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March 18, 2005



PAUL GIGOT: On the first leg of her trip to Asia this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed for more help from Pakistan in trying to figure out how close Iran is to making nuclear weapons. At issue is how much help Iran has received from a rogue Pakistani scientist. This comes only days after the Bush administration switched signal, and said it would join Britain, France and Germany in offering economic incentives for Iran to stop all enrichment of uranium. The Europeans have agreed that if Iran refuses to give up the ability to make nuclear material, they will join the United States in asking for United Nations sanctions on Iran.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well the key here was to establish with our European allies a common agenda, a common approach to the issue of getting the Iranians to live up to the international obligations which they have undertaken. And again, let's just be reminded that the Iranians have an obligation to demonstrate that they are not trying, under cover of civilian nuclear power development, to develop a nuclear weapon.

PAUL GIGOT: The Iranians said this week they would not give up their uranium enrichment program, but promised to provide what they called "objective guarantees" that their work was not going to produce nuclear weapons.

And once again this week, there was a report that Israel has drawn up plans to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if diplomacy fails. Israel's foreign minister said the prospect of Iran with nuclear weapons is "a nightmare." The Times of London claimed that Israel's plans have been discussed with American officials, who indicated they would not stand in Israel's way if negotiations with Iran fail.

Rob, is there any doubt among serious analysts who follow this issue, that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon?

ROB POLLOCK: No, I don't think there's really any doubt, and I have that straight from officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency. One of the things that we just found out from the Pakistanis is, we got confirmation of what we all suspected, which was that they got probably what's called the package, from AQ Khan, particularly they got advanced centrifuges for enriching uranium.

PAUL GIGOT: And AQ Khan is the scientist who sold that package to, for example, Libya.

ROB POLLOCK: That's right. And in fact, one of the ways we found out what the package was, is we saw what the Libyans got. And that's helped us immensely in going after the uranium program.

The other new revelation about Iran that is just coming out this morning is, we're learning that Ukraine, apparently, dealers in Ukraine sold them 12 3,000-kilometer-range cruise missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. That's a really, really big deal.

PAUL GIGOT: There was also a story in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL on Friday that described how the Iranians apparently, according to American intelligence, have adapted their missiles to be able to put -- their intercontinental missiles -- to be able to have a black box, as they said, that looks like it would be able to contain a nuclear warhead. Do you agree with Rob on this, that there's no doubt?

BRET STEPHENS: It's absolutely clear, and you have to be an ostrich to deny that this is what the Iranians are after. I mean, they're designing missiles that don't make sense for conventional type explosives, that only make sense for a nuclear package. And this is a nuclear package that they could put on top of a ballistic missile that could hit not only Israel, but eventually will be able to hit Western Europe and some day it's going to be able to hit the United States.

ROB POLLOCK: And now on top of the cruise missile.

PAUL GIGOT: What about their argument, though, that they need nuclear plants for energy purposes?

BRET STEPHENS: Well I mean that's a joke. Iran is one of the greatest producers of oil. It's economically ridiculous for them to pursue a 16 billion dollar program in nuclear energy when they have all the energy that they need.

JASON RILEY: And you have to be skeptical of the Bush Administration's strategy here. I mean, they want to help Germany and France and Britain pressure Iran, present a sort of united front here, make sure they don't violate the treaty again. If they do, we'll get tough with them, and then we're hoping that the Europeans will join us in clamping down, after giving Iran one more chance.

And you have to be skeptical because we already tried this with Iraq, and we went through the resolution issue. Again, the Europeans promised we'll get tough on Iraq soon. They had no intention of getting tough. Why would they have any intention of getting tough here in Iran? Their track record doesn't show that they're inclined to.

ROB POLLOCK: There's two critical questions to keep an eye on here, related -- "when is enough, enough?" and "when does no mean no?" I mean, it's not that the international process has not been useful. It has been. We have gotten the inspectors into Iran. We've learned things about Iran. But one of the things we've learned is that they keep lying to us. So when is that charade going to end?

The second question, "when does no mean no?" We've put this package of incentives in conjunction with the Europeans in front of Iran now, and they've said, "No, it's insignificant. We're not interested." I mean, what is the standard? When can we take no for an answer? I mean, are we going to have to tie these people down in a sort of Regis Filbin final answer chair and --

PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, but you talk to administration officials and they say, look, we've got, the president was over in Europe a couple of weeks ago and he talked to these leaders personally, and they promised him, each in turn -- Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Jacques Chirac in France -- and they said, look, we are committed -- we agree with you Mr. President. Iran should not get a nuclear weapon and will not be allowed to. That's not nothing as a commitment. They also, administration officials say, look, Europeans promised to join us in banning Iran, raising the ante in essence and saying, not just uranium enrichment for military purposes, but banning all uranium enrichment, even for civilian purposes. Bret, is this worth nothing?

BRET STEPHENS: Yes. It's worth nothing. And I'll tell you why. First of all, when Jacques Chirac tells you that the Iranian nuclear program is unacceptable, he simply means it's rude. The second point is, what are we getting from European cooperation? Hypothetically, what we're getting is, if we go and offer the Iranians a package of incentives, if they say no, if they continue to lie to us as they have before, what are we going to do? We're going to refer this to the U.N. Security Council. Well what happens then? (a) It's quite possible nothing happens because the Russians might not go along or the China might go along with sanctions. And even (b) if you do get sanctions, what exactly does that achieve?

One of the things that we've found out about the Iranians is they are many steps ahead. They are consistently steps ahead of where we thought they were. So when we say, oh, we think they might achieve a nuclear capability in 18 months, in two years, they might be able to achieve a nuclear capability in six months, or nine months. And at that point --

PAUL GIGOT: But wait a minute. The American officials are saying, look, it's going to be so much better, particularly after the bitter experience that we had in Iraq where we were divided from our main allies in confronting a difficult problem. This time wouldn't it be better to see if we can get a united front against them? And let's make some tactical concessions now in the hope of having a united front down the road.

PAUL GIGOT: Bribing rogue regimes has no history of working. And we're trying to bribe Iran here with entering into the World Trade Organization, some commercial aircraft. It doesn't work in North Korea, it's not going to work in Iran. Bribing the bad guys doesn't work.

BRET STEPHENS: Also, we have to ask ourselves, what really is our goal here? Is our goal here to have some kind of transatlantic unity on an issue, because we think that's important? Or is our goal to prevent Iran at all costs from acquiring a nuclear weapon, even if we have to be rude? I would argue that's the goal. And I think we're sacrificing the one for the other.

JASON RILEY: And it's absolutely critical to keep in mind that high level diplomats at two of the three European countries we're dealing with -- Germany and Britain -- have been heard to say, not in public to reporters, but to say rather openly in Washington, we just have to get used to the fact that Iran is going to have the bomb.

BRET STEPHENS: The first capital, virtually the first capital that Jack Straw, British foreign minister, went to after 9/11, was Tehran.

PAUL GIGOT: Bret, what about these reports that the Israelis do have plans to attack Iran's nuclear facilities? Can you credit those at all? Do you think that they're serious?

BRET STEPHENS: Well, I don't put that much stock in them for a couple of reasons. First of all, of course the Israelis have contingency plans to attack the Iranians. Every serious military has contingency plans for these kinds of emergencies. Secondly, it's clearly there's a sort of diplomacy at work here, which is to say, if this continues we don't know what wild card Israel is going to do.

Thirdly, quite frankly, I think it's easy to overestimate Israel's capabilities to take out the Iranian side. It's not like the operation in 1981 when --

JASON RILEY: Osirak, in Iraq.

BRET STEPHENS: In Osirak, when Israel took out Saddam Hussein's lone nuclear reactor. We have a much farther range, a great dispersal of sites, they're buried. This is not really the kind of operation that Israel could easily undertake by itself.

PAUL GIGOT: But is this something that they could do with the help of U.S. intelligence much more effectively?

BRET STEPHENS: Well, I think it's something the U.S. could do with the help of Israeli intelligence. One of the things that -- Israel has a large Persian community, Farsi is a language that's spoken all over Israel. As a matter of fact, one of the most popular radio stations in Iran is Israeli radio. That's sort of their version of Voice of America. Israel has excellent intelligence in Iran. Does it have the logistical capability? I'm not so sure.

PAUL GIGOT: We don't have much time, but I want to quickly ask each of you just to say, are we going to see a confrontation between the United States and Iran? And in joining with our allies against Iran in the next four years on their nuclear program?

BRET STEPHENS: I'd say it's 80 percent likely.


ROB POLLOCK: I think it's a nuclear program. There is going to be a confrontation. Whether the allies are going to be with us, that's an open question. I'm not so sure about that.

PAUL GIGOT: And Jason?

JASON RILEY: I'd agree with Rob. I don't know if we can count on Europe. We couldn't count on them in Iraq. I don't know if we'll be able to count on them in Iran.

PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, I think you're right about that. But it's nice to be known in this group as the dove. All right, next subject.