Tensions High Over Iran Nuclear Program
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MARGARET WARNER: The tug-of-war over Iran’s nuclear program has escalated these last 10 days, from the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to U.N. Security Council diplomats in New York.
And the war of words between Washington and Tehran has escalated, too. Last Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney said the U.S. would not stand by and let Iran acquire nuclear weapons.
RICHARD CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: The Iranian regime needs to know that, if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences. For our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime.
MARGARET WARNER: On Wednesday, Iran’s delegate to the IAEA shot back with a threat.
JAVAD VAEIDI, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council: The United States may have the power to cause harm and pain, but it is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if the United States wishes to choose that path, let the ball roll.
MARGARET WARNER: The next day brought bellicose words from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “They are not capable of causing the least harm to Iranian people; they will suffer more,” he said. “Enemies cannot force the Iranian people to relinquish their rights. The era of bullying and brutality is over.”
That same day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate hearing that Iran represents a major threat, and for more than its nuclear program.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran, whose policies are directed at developing a Middle East that would be 180 degrees different than the Middle East we would like to see develop.
MARGARET WARNER: That prompted a pointed question from Democratic Senator Robert Byrd to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Do you contemplate that any funds in this supplemental appropriations request bill will be used to plan an attack on Iran or to carry out an attack on Iran?
DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. Secretary of Defense: Senator Byrd, I know of no plans to attack Iran, if that’s the thrust of the question. With respect to attacks on Iran, I would reverse it. At the present time, Iran is inserting people into Iraq and doing things that are damaging and dangerous to our forces there.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD: Well, I think that the response is generally along the line of responses that I received when I asked a few years ago if we had any plans to go into Iraq. I’m interested in pressing this question once more: Will any funds in this supplemental appropriations request be used to plan or to carry out an attack on Iran?
DONALD RUMSFELD: I don’t know how I could answer it any better than I did.
General Pace, do you want to see if you can respond in a way that is more fulfilling?
GEN. PETER PACE, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: Sir, the answer is no, sir, with inside the borders of Iran, but if there are Iranians fighting against us in Iraq, then of course we would treat them like the enemy in Iraq.
MARGARET WARNER: Last Friday, President Bush raised yet another point in the administration’s bill of particulars against Iran.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The Iranian president has stated his desire to destroy our ally, Israel. So when you start listening to what he has said to their desire to develop a nuclear weapon, then you begin to see an issue of grave national security concern.
MARGARET WARNER: But at a rally yesterday, Iranian President Ahmadinejad was defiant.
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): Rest assured that the technology to produce nuclear fuel today is in the hands of the youth of this land, and no power can take it back from us.
MARGARET WARNER: Despite Tehran’s tough words, the U.S. is pressing this week for a Security Council statement demanding Iran suspend all enrichment-related activities and cooperate more with the IAEA.
So what’s behind the recent exchanges of hot rhetoric between Iran and the U.S. and where might it lead? We get two views. Aaron Friedberg was deputy assistant for national security affairs and director of policy planning for Vice President Cheney from 2003 to 2005. He’s now a professor of politics and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.
And Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His book, “Hidden Iran: Power and Paradox in the Islamic Republic,” is due out soon. He was born in Iran and is now a U.S. citizen.
Welcome, gentlemen, both of you.
Aaron Friedberg, what is behind this escalating rhetoric? Is this just posturing around the nuclear standoff up at the U.N. or are tensions really rising?
AARON FRIEDBERG, Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University: Well, I think the rhetoric is heating up because the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program has been heating up in the last couple of months.
The Iranians have pulled back from discussions they were having with the Europeans, declared their intention to go ahead with uranium enrichment activities. And now the issue has been referred to the U.N. Security Council, as suggested in your set-up piece.
So the issue is moving towards some kind of confrontation and resolution. I think that’s a large part of why we’re hearing more rhetoric. But there’s a wider set of issues and has been for some time between the United States and Iran over the future of the Middle East, over Iran’s role in Iraq, over Iran’s support for terrorism, and so on.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you see it the same way, Ray Takeyh, that, one, the tensions really are rising and, two, that it is about more than this nuclear issue?
RAY TAKEYH, Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, some degree of incendiary rhetoric has always been part of U.S.-Iran relations.
MARGARET WARNER: Right, since the hostage crisis in ’79.
RAY TAKEYH: Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranians have routinely depicted the United States as a great Satan, and the Bush administration, with its axis of evil and outposts of tyranny and so on, so this has been a larger sort of canvas that these two countries have played on.
But certainly the more defiant rhetoric is coming out of Iran, I think, reflects certain determinations that the regime has made, mainly that its existing nuclear program is irreversible, that the type of activities that it has, in terms of its uranium-enrichment activities in the towns and others, are no longer subject to reversal through negotiations.
And those are the compromises and concessions that the regime is no longer prepared to make. Now, there might be certain arrangements from here on, regarding the scope and extent of that program, but essentially what’s the facts that have been created on the ground are no longer going to be foreclosed and reversed.
MARGARET WARNER: And why are they declaring that defiance to the world?
RAY TAKEYH: Well, it has to do, I think, with some of that incendiary rhetoric that’s coming out. It’s actually designed to divide the international community, mainly to suggest to Europeans, and the Russians, and the Chinese that excessive solidarity with the United States might entangle them into a confrontation that they may not be prepared for because it has economic consequences, political consequences, and so on. So it’s actually the audience for that may not necessarily be the United States, per se, but the Europeans and others to sort of step back from the wholehearted support for the United States policy of Security Council sanctions and confrontation.
MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Friedberg, on the U.S. side, what is behind the tough rhetoric? Does the U.S. administration, as you know, think that this rhetoric will make Iran cave on the nuclear issue?
AARON FRIEDBERG: No, I don’t think it’s directed primarily at the Iranian regime, except to the extent that it’s meant to signal our seriousness and our resolve, I think much as is true of the Iranians.
What we’re doing is signaling to other parties, and particularly the Europeans, but I think also the Russians and Chinese, that we feel this issue has dragged on long enough and the time has come to move towards some kind of resolution.
I’d say also, although it’s not part of the incendiary rhetoric and it’s not entirely new, the United States leaders in the U.S. and also in Britain have been talking more and more openly again about the necessity of political reform in Iran and the importance of supporting democratic movements in Iran over the long term.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you for a minute. Also, parse for us what Secretary Rice said last week, because she said no greater challenge — that the U.S. faces no greater challenge from a single country than Iran. And she talked about Iran wants to develop a Middle East that is 180 degrees different from what the U.S. wants.
One, were you surprised to see her kind of raise Iran to that status, in terms of threats? And, two, what is she really talking about in the Middle East? What does she think Iran is up to, in a broad sense there?
AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, I wasn’t surprised to hear it. I think this is something that people have been saying and have been concerned about for some time in the government and outside. But she did raise the rhetoric, raise this issue to an even higher degree.
I think what she’s talking about is a whole array of things: the possibility that this Iranian regime could get nuclear weapons; the fact that it’s threatened to destroy Israel; the fact that it supports terrorism and may now step up to support a Hamas government in the Palestinian territory; the fact that it’s been involved over time and seems to be more so in Iraq.
It is threatened by an effort on the part of the United States and others to promote democratic reform in the Middle East and wants to see those efforts fail. And it has had ambitions for some time to be the dominant player in the Persian Gulf.
MARGARET WARNER: That fits in, does it not, Ray Takeyh, with something President Ahmadinejad said last week, which is — he said they’re just using the nuclear issue as an excuse. What is the mindset there? Does Iran think that the U.S. just wants to keep it in a box, keep it from asserting its sort of historic importance in the region?
RAY TAKEYH: Well, the nuclear issue as such has changed in Iran. You no longer hear them debate the nuclear issue as a means of achieving deterrence, but increasingly, really across the political spectrum, they’re suggesting that it’s not about the nuclear issue but the character of the regime, that if it wasn’t, and Iranian say particularly, if it wasn’t for nuclear issue, the United States would try to use another issue to isolate and coerce Iran.
And therefore, why make any concession on the nuclear issue, because that will not measurably relieve the pressure?
MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, does the U.S. have reason — does Iran have sort of expansionist designs in the Middle East, want to push the U.S. out of the region and replace the U.S.?
RAY TAKEYH: Iran is no longer a revolutionary state like it was in the early 1980s that was trying to superimpose its Islamic template on other countries; Iran is an opportunistic country and takes advantage of opportunities that are available to them.
And I will suggest the opportunities that are available to Iran were actually facilitated by the Bush administration, in a sense that, once they displaced the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iranians became much more influential there. Once they empowered the Shia community in Iraq, Iranians became much more influential there. Once they talk about democratization, which has benefited Islamist parties, Iranians have become much more influential in Hamas and the larger Muslim brotherhood representation in the parliament.
So Secretary Rice is complaining about Iranians taking advantage of the policies that essentially the United States created. Now, Iran is an opportunistic power, and it sees its role in the region expanding, but they didn’t create those opportunities. The catalyst for expansion of Iranian interest has been the United States’ policy since 9/11.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Friedberg, let me ask you about the U.S. options. And explain what your former boss really was saying when he warned of meaningful consequences last week and said that the U.S. is, quote, “keeping all options on the table.” Is he talking about the military options?
AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, I think in the first instance he was talking about the possibility of sanctions imposed by the United Nations. And I think that’s the current focus of U.S. policy, to get other states, in particular the members of the Security Council, to move forward with some kind of sanctions or the threat of sanctions against Iran on the nuclear issue.
He also repeated something which American officials have said on numerous occasions — it wasn’t something new — that all options remain on the table, and that historically has been code for the possibility of the use of military force.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you think that is considered a feasible option within the administration?
AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, I don’t think it can be entirely ruled out. I wouldn’t think it would be responsible entirely to rule it out. I would be very surprised if this were at the top of people’s lists or even number five on a list of options and directions that they think they might take over the next six months or the next year or more, but it has to be something that’s under consideration, and I expect that it is.
MARGARET WARNER: And why do you say that? Why do you think it’s not likely, say, in the next year?
AARON FRIEDBERG: Well, I wouldn’t want to make a prediction, but I think that what we’re in for is yet more of the diplomatic back-and-forth, and that, unless the process that we’ve been engaged in now for several years breaks down entirely, the Iranians announced that they’re going to be withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and openly becoming a nuclear weapon state, which I don’t think is likely right now, unless that happens, we’re in for a continued diplomatic struggle, where we’re going to continue to try to get others to apply pressure and the Iranians are going to continue to resist.
But, at some point, that has to come to an end. And when it does, either the Iranians will have agreed to suspend their enrichment activities and agreed to further inspections to ensure that they’re not cheating, as they have appeared to be in the past, or they’re going to break out and declare themselves a nuclear weapons state.
MARGARET WARNER: And so, Mr. Takeyh, what impact — how does Iran read statements like Vice President Cheney’s? Does Iran, do you think, believe that it is actually in danger of military action by the United States?
RAY TAKEYH: I think they do have to take it seriously. I mean, an administration that has displaced the governments to their left and their right, at least even in a implicit way, makes a military retaliation threat. However, the way they respond to such threats is not acquiescence, but to further harden their position and accelerate their activities.
So in that sense, the idea that you shouldn’t take the military option off the table makes a diplomatic solution to this issue much more difficult, because if you are regime that believes you under real threat, and you believe that having sort of a nuclear weapons capability can be an effective deterrence, when no other deterrence seems to have served in the past, then you essentially begin to become even more defiant and hunker down.
So, on the one hand, by not taking it off the table, the administration actually undermines its own diplomatic efforts. And also, by having that sort of rhetoric, it tends to further fracture its allies, who are again worried about an Iraq scenario playing itself out.
WARNER: OK. Thank you, Ray Takeyh, Aaron Friedberg. Thank you, both.
AARON FRIEDBERG: Thank you.