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Are U.S. and Iran Veering Toward War?

January 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Riding on more sanctions and rhetoric, tensions between the U.S. and Iran continue to escalate. Margaret Warner discusses whether the U.S. and Iran appear to be sliding into war with Tufts University's Vali Nasr and Dennis Ross, who served in the National Security Council and State Department in four administrations.
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MARGARET WARNER: So, are the U.S. and Iran sliding to war?

We explore that now with Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. Until last year, he was a senior adviser at the State Department. And Dennis Ross, who served in the National Security Council and State Department in four administrations, most recently, he advised President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton on Iran and the Middle East.

Welcome to you both.

Professor Nasr, beginning with you.

So the basic question: Do you think the U.S. and Iran are sliding toward some sort of military conflict?

VALI NASR, former State Department official: I think we are in a place where we haven’t been with Iran before.

We are in a situation that the two countries have no relations with one another. There’s no hot line between them. There is a great deal of pressure on Iran. And the Iranians for the first time have begun to react to this pressure by threatening either closing the Straits of Hormuz, putting economic pressure on the West, or as they did in response to the killing of a scientist in Iran, that they may retaliate even outside of the Middle East.

And in this kind of a situation, you may end up in war not because the United States decides that it’s time to hit Iranian nuclear targets, but because you might have a misunderstanding or a situation of escalation that gets into a conflict.

MARGARET WARNER: How big a danger do you think that is, Dennis Ross, even if it’s not intended, that these tensions ratchet higher and higher, and could lead to even an involuntary escalation?

DENNIS ROSS, former U.S. envoy to Middle East: Well, I don’t think you ever take threats lightly, particularly not when they come from the Iranians.

But I also think that you take a step back and you take a look at the situation. It is true the Iranians are under much greater pressure than ever before. It’s true they’re responding with a lot of bluster and making their own sets of threat because of that pressure.

But, by that same taken, at the same time they make those threats, they make it clear they’re prepared to return to talks with the five-plus-one, the permanent five members of the Security Council and Germany. They make it clear by the same token that they’re inviting now the IAEA to come in, a delegation to come to Iran, and they will address questions that the IAEA has been posing.

So not withstanding the fact that you have a heightened level of rhetoric and you certainly have the imagery of a crisis, you also have the Iranians at the same time sending mixed signals.

MARGARET WARNER: Vali Nasr, what about that? They have been signals in the last couple of weeks that they’re ready to resume talks.

VALI NASR: Well, the reason Iran is both sending signals that they’re ready to resume talks and also is heightening the rhetoric is to deter the United States from going forward with these much tougher sanctions.

So, on the one side, they are holding the prospect that there might be talks. On the other side, they are sending signals that there is a cost to be paid by the West if they go through with sanctions. So, they have a strategy here. And the strategy is to prevent the sanctions from going forward.

But if talks do not yield results in a very, very short order, the United States is going to move ahead with talks, and then, you know, the Iranians are basically left to react to an entire situation which can cut off their oil income, cut them out of the oil markets in the long run. And I think then there is a certain incentive for them to rock the boat.

MARGARET WARNER: And by rock the boat, just briefly, do you think that the conflict at the Strait of Hormuz is really where they would first lash out if the pressure were too intense?

VALI NASR: Well, just threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz can keep escalating oil prices and have an impact on European and American economies.

But they also could try to cause trouble in using Hezbollah in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and, as they have threatened, outside of the region. I think we’re at a point where Iran has made a decision that the best way to deal with Western pressure is by showing a very tough, uncompromising, threatening face.

And that’s a very risky maneuver. At some point, the Iranians may feel compelled to actually act on those threats.

MARGARET WARNER: Dennis Ross, clearly, the administration was worried enough about this to send this letter to Khamenei warning of any funny business in the Strait of Hormuz.

Is it risky that — whether it’s the Revolutionary Guard or some faction could lash out in a way that would destabilize oil prices?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think there’s the reality that the command-and-control situation on the Iranian side is not always such a good one.

And we know, if you go back to the war between Iraq and Iran and things that were done in the Gulf at the time, sometimes, the Revolutionary Guard acted very much on its own. Having said that, I suspect — I don’t know that a letter was sent. I’m — I would be very surprised if there weren’t messages that were conveyed.

And I also think the Iranians talking about such messages is another way for them to say, the Americans are now dealing with us, and this is a way to deal with I think some of their own internal audiences and constituencies.

So I think what you have right now is the administration doing what is also prudent. You don’t want any kind of confrontation through inadvertence. You don’t want the Iranians to miscalculate and think they can do certain things and it won’t have a consequence. So you convey messages that are very clear that spells out, look, you take this step, you are going to deal with a set of consequence which you are not going to be happy about.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, but let me ask you this, because many, Professor Nasr, also Gary Sick, the noted Iran expert, has said, if you hamstring their Central Bank, and the U.S. persuades all these other big customers not to buy Iranian oil, that could be thought of as an act of war on the part of the Iranians.

Is that a danger?

DENNIS ROSS: I think there’s a context here. The context is that the Iranians continue to pursue a nuclear program. And unmistakably to many, that is a nuclear program whose purpose is to achieve nuclear weapons.

That has a very high danger, a very high consequence. So the idea that they could continue with that and not realize that at some point they have to make a choice, and if they don’t make the choice, the price they’re going to pay is a very high one, that’s the logic of increasing the pressure.

And there is a history, by the way, of when the Iranians are under pressure, that they look for ways out. It isn’t to say there’s no risk here. Of course there’s a risk here. But you also have to think about what’s the risk of not changing their behavior on the nuclear program.

MARGARET WARNER: Vali Nasr, respond to that, if you would like.

But, otherwise, let me ask you, is there a point at which — I mean, while all this is going on and the sanctions are biting on Iran, still, they continue to make progress on their nuclear program. Is there a point at which the military option is no longer viable?

VALI NASR: Well, we could actually assume that even now. The Iranians may have passed the point where a simple strike on their facilities would actually end this program, especially if they are taking their program into hidden sites within mountains outside of the city of Qom.

But I think, you know, the key issue that Dennis raised and we have to deal with is that, for the past two, three years, sanctions have been a fairly stable strategy of putting pressure on Iran. In other words, there was an assumption that the more they hurt economically, the more likely it is that they would engage the international community on the nuclear issue.

That hasn’t happened. We’ve now reached a point where the sanctions are no longer stable and they’re no longer really an alternative either to going to war or to engaging Iran much more systematically diplomatically. So, we have to sort of sit back and rethink this strategy. Clearly, Iran is under a lot of pressure, but the sanctions are not working in the way they did before.

And they’re not stable in terms of averting conflict, not hurting the international economic situation, not impacting oil prices. So, you know, for us to persist on this strategy, assuming that there’s no blowback, there’s no cost to us, and that there is no risk of conflict there, I think, is not prudent.

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I certainly think you don’t pursue a strategy where you don’t take into account the risks. Obviously you take into account the risks.

One of the reasons that you’ve also seen the kind of development of capabilities that Secretary Panetta referred to is, we needed to put ourselves in a position where the Iranians would understand.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about U.S. military capability. . .

DENNIS ROSS: We have these kinds of options. We can manage certain kinds of risks.

The point is, if you’re trying to induce the Iranians into giving up their nuclear program, pretty hard to do that because they value that program more than any inducements that you can offer. We have made efforts to reach out to them. We have made efforts to pursue negotiations with them. They have resisted all of those.

So the natural correlation, or at least the natural complement to that is, you build the pressure, and you build the pressure to the point where they decide it’s in their interest to find a way out. No guarantees in this, because the fact is, they do seem bent on a certain path.

That said, their history also tells — tells me, at least, that when they find the prices too high, as they measure it, they look for ways out.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. To be continued.

Dennis Ross, Vali Nasr, thank you both.

VALI NASR: Thank you.