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Debate Stirs Over Possible U.S. Military Action Against Iran

October 29, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The tough talk from the Bush administration about Iran and its nuclear program has ratcheted up in recent weeks.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: If you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And last week came unilateral economic sanctions against the Tehran regime, aimed at its military. But the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, said yesterday there is no evidence of an Iranian drive for the bomb at this time. His group is now in Tehran meeting with Iranian officials.

He was interviewed on CNN yesterday.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI, Director General, IAEA: We are not talking about Iran having today a nuclear weapon. We are trying to make sure that the future intention of Iran is peaceful, and that’s really what we are talking about. We have the time, because I don’t see any other solution, Wolf, except through diplomacy and inspection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again insisted his country had a right to peaceful nuclear power and said it would not bow to bullying by Western leaders.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, President of Iran (through translator): They are mistaken if they suppose that, by using a political psychological duress against the Iranian nation, they can deprive it of any right. That is impossible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Political allies of the Bush administration took to the airwaves yesterday to make their case that the Iranians, in fact, are working toward a bomb.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: They’re trying to develop a nuclear weapon program, not peaceful nuclear power. So I’m taking the Iranian president at his word. Their actions speak louder than anything else. They’re clearly going down the uranium enrichment road that would lead to weapons material and not peaceful nuclear power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But on several of the Sunday talk shows, congressional Democrats urged caution, both in words and deeds. Connecticut senator and presidential candidate Christopher Dodd appeared on NBC yesterday.

TIM RUSSERT, Host, NBC’s “Meet the Press”: You think we’re getting precariously close to military action against Iran?

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: I do. I think clearly the administration seems to be pointing in that direction, and I think that’s a dangerous move at this juncture here.

And, again, I don’t — I’m not going to take a backseat to anyone in my concerns about the problems that Iran poses here, and I would not exclude the use of military force in dealing with that, but it seems to me that arrow ought not to be drawn out of our quiver until we examine and explore fully the opportunities to reduce those threats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fellow senator and Republican presidential contender John McCain of Arizona was asked about Iran on ABC.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: We cannot allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, but I do believe that to start talking about specifics, a bombardment or something like that, I think would be a terrible mistake.

But the Iranians would know, when I’m president, they’re facing somebody who’s not going to let them have it. But I’m not going to make a lot of empty threats that I can’t carry out.

Understanding the Iranian threat

Norman Podhoretz
Commentary Magazine
It seems to me that most people in the world, at least until recently, agreed that it would be catastrophic to allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear capability. The only debate was over what the best means to prevent this from happening might be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the debate goes on outside Congress with perhaps even more intensity. Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz wrote in June that military force was "required" to stop Iran from getting a bomb and offered this description of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. Quote, "Like Hitler, he is a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism," end quote.

Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria responded recently to Podhoretz, writing, "For this staggering proposition, Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence." And Zakaria wrote, "The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality."

And now these two writers join us. Norman Podhoretz is editor-at-large of Commentary magazine. His latest book is "World War IV: The Long Struggle against Islamofascism." He is also a foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International. His latest book is "The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad."

Gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us.

Norman Podhoretz, let me begin with you. You wrote over the summer that, if Iran is to be prevented from going ahead with a nuclear program, then the United States has "no alternative" but to strike against Iran. Do you still believe that? And if so, why?

NORMAN PODHORETZ, Foreign Policy Adviser, Rudy Giuliani: Very much so. It seems to me that most people in the world, at least until recently, agreed that it would be catastrophic to allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear capability. The only debate was over what the best means to prevent this from happening might be.

Well, for over four years, diplomacy has been tried, first by the Europeans and then with some American participation, and all they've accomplished, these negotiations, is to buy the Iranians more time with which to move forward inexorably toward a nuclear capability.

The other hope has been vested in sanctions. And, of course, there have been two rounds of sanctions voted by the Security Council, neither of them very tough, because the Russians and the Chinese are opposed to really tough sanctions.

We've now unilaterally imposed, just the other day, a new round of sanctions involving the banks and the financial system. But as a good report in the Washington Post this morning indicates, most experts on Iran think that these are not going to bite sufficiently and certainly not going to make the Iranians change their behavior.

So that leaves us with only one terrible choice, which is either to bomb those facilities and retard their program or even cut it off altogether or allow them to go nuclear. And I agree with what Senator McCain has said in the past: The only thing worse than bombing Iran is to allow Iran to get the bomb.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fareed Zakaria, the choice, either strike Iran or allow them to go nuclear, are those the only two choices?

FAREED ZAKARIA, Editor, Newsweek International: Well, there is a third choice, Judy, which is the choice we have used for pretty much every other country that has developed nuclear weapons, and that is deterrence.

We allowed Mao to get a nuclear weapon and have used deterrence against them, against the Chinese. We allowed the Russians, the Soviet Union to get nuclear weapons and used deterrence against them. We've allowed the North Koreans to get nuclear weapons and have used deterrence against them.

It used to be that one had to explain deterrence to the left; it has now become something the right does not understand. You know, Mao Zedong was a much more revolutionary figure than Ahmadinejad is. China was actively helping insurgencies all over the world that were anti-American, killing Americans in Vietnam, in Korea.

Mao spoke actively about his great desire to overturn the international system. He even talked about destroying half the world to allow communism to triumph. And yet, you know what? The desire for self-preservation meant that Mao Zedong was deterred. The Soviet Union was deterred. North Korea is being deterred.

We have a policy that we understand, which is containment plus deterrence. We're using sanctions. We're using a kind of anti-Iranian alliance mechanism in the Middle East, which has become quite successful, by the way. We have isolated Iran.

Time is not on their side; time is on our side. I think that the onus surely must be on the other side to explain to us why, because Iran might gain the knowledge to make nuclear weapons in the next three to five to eight years, we should launch a unilateral American invasion.

This would be the third invasion of a Muslim country that the United States would have undertaken in the last five years; that seems to me a pretty serious business. And we've seen deterrence work against all these other countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask...

FAREED ZAKARIA: Let us even assume that Iran gets the bomb, and it's not clear that it will. Why are they more crazy than Kim Jong Il, a man who let two million of his own people starve in the last decade?

"Irresponsible complacency"

Norman Podhoretz
Commentary Magazine
The fact of the matter is that, with a religious fanatic like Ahmadinejad and the "mullahcracy" ruling Iran generally, there's no assurance that self-preservation or the protection, preservation of the nation, will deter them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you pose several points that I want to bring to Norman Podhoretz, but, number one, this question of deterrence. If these other countries Mr. Zakaria is listing have listened to the argument to use nuclear weapons they be destroying themselves, why do you think that argument doesn't work with Iran?

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Well, I'll tell you why. First, I want to say that I think the attitude expressed by Fareed Zakaria represents an irresponsible complacency that I think is comparable to the denial in the early '30s of the intentions of Hitler that led to what Churchill called an unnecessary war involving millions and millions of deaths that might have been averted if the West had acted early enough.

FAREED ZAKARIA: Norman, perhaps instead of calling my names, you could just explain why the arguments are right or wrong. That would be just fine.

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Why can't the...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's let Mr. Podhoretz finish his point.

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Yes, I would appreciate being allowed to finish my point. The reason deterrence can't work with Iran is that there's a different element involved here than was involved with either Mao or even Kim Jong Il or Stalin, and that is the element of religious fanaticism.

The fact of the matter is that, with a religious fanatic like Ahmadinejad and the "mullahcracy" ruling Iran generally, there's no assurance that self-preservation or the protection, preservation of the nation, will deter them.

And let me tell you why. Here is what the Ayatollah Khomeini, of whom Ahmadinejad is a devoted disciple, once said. He said: We do not worship Iran. We worship Allah, for patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land of Iran burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.

Well, you can't deter a nation that is led by people with that kind of attitude. And what's more, on the issue of whether these are revolutionaries, let me again quote Ahmadinejad himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let...

NORMAN PODHORETZ: May I?

JUDY WOODRUFF: If you don't mind, I'd like to go back to Mr. Zakaria on that point, because essentially what you're arguing, Mr. Podhoretz, is that Iranian leadership is not rational. Mr. Zakaria?

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Well, they're rational within their own frame of reference, but not within ours.

Outlining Iran's rationale

Fareez Zakaria
Newsweek International
The Iranians are trying to capture the core political high ground of the Middle East, and they're trying to become the dominant power in the region. We should be working against them; we should building an alliance against them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Mr. Zakaria?

FAREED ZAKARIA: You know, I had a feeling Norman would bring up that one quotation that he's used before, so I have one from now. "If the worst came to worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain, while imperialism would be razed from the ground." This is what Mao said.

And it wasn't just his words. It was his actions. He was actively aiding revolutionary movements and killing Americans all over the world.

So the question about Iran's rationality rests on this: They've been in power for 30 years. What have they done? Iran has followed a pretty rational, national interest-oriented foreign policy.

If you look at the way in which they opposed al-Qaida and the Taliban, this was another Islamic revolutionary movement. You'd think that they would find them sympathetic, but, no, they were the sworn enemies of al-Qaida and they helped the United States depose the Taliban.

By and large, over the last 30 years...

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Let me respond to that.

FAREED ZAKARIA: ... they've been fairly calculating, they have followed their national interest. When it has bumped up against the United States, they have worked against us. When they have thought that our interests were in common, as in Afghanistan, they've worked with us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mr. Podhoretz, on that point?

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Yes, let me respond to that. You know, similar arguments were made about Hitler in the early '30s, and it appalls me that this kind of attitude can still prevail after what we should have learned from the words of despots.

Let me quote Ahmadinejad: "Thanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen. The era of oppression, hegemonic regimes, and tyranny, and injustice has reached its end. The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world." And that is a world, he says, without America and without Israel.

And he says people who say how is this possible, says this goal is attainable and surely can be achieved. He goes on to say nobody believed we could topple the shah or the Soviets, but we did both, and we can create a world without Israel, wiping Israel off the map, and diminishing American influence to the point where it will no longer stand in our way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Zakaria, what about that?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Look, if you look at the way in which the mullahs have run Iran, by and large they have been incredibly savvy. They're building up bank accounts in Dubai and in Switzerland. This does not strike me as the kind of ravings of, you know, an end of days millenarian.

The Iranians are trying to capture the core political high ground of the Middle East, and they're trying to become the dominant power in the region. We should be working against them; we should building an alliance against them.

But the idea that they are not going to be deterred by Israel's 200 nuclear weapons, including a second strike capacity on submarines, is just fantasy. It's based on plucking a few quotes here and there from a president who is not constitutionally or operationally in charge of the nuclear program.

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Well, let me...

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have...

FAREED ZAKARIA: When the Iranians elected a moderate, a man called Khatami, as the president, conservatives kept telling us the president has no powers.

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Let me...

FAREED ZAKARIA: Now they elect Ahmadinejad, and they say he's got his finger on the button.

Bush's intention to strike Iran

Fareed Zakaria
Newsweek International
The way that we have deterred the Soviet Union, Mao's China, Kim Jong Il, history will prove that we can use deterrence and containment to contain the problem of Iran and that we do not need to launch a third unilateral invasion just to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, we would love to have this go on for an hour. Unfortunately, we have only a minute or less left, so I have one final question...

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Well, let me quote...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... I do want to ask you both, because I think it's important. Mr. Podhoretz, do you think that, as you wrote a few months ago, this administration, this president intends before he leaves office to strike Iran?

NORMAN PODHORETZ: Yes, I do believe he will, because he has said many times -- or at least two times that I know of in public -- that, if we allow Iran to get the bomb, people 50 years from now will look back at us the way we look back at the men who made the Munich pact with Hitler in 1938 and say, "How could they have let this happen?"

Well, unlike Fareed Zakaria and the foreign policy establishment that is complacent and irresponsible, in my opinion, I think the president recognizes the danger. I think he knows that time is short, that time is not on our side. And I think he will take military action, not an invasion, but air strikes before he leaves office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Fareed Zakaria, if you would, a brief response.

FAREED ZAKARIA: Oh, I would doubt it. Look, in the early 1980s, Norman Podhoretz and the neoconservatives believed the Soviet Union was going to take over the world and Finlandize Europe. When Reagan started talking to the Soviets, started talking to Gorbachev, Mr. Podhoretz excoriated him, called it the "Reagan road to detente" and such.

It turned out he was wrong. It turned out that the Soviets were not that powerful, and that history was on our side, and that things were going to work out as long as we kept our cool.

I believe in just the way that we have deterred the Soviet Union, Mao's China, Kim Jong Il, history will prove that we can use deterrence and containment to contain the problem of Iran and that we do not need to launch a third unilateral invasion just to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fareed Zakaria and Norman Podhoretz...

NORMAN PODHORETZ: God help us if we follow that counsel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Norman Podhoretz, we thank you. Fareed Zakaria, gentlemen, we thank you both very much.