TOPICS > Politics

Threat from Tehran?

May 27, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: The suicide bombings that rocked foreign compounds in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, earlier this month put terrorism back on the radar screen. U.S. officials immediately suspected al-Qaida. And they immediately suspected the attacks were planned in, or directed from, Iran. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld:

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, I’ll leave the analysis to others, but just from a factual standpoint, there is no question but that there have been, and there are today, senior al-Qaida leaders in Iran. And they are busy.

GWEN IFILL: Administration officials and senior U.S. lawmakers have accused Tehran of harboring al-Qaida operatives. But Iran’s U.N. ambassador denies this. He says Iran has done its part to stem the tide of terrorism.

JAVAD ZARIF: We have probably captured more al-Qaida people in the past 14 months than any other country. We have had a number of al-Qaida people in custody, and we continue to keep them in detention and we continue to interrogate them. And once we have any information from them, we will pass them to friendly governments.

GWEN IFILL: But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said today, Iran has not done enough.

ARI FLEISCHER: The steps that the Iranians claim to have taken in terms of capturing al-Qaida are insufficient. It is important that Iran live up to its commitments and obligations not to harbor terrorists.

GWEN IFILL: The Bush administration also contends that Iran is developing nuclear weapons at facilities like this one. Iran says the plants are used to produce energy.

ARI FLEISCHER: They maintain that it’s for peaceful purposes, to produce fuel for civil nuclear reactors, but the United States rejects that argument as a cover story. Our strong position is that Iran is preparing instead to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

GWEN IFILL: The Bush administration also believes that Iranian Shiites may be trying to influence the future government of neighboring Iraq. Leaders of Iraq’s Shiite majority have vigorously protested the American presence in Iraq since the war ended last month.

Iran, a country of 66 million, slightly larger than Alaska, was one-third of President Bush’s “axis of evil.” The U.S. has had no diplomatic relationships with Iran since 1979, after Islamic fundamentalists overthrew the monarchy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on U.S. concerns about Iran, we’re joined by Flynt Leverett, a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Until recently, he served on the National Security Council. David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which helped identify secret nuclear sites in Iran. And Rob Sobhani, an adjunct professor of government at Georgetown University. He has written widely on the politics of the Middle East. Flynt Leverett, why Iran? Why now?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think there are two things that are driving the intensified concern about Iran. One is the issue of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Discoveries, disclosures that have been made over the last nine or ten months have led most knowledgeable observers inside and outside of government to conclude that Iran is much closer to having a nuclear weapons capability than we heretofore believed.

The other issue of course is terrorism. Iran has longstanding links to a number of international terrorist groups, most noticeably Hezbollah, but in addition there’s the more immediate problem of a small cell of al-Qaida operatives that appear to be holed up in north Eastern Iran, a fairly inaccessible part of the country.

GWEN IFILL: What is your sense about what the United States government should be doing about this, what approach it should be taking?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think our policy since September 11 toward Iran has been really a neither fish nor fowl policy. We’ve had a limited tactical dialogue with Iran about Afghanistan and to some degree about al-Qaida but we haven’t taken the next step up and had a real broad-based strategic dialogue with them.

At the same time, we also haven’t adopted a formal policy of regime change toward Tehran. Now I think there are people within the administration arguing that we should move toward a policy of regime change. I don’t think anyone in the administration is really making the case for broad-based strategic engagement, hard-nosed dialogue with Iran on the whole range of our issues of concern with them, and I think that’s a pity because I think that’s really the wisest course for our policy.

GWEN IFILL: Rob Sobhani, are we at a critical moment and what should the United States be doing?

ROB SOBHANI: I think we have an historic opportunity actually as it concerns Iran because you have the people of Iran who are now basically rejecting Islam as a form of government, not faith but as a form of government. And the irony is that Iran is an Islamic country. I think the opportunity for the United States is a very historic one. For the first time in 20-some years we have a nation, Iranians willing to get rid of their government. What we need to do is provide them moral support, economic support, diplomatic cover, and I believe that it would bode well not just for the Iranian people but certainly for the strategic, deep strategic interests of the United States as well.

GWEN IFILL: When you say get rid of the government and when Flynt Leverett alludes to regime change, what are you talking about? Are you talking about getting rid of the president of Iran, getting rid of the clerics who seem to have so much control? What do you mean and how?

ROB SOBHANI: I think one of the fundamental misconceptions in Washington has been that the dynamic inside Iran has been between the hard liners and moderates. The dynamic inside Iran is between the people of Iran and the government of Iran including its president. And, therefore, the policy should be to empower the people of Iran to set the course that they wish to choose, but we need to give them the moral support.

GWEN IFILL: David Albright one of the big questions in all of this as Flynt Leverett and as we said in our opening piece is Iran’s nuclear capability. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear capability at this point?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: The main thing we know is that they’re proceeding relatively rapidly with the capability to make a nuclear explosive material called highly enriched uranium. It’s made in uranium enrichment plants and it’s further along than people expected. It could be within a couple years of being within a capability of being able to make enough highly enriched uranium for one or two nuclear weapons a year.

GWEN IFILL: So what should the United States’ role be? We have seen that the care with which U.S. policy toward North Korea has been because of the possibility that they already possess nuclear arms. And yet there seems to be some opening for negotiating with Iran which appears to be on the way to having similar capabilities.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: In the short term, it’s very important for the United States to work with the international atomic energy agency to insist that Iran be fully transparent. In fact be more transparent than it’s required under various international agreements like the non-proliferation treaty.

So it’s very important, for example, when the Iranian opposition groups identify sites that the agency follow that up and that the United States be supportive of the agency in trying to get Iran to be completely transparent and then see what happens. I would say that it’s better to try to engage Iran. I mean, Iran may say, look, we’ll be transparent to a point. If you want us to be more transparent, then we want some agreement like you’ll let us finish some of our nuclear sites that are not as threatening.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about how one goes about engaging Iran. Colin Powell the secretary of state said today that the United States has contacts with Iran that will continue. What does that mean?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, as I said, since September 11, really going back before September 11, we’ve had a dialogue with Iran about Afghanistan in a multi-lateral framework at the United Nations.

GWEN IFILL: Moving toward reestablishing diplomatic relations?

FLYNT LEVERETT: No. We have kept it very focused on tactical issues pertaining to Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban regime, setting up a new political order in Afghanistan and some related issues like the problem of al-Qaida personnel transiting across Afghanistan’s western border into Iran.

We have not so far been willing to take it up to the next step where we would be willing to engage Iran on all of the issues of concern to both countries, for us most importantly the nuclear program and Iran’s ties to terrorist groups like Hezbollah. For the Iranians they would want to take up issues like economic sanctions on them, frozen assets here in the United States, and whether or not the United States is prepared to afford some legitimacy to Iranian security interests in the Persian Gulf.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sobhani, is that the correct approach?

ROB SOBHANI: I would argue that engaging any form of engagement with a government of Iran other than tactical would undermine the president’s message of hope and democracy for the people of Iran. The President of the United States rightly has identified two parts: The people of Iran and the government of Iran. And he has said repeatedly that we should support the people of Iran.

Any engagement with the government of Iran would only undermine the president’s message. We should not engage outside tactical issues with the government of Iran, and instead we should focus on the process of change that’s occurring today in Iran because the prize is enormous, both for the United States and the region: A secular, democratic, pro-American Iran would mean peace in the Persian Gulf. It would mean stability in Afghanistan. It would mean stability in Iraq. It would be an end to Iran’s nuclear program. It would immediately put an end to terrorism, and it would add weight to, in a positive way to the Arab-Israeli peace process, a democratic Iran I think is a better Iran as opposed to an Islamic Iran that we are trying to engage.

GWEN IFILL: But you believe that any kind of back channel discussions with people who are currently in power is not the way to go about this?

ROB SOBHANI: I think those back-channel discussions are used by the government of Iran to portray some sort of a relationship which in turn then deflates the hopes and aspirations of the people of Iran that the President of the United States has actually inflated by arguing that we are with the people of Iran. What I am arguing is that it’s all right to have tactical engagement with the government of Iran on core issues such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but beyond that we should make it clear that our policy is to engage the people of Iran and to invest in the people of Iran and democratic change.

GWEN IFILL: David Albright, on the nuclear issue, do we have any reason to believe as firmly as the White House has been saying that there’s not a chance that this nuclear activity is being used for peaceful purposes to create electricity?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, some of it would be. I mean if you look at the sheer size of the enrichment plant they’re building, it probably will be used for civil purposes, but it’s what else is going on is the concern. I think that it’s actually quite, in my mind because the clock is ticking I would say it’s more important to engage Iran on this and engage the government because maybe the government of Iran will fall. But maybe it won’t. Maybe a democratic Iran will want nuclear weapons. Democracies want nuclear weapons often more than totalitarian states. So I think that we need to come out with a practical set of incentives and disincentives to kind of steer the Iranian government away from nuclear weapons, away from terrorism and toward a more benign state that is integrated more in the international community.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Leverett?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think David has raised a very good point. My main concern about a policy of regime change toward Iran is that if it plays out, it won’t play out in a time frame that’s meaningful for us to get at our core policy concerns regarding Iran particularly the nuclear weapons program but also on terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: What’s a meaningful time frame?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, given the latest discoveries about Iran’s nuclear program, I know knowledgeable experts who watch this program every day who would say that it may be two years or less before Iran is capable of producing enough fissionable material to start building nuclear weapons.

GWEN IFILL: Is that your sense as well, Mr. Sobhani?

ROB SOBHANI: I would agree with Flynt. I think the experts on this issue are correct in terms of the time frame, but I would also argue that the people of Iran demonstrated in 1977-78 that they can get rid of their own governments within the span of several months. If the United States adopts a robust policy of empowering the people of Iran and make it very clear that that is our goal, I think that we will see a change in government in Iran peacefully through a referendum within the next two years and it might very well end up helping us instead of hurting us.

GWEN IFILL: Let me jump on that. You said a couple of times that the United States’ approach should be empowering the people of Iran. Does it matter who the United States is empowering? For instance, in Iraq there’s been some concern that members, leaders of the Shiite majority from Iran are coming and basically making it more difficult to set up an interim government in Iraq. Are those same people, those same individuals going to create a problem for any kind of engagement in Iran?

ROB SOBHANI: The dynamic inside Iran is very different from Iraq. Iraq was a totalitarian government. In Iran, people have access to satellite television. They listen to the Voice of America. They listen to Radio Freedom. They listen to the BBC and Radio Israel. So Iran is a much more engaged society. The Iranian people are a much more engaged society.

Therefore, when the president speaks, they listen. When the secretary of state speaks, they listen. I think what they’re looking for is no ambiguity on our part. They’re looking for a robust policy. And that will then translate into street demonstrations and hopefully, as I said, a peaceful transition that we can then, as Flynt mentioned address the core issues we’re concerned about, the nuclear issue and terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Sobhani, Mr. Leverett, and Mr. Albright, thank you all very much.