it was a 100 to zero in the Senate in favor of a provision to a defense authorization bill that will basically bar any foreign bank from dealing with the Iranian Central Bank. And it would be forbidden to have anything to do with the American banking system, which means the global banking system. So this is very stringent. Now, how does Iran get paid for its oil? It gets paid, in large part, through at Central Bank. So this is in effect a worldwide embargo on Iranian oil. There would be some countries that would still manage to buy some oil, China for example which has a kind of barter system already with Iranians, perhaps a few others.
SLAVINBut this is an economic act of war. This is a virtual blockade. So what Iran has said in return is, if you block us...
NNAMDIStrait of Hormuz.
SLAVIN...right. If you block us from selling our oil, we will block others from selling their oil by blockading the Strait of Hormuz which is this narrow choke point through which about a 1/5 of the world's oil passes every day.
NNAMDICan Iran do that?
SLAVINYes and no. It can certainly disrupt the tanker traffic. We saw that back in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. It can lay mines, it can do a lot of mischief. It cannot keep the Strait closed and, of course, the United States has very firmly said that it would use its very ample Naval forces to keep the Strait open.
NNAMDIYour turn, Colin.
KAHLIt's all right. I think Barbara's right. I mean, the Iranians have an ability -- I mean, the CIA estimated -- this has been declassified in 1987, that the Iranians could close the Strait for about two weeks. Their capabilities have been significantly increased since then. So we have to anticipate they could close for longer than that. But because it is so central to the global economy, there's no way that the U.S. Navy will let that happen. So the reason why the prospects for escalation are so high is that the threats to the global economy are so big that if Iran started to take measures that even looked like they were going to close the Strait, it might trigger and escalatory cycle.
KAHLAnd there's no doubt, at the end of the day, who would win. You know, in a matter of weeks, the U.S. military, with the forces already in the region, would knock Iran back 20 years.
SLAVINYeah, but the price of oil...
KAHLBut the price of oil would go up, the crisis would go up, it could be a regional confrontation. So I think that's why all sides are starting to, maybe, inch away from this a little bit (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIOnto the telephones now.
PARSIActually, if I could just add one thing on that as well.
PARSIColin is quite right about all of these different consequences. But one consequence we should not forget is that it would also set back the cause of democracy in Iran with at least a generation.
NNAMDIWe are going to come to that in a second. But first here's Jim in Arlington, Va. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMOh, thank you, Kojo. You know, it's apparent to me that the American public does not want another war. I think, opinion polls show that and the success of Ron Paul in the last two primaries show that because I think that's one of the most attractive pieces in his program. But the problem is, you know, the sanctions that loom over the heads of our Congressmen and, you know, I mean, they are pathetic. I mean, as we could see when Netanyahu was here and they fell all over him and basically, you know, cheered his attacks on our president.
JIMAnd our president is so threatened by it that he has to, you know, do something. So that's the problem. Our political system has been gamed. And these very powerful forces, including Rupert Murdoch's Fox media empire and the Wall Street Journal and whatnot, the evangelicals who've been brainwashed, whipped into a fever of anti-Islamic fervor. That's what we got on our hands. And it's a mind war. (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDISo you're opposed to sanctions, period, Jim?
JIM...very powerful special interest. And sanctions have almost always lead to war. And I, you know, I don't think it's our business to intervene in all these places around the world.
JIMI'm just tired...
NNAMDI...let me try to get in another call here. Here's Rhonda in Upper Cole, Md. Rhonda, your turn.
RHONDAHi, I think, one thing listening to this great program that I've noticed is no one's really talking about the impact of sanctions on the Iranian population. And it was almost touched upon when they were talking about the discontent democracy, that I think this would really destabilize people in Iran. And, you know, I think that that would actually hurt our cause in the long run.
RHONDAAnd, look, we had sanctions in Iraq and eventually, you know, because we didn't engage and because of other policy decisions that we made in that country, we ended up going to war there. Unless we are willing to come to the table and start to have conversation and start to build relationships, I think we're heading down that same path.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Rhonda. You've raised two issues, both of the issue of relations between the two. But I wanted to get to the internal situation in Iran in a second. Because from our vantage point in the West, it's often hard to understand the dynamics of the Iranian regime and to know who's making the decisions. We see pictures of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveling through Latin America this week, but high level decisions like whether to gear up to make nuclear weapons apparently rests with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. With elections coming up in March, Trita, could you explain what's going on internally right now in Iran?
PARSIWell, it's not only people in Washington have difficulty figuring out how Iran is making its decisions, people in Tiran have a great difficulty figuring that out as well. This is a very opaque government, particularly when it comes to its national security decisions. They have actually forbidden a public debate on the nuclear issues. It's very difficult to also gauge what the populations sentiments are about these things. And they're faced with a tremendous legitimacy crisis and frustrated population.
PARSIThe frustrations from 2009 have not gone away. Just because we don't see protesters doesn't mean that people are content with the situation. And they are having some very, very decisive, potentially parliamentary elections coming up in about two and a half months. That could be a very clear indication of where the trajectory of the survival of this regime is going. One thing, I think, was very important that was raised by both of the callers is, on the one hand, we have a lot of political constraints on our end over here as well.
PARSIThat is constraining our opportunity to pursue the most optimal policies. The other thing is also important to note is that sanctions really do have an effect on the Iranian economy. It's unfortunately affecting the wrong people though, primarily, because the population is bearing the brunt of these sanctions, not the regime itself. And we have seen what that does to countries.
PARSIIn fact, there's only 10 cases in which you have very broad economic embargos. And in those 10 cases, only one case actually emerged and had a transition to a more open democratic system. And that's South Africa and it's questionable as to whether sanctions were actually helpful there. In all of the other cases, this level of sanctions has actually secured a survival of the regime and pushed it...
NNAMDIIn terms -- an attempt to unite people.
PARSIYes. Pushed it in a more dictatorial direction. In the 34 cases in which you have had autocracies transition toward democracy in the last 50 or so years, none of them, none of them actually had broad based economic sanctions imposed on them.
SLAVINYeah, I just wanted to add, you know, a number of your listeners probably know that the Iranian currency, the rial, has been dropping like a stone over the last few months. And that's one result of the sanctions. And this is causing inflation, it is making factories close down in Iran. These are the medium sized enterprises that are owned by individuals, not by the state.
SLAVINThe state still is able to get the hard currency it needs but the ordinary Iranians have to go into the money traders and whatnot in the streets. And the currency was about 10,000 to the dollar a year ago. It's been hovering around 16,000, 17, even 18,000 to the dollar. So this is a huge impact on ordinary people in the country.
KAHLYeah, I want to pick up on a point that Trita raised. I think factionalism has always been a problem in Iran. I think it's probably worse than it's been in a long time. I mean, we saw -- and Trita has a good book out now that talks about this too, but we saw in late 2009, the Iranians agree to a confidence building measure and then walk away from it largely because of the factional back biting inside the regime. And that's when Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader were on the same side. And now there's divisions between them.
KAHLSo the question about whether this regime is even capable of doing high level diplomacy at this moment in reaching a deal is an interesting one but then it based the question, but what would force them to make a deal? And...
NNAMDIWhich was my next question to you. What do you think is the best approach for dealing with Iran today?
KAHLWell, I don't see a scenario in which reducing pressure and engaging makes it any easier for the regime to make an agreement. It would make it a little easier for them to save face but it doesn't solve the fundamental factionalism problem that they have, it doesn’t solve their own domestic political problem. Which is why I think the administration is pursuing a significant increase in pressure with the goal of focusing the mind of the Supreme Leader having no choice but to make a decision while remaining open to diplomacy.
KAHLThat is, I do not think this administration is foreclosed diplomacy. They're willing to sit down with the Iranians and the other UN permanent Security Council members plus Germany to have talks. I think, as I mentioned earlier, the Turks appear to be trying to broker a return to those negotiations. So, you know, I agree that pressure's a high risk gamble, but it's not clear to me what the alternative is.
NNAMDITrita, the title of your book suggests, however, that the administration has in fact foreclosed on diplomacy or is in the process of doing so. "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran," a single roll of the dice suggests that they are no more coming.
PARSIActually, the title is coming from -- it's a phrase that was used by one of the Obama Administration's officials that I interviewed who said that because of these political constraints, the diplomacy or the policy of the Obama administration essentially ended up becoming a gamble on a single roll of the dice. Either it had to work immediately or not at all, and as Colin pointed out, the Iranians walked back from this fuel swap in October 2009 primarily because of factionalism.
PARSIAnd at that point, the administration essentially felt it had run out of political space to pursue the diplomacy track. I'm in agreement with Colin that I think that there is some residual willingness or probability that the administration could go back to the table, but under this election season right now, I find that somewhat unlikely. But let me add one more point there, because I think the conversation should be careful not to only think that the only way to actually make them come to the table or be capable of making a deal is when we are maximizing pressure.
PARSIBecause in May 2010, and I describe this in detail in my book, the Turks and the Brazilians actually intervened and engaged in their own diplomacy. And in that episode, they actually managed to get the Iranians to agree to a deal, and they were very clever in how they did it and assessed that they engaged all different factions of the Iranian government and that reduced the likelihood of various factions trying to undermine it. So then you have a scenario in which actually diplomacy did work, and it didn't work because of any threats, but it worked because of an opportunity.
PARSIAnd I think we should study those examples a little bit more carefully because when we have the world's largest and best hammer, we may end up thinking that all problems need to be resolved through everything looks like a nail for us.
NNAMDIStudying is so difficult in the middle of an election campaign. We've got debates to watch. Here's Barbara Slavin.
SLAVINTwo points. First of all, Trita, there was a threat hanging over Iran. That was that they knew that the UN Security Council was about to vote through...
SLAVINSo, you know, and I agree with Colin that pressure is very important, but the problem I have with the Obama Administration is that I see a reluctance to tie, you know, diplomatic proposals to sanctions relief. So there is still no there there for the Iranians. They need to have something that they can defend to their people and say, okay, we agreed to do X in return for Y. Just having another conversation among the P5 plus 1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany is not gonna do it, and I think the United States and Iran need to talk outside this multilateral framework which I think frankly has proven to be a complete failure.
KAHLI mean, I think the administration has crafted a general picture which is that if Iran addresses the concerns the international community has over its program as instantiated by the UN Security Council resolutions, that effectively the pressure would be lifted. But in terms of specific sanctions relief, to my mind, that can't be a precondition to entering the negotiation. It has to be an outcome of the negotiation. So of course the administration hasn't put all their cards on the table yet, because they haven't sat across from the Iranians to have a significant conversation.
NNAMDIMore dice to roll.
PARSI...is absolutely right. It can't be a precondition. It has to be an outcome. But here is where I think we have a credibility problem. I don't think there's any credibility, at least the Iranians don't view us having any credibility if we were to say, well, if you change your behavior here, we will lift sanctions. Part of the reason for that is because the U.S. sanctions, unlike the European sanctions, are adopted through Congress, not through the executive branches.
PARSICongress has no track record of quickly lifting sanctions. So the transaction doesn't become, well, you do this and we do that. It becomes, you do this and we may within the next decade do that. That's not a very credible negotiating position to start off from.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll try to get to your calls. If you've called, say on the line. The lines are busy. You can go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Barbara Slavin, senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and author of the book "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation." It's a conversation about Iran and the U.S., Iran, and much of the rest of the world as a matter of fact. Also with is Colin Kahl, professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He's a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011.
NNAMDITrita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council, and author of the book "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." We got an email from Tom in Takoma Park who says, "What would prevent Iran from giving Hezbollah or other surrogate terrorists a nuclear device to use against Israel? Such an action would pose a dilemma for the U.S. How would respond?" And then here is Claire in Woodbridge, Va. Claire, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAIREHi, Kojo. Would you please ask your guests to comment on the December 2011 ruling out of the Southern District of New York by Judge George Daniels in the Havlish case, which found Iran responsible for providing direct and material support to al-Qaida in the attacks of 9/11?
NNAMDIWho cares to start? Barbara?
SLAVINI don't think Iran is going to give a nuclear device to Hezbollah. It's paid an enormous price to get as far as it's gotten, and if it were ever able to develop to nuclear device, I think it would definitely keep it for itself. In terms of that court case, the 9/11 Commission found that Iran has indeed had contacts with al-Qaida over the years, but there is no evidence that Iran was aware of the 9/11 plot before it happened, and so I think that the testimony in that case was a little bit suspect.
NNAMDIWhat is your own thinking about it, Claire?
CLAIREI'm sorry, please say that again.
NNAMDIWhat is your own thinking about that judgment?
CLAIREWell, to provide full disclosure to you and your witnesses -- your listeners, I was one of the expert witnesses who wrote -- co-authored one of the affidavits in that case, and I've reviewed all of the evidence. I have listened to 25 hours of taped testimony from three Iranian defectors out of the IRGC and the Intelligence Services, and I have to say that Judge George Daniels was very thorough in his judgment. You can find all the documents by the way...
CLAIRE…. (unintelligible) look at them.
NNAMDI...you know what would cause people some concern Claire. It was...
NNAMDIWhat would cause people some concern is that they'll say, that's exactly how we got into Iraq and then, oops, it turned out to be wrong.
CLAIREWell, I would suggest your listeners take a look at www.iran911case.com, where all the documents, as well as the judge's ruling may be found online.
NNAMDIOkay, Claire. Thank you very much for your call. Colin?
KAHLI want to return to the Hezbollah situation.
KAHLI think Barbara's absolutely right. Actually, very few analysts who have looked at this seriously and looked at the history of proliferation believe that Iran would pass a nuclear weapon to a non-state actor, including a close ally like Hezbollah. The greater concern as it relates to Hezbollah's activity is more that Iran would in essence extend a nuclear umbrella over Hezbollah's activities.
KAHLRight now, Iran provides very sophisticated weaponry, usually through the Syrians to Hezbollah, but they do respect certain redlines, certain redlines of ours, certain redlines of the Israelis, because they don't want to do something that creates a confrontation between Israel and Iran. If they were to have nuclear weapon, they might be willing to push the envelope on that significantly further figuring that any crisis would turn into effect the Cuban Missile Crisis and so they could deter the Israelis in that context.
KAHLSo there is a challenge that a nuclear Iran would be emboldened to use it proxies in very destabilizing ways.
PARSII would agree with Colin there, and I think this is one of the examples of how we sometimes just create a hysteria and this discourse, and we throw out the wildest, most unlikely scenarios, and then we scare ourselves into taking quite irrational action. There -- If the Iranians had any incentives to share that type of a weapon which they, A, first of all, don't even have, with Hezbollah, then one has to ask ourselves, why hasn't there been any sharing of chemical or biological weapons which they most likely already do have.
PARSIBottom line is usually powers don't share doomsday's weapons with their proxies, because that fundamentally changes the relationship between who is the higher power and which one is the proxy. So but we have to be careful in not permitting these type of doomsday scenarios being the guiding principles and the basic assumptions of our conversations, because that's exactly how we got into Iraq in the first place, as you mentioned.
NNAMDIHere is Dave in Silver Spring, Md. Dave, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVEYeah. Couple points. One, one of your panelists talked about hegemony, and I think we have to remember that Iran already has a nuclear-powered neighbor in Pakistan. So they are perhaps trying to get some parity in the neighborhood. Second, if you believe in the Second Amendment and that nations, in essence, have the right to defend themselves with whatever weapons they can develop, there's nothing logical about saying Iran can't have nuclear weapons.
DAVEWe have them, and a whole lot of other countries do. For 40 years, we stood down the Soviet Union which posed a much greater threat to us, and had thousands of nuclear weapons aimed at us, and we never had a problem. Frankly, I think that if Iran had nuclear weapons that the population of Iran, and their thinking in terms of their political decisions, would be to select rational and moderate leaders who would not likely put the country at risk of a nuclear counter attack or vengeance attack if their nuclear weapons somehow were used in a way that the populations doesn't approve of.
KAHLYeah. I mean, I think in this case, Iran doesn't have a right to nuclear weapons because they've signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. So even if the caller's premise about the Second Amendment doesn't apply to Iran. They're obligated under international law not to have nuclear weapons. The Obama administration's policy has been they have a right to peaceful nuclear energy, but they have an obligation to address the concerns that their program isn't peaceful. So that's the difference.
KAHLI think that there isn't a strong argument for the case that Iran would actually use its nuclear weapons. It can be deterred probably from using its nuclear weapons against the United States, Europe, or Israel because of the threat of mutually sure destruction. Nor are they likely to pass the nuclear weapons off to their friends. But there are a number of other second and third order consequences that are real, that aren't hysteria. I think that this notion of emboldened proxies is a real threat.
KAHLI think the notion that countries like Saudi Arabia might acquire a nuclear weapon perhaps from Pakistan or somewhere else, or that Egypt or Turkey might go down that route is something we have to worry about, and then the last point is, that there's a real challenge that a nuclear Iran would enter a very unstable crisis-prone and miscalculation prone nuclear competition with Israel. And if you think we're troubled about the prospect of Israel attacking a conventional Iran, an unstable competition between Israel and a nuclear Iran would be very bad for the region.
NNAMDIIran treatise says it's willing to negotiate again with a group of six world powers and you've said the contours of an agreement with Iran are clear. The only question is how to get there. What would an ideal agreement look like?
PARSIIn my assessment, this is actually somewhat similar to another major conflict in the Middle East in which most people are working on it have a decent idea what the final product's gonna look like, but it's just that it's very, very difficult to get there because of political constraints, and I'm referring to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
NNAMDIThe two-state solution.
PARSITwo-state solution. I think in the Iranian case, I think the likelihood of being able to push for a zero enrichment objective, meaning that we would completely deprive the Iranians of any enrichment activity, is essentially -- that train has passed, and it passed quite some time ago. At this stage, our best bet is to put inspections, verification, and things of that nature at the center of a solution, and try to get the additional protocol to be ratified by the Iranians, make sure that there's a 24-hour presence of the IEA in Iran that the IEA can make spot inspections at non-disclosed sites, et cetera.
PARSIThat will create the best possible firewall between a peaceful Iranian program and a non-peaceful program. But that would mean that we would have to make a compromise on the idea that the Iranians can have enrichment on their soil, and here there's a problem, because I think there is a split in the Obama administration. Certain elements they are willing to make that exchange, but there's other who may have a more hard line view, and certainly there are others in the P5 plus 1 that have a very hard line view, the French in particular are very much opposed to this idea.
PARSIAnd this is part of the reason why we've ended up in a situation in which there isn't much of a consensus within the P5 plus 1 about what the end game should be, or even what the strategy should be. The only thing that we can have a consensus on, occasionally at least, is a tactic, and that tactic is sanctions. That's part of the reason why there is such a sanction-centric approach, because that's the one way of making sure that the P5 plus 1 is unified, and that the Iranians cannot split the P5 plus 1. It's become the organizing principle on how we manage the P5 plus 1.
NNAMDIColin, how do you see events playing out over the next couple of months or so? Will all sides be able to back down from their rhetoric and move toward negotiations, real serious negotiations?
KAHLI think it's an open question. I think that what you're hearing out of what the Turks are trying to broker is some willingness on both sides to sit down. But, you know, the west is putting some pretty stringent demands on Iran in writing, committing to actually talk about their nuclear program, because the problem was the last time Iran sat down with the P5 plus 1 about a year ago, they wanted to talk about everything but their nuclear program.
KAHLAnd whatever one thinks why Iran is doing what it's doing, it does like to use negotiations to delay additional pressure, which they don't like, and to divide the international community. So negotiations themselves have some risk unless you have some prospect that they're actually gonna be fruitful. So I think that if the administration can be convinced that Iran will actually talk about the nuclear file at these negotiations, then I have every expectation that some talks are possible.
SLAVINYeah. I agree, and I'm very hopeful that we will at least see some talks, and I would also hope that we will not see any more assassinations for while because I certainly don't think that helps the environment.
NNAMDIHere's Peggy in Olney, Md., speaking of assassinations. Peggy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PEGGYThank you for taking my call. I was concerned about that. You were just talking about tactics. That's kind of an Israeli tactic, you know. They started (word?) with the assassinations with the Palestinians, and now it seems they're doing the same thing with the Iranian scientists, you know. If we're gonna sit down and negotiate, they're doing the thing where you can't talk about the pie if you're eating the pie while you're talking about it, or killing all the scientists while you're trying to negotiate. They're inflaming the situation.
PEGGYAnd how does that affect our response?
NNAMDIWe have two responses to that in the minute or so we have left. First you, Barbara Slavin, and then Trita.
SLAVINYeah. One of the things we've been demanding is that Iran answer questions about nuclear research, research into weapons, into actually making a weapon. Now, if you're an Iranian scientist, would you come forward not and talk to the IAEA when there's a possibility that you might be assassinated on the way, or somehow fingered for assassination?
NNAMDIAnd you, Trita?
PARSIThere is a very concerning pattern in these assassinations, and that is that at least on a few occasions they have actually preceded scheduled talks. And mindful of the fact that the Israelis have been on the record for quite some time of being fearful of negotiations, and being very skeptical about them, there is a suspicion that perhaps if they are the culprits here, this is design in order to make sure that talks actually don't take place.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have, because the assassins did not come forward and take credit or blame for their action. We still can't be sure who's behind it. But Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council, and author of the book "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and author of the book "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation."
NNAMDIAnd Colin Kahl is a professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He's a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. Thank you all or joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi
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