Experts Debate Dangers Posed by a Nuclear-capable Iran
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MARGARET WARNER: The fiery rhetoric continued this week from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Today, he denounced Israel again at the opening of an international conference in Tehran, saying Israel was a threat to the region and would not last long.
MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): The Zionist regime of Israel is like a rotten, dried tree that will be annihilated by one storm. Like it or not, the Zionist regime is heading toward annihilation.
MARGARET WARNER: His remarks came on the heels of his announcement three days ago that Iran had successfully enriched uranium, a milestone on the path to producing nuclear weapons, if Iran chooses to do so. Iran insists it is pursuing nuclear energy, not weapons.
But the Bush administration, noting that Iran concealed critical parts of its nuclear program for years, is demanding that Tehran stop all enrichment activities now. The president spoke Monday.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We do not want the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon, or the knowledges of how to make a nuclear weapon. That’s our stated goal. It is also the goal, fortunately, of other friends and allies, starting with Great Britain, Germany and France.
MARGARET WARNER: At the urging of the U.S., Britain and France, the U.N. Security Council last month set an April 28th deadline for Iran to freeze its enrichment program.
The U.N.’s atomic energy agency chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, took that message to Tehran yesterday. But President Ahmadinejad responded with defiance, saying Iran will not retreat “one iota” on its uranium enrichment.
Secretary of State Rice, in Washington yesterday, sounded resolute but also frustrated over the failure thus far to persuade Iran to change course.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: There is no doubt that Iran continues to defy the will of the international community. There is no doubt that Iran has continued its salami-slicing tactics, a little bit here, and then a little bit more, and then a little bit more, despite the fact that the international community has said very clearly, “Stop.”
Now, when the Security Council reconvenes, there will have to be some consequence for that action and that defiance, and we will look at the full range of options available to the Security Council.
MARGARET WARNER: But two veto-wielding members of the Security Council, China and Russia, are still resisting any tougher U.N. measures to try to force Iran to comply.
The events of the last few months have led many in and out of government to begin contemplating the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. To explore that, we turn to two men who’ve studied and written widely about Iran.
William Beeman is a professor of anthropology at Brown University and author of the book “The Great Satan versus the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.”
And Patrick Clawson is deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and co-author of “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos.”
Welcome to you, both. If the diplomatic track fails — and, Professor Beeman, let me begin with you — can the world live with a nuclear-armed Iran?
WILLIAM BEEMAN, Professor of Anthropology, Brown University: Let’s first of all get a few facts straight. First of all, Iran’s nuclear program is 30 years old, more than 30 years old, and was blessed and started by the United States. Gerald Ford offered Iran a full nuclear cycle in 1976.
Iran is in full compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it continues its enrichment process in full compliance with its rights under that treaty.
And so, therefore, Iran is moving toward nuclear energy in a way that also has been demonstrated that there is no evidence whatever that they have a nuclear weapons program. That’s been affirmed by U.S. officials, by British officials, and by others.
And so, therefore, the idea that Iran has a nuclear weapons program is based entirely on suspicion and mistrust. However…
MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t even think we have to think about it?
WILLIAM BEEMAN: Well, I think that Iran certainly already has the knowledge to build a nuclear weapon if they want to. And so, therefore, perhaps the U.S. government has already set a red line that’s been crossed by Iran.
But I will tell you that, if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon, it’s primary use would be defensive, as Iran has continually asserted in its presentation of its conventional weapons program.
MARGARET WARNER: Patrick Clawson, what’s your view of this? I mean, would it be so threatening to the rest of the world if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon?
PATRICK CLAWSON, Washington Institute for Near Easy Policy: Well, as Professor Beeman explained, Iran has said that its program is peaceful. And, therefore, if Iran were to actually assemble a weapon and then we’d have to ask, “Why?”
And there’s concern that that would show that the most radical elements had, in fact, won out in Tehran and that they were planning to do something about the president’s talk about wiping Israel off the face of the Earth or death to America.
Even if that weren’t the case, we’d still have to worry that a nuclear-armed Iran could start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. And that’s an unstable enough region, thank you, already. Plus, the Nonproliferation Treaty would start to crumble and lots of countries around the world would consider also going down that route.
So if the program in Iran were to go beyond the peaceful uses that Professor Beeman was talking about, to actually having a nuclear weapon, boy, that’d be a lot to worry about.
MARGARET WARNER: But so you think that Iran, if it acquired a nuclear weapon — and I know that we’re way down the road there — but you think it would perhaps use it against Israel?
PATRICK CLAWSON: Well, Iran might think about how to use a weapon as a demonstration in order to influence Israel. For instance, if the Iranians were to set off a nuclear bomb in the middle of Israel’s Negev Desert in a way that nobody got killed, that would put Israel in a very difficult position, because the Iranians would have used a nuclear weapon, but on the other hand, not that much damage would have been done.
MARGARET WARNER: Professor Beeman, what do you think is the likelihood of that? I mean, President Ahmadinejad has just said over and over again that, you know, Israel should be wiped off the face of the Earth, that today Israel should be annihilated, is going to be. Why shouldn’t Israel be concerned that a nuclear-armed Iran might turn those nuclear weapons against Israel?
WILLIAM BEEMAN: It’s important to understand that President Ahmadinejad’s statements are not necessarily going to result in any kind of an action. President Ahmadinejad has absolutely no control over Iran’s military, nor does he have control over Iran’s foreign affairs.
And I think that one should understand that, when he makes these extreme statements, it’s largely in response to the attacks and extreme statements that have been made against Iran by the United States.
Iran knows very well that, if they make statements that are hostile to Israel, that that will get our attention, and that will certainly result in a reaction from the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: Patrick Clawson, following up on what you said before, the idea that they might send a nuclear weapon into Israel, you know, it might be uninhabited area but still attack Israel with a nuclear weapon, why wouldn’t good old-fashioned deterrence work, the kind of thing that worked between the U.S. and Soviet Union for all of those years during the Cold War, I mean, if the United States or, for that matter, Israel made it clear that any use of nuclear weapons, any attack by nuclear weapons would result in a swift and immediate retaliatory attack by the U.S. or by Israel?
PATRICK CLAWSON: Well, deterrence was pretty tough thing to do during the Cold War. It’s a very expensive and hard thing to do militarily. It requires having a lot of allies to help you. It requires being right on the alert all the time.
For 40 years, we were constantly on the alert. We came close to having nuclear crises a couple of times. So deterrence, it’s a tough policy to do. And we’d have to have help from Iran’s neighbors, and this would not be easy.
MARGARET WARNER: But, wait, I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Why would you need help from Iran’s neighbors? I mean, if Iran knew that any nuclear attack it launched would trigger a retaliatory attack by the U.S., I mean, what else would be needed?
PATRICK CLAWSON: Well, Iran could think that, with nuclear weapons, that it could engage in a lot of conventional threats against U.S. interests, knowing that the U.S. wouldn’t retaliate because it has nuclear weapons.
MARGARET WARNER: I see, but it would embolden them.
PATRICK CLAWSON: It would embolden them, the way that Pakistan was emboldened after it got nuclear weapons to provide much more support to these militant groups in Kashmir. So Iran could provide a lot more support to anti-American groups, to groups opposed to the Saudi and other regimes in the area, thinking that it was safe behind its nuclear umbrella.
MARGARET WARNER: What’s your view of that, Professor Beeman, that, even if it didn’t use the nuclear weapons, it would make Iran so powerful that they could threaten its neighbors or U.S. Interests with just conventional means?
WILLIAM BEEMAN: Actually, it’s very interesting that the United States doesn’t seem to listen to Iranian officials when they say that they’re not interested in nuclear weapons and their religious officials say that they’re not religiously sanctioned.
But beyond that, we’ve created a situation in the region with Pakistan, India and Israel, all not signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, who do have nuclear weapons. And we have the situation where the United States has just made major concessions to India, which does have nuclear weapons.
The Iranians were certainly watching, and they understand that those people who have nuclear weapons get more respect from the United States, so the temptation is increased.
MARGARET WARNER: And then let me ask — so, and as you’ve described, one country has gotten them, and then another country. What about Mr. Clawson’s point that he made earlier? Do you agree with it, that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it would trigger an arms race among other countries in the region, that a country, say, like Saudi Arabia or Egypt may feel, “We’d better get them, too”?
WILLIAM BEEMAN: Well, I think that this is a situation where boys want bigger toys. And if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I am certain that there are people in Saudi Arabia who feel that they kind of deserve to have one, as well. And it may not come to pass, but it certainly would be an increased temptation for Saudi Arabia.
By the way, I should mention that Iran has excellent relations with Saudi Arabia right now and would probably do nothing to destabilize that regime.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me go back to Professor Beeman’s initial point which was: We shouldn’t really be worrying about this, that Iran has no reason to want nuclear weapons, and has said constantly it doesn’t want nuclear weapons.
PATRICK CLAWSON: Oh, I would agree with him that Iran has no reason to have nuclear weapons, that it doesn’t face a security problem which requires it to have nuclear weapons.
But, unfortunately, then we have to look at its activities, and there I would argue that we have to be prepared for the eventuality that, after 18 years of not being accurately reporting what it’s doing to the UN’s Atomic Energy Agency, that perhaps Iran has got a reason to hide all the activities. And refusing the offers that have been made to it by the Europeans and the Russians, perhaps Iran has got a reason for being so stubborn.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you briefly: Do you think the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is so threatening that the U.S. should use military force, if necessary, to stop it?
PATRICK CLAWSON: If Iran is going to cross that last line to actually assemble a nuclear weapon, not just be close to, but actually assemble a weapon, then the answer is we’d have to be worried enough about this that we should be prepared to use military force to stop it. That’s the red line that the U.S. has drawn: Don’t assemble an actual weapon.
MARGARET WARNER: Which is a long way down the line.
PATRICK CLAWSON: A long ways down the line.
MARGARET WARNER: But, Professor Beeman, what’s your view on that, if this were to come to pass?
WILLIAM BEEMAN: Absolutely, this is five to 10 years down the line. If Iran started today, and worked 24/7, and directed all its of energy toward developing a weapon, the statements that’s been made by the Israeli government that it might be two or three years down the line are massively exaggerated.
MARGARET WARNER: Yes, but what I was trying to get to your quick answer to was: Do you think, if it did happen, that the United States should take it out?
WILLIAM BEEMAN: If they actually assembled a weapon, then I think we’d have to rethink the entire issue, but I don’t think that’s going to happen in the near future.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Professor William Beeman, Patrick Clawson, thank you, both.
PATRICK CLAWSON: Thank you.