The Journal Editorial Report | August 19, 2005 | PBS
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briefing and opinion
August 19, 2005

Truth or Tactic?
An Iranian woman holds the Koran during a rally at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility

An Iranian woman holds the Koran during a rally at the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility to support Iran's nuclear program August 16, 2005. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

Iran and The Bomb
1. Nuclear Energy Controls
2. Q&A: Six Key Questions
3. IAEA & Diplomacy
4. Editorial Cartoons
5. Photo Essay
Long negotiations and generous offers of help from the Europeans have failed to stop Iran from starting up its nuclear plant. The Iranians say they are interested only in a source of energy, not nuclear weapons. The Bush Administration is not convinced. The question is: what next?

Recently, Iranian students encircled the Isfahan plant in support of the government decision to resume its nuclear program, and as a symbolic defense of the site against an attack. It was a reminder of what happened in 1981, when Iraq -- also an avowed threat to Israel -- warned that its Osirak nuclear reactor was intended to be used "against the Zionist entity." Israel jets took just 80 seconds to destroy the Iraqi nuclear plant 18 miles south of Baghdad.

Israeli jets target an Iraqi nuclear plant
Iran had suspended its nuclear activity almost a year ago, after prolonged international pressures and negotiations. Iran's chief negotiator now admits that Iran had stalled the negotiations deliberately, to buy time long enough to complete the Isfahan facility.

"We needed another year to complete the Isfahan project so that it could be operational," says Musavian.

Iran says it intends to produce only electricity, and not weapons. But several European countries offered to supply Iran with all the necessary fuel and technology needed to generate nuclear power. Iran rejected that offer and restarted its Isfahan plant. It could potentially produce weapons grade material. The Bush administration says it is "deeply suspicious" about Iran's intentions and is pressing Iran to give up its nuclear program.

President Bush made it clear on Israeli television that "all options are on the table," while a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry warned, "If America makes a big mistake in attacking Iran, we will certainly have more options for defending the country."

U.S. intelligence estimates Iran could have a nuclear weapon in five to 10 years. But a presidential commission on weapons of mass destruction concluded the U.S. knows "disturbingly little" about Iran.

Earlier this year, Vice President Cheney warned that another Osirak solution was a possibility. He told a radio talk show audience: "Given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first ... and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards."

PAUL GIGOT: For two years now, the U.S. and Europe have been on a diplomatic track with Iran, offering certain inducements, trade and other things, in return if Iran gives up its nuclear weapons program. Are there any signs that that strategy is working?

BRET STEPHENS: No, there are no signs whatsoever. In fact, it's backfired completely on us. Europe offered to intercede diplomatically in October 2003. The Iranians agreed to suspend their uranium enrichment programs. They cheated on those promises within months so the Europeans went back in November 2004 and got another agreement from the Iranians. The Iranians have again reneged on their commitments. Not only have they reneged, but they have scoffed at a European offer to provide them with nuclear reactors, nuclear fuel, trade guarantees, and security guarantees.

This is a regime that is clearly intent on building a bomb. We know from internal Iranian government sources that they have used these negotiations simply to play for time.

GIGOT: We just had an election, a large election in Iran where a new government was elected. Is that new government showing any signs of bending, any signs of movement to accommodate the rest of the world?

DAN HENNINGER: Not in the least. I think the new government is proving itself to be more hardline, as we say, than the former government. They have had purges inside that government, they have put much more extreme individuals in charge of the national security apparatus there, they have cracked down on dissidents, they have attacked people in the Kurdish north where there have been demonstrations. I think that probably one reason they want to acquire this nuclear device is so that there will be no more elections in Iran. There will be no possibility of the reform movement inside Iran overturning the regime once they get that bomb.

GIGOT: We hear frequently in the United States -- in part, I think, because of Iran's hardline and the lack of progress -- that somehow that the world has to get used to the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon. After all, China has the bomb, Russia has the bomb, Pakistan has the bomb. We don't tell them they have to give it up. What about this argument that, "Hey look, we just have to coexist with these people?"

JASON RILEY: Well, apart from the fact that if Iran does get a bomb, Saudi Arabia is going to want one, Egypt is going to want one, and who knows where that will stop.

GIGOT: Proliferation will be great.

RILEY: You have to think about this the way the Iranians think about this. The geopolitical strategy of the Iranians is the North Korea model. After the first Gulf War, Iran decided that one of the reasons the U.S. went into Iraq and beat back Saddam, and has treated North Korea differently, is because North Korea has a bomb. Their goal since then has been to achieve a bomb. That is the impetus, and that is the time table that -- that is why time is of the essence here, because that is their goal and that is what they are working towards.

GIGOT: If Iran has a bomb, you are also going to see its political-military role and power in the region enhanced, will you not? You are going to see it's the big dog in that region.

STEPHENS: They are already benefiting from $60 a barrel for their oil. Iranian leaders have said explicitly that one of the purposes of Iran would be to attack Israel. Their influence in places like Iraq, but really throughout the Persian Gulf region, will be hugely enhanced. There isn't anything that we will really be able to do about it. There is a line that says, "Well, if they go and get a bomb and they contravene their legal obligations, we will put sanctions on them." Are you really going to tell me that the Chinese who are hungry for oil and have gas shortages right now are going to vote for sanctions on Iran, especially after they have a bomb?

GIGOT: Well let's take it before they get one. The next step, people say, is if the Iranians continue to resist the Europeans and the United States, we take it to the United Nations for some kind of economic sanctions. Is that going to work?

HENNINGER: It is a total non-starter. With oil $60 a barrel, and Iran controlling as much of the world's oil output as they do, there is no possibility that we are going to impose economic sanctions and impose higher oil prices on ourselves. That is just a complete non-starter.

GIGOT: What about diplomatic isolation, containment? That worked against the Serbs, remember, in the 1990s, not letting their public officials, their leaders, attend forums, making them persona non grata all around the world.

RILEY: But it did not work during the 90s with Iran. We have tried that. Clinton tried that. Clinton tried that in earnest, and it did not produce the fruits that he had hoped for.

military parade
STEPHENS: Well, I'm not sure I entirely agree. I think the Iranians do, there is a side of Iran and of the Iranian regime that wants to play its part on the international stage. I think there's a lot you could do to hurt them. For instance, one scholar, Patrick Clawson, has made the point, how about excluding the Iranians from the World Cup next year? Iran is a soccer-crazy nation. That could have a tremendously beneficial effect, not least to the Iranian people, that the regime that is there is an illegitimate regime and we are not going to include them in these kinds of events. It would do a lot to spark a pro-Democracy movement as well.

HENNINGER: It seems to me you have to account for the feckless European relationship with Iran. You have to wonder whether they are trying to achieve a modus vivendi with this Iranian regime, and that would not include diplomatic isolation.

GIGOT: That includes the military. That brings us to the military option, and Gerhard Schroeder this week, after the president said all options are on the table regarding Iran, he said "No, let's take military force off the table." Is that something that is going to have to be actively considered here in the coming months and years?

HENNINGER: I think ultimately it does. I think President Bush was absolutely right in saying he was going to take no option off the table. Look, if they get a nuclear device it makes it clear that everyone else is going to seek the same. One of these days one of these countries will use that device, maybe not on the United States, but it will totally alter foreign relations in that area.

GIGOT: I would also argue that I think that we can't say Israel, you do this, because they don't have the capacity to do it. First of all, militarily the way it would need to be done, because we don't know where all of these places are in Iran. Then you need to bring force for a long way, and a lot of it, to even have a chance of succeeding. I don't think anybody in the world would be fooled if we said, "Oh, that was just the Israelis acting alone." Everybody knows that this is something that we might be supporting, too.

What do you think the chances are that we will use military force against Iran before President Bush finishes his second term?

STEPHENS: I think the chances of diplomacy working are zero, and the chances of us using military force I'd say 95 to 100 percent.

HENNINGER: I would say 50-50. I think diplomacy, isolating the Iranians, is probably worth trying.

RILEY: I'd put it higher than 50. I think there's a pretty good chance that strategic bombing is what we're going to have to resort to.

GIGOT: Okay. I'm afraid you're right.