TOPICS > Politics

Tensions Arise Anew Around Iran’s Nuclear, Political Goals

February 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As government backers and opposition protesters rallied in Iran Thursday to mark the 31st anniversary of the country's Islamic Revolution, tensions continued to rise between Tehran and Washington over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on today’s developments, political and nuclear, we go to Reza Aslan, an Iranian-born author and journalist now living in the U.S. He’s a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. Flynt Leverett, who has held posts at the State Department, National Security Council staff, and CIA, he’s now with the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, and he teaches international affairs at Penn State University. And David Albright, a former U.N. nuclear weapons inspector, he’s now president of the Institute for Science and International Security. It produced one of the reports on Iran’s nuclear program cited in today’s Washington Post.

Welcome, gentlemen, to all of you.

Flynt Leverett, beginning with you.

How do you read what you have heard and seen in terms of the video what happened today on the streets in Iran?

FLYNT LEVERETT, senior fellow, New America Foundation: I think it’s further evidence for what I believe has been evidence since last June, namely, that this movement, the Green Movement, the opposition, however you describe it, that this movement doesn’t pose a threat to the fundamental stability of the Islamic republic.

There is no revolution afoot in Iran, and the social base of this movement is not growing; it is, in fact, shrinking. I don’t believe this movement ever had majoritarian support in Iran, but whatever its height of support was in the immediate aftermath of last June’s presidential election, that support base has contracted very significantly.

MARGARET WARNER: Reza Aslan, do you read it that way, that today suggested that the opposition movement may be losing steam?

REZA ASLAN, author, “How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror”: Not at all. On the contrary, I think, if you look at the fact that the government does what it usually does, which is bus in hundreds of thousands of people in the rural villages, give them a free lunch and a few dollars and some flags and some placards, this is pretty standard.

So, I don’t think that the numbers issue is really the — the defining aspect of the strength or the weakness of the so-called Green Movement. What I do think is important, however, is that because of the fact that this movement has lasted much longer than anyone really thought, it’s becoming not just larger, but, more importantly, it’s becoming more diverse.

We’re seeing business leaders, merchants starting to join. Now, as a result of Ahmadinejad’s deliberate attempt to distance himself from the religious leaders, saying quite clearly that — that the supreme leader shouldn’t actually run Iran, you’re getting more and more of the religious classes who are beginning to move towards the protest movement.

And I think even the conservative politicians, who are afraid of the militarization of Iranian politics that Ahmadinejad represents…

MARGARET WARNER: Let’s…

REZA ASLAN: … are beginning to join this movement. So, it’s not going anywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to that, Flynt Leverett? I mean, there are — there is the view that, in fact, the regime just managed to successfully suppress what was going to happen today by controlling all the electronic communication, let’s say?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Look, let’s compare it to when there was a real revolution in Iran in 1978 and ’79 that overthrew the shah.

In the 12 months preceding the shah’s departure from Iran and the founding of the Islamic republic, Iranian security forces and military forces gunned down literally tens of thousands of protesters. Now, in the case of Iran today, since the June 12, 2009, presidential election, there have been clashes between demonstrators and security forces.

A few more than 100 people have been killed in those clashes. Every death is a tragedy, but this is not Tiananmen Square. This is — when you look at what the government could in theory do, this is actually a relatively restrained response in that context. And, under that — under that condition, this movement has actually shrunk.

MARGARET WARNER: Reza Aslan, I want to get back to you in a minute, but let me just bring in David Albright in here.

Mr. Albright, what — meanwhile, on the nuclear front, what do you make of Ahmadinejad’s boast that they have achieved this 20 percent purity enrichment level, particularly after your study found they were having problems?

DAVID ALBRIGHT, president, Institute for Science and International Security: Yes. Well, they — our study found that they are certainly having problems with enriching. They’re not enriching nearly at the level that they would have expected to, based on their own analysis.

But, unfortunately, they’re doing it well enough. And I think, if Iran decided to build nuclear weapons now, that they could produce weapon-grade uranium for those weapons. It may take longer. They may — a lot of centrifuges may fail in the process, but I think they could — and that was a central finding of our study. They could succeed.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Reza Aslan, what did you make of Ahmadinejad’s boast, I mean, in political terms?

REZA ASLAN: Well, understand that this is Iran’s version of the Fourth of July. So, the job of the president is to make these kinds of statements, to tout the successes of the revolution, the things that Iranians can be proud of.

But we have to under — we have to recognize that the statement that Iran is going to start enriching uranium at 20 percent, that it’s going to build 10 more enrichment plants in the next year, are, frankly, laughable. I mean, it took Iran years to build its one site in Natanz. It can barely keep that up and running.

So, this is not just for domestic consumption, but, more importantly, it’s designed to get a response from the West, because, if there’s one thing that all people in Iran, despite their politics or piety, whether in the Green Movement or the pro-government movement, agree on is Iran’s inalienable right to enrich uranium.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree that it’s laughable, David Albright?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, parts of it are. The 10 enrichment plant statements are laughable.

But I think you have to interpret that a little differently. I mean, unfortunately, Iran does build secret sites and has a long history, and then they get caught and then they become public sites.

I would look at the 10…

MARGARET WARNER: Like the one at Qom.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: That’s right.

And, so, I would look at the statement of 10 centrifuges as really a smokescreen. They have been caught at Qom. They want to build another secret site. Today…

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that 20 percent is an idle boast? I mean, the White House said they didn’t find it credible.

DAVID ALBRIGHT: No, no, no, but it’s very tiny — it’s very tiny amounts that they have produced so far. So, that’s — they’re going to produce it slowly. We would expect they would produce it more slowly than what they claim. They’re going to run into problems. They will probably need to bring in more cascades of centrifuges to replace the one that they’re using now.

So, I wouldn’t think — we think it would go slower than they say. But they can do it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Flynt Leverett, put these things together, because the Obama administration has to proceed on both these tracks, on the one hand, the nuclear front, how to stop this program in its tracks.

And, on the other hand, we have seen the administration speaking out more enthusiastically or forcefully on behalf of the pro-democracy movement. How do today’s developments affect the way the administration ought to balance those?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I think the Obama administration goes down a very dangerous path if it lets support for this Green Movement take over its Iran policy.

The Obama administration, the United States, has very, very important objectives vis-a-vis Iran, with the nuclear issue, with Iraq and Afghanistan, with other regional issues. The United States needs to be doing serious strategic business with the Islamic republic as it is, and not as some might wish it to be.

And that’s what the Obama administration needs to be focused on, and not give into what is, frankly, an illusion that Iranian domestic politics are going to produce some government that we are going to find much, much easier to deal with.

MARGARET WARNER: Reza Aslan, do you share that view that, whether it’s today’s demonstrations or what’s happened even in the past eight months, don’t suggest that this 31-year-old regime is going away any time soon?

REZA ASLAN: Nobody is talking about regime change or the collapse of the government.

What we are talking about, however, is an incredibly significant movement, the most significant movement, popular movement, in Iran since the ’79 revolution, that could conceivably create a government that’s more open, more — less internationally isolated, that is more democratic than it is today.

And I think that there is a fear, a delicate balance here that Obama has to be careful of, that his fear of the nuclear situation in Iran doesn’t overshadow or derail what could be a far more significant aspect, which is an Iran that, if not more friendly to the United States, is more integrated to the international community.

MARGARET WARNER: And, David Albright, what’s the latest assessment of the actual timeline by which Iran would have enriched enough uranium and be able to produce a nuclear weapon, if it chose to?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: I think they’re delayed. I don’t think they’re going to be able to do — build a bomb in 2010. I mean, after that, I mean, it really depends on what they’re doing in secret right now.

2011, 2012, if they make the decision, they could — they could succeed, and they could succeed relatively quickly. And, unfortunately, they have also been working on nuclear weapons themselves, deliverable nuclear weapons. And, so…

MARGARET WARNER: You mean the weapons or the — or the delivery vehicles?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, the weapons that would go on the delivery vehicles, namely missiles. I mean, it’s a challenge to put a warhead, nuclear warhead, on a missile, but there — we think — and, again, I think this is shared by European intelligence agencies, increasingly and here in the United States. They — they have resumed work on nuclear weapons.

MARGARET WARNER: So, does that mean, Flynt Leverett, that the administration has to really — I mean, it already says it’s pushing as hard as it can for more intensified sanctions against Iran. Does it, in your view, even make that more urgent?

FLYNT LEVERETT: No, I think sanctions are a dead end. They — they won’t give us strategic leverage over Iranian decision-making, I think will prove counterproductive to what really needs to be done, which is a kind of Nixon-to-China strategic opening with the Islamic republic, in which U.S./Iranian relations are fundamentally realigned and the major bilateral differences between the two countries are put in a strategic framework.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me give Reza Aslan a quick opportunity to respond.

REZA ASLAN: Well, I think that…

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, what would — impact would that have on the opposition movement?

REZA ASLAN: I think that the way that Obama is dealing with the sanctions regime, targeting specifically the businesses run by the Revolutionary Guard, which is, by the way, far more than just a military intelligence apparatus — it is a mafia. It controls about $100 billion — with a B — of Iran’s annual budget.

And the attempt to kind of push back against that as a way of helping the regular businessman, as the Undersecretary of State Stuart Levey said, is probably a good, good move at this point.

MARGARET WARNER: OK, Reza Aslan, thank you so much. We have to leave it there.

David Albright and Flynt Leverett, thank you.