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World Faces Tough Choices on Iran’s Nuclear Program

September 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Rahm Emanuel tells PBS' Charlie Rose that Iran knows the choices it faces in the global community due to its nuclear ambitions. Also, analysts tell Jim Lehrer that Iran's 'tactical' decisions continue to frustrate the world.

JIM LEHRER: And still to come on the NewsHour tonight: the Pittsburgh summit; and the success of “The Lost Symbol.”

That follows analysis of the continuing confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. Last night, President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, discussed with Charlie Rose on PBS the options Iran faces.

RAHM EMANUEL, White House Chief of Staff: Iran has a choice to make whether they want to be a responsible member of the international community and what are the enticements to be part of that or one that’s more of a pariah.

CHARLIE ROSE: Does that choice have to be made and how will it be expressed before there is serious engagement between the United States and Iran?

RAHM EMANUEL: You work on both levels simultaneously. They know there are consequences — there are opportunities to being a member of the international community, and there’s consequences to acting as a state that doesn’t take the responsibilities as a member of the international community.

CHARLIE ROSE: What is our message to the Israelis if they decide they want to take military action at some point?

RAHM EMANUEL: That I wouldn’t do, even though I would like to do it, but that’s that.

CHARLIE ROSE: What would you like to say?

RAHM EMANUEL: No way. That is — that is not something I’m going to comment on here.

CHARLIE ROSE: OK. But the message to Iran: If, in fact, you show, which is a condition, if, in fact, you show that you want to be a part of the community of nations, we’re prepared to engage you on all bilateral relationships that exist, whether it has to do with you stopping enriching nuclear fuel…

RAHM EMANUEL: A nuclearized Iran is a threat to the region and…

CHARLIE ROSE: Everybody knows that. Everybody knows that.

RAHM EMANUEL: But as the president was quite clear in both bilat meetings, as well as he’s been in his communication to the Iranian government, they have a choice to make. They know the opportunities of those choices and the consequences of those choices.

And they will — but what will not happen is, as the president said, merely talking for the sake of talking. They know, as Yogi Berra once said, when you get to a fork in the road, take it. They’re coming upon that place where they have to take — choose what type of country they’re going to be.

CHARLIE ROSE: OK, now, how do they make that choice? I just want to stay with — what’s the choice they have to make?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, Charlie, maybe — Charlie, maybe you need to get them here to talk. That’s not my responsibility, to represent the Iranian people, because…

CHARLIE ROSE: Yes, but it is to communicate what you think the choice that the government has to make in order to be engaged by the United States.

RAHM EMANUEL: Right. Well, it’s not just — it’s not engagement for the sake of engagement.


RAHM EMANUEL: It’s they understand that, as it relates to a nuclear Iran, what are the consequences of that choice? Now, they know what they have to do. They know what the P5-plus-one is expecting.

CHARLIE ROSE: They know because we’ve told them?

RAHM EMANUEL: It’s been…

CHARLIE ROSE: Been communicated to them?

RAHM EMANUEL: They are aware of the issues that are at play, but it’s not just a issue. There’s a series of issues that relate to what — the opportunity of what engagement means and the opportunity of being a country that is not engaged and is acting…

CHARLIE ROSE: And it also has to do with Israeli-Palestinian issues?

RAHM EMANUEL: A whole host of issues that — and there’s a whole host of issues — they understand them. They, as you know, communicated once a willingness with the United States to discuss the range of issues, both in the region and their role in that.

CHARLIE ROSE: Do you think they could be helpful on Afghanistan, the Iranians?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, there’s no — yes, they can. They could be helpful. As you know, there’s — Secretary Holbrooke participated in an international conference earlier in the year in which they attended.

CHARLIE ROSE: And could they have…

RAHM EMANUEL: And they have interests there, as well, in a stable Afghanistan.

CHARLIE ROSE: Oh, they’re very interested in that, and they are not a friend of the Taliban.

RAHM EMANUEL: You know the history as well as I do.

Engaging Iranian scientists

David Kay
Former U.N. Weapons Inspector
It's going to be hard not to pick up the offer to talk to Iranian scientists. After all, at the depths of the Cold War, this was one of the things we did with the Soviet Union, and over time it bore fruit.

JIM LEHRER: You can see all of Charlie's interview by going to a link to his Web site from ours, which, of course, is

Now, for more on the confronting and engaging of Iran, we go to Ray Takeyh. He advised the Obama administration on Iran policy earlier this year. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is "The Guardians of the Revolution: Iran's Approach to the World."

And David Kay, he was the U.N.'s chief nuclear weapons inspector in Iraq in the 1990s. He led the search for weapons of mass destruction after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 for the Bush administration. He's now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

David Kay, so, you take those words from Rahm Emanuel and all the other words that were spoken at the U.N. and around the U.N. in the last few days, what's changed, if anything?

DAVID KAY: I'm not sure very much has changed. I mean, what you -- the most immediate change has been a new Iranian diplomatic initiative of trying, offering up their scientists, which has been a demand of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for years, to talk to the Iraqis -- the Iranian scientists directly, and they have refused.

JIM LEHRER: And that came in the interview with the Washington Post. Ahmadinejad said that, yes.

DAVID KAY: That's correct. And his second one was he would like to have the U.S. supply him uranium, enriched to 20 percent, for a reactor that is run at the University of Tehran. This is a reactor, incidentally, that the United States supplied under the Eisenhower Atoms for Peace program in the mid-1960s, and then it was fueled with high-enriched uranium.

These are, in my view, stratagems, stratagems of engagement, that will, in fact, over time make it very difficult if we -- it's going to be hard not to pick up the offer to talk to Iranian scientists. After all, at the depths of the Cold War, this was one of the things we did with the Soviet Union, and over time it bore fruit.

But to do that at the same time, you go ahead with new sanctions, I think is going to be very hard. That's the game the Iranians play. They understand seams.


DAVID KAY: Seams in our diplomacy.

Diplomacy without concessions

Ray Takeyh
Council on Foreign Relations
This actually could succeed, in the sense there's no possible way the United States is not going to engage Iran.

JIM LEHRER: Is that what you -- you see it the same way, Mr. Takeyh?

RAY TAKEYH, Council on Foreign Relations: Yes, I would agree with that, with one provision. I think the scientist meeting is a little less than meets the eye, because I think the scientists are supposed to meet to figure out how to get the enriched uranium and have a discussion -- sort of a track two discussion among the scientists, as opposed to answering about Iran's nuclear infractions and its past misdeeds...

JIM LEHRER: And it shouldn't be accused with an inspection.

RAY TAKEYH: Right. That's right.

JIM LEHRER: It's not going to be an inspection, the same kind of thing that David Kay did, yes.

RAY TAKEYH: It's a meeting of scientists, not the IAEA scientists...

DAVID KAY: That's correct.

RAY TAKEYH: ... but the different category of scientists. I think the Iranian strategy is becoming apparent, as David suggested, namely to offer tactical accommodations, such as the meeting of scientists and offer of engagements, which is broad-based and rather inconclusive, without making any sort of concessions on the basics of the nuclear program, its size, its scope, and its past activities.

And this actually could succeed, in the sense there's no possible way the United States is not going to engage Iran. We have said we're going to meet on October the 1st. And that process...

JIM LEHRER: That's already scheduled?

RAY TAKEYH: That's already scheduled. And the question is, can Iranians drag out that process in a rather inconclusive way by making slight modifications?

JIM LEHRER: So I'm going to ask you the impossible question. What in the world are they up to? I mean, what does this add up to? I know you don't know what they're up to. Nobody does. But what does it look like they're up to, just delaying things?

RAY TAKEYH: Yes, I think it's a tactic to advance the program and sort of create facts on the ground, and once you create facts on the ground, suggest those facts are irreversible. So if they can continue to advance the program while continuing to have these inconclusive talks, then you have certain situations come about which they will suggest, "We're not going to talk about what we have already, but we talk about future arrangements." Meantime, the program expands in size and sophistication.

JIM LEHRER: And, meantime, the program continues. And where do you think it is right now, David Kay? The question everybody wants to know is, where are they?

DAVID KAY: How long will it take them?

JIM LEHRER: How long will it take for them to have a bomb?

Two years away from a bomb

David Kay
Former U.N. Weapons Inspector
I think one weapon, one device, which is not necessarily really a weapon, one device that would explode somewhere in a desert, they're probably two years away from being able to do it.

DAVID KAY: Well, I think one weapon, one device, which is not necessarily really a weapon, one device that would explode somewhere in a desert, they're probably two years away from being able to do it. But one device is not significant in terms of really anything in terms of a program. You've got to have a warhead that will work on a missile, that is small enough to work on a missile, and that is dependable.

As I've said several times, you can't Photoshop out a missile that doesn't go off that has a nuclear warhead headed for any place in the Middle East. I think they're 10 years away from having that sort of military program, so I think we have time. But I'm convinced that they're headed -- that's the direction they're going on. They want to gain time.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any question in your mind that that's where they're headed?

RAY TAKEYH: The nuclear weapons program?


RAY TAKEYH: No. I think the IAEA has suggested some of the experiments they have conducted, some of the missile technologies they have developed, the mysterious computer lab with sort of a data regarding nuclear weapons designs, and the fact that the country that is rich in oil and natural gas is spending an inordinate amount of money on nuclear programs, while it doesn't actually have an indigenous uranium capacity.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you say "they," of course, the Iranians.

RAY TAKEYH: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: Fit Ahmadinejad into this. What kind of power does he exercise after all of the stuff still going on, the protests over his election?

RAY TAKEYH: I think he's actually strong internally, in terms of the fact that the category of individuals who are in power in Iran has narrowed. The regime has gone through some degree of ideological purges, so more moderate elements and reformist elements have been excised from power, so he's actually in a more commanding situation.

He's probably, in my opinion, the second most important person in Iran, despite the fact that he came to power with electoral irregularities and deficiencies. His position is -- in terms of institutions of Iran, is rather strong.

JIM LEHRER: Second only to Khamenei, the...

RAY TAKEYH: That's right, the supreme leader, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that when Ahmadinejad speaks, he speaks for Iran?

DAVID KAY: I think the evidence that we have available -- and we ought to be frank. There's a lot about Iran we don't know. There's no foreign service officer, no member of the intelligence community serving today who has ever served in Iran.

It's an order of magnitude different than, for example, the Soviet Union, where we had a large number of Americans who had served there. We know very little about a very opaque political process. But on the basis of the evidence we have, I think, yes, he's in a strong position.

Sanctions 'rather irrelevant'

Ray Takeyh
Council on Foreign Relations
The sanctions issue is rather irrelevant, because this particular Iranian regime doesn't put premium on economic growth.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Finally, when they talk about sanctions, and increasing sanctions, and maybe the Russians might go along, and maybe they won't, but President Obama is determined to increase the sanctions, what kind of sanctions would actually hurt Iran?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, the kind of sanctions that would hurt Iran are the kind of sanctions that would hurt the population of Iran, which has its own difficulties in terms of restricting the amount of petroleum that the country imports. I mean, what you're talking about is cutting people's heating oil in winter and other such impositions on its banking system, financial system.

JIM LEHRER: And that could be done by a multinational...

RAY TAKEYH: I don't see that happening. As a matter of fact, there was the French foreign minister that disparaged that particular sanction, perhaps unbeknownst to his own president.

Also, the sanctions issue is rather irrelevant, because this particular Iranian regime doesn't put premium on economic growth. They put premium on strategic gain. So even if you manage to successfully impose a sanctions regime on them that is coercive and painful, it is unlikely to change their fundamental nuclear objectives.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, David?

DAVID KAY: I think that's right.


DAVID KAY: And one difficulty of the fuel oil or gasoline sanction on them that very few people think of, but what happens when the Iranians turn to their next door neighbor, the Shia government in Iraq, and say, "We'd like to have some gasoline from you"? You know, perfectly possible move, because what it would embarrass and hurt the most is the U.S. relationship with the Iraqis.

So I think there are a lot of ways out. I think that's a non-starter. I actually think, if you look at Ahmadinejad's statements at the U.N., what he has really done is made it very difficult for the U.S. to get a coalition that includes the Chinese and the Russians and even the Germans, who have a very different policy than the French, to go along with really tough sanctions at the same time that on the table we have an offer to engage our scientists, we have an offer to, you know, come in and help us with a medical reactor, isotope reactor.

I think these are things that are going to be seen by states that don't want to endorse tough sanctions as an opening. Let's engage the process.

JIM LEHRER: So, gentlemen, are you saying they're winning this game?

RAY TAKEYH: Iranians have been winning this game since 2005. They have managed to advance their program with impunity. Everybody, since 2005, every nation has changed its red lines, including the United States. The one country that has not has been the Islamic Republic of Iran.

DAVID KAY: Jim, if you looked at the number of red lines in the desert that have been crossed since 2005, you'd have a pink desert line between us and the Iranians. We have drawn so many red lines that have been obliterated by a really smart, tactically smart Iranian foreign policy.

JIM LEHRER: So we continue to draw lines, they're going to continue to turn pinker, is that what you're saying?

DAVID KAY: I think that's where we are.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Gentlemen, thank you very much.