TOPICS > Politics

Panelists Debate U.S. Response to Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

March 25, 2009 at 8:30 PM EDT


MARGARET WARNER, Senior Correspondent, NewsHour with Jim Lehrer: From Washington, D.C., another in our series of debates on issues of importance to our country. Welcome. I’m Margaret Warner of the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Tonight with a new American president in the White House, we focus on the threat that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to the United States and the world, and what the U.S. should do about it.

Our debate topic, resolve that America cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran and must go to any lengths to prevent it. Joining us are four debaters with broad knowledge of the topic:

Arguing in support of the resolution, Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration where he supervised U.S. policy in the Middle East for the White House. And Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Arguing against the resolution, Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Mr. Indyk was ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs during the Clinton administration. And joining him is Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Before we begin, some background on the issue.


UNKNOWN MALE: From the early 1940s through the late 1970s, Iran was an ally of the United States. That changed dramatically in 1979 with the overthrown of Shah Reza Pahlavi and the installation of an Islamic theocracy.

When the shah was admitted to the United States for treatment for cancer, militant student in Tehran responded by seizing the U.S. Embassy, taking 52 American citizens hostage. The crisis lasted 444 days, ending with the release of the hostages just minutes after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan.

The United States and Iran have been at odds ever since, but relations hit new lows when it was revealed that Iran was engaged in a covert nuclear program. Most troubling for the U.S. was the revelation Iran was enriching uranium, a technology that can be used to develop weapons.

That possibility led President Bush to include Iran in his administration’s anti-terrorist rhetoric.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President, United States: (1/29/2002 State of the Union): States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world by seeking weapons of mass destruction.

UNKNOWN MALE: Since 2002 the United States has tried working with European powers Russia, China and the United Nations to get Iran to give up its enrichment program, but to date U.N. resolutions and economic sanctions have been met with defiance.

UNKNOWN MALE: Abusing the Security Council, the arrogant powers have repeatedly accused Iran and even made military threats and imposed illegal sanctions against it.

UNKNOWN MALE: What to do about Iran became one of the more divisive issues of the presidential election campaign when then-Sen. Barack Obama offered direct negotiations without preconditions.

Sen. John McCain called the offer reckless and claimed it showed a lack of understanding of the threat posed by Iran. Despite criticism, the administration is moving ahead to try to engage the Iranians.

BARACK OBAMA, President, United States: We will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face-to-face, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction.

UNKNOWN MALE: The response from Iran has been mixed, demanding sweeping changes in U.S. foreign policy without rejecting the possibility of talks.

UNKNOWN MALE: It’s quite clear a real change should be fundamental and not tactical. It’s obvious that the Iranian nation welcomes real changes. Iran’s ready to talk, but in a fair atmosphere of mutual respect.

UNKNOWN MALE: If negotiations fail, the administration says it will continue to work with the international community and the United Nations to punish Iran through sanctions. Others favor military action, which the administration has not ruled out.

Hence, our debate resolution; America cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran and must go to any lengths to prevent it.


MARGARET WARNER: Recently President Obama sent a video taped message to the Iranian people and leadership. In it he said he was committed to diplomacy on the full range of issues and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community.

In response, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded by calling Mr. Obama’s offer a slogan. He said Tehran was awaiting changes in U.S. actions before it committed to any changes of its own.

Now to our debate. Each participant will give a three minute opening statement beginning with Mr. Abrams and alternating teams. Then we will move to rebuttals and responses and that will be followed by a question and answer session which I will moderate.

Up first arguing that the U.S. cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran and should go to any lengths to prevent it, Elliott Abrams.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.: Thank you Margaret. Good evening. Far more often than any of us would like, questions of foreign policy and national security come down to the choosing the lesser of evils.

The question posed here tonight is not whether we will be able to convince the Iranian regime to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons. We all hope so. We’re not here to discuss how best to prevent the regime from developing nuclear weapons using carrot sticks, diplomatic pressures. That is a different debate.

What we are here to discuss is what should be done if and when all that fails. What do we do when one day perhaps not all that far in the future, the director of national intelligence walks in to the Oval Office and tells the president that there is now persuasive evidence that Iran has or is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons?

On that day a lot of things change, questions of the regime’s hostility toward America and our allies gain a new significance. Today, statements issued by the Iranian regime calling for Israel to be wiped off the map are disgusting. But we all can be comforted by the fact that the regime cannot follow through on its threats.

The world of a nuclear Iran however, will carry with it the possibility of a true Holocaust. Quote, “We have repeatedly said that this cancerous tumor of a state should be removed from the region.”

Iran’s supreme leader has said, quote, “There’s no solution to the conflict in this region except with the disappearance of Israel,” he’s also said. We will no longer be able to write off such threats as vile but empty.

The Iranian regime is currently the largest state sponsor of terror. It has already through its own actions and through its proxies, expanded its influence throughout the Middle East in a serious effort to become the regional henchman.

It’s responsible for countless deaths in Iraq and it threatens the stability of the entire Middle East. We must ask ourselves if we are really prepared to live with the Iranian regime possessing nuclear weapons.

What if their apocalyptic rhetoric does reflect and predict their actions? What if they don’t themselves launch an attack, but rather proliferate nuclear weapons to a terrorist group? What if the regime’s control of its weapons is less than perfect as we’ve all long feared in Pakistan?

How many other countries in the region would seek and develop nuclear weapons if Iran does so? Responsible leadership cannot allow this to happen. We should seek to avoid it through sanctions, carrot sticks, diplomacy but in the end the decision we may face is whether if all those efforts have failed, we will permit it to happen.

Preventing it through military action perhaps is the second worst decision we could make. The only worse one being to say it’s all right now, it’s acceptable, we will not act. We all understand that the risks of acting are great. The risks of inaction are greater.


Now the lead-off opening statement opposing the resolution from Martin Indyk.

MARTIN INDYK, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution: Thank you Margaret and thank you to Miller Center for sponsoring this important discussion. The United States has at least 2,000 nuclear weapons. We call it a nuclear deterrent.

It enables us to tolerate a lot of nuclear weapon states. We tolerate nukes in the hands of the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Indians, even the French. The case of Pakistani nukes is particularly egregious if we’re talking about tolerating nukes.

They’ve probably got between 60 to 100 nukes. They’ve sold the technology to Iran, to Libya, to North Korea and they happen to harbor more terrorist groups, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Lashkar e-Taiba than any other country, and yet we tolerate Pakistani nukes. What’s so different about Iran?

Elliot says it’s a crazy messianic regime. But the fact is it’s always exercised great caution when it comes to using military force.

Elliot says it threatens to destroy Israel. I can well understand why Israel could not tolerate a nuclear Iran. It’s a small country with a unique history.

Its leaders are tasked with the solemn duty to ensure that the Jewish state is never again destroyed. And Iran’s leaders have threatened to do just that. The United States has a special responsibility to ensure the Jewish states survival.

But that’s precisely why we have tolerated Israel having nuclear bombs in its basement, and helped Israel acquire submarines and long range bombers, so as to enhance its deterrent against a potential nuclear strike by another country.

Not enough of a deterrent? Then let’s extend our nuclear deterrent to Israel so that Iran will understand that if it dares to strike Israel it will face, in the words of Secretary of State Clinton, “Obliteration from the United States.”

And in the meantime let’s build up Israel’s missile defenses so that it can effectively defend against Iranian missiles as well as deter their use. I am not advocating that we should tolerate Iranian nukes. On the contrary we should make every effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Because an Iran with nukes will threaten our national security interests and those of our middle eastern allies and put the Israelis on a hair trigger. It will ignite a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It will make a mockery of the nonproliferation regime and give cover for the Iranians to throw their weight around in the vital, oil-rich Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

But there are ways short of military preventive action by the United States to deal with these serious problems. With oil at $40 to $50 a barrel, economic sanctions can have a powerful impact.

If we work vigorously to bring Russia and China on board so as to demonstrate to Iran that it will be isolated in the region and if we seek to make peace between Israel and Syria to enhance that isolation we may be able to convince the Iranians that they are better off of taking our offer of a secure nuclear energy program and security guarantees than having nuclear weapons.

That’s the kind of vigorous, aggressive, sustained diplomacy that might just work, but if it fails then we should move to contain, to deter, to isolate, and punish Iran, not attack it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right we’re going to have to go to the other team for the resolution Joshua Muravchik.

Military response vs. sanctions

Joshua Muravchik
Johns Hopkins University
The moment that Iran gets its hands on a nuclear bomb the world will be a far more dangerous place. It will mean the end of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and greatly increased danger of nuclear terrorism and of a second holocaust.

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK, Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies: Thank you, Margaret. The moment that Iran gets its hands on a nuclear bomb the world will be a far more dangerous place. It will mean the end of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and greatly increased danger of nuclear terrorism and of a second holocaust.

And it will also mean that we will be plunged into a new cold war because Iran is not a normal state. It is a messianic revolutionary state that defines itself as the embodiment of a sacred cause.

Just as Lenin transformed Russian into the Vanguard of the world communist revolution and Hitler transformed Germany into the spear carriers of the master race, so Ayatollah Khomeini transformed Iran into the platform for global Jihad.

When Khomeini took power he said, "Iran is just the beginning." Later he elaborated, I quote, "We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. Let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant." Like other messianic states Iran strives to maximize its power in the name of the ideology that it embodies.

It seeks dominance in the Middle East playing on its role as the leader of the Shiites and also as the patron of radicals and rejectionists of all religious strides. If it gets a nuclear bomb its grasp for dominance in the region will be immeasurably enhanced.

The ultimate result of this process will be either if its neighbors resist it will be a large regional war, or if its neighbors acquiesce,

it will turn the Middle East into a base from which Iran will undertake new adventures.

Iran's rulers have big dreams as President Ahmadinejad puts it, quote, "Thanks to the blood of the Martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen which will soon reach the entire world." There are some who say we should take comfort in the fact that we came through the cold war unscathed.

So do most people the first time they play Russian roulette, but that is not a good reason to play it a second time. And it's true some say we've lived with the nuclear bombs of Moscow and Beijing. But those regimes embody an ideology which aims to build a new world in the here and now, whereas Tehran embodies an ideology that is focused on the afterworld.

As its rulers like to say in taunting us, "You love life but we love death." Alas, it's not only their death that they love; they wish the

same even more for us. The official slogan of this regime is Death to America. We cannot allow it to have a nuclear bomb.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, and our final opening statement opposing the resolution Karim Sadjadpour.

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here and before I begin I wanted to wish Iranians out there a Happy New Year. Happy No-Ruz. I was preempted by President Obama in his No-Ruz greeting, so Elliot, Josh, Democrats are also capable of preemptive action.

We all agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be highly undesirable. But what we're here to argue is the cost of military action against Iran would really outweigh any potential benefits.

And I want to focus on three primary points and the first point is that our greatest concern with Iran, our primary source of concern vis-a-vis Iran, is not its nuclear ambitions but it's the character of this regime.

If we were talking about friendly democratic Iran we wouldn't be having this conversation. And by bombing Iran we're going to entrench the most radical elements within this regime like Ahmadinejad, and we're going to prolong the shelf life of this regime for many years to come.

The second point is that aside from nuclear proliferation, Iran has a sizable influence on five major U.S. Foreign Policy concerns. They're Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab-Israeli Conflict, terrorism and energy security. In bombing Iran we're going to exacerbate every single one of those issues.

What's more, the price of oil is going to skyrocket as a result, which will make it far more affordable for Iran to continue supporting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and pouring money into it's nuclear program.

Finally, bombing Iran will essentially justify Iran's ambitions for a nuclear deterrent. Let's play out this scenario. We bomb Iran. Iran then goes underground with its nuclear ambitions. It quits the NPT, the non-proliferation treaty, and it kicks out all inspectors.

Many international communities would feel Iran's actions are justified. Any international diplomatic coalition against Iran would essentially dissolve and the U.S. would essentially be forced to take military action again two to three years later. This is the amount of time expected that it would take Iran to reconvene its nuclear program.

But now, given that Iran's nuclear program is underground, we don't where it is, we would need to send troops to Iran. We would need to put boots on the ground to essentially prevent Iran from going nuclear, and at this day and age given the war in Iraq, given the war in Afghanistan, and given the great economic recession, are we prepared to fight the full blown war against Iran? Thank you.

Governmental aspirations

Karim Sadjadpour
Carnegie Endowment for Intl. Peace
I oftentimes say that Iran is to the Middle East what Rush Limbaugh is to the United States in a sense that they thrive when the nations are -- they pedal the politics of cynicism and resentment.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you all panelists. Now each team will get a chance to challenge the other in a 90-second rebuttal followed by a 30-second response from the other team and vice versa. We begin with the team in favor of the resolution. Mr. Muravchik, I believe you gong to give this rebuttal to what you heard from the other side.

JOSHUA MURAVCIK: Yes, let me make two points to each of the others. One is, I thought that Martin made a very good point when he spoke about the Pakistani nuclear weapons that he said we tolerate. Of course we tolerate them because we don't have any choice but to tolerate them since they -- by the time we found out about them, they already had them.

Whereas, here is a chance to prevent that from happening. But the important implication of your point, Martin, is what will we do if Pakistan were not under its current government but were taken over by the radical factions in Pakistan?

We might not be able to do a military action against it, but the world would be, as I'm sure you would not deny, an infinitely more frightening place if Pakistan's nukes were in the hands of one of these violent groups. And that's exactly the situation we'll have if Iran get nukes because it's already in the hands of one of these extreme and violent groups.

To Karim, you mentioned five major issues on which Iran has great influence, and it uses its influence to do us as much harm as it can and be as big an obstruction as it can on each one of them, because it regards us as its main obstacle of its glorious dreams of dominating the region, and perhaps the world.

And if we allow Iran to become that much stronger, as it will if it gets nuclear weapons, then it's going to do us that much more harm in all of these five areas.

MARGARET WARNER: Thirty-second response.

MARTIN INDYK: Well, you know the Iranian government is a nasty government, and it certainly supports terrorist organizations, but it's not Al Qaeda, and it already has weapons of mass destruction. It has not given those weapons of mass destruction to its client terrorist organizations Hezbollah or Hamas.

So I think that the analogy doesn't apply. The Iranian regime is focused more then anything else on its own survival. It also seeks, as you suggest, to spread its revolution. When it comes to the acquisition of nuclear weapons, it moves itself into a completely different world in which the craziness that we see now will require a great deal of caution on their part because of the consequences for the regime's survival.

MARGARET WARNER: Now this team has its 90-second rebuttal to what you heard from the other side.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Sure. I would say, Josh, that we can all agree this is an odious regime, but it's not a suicidal messianic regime, given the fact that it just completed its thirtieth anniversary. It probably wouldn't have lasted that long if it were suicidal. Let's look at Iran's ambitions for regional dominance.

The last three wars in the Middle East, the 2003 Iraq war, the 2006 Israeli war against Lebanon and the more recent Israeli war against Gaza were all prosecuted with the sub text of trying to curb Iranian influence in the Middle East.

What each of these wars has done, in fact, has increased the ranks of the alienated and the dispossessed, and created more fertile ground for Iran's ideology to resonate throughout the region.

I oftentimes say that Iran is to the Middle East what Rush Limbaugh is to the United States in a sense that they thrive when the nations are -- they pedal the politics of cynicism and resentment.

And their ideology thrives the most when people in the region feel outraged and dispossessed, and bombing Iran will certainly increase the ranks of those alienated and dispossessed tenfold.

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK: Look, Karim. I don't doubt that if we stage a bombing campaign to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons facilities that we'll pay a price for it. That's what Elliott said in his opening, that they're two bad alternatives. And a lot of people in the region will be angry with us.

A lot of Iranians will be angry at us. Whether they will be for long more embracing of their regime is not so clear. We have cases such as the Argentinean regime when it attacked the Malvinas and was losing a war ended in the downfall of a regime.

But I grant that there may be bad consequences. The question that concerns me, and I know concerns Elliott, is that allowing Iran to rise to the level of a nuclear weapons state will have much more terrible consequences.

MARGARET WARNER: We're already into the discussion, it seems to me, so let's just keep going. I'd like to establish one factual basis maybe from one from each side, which is how long do policy makers have before that fateful moment that you described, Elliott Abrams, when the head of -- the director of national intelligence comes into the president and says, "Mr. President, Iran either has a nuclear weapon or is a split second away from acquiring it."

What do we know about how much time there is before that moment?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, there's a lot of classified information.

MARGARET WARNER: Pray share it with us.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I think people differ in their estimates, but we're talking about something like one to three years.

MARTIN INDYK: I think it's important to understand that Iran is moving quite rapidly towards a threshold nuclear capability. What's referred, in other context as a Japanese capability, a German capability. That is to say they would have the components of low in rich uranium stockpile that could be put back through the centrifuges and quickly turned into high and enriched weapons grade material.

They probably have the means to weaponize. They certainly have the means to deliver the missiles.

MARGARET WARNER: At least as far as Israel?

MARTIN INDYK: At least as far as Israel, across the region. And even to Southern Europe. But they have not gone to the point. When they get to that point the question is, will they go beyond that? And the estimate is that they could make that decision to go beyond that in one to two years.

But they may not make that decision to go beyond it. They may prefer to be in the ambiguous position where it's not clear whether they are going to acquire nuclear weapons or just sit with the capability to do so in the future.

MARGARET WARNER: But how long before, I mean, do we have any kind of agreement on how long before they even reach that threshold capability? Is it the one to three years?

MARTIN INDYK: Yes. What people say, I think, the general assessment is one to two years. That is by the beginning of 2010 through 2011.

MARGARET WARNER: With as little as one to two years before they are at least capable, they're at this threshold, and Iranian

motivations of such debate, what can be done to prevent that moment from occurring?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I would argue, Margaret, that we would have to? We all assume that Iran is in deep pursuit of nuclear weapons capability. I think the more interesting question to ask is why? What is their impetus for pursuing nuclear weapons capability?

And I would argue, at least in part it's due to a sense of insecurity, vis-a-vis the United States. And I think that if we try to change Iran's threat perception vis-à-vis the United States, their nuclear calculations may well change. I don't think they're simply pursuing this in a vacuum.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean change the threat perception?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think for the last several decades the Iranian leadership, in particular the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, really believes that deep down U.S. policy towards Iran is not behavior change, it's regime change.

He believes deep down Washington wants to go back to essentially a patron-client relationship with Iran, which existed during the time of the shah. And if we can somehow allay his sense of insecurity, and it's not going to be easy, and there are no guarantees that it's going to work. But I don't think we really -- we've really exhausted diplomacy here.

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK: But Iran is an immensely aggressive, violent country. It's the worlds leading exporter or terror. It's the one, when the supreme leader Khamenei responded to Obama's olive branch the other day, he had a claque of tens of thousands standing there chanting "death to America, death to America."

Then Ahmadinejad says we need to have a discussion of mutual respect."Death to America, death to America". Every single one of these kind of regimes? Talk about the communist, talk about the Nazi's of the other fascists. They mix in their mind their own aggressive aims with some paranoia and fear.

We know that Stalin was very paranoid and Hitler was in some sense paranoid. And these dictators fantasize that people were surrounding them and out to get them. This was a projection of their own hostile aggression. And the same is true with these violent and hate filled and very ambitious Iranians who speak constantly about their global revolution fueled by the blood of the martyrs, et cetera, et cetera.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Don't you want regime change?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: If I could push a button, make it happen, but I think if we bomb Iran, that dream of regime change is going to be deferred for many decades.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: It's a separate question, and it's an important question. But it does remind me of the insecurity that people attributed to the Soviet Union. When the United States was the sole nuclear power at the end of World War II, we did nothing to attack the Soviet Union, yet we heard for years and years about Stalin's great insecurity.

We have had many opportunities to attack Iran, and we haven't done it because we do not have aggressive intentions with respect to Iran. We just want them to stop these many aggressive actions they're undertaking, the regime is undertaking.

We have no quarrel with the people of Iran, but, I mean, when I listened to you it sounded to me like there is an endless series of abasements here that we have undertake until Khamenei is finally persuaded we're nice guys.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Let me put it to you like this. We're assuming here that Iran is in pursuit of this nuclear weapon, nuclear weapons, because they want to dominate the Middle East. And when you talk to people like Khamenei, he has said very openly that, in fact, Iran's best vehicle for asserting its interest throughout the region is what? It's, ironically, democratic elections.

Because when democratic elections happen in the region, what happens? Hamas gets elected in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Iran Sharia co-religions in Iraq. So Iran feels that, were there to be a referendum in every country in the region, it would produce political systems much more akin to Iran's than to Washington's, and the average person in the region is far more sympathetic to Tehran's worldview than Washington's.

Unfortunately, I think he's right, with the one exception of Iran. Iran would be the exception to that rule. And if we were to bomb Iran, I would argue it would no longer be the exception to that rule.

MARTIN INDYK: I think it's also important that, with these analogies to the Soviet Union, that we not imagine that Iran is a superpower. It is not. It has the bluster of a power that would dominate the region. But it doesn't dominate the region. It aspires to, but it doesn't. And it's very aspiration to do so is creating a reaction on the power of the Arab states and Israel, a kind of virtual alliance against Iran, which is going to prevent it from dominating.

It's been trying to export its revolution for 30 years. What has it managed to do? It did make gains with Hezbollah in Lebanon, where the Shias are the largest of the ethnic groups there. It made gains as a result of our mistakes in Iraq, but as Iraq comes together, I believe that the Iranian influence will go down quite dramatically.

So, you know, for all of the bluster, we shouldn't imagine that this is a country that is actually achieving this dominance that it would assert for itself.

Influencing Iran's trajectory

Elliott Abrams
Council on Foreign Relations
It's not clear to me that the reaction let's go to war with the Americans, but rather, perhaps, how did we get into this mess? Why did those guys, the very unpopular ayatollahs ... get us into this mess.

MARGARET WARNER: So is this team saying that you do not believe there's any combination of carrots and sticks, incentives and sanctions, or threat of sanctions, that could get Iran to alter its trajectory?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: No, I wouldn't say that. I think it's conceivable. I think it's -- the question is whether we can do enough damage to the economy to threaten this regime and make them think they really -- their survival depends on doing a deal with the United States.

We haven't been able to do that, partly because oil was hitting $140 a barrel. That's what we ought to be trying right now.


ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Well, the question is really whether the Europeans, the Chinese, the Russians would be willing to join us in more severe sanctions. For example, preventing the importation of gasoline into Iran. Stuff that would really ...


ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Refined products that would really hurt their economy. More financial sanctions. I think all of this is worth trying. We'll see whether it works. The problem is that it may well not work.

MARTIN INDYK: I think that the approach that the Obama Administration is now pursing has a chance to work. Not just because of the sanctions and the fact that oil is at such a low level and that creates a problem for them, but also if we can succeed in putting together, in effect, an international phalanx --Russians, Chinese, Europeans, Arabs and Israelis --against Iran's acquisition of nuclear capabilities that will, I think, also play on the minds of the Iranians.

If they begin to feel that they're the ones who are isolated, far from dominating the region, that they're going to be left behind by it, then it may concentrate their minds more. And that's where, I think -- and this becomes a little complicated, but I think it's important that at the same time as we try to engage the Iranians and line up the international community, we also try to promote peace between Syria and Israel, these two countries that want to do that.

That would have the effect, if we could achieve that, of taking Syria out of its alliance with Iran, realigning the situation in a way that would cut Iran's conduit to Hezbollah and to Hamas. And in that way, also, start to roll back Iran's influence from the Middle East heartland.

And the combination of these approaches can, I think, have the effect of persuading Iran that it's better to try to sit down and negotiate. Then we have a problem, because when they sit down and negotiate with us, they have an interest in playing out the clock, because their centrifuges are continuing to roll, they're building up nuclear weapons material. And how we get them to have a sense of urgency is going to be the biggest challenge for the Obama administration.

MARGARET WARNER: So at what point should the U.S. conclude, and its partners conclude, that the diplomatic -- that diplomacy has failed? In other words, what should the redline be? Is it hitting this threshold point? Is it somewhere short of that? Is it somewhere after that? And how does a president know?

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: It's probably the move to highly enriched uranium, HEU. When they start producing large amounts of that or they kick out all of the inspectors, the IAEA, or if we discover that there are secret facilities that we do not now today know about that are producing HEU, that's probably the point.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I would disagree in the sense that these things may happen. Iran may continue forward with its nuclear ambitions. But ultimately I would go back to the original argument that I made, that if we bomb Iran, this is not a one-off.

Two or three years from now, Iran is going to reconvene its nuclear program and it's going to do so underground. It's going to kick out all inspectors, and then what are we going to do? We're going to have to bomb sites which we don't know where they exist. Essentially, we're going to have to send in troops, and then we're talking a full-blown war with Iran. Are you guys prepared to fight a full-blown war ...

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK: Well, I don't know why you put it that way, Karim. Martin reminded us how comparatively weak Iran is compared to the United States. And so if we bomb and do wholesale damage to its nuclear weapons program, then the clock starts running on the next round.

And I don't see any reason to assume that, technologically, Iran is going to beat us in the next round. That is, they will be trying to find new ways to fortify and hide and what-have-you, their rebuilt nuclear weapons program, if, in fact, they do attempt to rebuild it.

And we, in turn, will move forward with developing better bunker busting bombs or whatever else we need, and with additional intelligence, to find out where those things are and to have the capability to hit them ...

UNKNOWN MALE: It doesn't make any sense to assume -- what?

MARTIN INDYK: It's a perpetual war. It's -- your description ...

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: No. Why are you making the assumption that they will, after being hit once, rebuilt? One can make that guess, but remember, when the Israelis hit Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor, he, in response, did not strike Israel. When they ...

MARTIN INDYK: But they did rebuilt. They took it underground ...

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: ... when they hit Osirak

MARTIN INDYK: ... during the Iraq war, they actually almost had a nuclear weapon ...

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: When they hit ...

MARTIN INDYK: ... and we didn't know anything about it.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: When they hit Al Quba there was no Syrian reaction. When we largely destroyed the Iranian Navy in 1983 there was no Iranian reaction. If you are right that they're not suicidal, they're not going to want a war with the United States, even in response to a strike against their nuclear facility.

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I think they've got a lot of other options, though.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I'm sure they do.

MARTIN INDYK: They have a terrorist option. As you know, they have a global terrorist network that is probably far more effective than al-Qaida. They have the ability to disrupt shipping in the Straits of Hormuz, which, as Karim said, would drive the price of oil up at a particularly sensitive moment for the global economy. They have the option of unleashing Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israel, which could trigger an Arab-Israeli conflagration.

So there are lots of ways in which they can respond, other than attacking the United States ...

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK: Yes, but that argument cuts two ways, Martin, because we've heard it said, by you and others, that well, if we do this to Iran, then they have many ways to inflict pain on us, which no doubt, they do. But those same ways also -- those same abilities to inflict pain on us also raise a question of how much more ability they will have to inflict pain on us, if they have in their possession, a nuclear weapon.

Not necessarily by launching a first strike against the U.S., but everything that they might do in Lebanon, in Gaza, in Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever you would have it, any place in the region, Bahrain and so on, it comes in a whole new calculus, which is they are a nuclear weapons power, and we will be constrained from defending our own interests because they will have much more that they can do, at that point, to cause us pain.

MARTIN INDYK: I don't buy it, I don't buy. I think we still have equal ability to counter the kinds of things that they have been doing and we actually probably have greater capability because, if they acquire nuclear weapons, the threat that they will pose to the other countries in the region will lead them to be far -- they're already far more concerned about Iran now than they are about Israel. And so their ability to interfere -- they may become more bold, but it creates and equal and opposite reaction, in termsâ?¦

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: It may, it may, but if the Arabs states look at Iran growing in power and see that what the United States has done, to prevent it from going nuclear, is nothing or something that failed, it's not at all clear that they will then further side with the United States against Iran, they may appease Iran.

MARTIN INDYK: You're right, that is a theoretical possibility but, in fact, they are now asking us to come in and build up their defenses against Iran. Our arrangements in the Gulf now are becoming far more robust precisely because of the opposite of what you have, they fear Iran more and they look to us to protect them.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me jump in with a question here. What is -- and go to Karim Sadjadpour -- what is the likely impact internally, within Iran, if the U.S. were to attack?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, Margaret, there's a young man called Ahmad Batebi who some of you may recall was on the front cover of The Economist in 1999, who was a student protestor, and he was sent to 10 years solitary confinement, and he recently escaped Iran through the mountains of Kurdistan and he came to the U. S. not long ago.

In his first interview, when he came here, with the New York Times, he was asked precisely this question and he said were the U.S. to bomb Iran he would go back to Iran and fight on behalf of his country. This is a young man who spent 10 years in solitary confinement in Evin prison, so you can image his reaction, you can only image the reaction of the masses at large.

MARGARET WARNER: Response from you team on that.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I don't -- it's a theory. It's not at all clear that there's much evidence to deduce on behalf of it. As you have -- as you know and as you have written, it's an extremely unpopular regime, and we are not talking about a war between the United States and Iran, we are not talking about the Americans killing civilians, bombing cities, destroying mosques, hospitals, schools, no, no, no, we're talking about nuclear facilities which most Iranians know very little about, have not seen, will not see, some quite well hidden.

So they wake up in the morning and find out that the United States if attacking those facilities and, presumably with some good messaging about why we're doing it and why we are not against the people of Iran.

It's not clear to me that the reaction let's go to war with the Americans, but rather, perhaps, how did we get into this mess? Why did those guys, the very unpopular ayatollahs in a country 70 percent of whose population is under the age of 30, why did those old guys get us into this mess.

MARTIN INDYK: You know, when you say that, it reminds me of my experience, with Israel using military force against Palestinians, with the expectation that they would turn against their leadership, particularly Hamas in Gaza in the latest round, for getting them into this mess, and yet they didn't.

Guess what, they got angry with the Israelis and the Iranians will be angry with the United States because we will be the ones that are bombing them, so I just don't think, in practice, your hypothesis is going to play itself out.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I'm not persuaded that's true in Gaza. It's very hard to figure out, but it is not at all clear that this round was not used, by the people of Gaza, as something brought upon them by the Hamas guys.

Israeli response to Iran

Martin Indyk
Brookings Institution
Israel has never tolerated another nuclear state in its region, that's why they bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor, that's why they bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me jump in with another question. What are the prospects that Israel is going to take matters into its own hands and this debate that we're having here about what the United States should do, in fact, is a moot debate?

MARTIN INDYK: I think that there's a pretty good prospect, but that doesn't remember the debate moot. It raises the question should we stand by and let Israel do it.

I think the chances are good, if Iran's nuclear program is not -- we don't succeed in heading it off because, as I said, in my opening remarks, the Israelis see this as an existential threat.

The Iranians have made clear, as Elliott pointed out in his remarks, that they have the intention to wipe Israel off the map, quote, unquote. And, if they have the means to do so, the Israelis would feel that this poses a real problem for them.

Israel has never tolerated another nuclear state in its region, that's why they bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor, that's why they bombed the Syrian nuclear reactor and you know people who say they can't do it I think don't really understand that the motivation and the capabilities are there, if it comes to that.

On the other hand, the do want to see -- they would much prefer diplomacy to succeed, because they will tell you that the most that they can do, by bombing, is delay the nuclear program by two to three years.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. What's your view on that?

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK: I think you had it in reverse, Margaret. The Israelis are likely to do it, if we do not do it, not the other way around.

And if I can bring up a point that you didn't ask about, but it is often commented on, why don't we let the Israelis do it, then the Iranians won't be so angry at us and I think it's probably likely that the region will be more angry at us, if the Israelis do it than if we do it.

I think we have a perfectly clear and defensible position that we can argue to people in the region and say, look you know we know you don't like us using our power in your region, but any -- we have a simple policy, any regime that has, as its main theme and slogan, death to America, we will not allow to have a nuclear weapon.

This is just how we look at the world and you would look at the world exactly the same way, if you had that capability, whereas, if Israel does it, we'll be blamed by everyone in the region and there'll be sort of an extra impetus to their anger, the feeling that we so unreasonably always support Israel no matter what it does.

MARGARET WARNER: Elliott Abrams, your view on this prospect of Israel taking matters into its own hands and what the U.S. should do about that.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: I think Martin's right, I agree with his analysis that the Israelis would like to see us prevent it through diplomatic means or, if need be, military means. In the end, I think they will not permit Iran to get nuclear weapons, if they can do anything about it.

I also agree with Josh, I'd like to say I support the Muravchik doctrine. We are not going to let any country, whose main slogan and theology is death to America to get nuclear weapons. I think it is better for us to do it than for the Israelis to do it,

both because we'll do a far better job, we have a much more capable military, and because I agree with Josh, it would be more complicated for us, in the region, if the Israelis do it than if we do it.

MARTIN INDYK: Can I just come back to the central proposition here, Elliott'sâ?¦

MARGARET WARNER: We're almost out of time in this section so.

MARTIN INDYK: But the critical question is, you know, to bomb or not to bomb, as it were. And deterrence has worked in other parts of the world, with revolutionary regimes far more ambitious, even than the Iranians, and rather than let Israel do it, I think we should be bolstering Israel's deterrence so as to give it the ability to stand back while we try diplomacy.

In other cases, let's say the North Koreans, another great example, but even when counties have crossed the nuclear threshold, we have not given up on the diplomatic effort to pull them back. The South African, the Libyans, we succeed in that way, and we still have a chance, even if they cross the nuclear threshold, if we have effective deterrence to walk them back from it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, I have to give the other team a chance to comment on this whole idea of that maybe the answer is to build up to have a mutual defense pack with Israel that would actually give them a nuclear umbrella, a nuclear protection.

JOSHUA MURAVCHIK: I would say to Martin that our talks with North Korea have completely failed but if we bomb Iran they may well succeed the next day.

And to -- tomorrow (ph) the problem with the nuclear umbrella for Israel is that only speaks to one of the problems that Elliot and I were talking about that we see. So it might obviate the possibility of an Iranian strike on Israel.

But the broader problem that I was trying to describe initially is how Iran will use a nuclear umbrella of its own to advance its depredations in the region. And I don't think our protection of Israel speaks to that at all.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm afraid that's all the time we have for the Q&A portion. It's hard to believe because there's much we didn't touch on. But we've allotted two minutes for a closing statement from one member of each team.

And we start actually with the team arguing against the resolution and I don't -- which of you is speaking, Martin Indyk.

MARTIN INDYK: Look, I think the most important point is to emphasize that military strike has limited utility. In the best case, and this is what Israeli military officials will tell you, it can buy us two to three years.

But it will, as Karim has said, drive the Iranian nuclear program underground where we will have very little idea of what exactly they're doing. At the moment at least we have inspectors in there to observe what they're doing so we have a much better sense of what's going on there.

The Iraqi case is a good example. You know the Israeli succeeded in taking out their nuclear reactor and they took it underground. And in the first Gulf War we discovered to our amazement that they had a full-blown nuclear program with enrichment and reprocessing and they were very close to a nuclear weapon.

And so when you look at the downside in terms of what it could provoke across the region which we've discussed and the limited upside, I think we have to, number one, do everything possible through diplomatic efforts, through sanctions, through the other means that we've discussed to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear capability, to divert their program so that we -- the world has insurance that they're not going to acquire nuclear weapons.

But if that fails we need to move to the fallback as a policy of containment, deterrents to punishment to isolation until the Iranians recognize that it's not in their interest to have nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, the closing statement and last word from the team arguing for the resolution, Mr. Abrams.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Thank you. Well, we all - we all hope that diplomacy works. Diplomacy strengthened by economic and other pressures. But you know, this is a unique regime. This is the only regime in the world that is seeking nuclear weapons and proclaims its desire to annihilate another country.

It's a theocracy. It's not just a revolutionary regime the way we have seen dozens in the world. It is a regime that has a religious basis, at least its rulers do. Not a nationalist basis. I would just -- we've heard some quotes.

I would quote from the Ayatollah Mezba-Yazdi, who is one of the leading Ayatollahs and very close to the president of Iran, "We do not care about Iran. What we care about is Islam." This is a very special group. And there's no reason to think that normal historic deterrents would work with them.

Not if they're looking for a better life in another world rather than as Josh said, in this world.

Now, there's no reason to think the Iranian people insist on having nuclear weapons. Karim has written about this and I agree with him. They no doubt want freedom more than they want nuclear weapons.

I don't think we can assume that if United States had to act against Iran, the reaction of the Iranian people would be and would continue to be over weeks and months. Let's rebuild rather than how did those guys, the Ayatollahs get us into this mess with a nuclear program that none of us ever voted for.

So I think the lesser evil is acting. I don't think there's a limited upsize. Here I would disagree with Martin. Because what we would be avoiding is nuclear weapons in the hands of those Ayatollahs and we would be salvaging the international nonproliferation regime which I think will go kaput if Iran gets nuclear weapons and its neighbors then follow.

The world would be a far safer place after we prevented Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. That brings our program to a close. I want to thank our four debaters for a very spirited and thought provoking discussion.

Affirmative action will be the subject of our next program. And for more information about the Miller Center Debate Series go to the Miller Center Web site. And to watch these programs on PBS, check your local listings.

On behalf of the Miller Center here at the Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., thank you.