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Experts Discuss Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that attacking Iran is "not on the agenda at this point." Two experts discuss how the United States should handle Iran's nuclear program.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Stopping in London today on her first trip as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice was asked bluntly about the administration's intentions toward Iran and its nuclear program.

  • REPORTER:

    Can you envisage circumstances during President Bush's second administration in which the United States would attack Iran?

  • CONDOLEEZZA RICE:

    The question is simply not on the agenda at this point in time. While no one ever asked the American president to take any option off the table, there are plenty of diplomatic means at our disposal to get Iranians to finally live up to their international obligations.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Those diplomatic means have been pursued by the Europeans. Last fall, the so-called EU Three — Britain, France and Germany — struck a deal in which Iran agreed to temporarily suspend its uranium-enrichment program while negotiations continued.

    Washington was not a party to the deal, and on the flight to Europe, Secretary Rice told reporters the U.S. would not join the negotiations now, nor offer any incentives to the Iranian regime. Iran says its nuclear program is for energy production and that as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, it has every right to pursue uranium enrichment technology. Enriched uranium is a critical ingredient in nuclear bombs.

    Secretary Rice today warned Iran against trying to use a civilian nuclear program as a cover for developing weapons.

  • CONDOLEEZZA RICE:

    It's the Iranians who are isolated if they wish to continue to go down this path. And I will just repeat, the European Three has given the Iranians an opportunity to demonstrate that they are serious about living up to their international obligations. They ought to take it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The administration has never publicly threatened military action against Iran. But on the Don Imus Show last month, Vice President Cheney, when asked about reports that the U.S. was scouting out Iranian nuclear sites for potential strikes, suggested another country might take action.

  • VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY:

    One of the concerns people have is that Israel might do it without being asked; that if, in fact, the Israelis became convinced the Iranians had significant nuclear capability, given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the 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.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    At every stop today, Rice also made a point of calling for change in Iran's internal politics. Here, in Berlin, with German Chancellor Schroeder:

  • CONDOLEEZZA RICE:

    Peoples everywhere, including in Iran, have the right to have their aspirations acknowledged, and that it will — it should be that Iranians enjoy the freedom that they deserve. The behavior of the Iranian government both internally and externally is of concern to an international community that is increasingly unified around the view that values matter.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    But she sidestepped questions about whether the U.S. Was seeking to generate regime change in Tehran.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And for more on the message Secretary Rice was sending about and to Iran, we're joined by George Perkovich, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington — he formerly ran the nonproliferation initiatives at the W. Alton Jones Foundation, and Paul Leventhal, founder of the Nuclear Control Institute, a nonproliferation research and advocacy group in Washington.

    Welcome, gentlemen.

    Mr. Leventhal, decode what we heard today. What message was Secretary Rice, how should we read and how should the Iranians read what she was saying?

  • PAUL LEVENTHAL:

    Well, my read on what Secretary Rice was saying was that I think she's actually trying to be helpful to the Europeans, even though the Europeans may not appreciate that. They would like the United States to join in negotiation; I think the United States government, Bush administration, wants to avoid getting entangled in a negotiation in which they'll be a distinct minority, outnumbered and probably not able to operate effectively — standing outside the negotiation, as the proverbial bad cop.

    And today answering the question the way she did, all the attention was focused and is not on the agenda, but I have a hunch what the Iranians were listening to is the last part of that quote, at this point. And Vice President Cheney's statements also suggest that the military option is something that's being contemplated. I would think we have to contemplate it. So I think what Secretary Rice was doing today was trying to help the Europeans persuade the Iranians that they should cooperate in the effort to get them to back away from their uranium enrichment, i.e., nuclear weapons program.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Mr. Perkovich, do you see it that way, that what we saw her doing was really playing the bad cop in a kind of good cop bad cop routine?

  • GEORGE PERKOVICH:

    I think she was actually being more good cop than the U.S. has been in a while. And that it was wise. In other words, what makes sense is to have the European Union take the lead on this, and I don't think it's wise or even at the Iranians would find constructive the U.S. joining the negotiations now; that's too controversial. What we have to do is not be an impediment to those negotiations, and in essence that's what Dr. Rice was doing by kind of removing the sense that the administration was really determined to militarily remove the regime in Iran.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    So you disagree with Mr. Leventhal, you think she was taking the military option off the table?

  • GEORGE PERKOVICH:

    She didn't take it off the table; she moved it to the end of the table and away from the center of the table where everybody was going to fixate on it.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Diplomacy always revolves around tables. Mr. Leventhal, explain succinctly for us if you can, in these negotiations that are going on, what does the EU want from the Iranians and what do the Iranians want from the EU?

  • PAUL LEVENTHAL:

    Well, the negotiation is a difficult one because I frankly feel that it represents something of a blackmail situation. Iran has agreed to the negotiations on the premise that they will suspend and the definition of suspend is itself under a debate, but they're prepared to forego for some period of time their enrichment program which could give them nuclear weapons capability if the Europeans provide sufficient incentives in the way of trade in the way of political recognition, and security guarantees. But I do believe that it is a negotiation that ultimately will not succeed, and I think there's an inevitability to this being brought before the Security Council, where I believe it should be.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Is that what the United States really wants to do?

  • PAUL LEVENTHAL:

    The U.S. clearly wants it to be before the Security Council and I think they want to let the European negotiation play out until it's exhausted and then get to the point where greater political pressure can be brought on Iran with the threat of sanctions.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Mr. Perkovich, is that the way you see the negotiations? And also explain to us what other incentives, if the U.S. were willing to play, which Secretary Rice made clear the administration is not, but what other incentives would Iran be looking for that the U.S. could offer?

  • GEORGE PERKOVICH:

    Well, the main positive incentives Iran wants right now are from the European Union: As Paul mentioned, trade relations, the removal of objections by the U.S. in this case of Iran's participation in the WTO; and basic recognition. The main thing that the Europeans and the Iranians want from the U.S. right now is to withdraw the sense of threat of forcible regime change, the idea that the U.S. would do in Iran what it's done in Iraq. That's the main impediment now, because why do countries want nuclear weapons? Well, one reason is to deter a stronger adversary from attacking them. So if you want them to give up the capacity to build nuclear weapons, you've got to take away that threat of mortal attack.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Let me ask you, Mr. Perkovich, do you agree with the Bush administration that Iran really is pursuing nuclear weapons; the statement by them that this is just for nuclear energy is just not true?

  • GEORGE PERKOVICH:

    Basically, yes. I think it's very important that the Iranians keep saying it's only for peaceful purposes, because that will ultimately make it easier for them to back away. But their record that's been documented for the last 18 years of Iranian behavior is only consistent with a desire to acquire at least the capacity to build nuclear weapons.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And, Mr. Leventhal, what's your view about why Iran is so intent on doing this?

  • PAUL LEVENTHAL:

    Well, I think it puts us on a slippery slope. I would just like to make the point, following up on what George said, that if Iran, and I agree with him that Iran has been embarked on a nuclear weapons program, we have to consider the bottom line, we have to consider what a nuclear armed Iran will be like to deal with. And can we deal effectively with a nuclear armed Iran, can we manage a nuclear armed Iran, will it behave the way other nations who have acquired nuclear weapons behave. And I have grave doubts that we could and, therefore, and I think Iran must be prevented from going nuclear and ultimately it may take a military action if the political process does not work out.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. That raises the question, Mr. Leventhal: is there a feasible military solution here, or has Iran essentially hidden its nuclear sites so well that an Osirak reactor kind of attack just isn't there?

  • PAUL LEVENTHAL:

    Well, I don't want to give the impression that I'm advocating an attack at this time. I think we should be prepared to launch the best type of attack we could if circumstances warrant. I think in that situation that we could get a good portion of the Iranian nuclear program. We could surely remove the sheer reactor, the large power reactor that was begun by the Germans and finished by the Russians; it has not gone hot yet. That would eliminate Iran's rationale for a fuel cycle under peaceful auspices. Whether we could get all the enrichment facilities, some of which may be co-located in residential areas, it's hard to say. But I think we could surely set the program back.

    But I would hope that would not be necessary, that the message that the U.S. is getting now is an interesting one, it's a two-pronged message. To Iran, I think they're putting them on notice that they might face a military intervention by Cruise missile and such, but it's also an appeal to the Iranian people where hope is being expressed by the president himself that if you stand for liberty, America stands with you. And I think that can have an undermining effect on the regime as much as the military threat.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    And I want to get to that regime change talk or political talk. But let me ask you, Mr. Perkovich, first, what is your view of whether a military attack is feasible?

  • GEORGE PERKOVICH:

    Well, as one of the European negotiators told me a couple of months ago, look, if there's a really good military option, please tell us what it is, because that will give us much more leverage when we negotiate with the Iranians. But in fact, there is no good military option, not only because we don't know where all the targets are and it would be a risky long campaign, but also what would happen afterwards. Iran would remove all possibilities of inspection. We would lose any capacity to know what they're doing in the future. There would be more terrorism, there would be all sorts of consequences in Iraq where we have great stakes. So you add all that up together and you say maybe we'll have to resort to military force after trying everything else, but it's not going to be a good option.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right. Now, what is your view, Mr. Perkovich, of — Condoleezza Rice at every single stop, sometimes the question would be about the nuclear program, she would have a couple sentences and then she'd segue into talking about democracy, into talking about greater rights for Iranians at home. Is the U.S. now much more actively encouraging at least regime change from within? Is that a productive approach to take?

  • GEORGE PERKOVICH:

    I think basically yes, in the sense that clearly a majority of the Iranian people are frustrated that the real power in their country is held by unelected figures, and that the figures they get to elect, the parliament and the president, had reform agendas that were stifled. And clearly this is frustrating to people, and it's correct for the European Union and the U.S. to point that out. So I think that is constructive. It's interesting that it follows a script with which Dr. Rice is very familiar in the sense that this is what we did in the Cold War. We simultaneously negotiated with the Soviet Union on arms control and security issues while all the while saying that the Soviet system was fundamentally wrong and needed to be changed. And it was done ultimately from within and peacefully.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    It is a very familiar script. But Mr. Leventhal, in the case of the former Soviet Union you had these other republics that had nuclear weapons, they also once they broke away from the Soviet Union were willing to give them up. Do you think that a change in government in Iran would necessarily dampen Iran's nuclear ambitions?

  • PAUL LEVENTHAL:

    I think it would. I think a democratically elected government would not have the same fears that the theocratic regime presently has. And I think –.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    You mean fears of its neighbors, of the U.S. being in the neighborhood —

  • PAUL LEVENTHAL:

    Yes, exactly, I think there could be a normalization of relations with the U.S., And the perceived threat I think would be removed quickly. Now there's this notion that there's a great nationalistic support for a nuclear weapons capability in Iran and that an attack on Iran would have the Iranian people rise as one in support of this despised regime. I frankly question that. I think the administration is taking the right course in appealing both to the Iranian people, to seek the freedom and the liberty that the United States supports, sending a very strong message to the Iranian regime that it could face military consequences, I think that's the correct approach to take.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    A final word from you, Mr. Perkovich, about whether you think a change in government there would tamp down Iran's nuclear ambitions.

  • GEORGE PERKOVICH:

    I think it would make it easier to deal with Iran. I don't know if ultimately it would change, because there are questions about what's the future of Iraq, what kind of government is there, what's the U.S. Military presence in the region? Pakistan has nuke lower weapons, Israel has nuclear weapons, so all that would have to be worked out, but I think clearly it would be easier to deal with a truly elected and representative regime in Iran, and in any case the human rights situation would be better, the terrorism situation would be better. So this is something to wish for. The question is: How do you bring it about? And I don't think the U.S. can change the government in Iran; the Iranian people have to do that.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    All right, we'll leave it there. Thanks, George Perkovich, Paul Leventhal, thank you.

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