NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. While Syria is the crisis of the moment in the Middle East, Iran looms as an even more difficult challenge in the months ahead. And these two issues are not unconnected. Iran remains the most important ally of President Assad in Damascus, and the survival of his regime is critical to Iran's larger struggle with its Arab rivals.
But the issue that may trigger conflict is Iran's nuclear program. While diplomacy inches ahead, Iran's centrifuges continue to enrich uranium, and both the United States and Israel say time is not unlimited. A recent report undersigned by a number of former officials argues that sanctions may have become counterproductive. Others think it's time or nearly time to consider a military strike.
Later in the program, on the Opinion Page this week, did the Boston police let their guard down before the bombs exploded two weeks ago? But we begin with David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. His book "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power" is out now in paperback. He joins us from member station WAMU here in Washington. And David, always good to have you with us.
DAVID SANGER: Great to be back with you, Neal.
CONAN: And to return to the connections between Syria and Iran for just a moment, the president says he needs conclusive evidence before he concludes that Syria crossed his red line on chemical weapons. Many senior Republicans say it's clear that line has already been crossed, and failure to act sends a message to Iran that U.S. warnings can be ignored.
SANGER: Well, certainly there is a risk that if a president sets a red line, and then it is crossed, all sorts of other adversaries and potential adversaries look at that and take the president's measure. It's not a problem new to President Obama. You may remember that it was President Bush who said repeatedly he would never tolerate a nuclear North Korea.
Well, the nuclear test came in 2006, and I remember going off to interview him at some point shortly after that, and I said you'd never tolerate - you said you'd never tolerate a nuclear North Korea. He said I'm not tolerating it; we're doing sanctions.
Well, since that time North Korea's set off, what, two more nuclear tests and a number of missile tests. So I think that all presidents, when confronted with somebody transgressing their red line, begin to say, well I didn't say what I would go do. And President Obama finds himself with Syria in the same position that President Bush did with North Korea, which is that he can't imagine a scenario in which you could land American troops on the ground and not turn the whole country against him.
And of course that's exactly what he's trying to avoid doing at a time that Bashar al-Assad is fighting a civil war. Even the Israelis, and I was in Israel all last week, who revealed some of the evidence ahead of the Americans to indicate that Sarin gas had been used, they're not pushing very hard for the president to take military action because they want to save that card, if they need to use it, for Iran.
CONAN: And your colleague there in Jerusalem reported this morning that the Israelis think, well, the red line in Syria has nothing to do with that red line in Iran.
SANGER: Well, of course to the Iranians it probably has something to do with it. Now, the fact of the matter is that when it comes to red lines, the Israelis are in no better shape than the United States. By the count that Graham Allison of Harvard has taken and a great chart he's put together, the Israelis have moved their red line on Iran's nuclear program about seven or eight times over the past 15 years, things they said they could never tolerate the Iranians doing, and then the Iranians turned around and did them.
But as you suggested in the opening, at this point there is some optimism among American and Israeli officials that the sanctions that they have put in place and that the Europeans have put in place are really beginning to bite into the core of the Iranian economy, which is to say their oil import revenues.
And their revenues were, over the past month or so, were some of the lowest they've seen in nearly a quarter century. So the question is: Can that pressure actually affect the nuclear decision-making? And so far it hasn't.
CONAN: So far it hasn't. There's nothing to suggest in the various negotiations, there's been, well, procedural advances here and there, but on substance there seems to be no shift whatsoever.
SANGER: On substance this has gone absolutely nowhere. There was early optimism at the beginning of the year that the Iranians suggested that some elements of the proposal that the United States had put in place, which was to close the one facility that is the best protected, it's called Fordo, it's deep in a mountain in Iran, and it's where they're producing the kind of fuel that you could convert to weapons grade most quickly, and ship that fuel out of the country and do - take a number of other steps that would result in a gradual lifting of sanctions; the Iranians had initially indicated that might be the basis of a conversation.
At their most recent set of negotiations, which were about three weeks ago, they basically went nowhere with that idea. And so we're sort of back where we were, which is that the Iranian capability is built up considerable and has recovered from something that I deal with at length in "Confront and Conceal," which was the cyberwarfare program against the Iranian enrichment effort.
This was what's commonly known as the Stuxnet virus, which was unleashed starting in 2008, 2009, and then because of a technical error became public in 2010. And if you look at the Iranian production records on nuclear fuel, you'll see a dip in 2010, but they've gotten past that now, and they are clearly moving ahead to produce their fuel at a pretty rapid clip.
CONAN: And there is, during the president's recent visit to Israel, seeming agreement between Washington and Jerusalem that the red line still has some months left to run.
SANGER: Well that's true, but you have to remember that the Israelis and the Americans still define their red lines differently. President Obama has said repeatedly that he would not let Iran get a nuclear weapon on his watch. He has been less specific on the question of whether they could get a nuclear capability, and the difference is important.
A capability means the ability to go produce a weapon in fairly short order, even if you haven't turned the last screws. The Israeli red line is really set at the production of fuel, because their view is that once you've got the fuel in hand, actually producing a weapon can be done in a room basically the size of your radio studio and that you'd never see it.
And as a result, you would have to stop the Iranians before they got to that capability. I think during President Obama's visit with Prime Minister Netanyahu, they narrowed the gap there. President Obama is beginning to talk about stopping Iran before it actually got to the final weapons stage. But I don't think they're quite in the same place yet.
CONAN: Well, let's talk about various options. Joining us now is Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She's with us from her office here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.
JESSICA MATHEWS: Thanks, Neal, good to be here.
CONAN: You signed a report by the Iran Project which urges the White House to rethink its sanctions against Iran, which you argue may be becoming counterproductive even as they truly begin to bite?
MATHEWS: Well, I wouldn't have described it that way. I think what it does do is it illustrates the enormous complexity of this tremendous number of sanctions that are imposed both by the U.S. and by the U.N. and by executive order and by Congress, how complicated it is. But for me, the central point is that sanctions aren't self-executing. They don't work absent a negotiating strategy to use them with.
And that means you have to be clear about what steps on the Iranian part would induce you to raise which sanctions. If you don't do that, if your political system is allergic to that and is frozen against it, then sanctions can in fact be self-defeating because then the other side says, well, it doesn't matter what I do, I'm just going to be facing this same set of problems.
CONAN: Well in that case you're talking about political paralysis at the congressional level that no matter what the president does, Congress is going to impose sanctions?
MATHEWS: Well, particularly at the presidential level, but I think that's more broadly applied to both the whole - to the whole American public. We are not clear in the United States about what our goal is in Iran, and we need to be much clearer about whether it has to do just with nuclear issues or whether it also has to do with human rights, Iran's behavior in Lebanon, Iran's support of Hezbollah and indeed regime change, which is the usually unstated goal of some people.
CONAN: And Iran's support of the Syrian president as well.
MATHEWS: Yeah, of course.
CONAN: And as we go through all of that, that litany, though, isn't that the essence of negotiation, you sit in a room with somebody and say, if you do this, we will do that, you don't give away your position ahead of time?
MATHEWS: No, but you have to know what it is you would do, what you're - you know, what you're prepared to do, and at times say that. Otherwise having the sanctions just holds you back. They can bring somebody to the table. As David said, these things are really starting to hurt the Iranian economy.
But they can't get you to agreement unless you're prepared to say this for that, this - you know, this action will produce this response on our part.
CONAN: And doesn't that take two parties, though, the Iranians to say we will do this in exchange for that?
MATHEWS: There's no question it does, and we haven't seen that kind of flexibility or preparedness on their part. But that doesn't excuse us from the need on our part. I mean it is so easy to say the Iranians are impossible, they're so hard to negotiate with, they don't really want an agreement. Some or all of that may be true. But unless we're prepared to deal on our side, we're not going to get anywhere. And...
CONAN: So unless we're prepared to hear at some point, yes, we can't start negotiation?
MATHEWS: Not start but succeed. I think there are two issues here on our part. One is: What sanctions would we be prepared to lift in exchange for what action on the Iranian side? That's the first one. And number two, which maybe is at least equally important, is we have to recognize that they are going to demand and to keep the right to enrich uranium in the context of a demonstrably peaceful program.
And, you know, their argument has been for years the non-proliferation treaty gives them the right to enrich. Well, it doesn't give them the right to enrich, it gives them the right to enrich in a peaceful program and for peaceful purposes, and they cannot show that their program has been peaceful because there are 17 years of violations of the IAEA, et cetera.
So - but we have to recognize that there is no way to yes unless we're prepared to allow enrichment under proper safeguards.
CONAN: David Sanger and Jessica Mathews will stay with us. After a short break, we'll address another idea for dealing with Iran: attack. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. The IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, says it cannot accept Iran's insistence that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes without more information. In particular, the IAEA wants access to Parchin, a military base southeast of Tehran. The IAEA, the CIA and others suspect Iran's scientists there have conducted a series of experiments to develop various non-nuclear technologies needed to create an atomic bomb.
Recent satellite photography shows big changes in the landscape there -buildings torn down, roads pulled up - that suggest to some that Iran has something to hide. IAEA inspectors want in. The Iranians say it's a no-go. Nuclear inspectors get to inspect nuclear sites, and Parchin, a military complex, does not fit that bill.
David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, and Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, are our guests. Joining us now in Studio 42 is Matthew Kroenig. He's a professor of government at Georgetown University, a former advisor on Iran policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. His article "Time to Attack Iran" is in the January issue of Foreign Affairs. Nice to have you back on the program.
MATTHEW KROENIG: It's a pleasure to be here.
CONAN: And as we look at this timetable, there are - at least by most accounts - months still left for sanctions and diplomacy before Iran is ready to produce nuclear weapons.
KROENIG: That's correct. So David spoke before about the red lines. And I think something that's important to point out is that the U.S. military option is really only good for preventing Iran from producing the fuel, because right now, we can bomb Iran's nuclear facilities to prevent them from enriching uranium. But once they have the sufficient enriched uranium, the game's over, because at that point, our only military option would be invading the country, overthrowing the government, searching the entire country for enriched uranium, which obviously isn't a good option, isn't an option that any president would consider anytime soon.
So the question is: How long until Iran has enough highly enriched uranium for one, or a small arsenal? And right now, the best estimates are, depending on Iran's behavior, we have somewhere between two and 14 months.
CONAN: Two and 14 months. That's obviously a pretty big window, and alarmists can, well, be alarmed, Matthew Kroening.
KROENIG: Yeah. It is a big window, and it does depend on Iran's behavior, to some degree. So the best estimates are that right now, if Iran made the decision to enrich from 20 percent to 90 percent, that it take them two months or so to produce one bomb's worth of material. But the problem is that even if they don't make that decision, they're putting more centrifuges online. Their stockpiles of low-enriched uranium are increasing. They're putting more advanced centrifuges online.
So all of these things are shrinking their dash-time to a weapon. And at some point, their ability to dash to the first weapon will be shorter than our timeline to respond, which also creates a decision point. And I think that's the 14-month window that people are looking at.
CONAN: David Sanger, to get back to red lines, does anybody consider that one nuclear weapon, even a handful of nuclear weapons is a significant change?
SANGER: Well, it's a significant psychological change, because at that moment, the president's ultimate red line - which is that he wouldn't allow Iran to become a nuclear weapon state, has been passed. But as a practical matter, one nuclear weapon doesn't do you a lot of good. Think about the North Koreans, in this particular case.
They only began to test once they amassed enough fuel to make six or seven, because if you only have enough fuel for one, and you set it off in the test, you're obviously - have left yourself pretty vulnerable. So the Iranians, even if they intend to go make a weapon - and, of course, they deny that that is at all their goal - they would not simply go off and do a single one. And I think that's why the point that is being made that you would - they would want to have a short dash time to a small arsenal of weapons is the right one.
Now, I was at the IAEA just about a week ago, and I sat down with them and went through the report that they turned out in November of 2011 that looked at what they called possible military dimensions of the program. And that is to say all the questions that they've raised to the Iranians about work that would only be explained by working on weapons - you know, working on nuclear triggers or other elements that you wouldn't use in a civilian power program, but you would use in a weapons program.
They turned that list public in 2011, at the end of 2011, in the hopes that that would sort of embarrass the Iranians into answering their questions. That didn't work. And I think their big fear right now is that they're simply not going to get the answers to those questions, and so there are two big mysteries here.
One of them is: How long will it take Iran to produce enough fuel to build a handful of weapons? The second one is: Do they have the technology now to produce a weapon that you could fit on a missile? And the answer to that seems to be probably not. It's unclear whether it would take them a year or two years or three years to get that.
CONAN: And let's go back to Matthew Kroenig, and the implications of an attack on Iran are so difficult. There would be repercussions from Lebanon to the Persian Gulf that people say, look, we have to give diplomacy and sanctions every chance to succeed before we even consider this.
KROENIG: Yeah, well, I think it would be helpful to take a step back and look at all the possible options. So there are really only three possible outcomes to this crisis. First, we could get a diplomatic settlement. Second, we could simply acquiesce to a nuclear-armed Iran, or third, the United States or Israel could take military action.
And now, clearly, if we could solve this diplomatically, come to some kind of mutually satisfactory diplomatic settlement, that would be best. I just think that that is unlikely, and the window for diplomacy is closing, as the president has said many times.
So when the window finally closes, that means that the United States is going to have this difficult choice between living with the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran for decades to come, or taking military action. And the president has said many times that he's made his decision, that he will use force if necessary to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. And I think that that's the right decision.
So the military option is not a good one. There are many risks and dangers, as you point out. But it's less-bad than living with the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran for the foreseeable future.
CONAN: Jessica Mathews, I wanted to bring you in on that point. Do you see the options the same way and the logic the same way?
MATHEWS: Well, they are, if you reduce them to the starkest outlines. But the real world never behaves that way. And I think this whole discussion, starting from your introduction with David Sanger, suggests a really important point, which are that red lines are a really lousy way to doing foreign policy, that the real world doesn't work like that.
I think what we can - the most important outcome would be that might be mutually acceptable at this point might well be that Iran has sort of an existential nuclear capability, but not an actual one or declared one. And that, while it is by no means a good outcome for us - it's a horrible outcome - is, in my view, much less horrible than the consequences of going to war.
CONAN: So when you say that, in other words, a situation where Iran has the - all the components to construct a deliverable nuclear weapons, or a number of them, but has not tested or done so.
MATHEWS: That's right. A lot of people call this the Japan option: Everything's there. It's sort of a screwdriver turn away. But - and there...
CONAN: And at that point, presumably, these sanctions - which are still going to be in effect - are still crippling Iran's economy.
MATHEWS: That's right, but - and again, they're only useful if you can use them to get some kind of a deal at the negotiating table. When - and the current Iranian government may not be capable of doing that. I entirely recognize it. But this is the first time that we have been able to engage the world, and it's an important achievement of this administration, in raising the cost in a really painful way to the Iranians, of pursuing this capability.
CONAN: David Sanger?
SANGER: Yeah, I wanted to just leap on Jessica's very good point about the Japan option. And I was the Times bureau chief in Japan for six years, and, you know, this would be perpetually debated back and forth. And in the end, the reason the world lives with the Japan option - and Japan's not the only country that has basically everything that they would need to go do it and the engineering talent, clearly, to build a weapon - is that the world's fairly confident in not only the political intent of the country, but that it's enough of an option society that you'd have a real sense if they were deciding to make the decision to go for a bomb.
I think the concern one hears about Iran is that we don't understand very much about how decisions are made. It's not a very transparent system. And so if a future leader in Iran decided to go produce a weapon, it's not clear whether or not the United States would know about it. And, of course, that's sort of what happened in the North Korean case.
Or they could slip into a case kind of like Pakistan, which was a case where we saw the capability for years, and then one day got taken by surprise when they actually did do a test. And I think that's the reason that the Japan option worries so many people when it comes to Iran.
CONAN: And Matthew Kroenig, it worries, in particular, Israel, for whom this is not an abstract question, but an existential one in the sense of its very life is at threat, at least it believes so.
KROENIG: Yes, so I think Jessica's right, that if we could get Iran to stay with the Japan model forever, indefinitely, that that would be an acceptable option. I just think there's really no reason to believe that Iran would stay at that level of capability. We know that Iran's strategic goals are to, first, be able to deter its adversaries, or Israel and the United States from attacking. And second, to be the most dominant state in the Middle East. This is something that they're very explicit about.
Getting nuclear weapons gives them both of those things. Having the Japan model, having a bunch of nuclear facilities does not allow them to deter foreign attack. It doesn't allow them to become the most dominant state in the Middle East. So I don't think that that's a sustainable solution to this problem.
CONAN: But if the other - at the same point, it doesn't prompt American and Israeli attack. It doesn't prompt Saudi Arabia and others perhaps to start nuclear weapons programs of their own, which could eventually threaten Iran.
KROENIG: That's right in the short term, but the concern would be that Iran wouldn't stay at that capability for the foreseeable future, that at some point they would have strong incentives to weaponize, and then we would be forced back into this terrible choice of acquiescing or taking action.
CONAN: With a much shorter timeline?
KROENIG: With a shorter timeline, presumably. I mean, the Iranians are doing some things to suggest that they might be willing to slow that timeline. They've threatened that they're going to deploy these more advanced centrifuges, but they haven't done that yet. They're not enriching above 20 percent yet. They're converting some of their 20 percent to fuel plates. So it all depends on Iranian behavior and how fast they push the nuclear program.
CONAN: And, Jessica Mathews, that brings us back to the diplomatic options, and you're suggesting that perhaps the United States - let me be clear, are you saying the United States should make these positions public? We're willing to do this for that?
MATHEWS: No. I mean, almost never is it because again you're forced back into that's the sort of diplomatic equivalent of red lines. You've got - you negotiate in private, but you have to be prepared politically to recognize when you've succeeded and to take steps to accommodate and to understand what the other side's bottom line is. And a big part of - let me be clear. We are not the major problem here. Iran is the major problem. But there is a big problem in U.S. policy, which is we have not become clear yet for ourselves or to them that we would accept enrichment under some appropriate conditions, very stringent conditions.
But we're going to have to do that if we have any hope both of sustaining a global sanctions regime and of getting some kind of Iranian agreement if they are prepared to deal.
CONAN: We're looking ahead to what may be a looming crisis with Iran. Our guests, Jessica Mathews - you just heard - is the president of the Carnegie - wrong piece of paper - president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She's with us here in Washington. Also Matthew Kroenig, professor of government at Georgetown University, former adviser on Iran policy in the Office of Secretary of Defense, and David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times, is with us.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And, David, let me ask you. In this context, is an Iranian ability to enrich acceptable to, well, some of the people - to the United States, to Israel, to the president's Republican critics?
SANGER: If you ask them in public, their answer would be no because the United Nations' resolutions all call for a full halt of enrichment. But when you ask them with microphones off, you get an answer much closer to what you just heard from Jessica, which is, of course, the world could live with a limited enrichment capability if Iran agreed that the amount that it would enrich each year was limited to X amount, and then it would ship out additional material that wasn't being used in civilian reactors or use it in some way - keep it in some form that it could not rapidly be turned into bomb fuel.
In other words, that the United States and its allies would have plenty of warning if it was being turned into bomb fuel, and that means very rigid inspections. But there are two issues, I think, our conversation has brought up. One of them is suggested by Jessica's very good explanation of the difficulties of doing the diplomacy here, which is the United States so far has done this in bits and slices, and it has never stepped back and said, here's what a grand bargain would look like of a total relationship between the United States and Iran.
And, of course, the two countries have a lot of interests in common. One of the reasons they haven't done that is that there's no confidence that the Iranian system could handle it. In other words, that the supreme leader who's presumably making all of the decisions here, Ayatollah Khamenei, would be prepared given his own mindset about his country's revolutionary agenda to take a total deal with the United States. But the second problem that's suggested by this is it's a lot easier to get Congress to approve putting new sanctions on. That's an easy vote for everybody. But getting Congress to then agree to back off on sanctions as the Iranians backed off, that would be more difficult.
CONAN: And, Matt Kroenig, as you look ahead to that possibility, it is extremely difficult, yet the other option, that military strike, and a lot of people say, look, it may not work, and at best, it will not destroy. It will delay Iran's nuclear program.
KROENIG: Well, that's absolutely correct that there's no guarantee that a strike would prevent Iran from developing - from ever developing nuclear weapons. But if we simply stand by while Iran builds nuclear weapons, we'll be guaranteed that they have nuclear weapons. So what a strike does is it creates space for a lot of things to happen where Iran ends up permanently without nuclear weapons. So there is a significant strategic benefit, and there are also costs and risks, as you pointed out.
But there's also a lot that the United States can do to manage and mitigate those risks. So it's not a good option. I would not say it's a good option. But again, when you compare that to the risks of living with a nuclear-armed Iran, including possible nuclear war against Israel and possible nuclear war against the United States, the Department of Defense estimates that Iran could have ballistic missiles capable of reaching the East Coast of the United States by 2015. So these are real serious dangers, and I think the military option while not a good option is something that we should do to prevent from Iran developing nuclear weapons.
CONAN: And Matthew Kroenig, thank you very much for your time today. Our thanks as well to Jessica Matthews of the - president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and David Sanger of The New York Times. We thank you all for your time. And this is, well, two to 14 months. This is an issue that's not going away. When we come back, the Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi on the Opinion Page this week, wondering if the Boston PD led its guard down, well, not after the bombs exploded but before the bombs exploded, Patriots' Day two weeks ago. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.