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Israel’s Flirtation with Military Action Against Iran Puts U.S. in Tricky Spot

September 27, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu's comments about drawing a "red line" on Iran's nuclear aspirations added pressure to the U.S. mediation role. Judy Woodruff talks to Georgetown University's Paul Pillar and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Robert Satloff about whether Iran is a threat to Israel and the region.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all of this, we get two views. Paul Pillar had a 28-year career at the CIA, much of it focusing on the Middle East. He’s now a non-resident fellow at Georgetown University.

And Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank.

And we thank you both for being with us again.

Let me start with you, Paul Pillar.

Did you hear something new in what Prime Minister Netanyahu said today?

PAUL PILLAR, former CIA official: Not really.

The prime minister, of course, has been agitating and warning on this subject for quite some time.

And going beyond Mr. Netanyahu, we have seen over the last several years, in fact, progressive projections that Iran is on the verge of a nuclear weapon. Most of those projections have not borne out.

But what we didn’t get in this — in the comments by the prime minister was really a clear sense of what his preferred red line would be. If we take literally what he did with his red marker on his prop, it would suggest he’s say no 90 percent enrichment, that is to say, weapons-grade enrichment of uranium.

But he also said in his remarks that he didn’t want Iran to complete — that’s his words — the medium stage, which refers to 20 percent enrichment. And that leaves open what complete means.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it clear, Robert Satloff, what red line he’s talking about?

ROBERT SATLOFF, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Well, I think it’s very useful, what the prime minister did because it cleared up a major ambiguity that separates the United States and Israel on the objective of stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The president, President Obama, has said he wants to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. But what does that mean in practice?

And what the prime minister did today was say that, for Israel, it’s not the weapon that matters. It is stopping them earlier than that.

It is the enrichment process, that there’s a point in the enrichment process that we have to stop them, which injects I think an important element of clarity into the debate about the overall objective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying there was something new there?

ROBERT SATLOFF: I think it’s very useful, in fact, that he helped clarify the Israeli view that the definition of prevention, of stopping a nuclear weapon doesn’t mean just before you turn the screw on the final device.

It has to mean — to be effective, it has to mean earlier in the enrichment process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is that significant? You started out saying you didn’t really hear anything new, but maybe that is?

PAUL PILLAR: Well, we have been hearing about red lines for quite some time from the prime minister. And he hasn’t specified exactly what it is.

It’s been clear to all that uranium enrichment is the long pole in the tent, as the analysts say.

But I think he still left vague as to exactly whether he’s talking about no 90 percent or — and I don’t think he’d be satisfied just with that, because Iran is not doing 90 percent enrichment now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, the language he said — he said, they are well into the second stage of enriching what he called enough medium-enriched uranium. And that’s something that he said would be finished next year.

PAUL PILLAR: Well, it won’t be finished next year.

Let’s be more specific. The International Atomic Energy Agency in its report last month said that Iran has produced 189 kilograms of this medium-enriched uranium, the 20 percent.

Over half of that is already in the process of being converted to fuel plates for the Tehran research reactor.

So they have only about 91 kilograms right now, which is less than half of what you would need even if you went to the additional step of 90 percent enrichment, which they are not doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying it’s not as close as what he described.

Robert Satloff, how did you hear that?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, actually, I heard it somewhat differently, because what Paul’s comments don’t incorporate are, A., facilities of which we’re not aware, B., an increase in the number of centrifuges that would increase the amount produced, and, C., the possibility that Iran uses more advanced centrifuges between now and some future date that would make more product more quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying there’s more capacity there than what is known?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, not that I’m — it’s not as though I know a secret.

But what I’m saying is, even at current levels of production, the Iranians could achieve amount needed for a nuclear weapon some time in 2013.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why isn’t that correct?

PAUL PILLAR: Because it doesn’t take into account, among other things, of the fuel that was already made or is in the process of being made for the research reactor. That basically cut in half their stockpile, if you want to call it that, of the medium researched — medium-enriched uranium. Moreover…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that makes a significant difference?

PAUL PILLAR: That’s a significant difference. So they aren’t close to the amount they would need if they took the more significant step of doing 90 percent weapons-grade enrichment.

And if they did that, the IAEA would — the inspectors would know it immediately.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But — not to get too hung up on this point, but you’re saying you don’t — you don’t accept that description?

ROBERT SATLOFF: I’m saying, at the current pace of production, in 2013, the Iranians will achieve enough for a nuclear weapon. That, the IAEA doesn’t dispute.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, let’s go back to this question of what’s the difference between what the prime minister said today and what President Obama said two days. What’s the difference in the two positions?

PAUL PILLAR: The difference is, President Obama has said no nuclear weapon.

And as Rob I think is correctly underscoring, the prime minister is talking about something short of that with regard to the uranium enrichment.

I think it’s still vague as to exactly where the line is, but those are two different things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the difference?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, I think it’s not so much a difference, as clarity on what it means to prevent a nuclear weapon. Of course, if they’re just about to turn the screw, it’s too late to bomb them and prevent that.

So what Prime Minister Netanyahu did was offer Israel’s view of what a definition of prevention, a goal to which both governments agree, what a definition would really be in practice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was also reading today that there is some disagreement inside Netanyahu’s own government, that the Foreign Ministry issued a report, Israeli Foreign Ministry, today concluding that the economic sanctions are hitting Iran hard, calling for another round of economic sanctions.

Is that significant?

PAUL PILLAR: The economic sanctions are hitting Iran. The Iranian economy is in trouble.

And, basically, the reason why we haven’t seen results, if you will, with regard to the Iranian negotiating position is that the P5 plus one has not put on the table anything in the way of…

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is a group of countries that has been meeting.

PAUL PILLAR: The United States and the other five powers that have been negotiating have not put on the table significant sanctions related, basically no sanctions related, other than the airplane parts.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, here, I disagree with Paul very much.

I think the economic sanctions have been a wonderful success and an abysmal failure.

They have been a wonderful success at raising the economic cost to the Iranians. But if their real goal is to compel the Iranians to change their nuclear policy, they have had no visible impact.

And so that’s the rub. The assumption of sanctions is that they will have an impact on Iranian nuclear policy. So far, that hasn’t borne out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what the prime minister said today.

PAUL PILLAR: Yes. They haven’t borne out because the other side is not offering any significant in the one area which is the main reason Iran has to negotiate, and that has to do with relief from sanctions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do we go from here? The prime minister said today, just finally, early — that next spring — there could be military action as soon as next spring. Is that what you heard?

ROBERT SATLOFF: I have heard him say that there will be, up until next spring, a big push to push more for sanctions and push more for diplomacy to resolve it and that there is a point, most likely by next spring or early summer, that perhaps military action is called for.

And so I think what you heard is a plea: World, step up your game. If you think the economic sanctions are going to do — make the difference, make them tougher. Otherwise, other action is necessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did you hear that?

PAUL PILLAR: If nothing else is placed on the table, sanctions themselves won’t do anything. It’s a matter of — one hopes, if you’re asking me for how we get out of this, it would be a second term by Obama, or, if it were a President Romney, working with the other P5 plus one powers to put something on the table that does give Iran an incentive to strike a deal.

And the kind of deal that is very strikeable would be one that substantially curtails or eliminates altogether the 20 percent enrichment, not just 90 percent enrichment, the 20 percent enrichment, if it means relief from sanctions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Questions continue.

Gentlemen, we thank you both, Robert Satloff, Paul Pillar. Thank you.

And, online, Margaret Warner writes how Netanyahu, in setting a red line for Iran, was also trying to set another sort of red line for the United States. Find her blog post on the Rundown.

You can see all of the Israeli prime minister’s address and other highlights of the day on our website.