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President Bush based his "axis of evil" designation on two factors: sponsorship of terrorism coupled with the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. The CIA has identified Iran as "one of the most active countries" pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and cites apparent technical assistance from Russia and North Korea. Yet Iran steadfastly denies the existence of any nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs. Is the threat real? And if so, what should the U.S. do? Here are the views of former CIA Director James Woolsey; Iran's ambassador to Canada, Mohammad Ali Mousavi; nonproliferation expert George Perkovich; former undersecretary of state for political affairs Thomas Pickering; and Jessica Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

photo of woolsey

R. James Woolsey
He was director of the CIA from 1993 to 1995.

What is the case against Iran on the issue of weapons of mass destruction? How real is that case?

read the interview Well, there is no underlying [reason] for one of the greatest oil producers in the world to need to get into the nuclear [energy] business. And if they do for some reason want a nuclear reactor for power purposes at Bushehr, there's absolutely no reason for them to be getting into the rest of the fuel cycle, reprocessing and so forth, unless what they want to do is train people and produce an infrastructure that can have highly enriched uranium or plutonium, fissionable material, for nuclear weapons.

They are working essentially in a joint venture with the North Koreans ... on a medium-range ballistic missile to carry weapons of mass destruction. I think there's really no particular argument about this, at least in this country, among anybody who's ever followed Iran. Certainly they're working on nuclear weapons, and certainly they're working on ballistic missiles. ...

How do you answer the Iranian who says, "We are surrounded by people with weapons of mass destruction. We need our own"?

Well, the most dangerous person who has weapons of mass destruction, who is right next door and has used them against Iran, is Saddam Hussein. And he's working on nuclear. He has chemical and bacteriological. My answer would be, "Yes, he is a real threat. He's a threat to you. He's a threat to everybody else in the region." Through terrorism, he's a threat to us, and the best thing we could do for Iranian security is get rid of the Baathist regime in Iraq and have a decent regime there. ...

But doesn't America run the risk of adding fuel to the nationalist fires of Iran by saying, "You can't have these weapons?"

Well, Iran has certain international obligations through the [nonproliferation] treaty and the like. And if they are fulfilling those obligations, it seems to me that our arguments with them are policy disputes, and nations have policy disputes all the time. What we are concerned about, since we see them with all their oil and we see them getting heavily into the nuclear business -- including the reprocessing steps which are relevant to producing fissionable material -- is we think it's very likely that they are violating and planning to violate further their obligations and build nuclear weapons. But as I said, I can understand Iranian concerns about their neighbor, Baathist Iraq.

What about their Pakistani neighbor, who also has nuclear weapons?

Pakistan does have nuclear weapons, but Pakistan has recently taken a rather substantial step toward liberalization and democracy. Parliamentary elections are called for next fall. President Musharraf, with his last speech, is about two-thirds of the way toward being a Kemal Ataturk. And if Pakistan is not in the throes of Islamism and religious terror, such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda provided in Afghanistan, if Pakistan is a nation more like Turkey in the years to come, Iran won't have anything to fear from them. Pakistan has no designs on Iran that I know of. ...

How real is the risk that the mullahs, given the power they have, will share weapons of mass destruction with subsidiary terrorist operations?

It's possible. Iran is probably the leading terrorist-sponsoring state in the world right now, and their intelligence services are very active doing this both financially and with all kinds of assistance. And one would hope they would have more sense than to share any type of weapons of mass destruction with terrorists. But I don't think one can count on the common sense of the mullahs. ... So I think we need to do everything we can to help the reformers in Iran.

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Mohammad Ali Mousavi
He is Iran's ambassador to Canada, and one of only two Iranian diplomats in North America.

If you ask some, particularly conservative, Americans, what was behind [the "axis of evil" statement], they'll talk about a number of things. ... For example, there is no reason in the world for Iran, one of the great oil producers on earth, to have a nuclear power station unless it's for the production of bombs. Iran is developing delivery systems for the delivery of warheads and weapons of mass destruction. What is the answer to that?

read the interview The United States is one of the main producers of oil, has a great deal of reservoir of oil, but United States itself has nuclear power. ...

It is very much so a politically motivated allegation. And you see the unfairness of such charges while Israel has nuclear power, is progressing in its nuclear warhead. Then the point of allegation comes to Iran. This is a world should run by international body's rule, not by a country's rule. In such cases, the existing mechanism of control and investigation has been set up. It's IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. They deny such charges. ...

Two clarifications. One, Iran's foreign policy doctrine doesn't include acquiring nuclear power as non-peaceful means. Second, what now Iran try to achieve in nuclear power in Bushehr has been in the past 30 years. It has been a part of policy of pre-revolution. There had been investment there, and it was continued.

Then, Iran's policy is to use nuclear power as a peaceful means of energy, and we continue to do so. That was the reason that we always been open to inspections, and it has been so repeatedly and regularly by International Atomic Energy Agency. It is the main international body to supervise any such acquirement by countries. And not even once they have complained that, or they have criticized Iran that there is a misconduct. There hasn't been. ...

We recognize that you are surrounded by Pakistan, Israel, India, Iraq. You are surrounded by weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Doesn't it make a certain amount of sense that you would also be developing nuclear weapons capability?

No. We have concern, such as you mentioned. Such countries having nuclear power increases concerns, not only in Iran -- in the region. And that's the reason Iran has been an initiator of having Middle East a free zone of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear power. It is not in our doctrine to acquire nuclear power.

The Americans point out that Iran has engaged with North Korea in development of an intercontinental ballistic missile, which would be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

But these are two different issues. Acquiring nuclear power, nuclear warhead, is something, as I mentioned, it is not in our -- it is not happening at all, and there is not one single evidence to show that.

Second is the missile issue. Iran moves based on the international conventions on the missile. We have taken it as a defensive power, a defensive strategy, and it is our right, based on the international conventions, to acquire such defensive power for Iran -- as you mentioned, surrounded by countries of a major threat not only to Iran, but also to international peace and security.

Then our missile policy is a defensive one. And actually Iran has been an initiator of missile pact in United Nations to regulate missile policy by all countries, including Iran. Then what is our plan? It is very transparent, very clear under international body supervision and regulatory inspection. There is no secret about this.

George Perkovich
He is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on arms control and nuclear nonproliferation issues.

How real is the danger of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction?

Well, it's very real especially if you include not just nuclear weapons but biological weapons, which are in many ways easier to produce. It's a very real threat that has to be addressed more fully than it has been. ...

How strong is the case against Iran? There's a pretty strong case against Iraq and North Korea, but what is the case against Iran?

... Based on public information and the statements of government officials, it's a fairly strong case that there is procurement that Iran has made, or has attempted to make, that only makes sense if the technology they're trying to get were to be used for acquiring nuclear-weapon material. The technology they're trying to get, uranium enrichment, doesn't have other purposes really.

So how should, in a sane and logical world, this problem be addressed?

... First and foremost, you have to look at Iran's situation and say, "All right, are there security considerations that Iran has that have to be addressed?" Otherwise, it rather naturally is going to be seeking large strategic weapons. ... And to date, the U.S. hasn't even really tried to put itself in Iran's shoes and say, "OK, if we were Iran, or we were an ally of Iran, here's how we think Iran could protect itself against Iraq." We don't have an answer to that question, and that makes it very hard to figure out how you persuade these guys in Iran not to have any interest in weapons of mass destruction.

And it isn't just Iraq. On the other side you have Pakistan.

Yeah, I mean the painful irony really is that if you took U.S. decision-makers and you put them in Iran's shoes, in Iran's environment, with an enemy that has WMD programs and a nuclear neighbour in Pakistan, and you asked the U.S., "Do you need nuclear weapons?," every U.S. official would say, "Absolutely, we couldn't live in this environment without nuclear weapons." And the Russians would say the same thing, and the Chinese would say the same thing. So now we're coming to Iran and we're saying, "No, you should be different than we've been, and you should understand that you should not acquire these weapons." Now, I happen to think there's a good case for Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons. But I don't think that the U.S. and other governments have really made that case yet. ...

The argument I would make to Iran is kind of a cynical one, but it is to say, "Look, you're too late. You want nuclear weapons now, but if you get real close, Israel takes you very seriously and you're going to paint a very big target on yourself, either for the United States or Israel to hit you. So whatever nuclear capability you can get in Iran is not going to be sufficient really to deter Israel or the U.S. from fighting you. And yet that nuclear capability is going to make them decide to hit much harder than they would otherwise because they've got to wipe out whatever capability you have. So you can't really catch up in a way that enables you to use this in any meaningful way. And yet possessing nuclear weapons would make you a much bigger target than you would otherwise be. ...

We now have a conversation around the world based on this phrase "axis of evil." What is the answer?

I think the near-term approach that makes sense when relations are really bad is twofold. One is: do not make nuclear weapons into a nationalist issue in Iran. The more the U.S. loudly says, "We think they're acquiring the bomb, they're cheating, this is evil," the more people in Iran will actually get attached to the idea of getting nuclear weapons precisely to resist this kind of dictat. And it becomes a nationalist issue. ...

On the other hand, covertly, I think you should do everything possible physically to keep them from getting nuclear assets. So if you know that something is being shipped from point A to point B, and you can intercept it or destroy it, fine. If you can persuade other countries not to sell things to Iran, whatever it takes to persuade them to do that, you should do that. Buy time by keeping the technology away and buy time politically by not letting this become a nationalist issue within Iran. ...

It becomes a matter of pride -- "We're a great civilization, we're Persia, and these Americans are telling us how to live our life, and they have bombs, but they're telling us we can't have them." It does become a matter of pride, it becomes a matter of nationalism, and it becomes hard to turn around a policy once it becomes a nationalist policy.

photo of Thomas Pickering

Thomas Pickering
He served as U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997 to 2001.

How does the United States approach this large and largely opaque issue of weapons of mass destruction?

read the interview I think it's a tremendously important question, and you can chart the course over the last three or four decades. The general practice on the part of the United States and its friends and allies, and most of the states that have the capability to support proliferation, has been to carefully control trade, to use all kinds of political persuasion, at times to resort to sanctions when that has seemed necessary. India, Pakistan have been examples of that. And then to do everything they can through diplomatic channels to talk to countries about not continuing. That was quite successful in South Africa and I think in places like Brazil and Argentina, and maybe in Taiwan and Korea and other places. But it hasn't been successful everywhere, and so there's uncertainties about it.

Now you hear a lot of talk about Iraq, Saddam Hussein, possession of weapons of mass destruction. And, in fact, as you know, the Security Council, for a different purpose, authorized 11 years ago the use of force against Iraq. The use-of-force resolution has never been withdrawn, so I presume it remains in effect. Whether, in fact, states like the United States or others would move to the use of force to prevent proliferation is a more open question. But it's being widely talked about now.

That's implicit in a lot of the political rhetoric that we've heard from the United States recently, is it not?

I think it is, and I think that when states see a clear and present danger, that might be needed. As you know, the U.N. charter allows for self-defense in the face of an armed attack, obviously, and that condition hasn't been met, although the United States has felt that Sept. 11 certainly constituted that, and the Security Council agreed. So whether, in fact, there is a legal framework for this, there is certainly a growing political interest in it as a way of proceeding ahead -- obviously recognizing that there are critical times when states have to act to prevent greater dangers to themselves.

You seem to be saying that it's appropriate, it's implicit in the recent statements, and it's appropriate to draw the line in the sand and to take a firm position.

I think that states obviously have to consider long and carefully before using military force. But I think that, under some sets of circumstances where they feel there is a justifiable danger -- a linkage between terror and weapons of mass destruction is one of those -- then I think that that's something for careful consideration. I don't think that one can draw a chart and say, "Always go to war here; never go to war there." States have to make up their own minds. But I think, within the international framework, it would be a mistake for a country to rule out that possibility if it felt seriously threatened.

Jessica T. Mathews
She is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that publishes the journal Foreign Policy.

read the interview ... Time is on our side in Iran, with one huge exception. And that's what makes it so difficult. And that exception is their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. If it were not for that, I think it would be pretty obvious that the right way to go with Iran is to let this government destroy itself by doing such a poor job of managing the economy and losing the trust and confidence of the people until it undermines itself terminally. We can't just do that, because of the weapons of mass destruction. ...

Iran is perceived as a serious threat in that?

Iran is unequivocally engaged in that pursuit, has been for a very, very long time, back before the revolution, under the shah. Iran has always seen Iraq as a tremendous threat, and of course there was Israel's nuclear weapons, too. And they insist that they're clean with respect to biological and chemical weapons. But my understanding is that nobody with access to classified information who follows this closely believes that. So their pursuit is active. The program, the nuclear program, at least, is not so terrific technically. In fact, a lot of people say it's a real mess. So it's not a tomorrow concern, but it's a very serious and very real one, in fact what I believe should be our focus of attention.

Is the rhetoric [of "axis of evil"] legitimized by the real possibility of weapons of mass destruction?

No. I think the rhetoric is not legitimized, only because it doesn't help. There is no way that it is constructive to our interest, which is to find a way to undermine and control that program.

So the proper way to go ...?

I think, first of all, that what we do in Iraq has an enormous effect on Iran. I think step one is that you focus not on Saddam Hussein and not on regime change in Iraq, but on the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. And you rebuild and then build even further an international consensus that this, that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction by regimes that have proven themselves prepared to use them, is an unacceptable threat. And you rebuild the consensus from the early 1990s around an inspection regime -- this time an even tougher inspection regime, with armed capability behind it. That, in itself, will have an enormous effect on Iran.

Then you have to deal with the Russians more effectively than we have, because that's their principal supplier. And that's a question of increasing the incentives. We have offered them, I think, inadequate incentives to give up what is for them a very substantial sum of money. ... So we have to do what we can to shut down the Russian supply.

At the same time, we have to stop making this so much an American crusade. There are 180 countries in the nonproliferation treaty regime. All of them have a stake in that regime. We have to broaden the base of leadership in saying pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, even if technically legal -- as Iran still is -- by a country that is a member of the NPT is unacceptable. We let North Korea get away with it. We're not going to let another country get away with it under our noses. ...

I also think we will have to use some of our intelligence, make public some of what we know about what's going on in both Iraq and Iran -- even though it will cost us in terms of sources and methods -- the way we did in the Cuban missile crisis, when Stevenson went to the U.N. and put up the pictures of what the Russians had in Cuba. And nobody could any longer say, "Well, maybe. It's us against them. Who's lying?" We have to strip away this veil of hypocrisy behind which the French and the Russians hide their commercial interests and make it impossible to do that.

If we do all that, then I think we really do stand a chance of slowing, of crippling both programs to the point where they are an acceptable threat. This is not what you would do if you had your druthers 100 percent. But that's not the real world.


"The Iran Game," by Seymour M. Hersh
"In formal evaluations, the American intelligence community lists Iran as posing a more immediate nuclear-proliferation threat than Iraq. 'Everyone knows that Iran is the next one to proliferate -- to possess a nuclear weapon,' an American nuclear-intelligence analyst told me. 'Iran has been the No. 1 concern about who's next for the last couple of years at the highest level of the government.' ... Iran's drive for the bomb, he said, 'is not going to be resolved by export controls and diplomacy.'" (The New Yorker, Dec. 3, 2001)

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