MARGARET WARNER: Now to two journalists covering the latest Iran-U.S. developments. David Sanger has reported on the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program as chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He is in Cairo tonight. And Julian Barnes is a Pentagon reporter for The Wall Street Journal.
And welcome to both of you.
Julian Barnes, let’s start with the really stunning news today, a former U.S. Marine sentenced to death in Iran. What’s the back-story here? What was he doing there?
JULIAN BARNES, The Wall Street Journal: He’s an Iranian-American. He was a Marine who was stationed in Iraq in 2004, and then went back as a contract translator a year later.
His family has said he was simply going to visit his grandmothers, to visit relatives in Iran. But in the current situation, that’s a dangerous thing to do.
MARGARET WARNER: And what’s the U.S. doing to try to get his release?
JULIAN BARNES: Well, there’s not much the U.S. can do. The State Department is asking and pursuing diplomatic channels to try to get him released. We don’t obviously have relations with Iran. That makes it more complex.
But the intersection is — through the Swiss Embassy is pushing for access to him. But it’s going to be a matter of negotiation.
MARGARET WARNER: David Sanger, this is the first American sentenced to death in Iran since the Iranian Revolution. Do you think we have to look at this or do the administration people think you have to look at this in the context of the tensions currently between the U.S. and Iran over the nuclear program?
DAVID SANGER, The New York Times: I certainly think you do.
And when you think about all of the escalations of the past few weeks, you have the United States declaring and Europe some of the toughest oil-related embargoes and penalties, an effort to try to make it much harder for Iran to get oil revenue. This goes right to the security of the state.
You’ve seen the Iranians threaten to close the Straight of Hormuz. And then, of course, you have seen just in the past few days the first operations at Iran’s underground second uranium enrichment plant. And this, of course, is in direct violation of several U.N. Security Council violations — resolutions.
So everything is being escalated. And I suspect the sentence is probably part of that.
MARGARET WARNER: So what is crucial, staying with you, David, what is crucial about today’s — well, it was actually an announcement over the confirmed by the Iranians, confirmed today by the IAEA, about this underground facility at Qom. This facility was already known, has been known for two years. What’s new here?
DAVID SANGER: The facility, Margaret, was actually known to the United States and Israel for a little longer than two years. It was detected during the Bush administration. And President Obama and President Sarkozy of France and Gordon Brown, then the British prime minister, revealed it in public in 2009.
And there were several American officials who said to me at that time that they thought that since it was revealed, the Iranians would never actually use it. They would basically keep it empty. Well, that turned out not to be the case. They’ve begun to install centrifuges. It can hold about 3,000.
They have enriched uranium before, of course, Margaret, but this plant is deep under a mountain on an Iranian Revolutionary Guard base and surrounded by anti-aircraft weapons. So it’s much more secure than anything else they have built and would make it much harder for any military action to take it out.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Julian Barnes, what are people at the Pentagon saying about this? How alarming do they find this news?
JULIAN BARNES: Well, this is alarming to some because as David said, it makes military action much harder.
But today at the Pentagon, you know, the message was one that this is not the point of no return for Iran. President — Mr. Panetta over the weekend said they have not yet made the decision to make a bomb. That’s a crucial point for the Pentagon that — at that point where Iran will have gone too far and taken a step.
And they are making — they’re not there yet. There’s room for negotiation. It’s not now the time for a strike.
MARGARET WARNER: So, David, what do the Americans think is the reason that Iran would have made this announcement this weekend?
DAVID SANGER: Well, it wasn’t exactly a surprise.
I was in Vienna at the IAEA headquarters in December. And at that time the inspectors were talking about the fact that this moment was imminent, just from the visits they have made. But I think that the important thing here is that the Iranians may well have decided that although there’s been no decision to go ahead with a weapon itself, they may want to get everything in order so that they could produce a weapon as quickly as possible, in other words, stay just behind the line of actual weapons production.
That way, they could stay within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the whole world would know and the Middle East would know that in three or six or nine months they could actually produce a bomb. And for their purposes, a virtual bomb might be as useful as a real one.
MARGARET WARNER: So, you mean for political purposes?
DAVID SANGER: It makes a political statement and it also expands Iran’s influence in the region. You know, the Iranians look at Moammar Gadhafi and the overthrow of his regime in Libya. And their analysis, as is the North Korean analysis, is that one of the reasons that the West felt free to join with those attacks and with the rebels was that Gadhafi had announced he was giving up his nuclear weapons program back in 2003.
So it’s very possible that in doing the overthrow in Libya, the United States and its allies in helping that overthrow may have hardened the determination of states like Iran and North Korea to move ahead with a weapons program or at least be ready to.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Julian Barnes, meanwhile, though, in the last — well, this really happened last Thursday, but you had this dramatic story, a kind of good news story of the American Navy rescuing these 13 Iranian fishermen being held hostage by Somali pirates, actually boarding the Iranian ship.
Now, I gather the Pentagon went to some lengths to really publicize this.
JULIAN BARNES: Yes, that’s right.
I mean, there was a snap news conference. They got an admiral who is in charge of the Stennis strike group and a commander who was the skipper of the USS Kidd which actually did the rescue on the phone. They held the news conference.
MARGARET WARNER: This is over the weekend?
JULIAN BARNES: No, they did it on Friday because it began on Thursday and they sort of freed the Iranian fishermen on the morning of Friday. And this was the kind of good news story, as you said, that the Pentagon was looking for.
I mean, their message was all through the crisis of the last week with the rising tensions in the Strait of Hormuz is that the U.S. is there to keep the peace, to be a stabilizing Influence, and also to be good mariners, to rescue people in need.
And this was sort of a perfect moment, an ironic twist to end of rising tensions that they were able to highlight.
MARGARET WARNER: Very briefly, do U.S. officials think this will have any broader implications or bounce on the relationship?
JULIAN BARNES: Not with the government. I think the message is over time that the Iranian people will see that the U.S. is a force for good. But it’s not going to make any difference with Tehran.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Julian Barnes of The Wall Street Journal and David Sanger of The New York Times, thank you both.
JULIAN BARNES: Thank you.