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Can Sanctions End Iran's Nuclear Ambitions?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After a U.N. report earlier this month bolstered the case that Iran continues work on nuclear weapons, the U.S., Britain and Canada announced new sanctions today. But there's no indication that these or any other sanctions will change Iran's determination, which leaves a range of bad options.

A nuclear-armed Iran might be a more aggressive Iran and could well prompt Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Turkey to follow suit and develop nuclear weapons of their own. Military strikes might set Iran back only two or three years and could have far-reaching consequences.

Even so, Israel might decide it has no other choice. There is an Iranian opposition but no sign of an Arab Spring-style movement. Thus far diplomacy has failed. When the issues include ideas like regime change and pre-emptive strikes and nuclear weapons proliferation, we need to hear a range of ideas.

So what's the least bad option on Iran? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, the practical deadline for the congressional supercommittee expires today. What happened, and where do we go from here?

But first, Iran. Stephen Walt and Trita Parsi join us. Stephen Walt is professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and may be best known as co-author of "The Israel Lobby." He joins us from Harvard University's studio in Cambridge. Nice to have you with us again.

STEPHEN WALT: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, author of the forthcoming book "A Single Role of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran," joins us by phone from Fort Lauderdale. Nice to have you with us again.

TRITA PARSI: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Steven Walt, let's start with you. What's the least bad option on Iran?

WALT: Well, the least bad option seems to me is continued efforts to try and persuade Iran not to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, and if that unfortunate event were to transpire to rely upon the same strategy the United States relied upon throughout the Cold War against far more dangerous and far more powerful countries like the Soviet Union, which is a strategy of deterrence and containment.

There is in fact no reason to believe that Iran is actively seeking a nuclear weapon at this time. They're clearly exploring having control of a full nuclear fuel cycle. They're clearly enhancing their enrichment capability, but we have no evidence, not even in the IAEA report, that they have made a decision to actually go ahead and build a nuclear weapon, which is what the non-proliferation treaty forbids.

What we ought to be doing as energetically and persuasively as we can is try to convince them not to cross that particular line, and I think there are various ways we might be able to do that.

CONAN: You say containment worked with the Soviet Union and the United States. Would it work with Iran and Israel? Two nuclear weapons going off in Israel effectively ends that state.

WALT: Well, true - nuclear weapons going off in just about any country in any number would be a horror beyond contemplation. But there's no evidence to suggest that Iran, if it were at some point to get nuclear weapons, is led by people who are suicidal.

It is in fact led by I think what might be characterized as a bunch of grumpy old men without much of an ideological mission to be able to spread anywhere else. And let's just remember that two nuclear weapon states, the Soviet Union and Maoist China, were led by certified mass murderers who had the blood of millions on their hands. No one in Iran, however regrettable their regime might be, is anything like that.

So the idea that Iran is undeterable, it's irrational, that it's busy starting wars or getting ready to start wars, I think is a fiction that's been dreamed up by alarmists here rather than an accurate description of what Iran is really like.

CONAN: Trita Parsi, nice of you to be with us. What is the least bad option on Iran?

PARSI: Well, I think the least bad option is to actually give diplomacy a real chance. The diplomacy that was pursued by the Obama administration in 2009, I think, was genuine, but it was very limited, and Obama administration did not have the patience and stamina to stick with it, partly because there was so much pressure, both from Saudi Arabia, from Israel and from Congress, to abandon diplomacy before it even had had a chance to show any results.

That's the least costly option, and that's also the only option that we have been able to use in other cases successfully, preventing states from pursuing nuclear weapons.

CONAN: You - I've just had a chance to glance at your book, but I gather you argue that it has a chance to succeed if political will exists on both sides. What leads you to believe political will exists on either side?

PARSI: Well, right now I agree with you. There's very limited political will, certainly right now in Washington, mindful of the elections that are upcoming. There isn't any interest in giving diplomacy a chance. Rather, we see the Obama administration almost trying to position itself to the right of the Republicans on this issue.

In Iran we have a similar issue, not necessarily for the same reasons but because of their very factional politics and infighting that currently takes place in Iran; it's very difficult to see them in the short run having the political will to sustain diplomacy.

But when the question is which one is the least bad option, then this clearly is the least bad option. In fact, I would say it's a pretty decent option.

CONAN: Some people say Iran has used diplomacy pretty much over the past 15 or 20 years to delay, spin things out, delay and continue work on their nuclear weapons program.

PARSI: Well, first of all, I think it's very important to note that if there's anything that has delayed and made sure that the Iranians actually progress with their program, it's the sanctions policy. We're talking now again about additional sanctions, and we see that the IAEA report says that the Iranian program actually is continuing.

After more than 15, 20 years of sanctions, we have absolutely no indications that the sanctions are affecting their nuclear program in such a way that it would change its trajectory or in such a way that the regime would change its calculation. Yet that's the option that we will be going forward with in the next 12 months or so because not - not because it has any significant chances of a result but because it's the least costly option from a political standpoint.

It takes the least amount of political capital and the least amount of political risk, but when it comes to actually doing anything about the issue at hand, it really doesn't do much at all.

CONAN: Stephen Walt, are sanctions a viable option?

WALT: Well, there's an inherent contradiction, it seems to me, in the approach the United States has been taking for quite some time, which is to say we're trying to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment capability - and by the way, you keep using the phrase nuclear weapons program, and there's no evidence that they have a weapons program, properly defined.

They are clearly pursuing a variety of nuclear research activities, and if I were Iran, I'd be thinking about getting a bomb. But to call it a nuclear weapons program goes further than the publicly available evidence.

In any event, I think there's, as Trita was saying, there is relatively little cost to pursuing the diplomatic option. And for the United States to essentially be trying to persuade a country to abandon any thinking about a nuclear weapon by continuing to threaten it and continuing to ramp(ph) up sanctions is inherently contradictory.

The thing that makes countries want to pursue some kind of nuclear deterrent is precisely the fact that they feel threatened. We've been trying these sort of sanctions and what I would call a sort of occasional not-very-enthusiastic diplomacy for over a decade now and with no apparent success. Maybe this is a time when we ought to be trying an alternative, and by that alternative I don't mean going to war.

CONAN: We're talking with Stephen Walt of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and also with Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. What's the least bad option on Iran? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll talk with Sam(ph). Sam's on the line with us from Lincoln in Nebraska.

SAM: Yeah, hi, it's Lincoln, Massachusetts. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Okay.

SAM: And I think the best option is to do absolutely nothing. I read the IAEA report. There's absolutely nothing new in it. And I guess my question is, because it seems so reminiscent of the - what was going on right before we invaded Iraq - is why this drumbeat for war now?

CONAN: And why do you think there's a drumbeat for war now, as you put it?

SAM: Well, because there's - nothing has changed in Iraq. I mean, there's nothing new. There's nothing new in the IAEA report. So why are people starting to drum the drumbeat for war now? And it seems very reminiscent of Iraq. You know, you didn't hear anything about Iraq, and then all of a sudden this guy's the worst enemy in the world and we have to mobilize to do something.

And I think the reason why I think there's a drumbeat for war, there was the thing about the ambassador who was going to be assassinated in the restaurant, and that story kind of disappeared. So it just seems like there's lots of rumblings going on, and my question is, why? Why now? Why not a year ago?

CONAN: Stephen Walt, the IAEA report, as he suggests, has nothing dramatically new. There's a report about work on a containment vessel that could be used to put a nuclear weapon or test a nuclear weapon in. There's also what many have described as a wealth of detail about previous allegations and suspicions. As you said, no smoking gun about an Iranian nuclear weapons program. But do you hear a drumbeat for war and see no evidence whatsoever?

WALT: I think the way I would put it is there's been a campaign over the last several years, and it really goes back a long way, to what I would call mainstream the idea of a military action against Iran. It's been clear that the Obama administration was not enthusiastic about that option, I think correctly, because they understood the costs and risks of that, and we may want to get into that eventually.

But for those who want the military option, who think that that's the way to go, what you want to do is keep bringing it up as often as possible, get people talking about it, run stories like The Atlantic did earlier this year, talking about how Israelis are thinking about going. There's a 50-50 chance of war.

The more you talk about it, the more you raise it as an option, the more people begin to sort of scratch their heads and say, well, we may have to do that one of these days, maybe not this year, maybe not next year, but maybe the year after that.

And when finally the stars do line up, as they did in 2001, 2002, for going to war with Iraq, when the political stars do line up, then you've got people thinking, well, you know, we've been talking about this for a long time, maybe we ought to go that route.

So again, I don't think there's necessarily a big campaign for war right now. I think there has been a long-term campaign to try and create the political space where this option looks like the one to go with, even if people sort of do so reluctantly, without a great deal of enthusiasm, because they think they've exhausted all of the alternatives, when as I think Trita was saying earlier, we really haven't exhausted the diplomatic option at all.

CONAN: Well, Trita Parsi, we just have a few seconds left before we have to take a break, but where in the present climate do you see an opening for diplomacy?

PARSI: Well, the thing is this: If you want to have an opening for diplomacy, you have to create an opening for diplomacy. Steve just discussed how those who are proponents of war are actively working to create the political space for that decision.

If you are interested in diplomacy, if you believe that it lies in the strategic interests of the United States to do so, you can't wait for Santa Claus to come and give you the political space; you have to go and create the political space yourself. And that's, I think, what some say that the Obama administration was very reluctant to do when it was pursuing diplomacy in 2009. It operated in a very limited space without trying to expand it.

CONAN: We're talking about options on Iran. None may be good at this point to deter their nuclear ambitions. More with Stephen Walt and Trita Parsi in a moment, and your calls. What's the least bad option? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Iran faces further isolation and sanctions as the U.S., Britain and other countries hope to pressure Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions, and the stakes are high.

Two weeks ago, we talked with Robert Kagan and former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. Both reluctantly came to a similar conclusion: military option may end up as the least bad option.

Today we continue that conversation with two people with very different opinions: Stephen Walt, co-author of "The Israel Lobby and professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; and Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, his latest book, soon to be released, "A Single Role of the Dice: Obama's diplomacy with Iran."

Today the same question to you: What's the least bad option on Iran? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Let's go next to Greg(ph), and Greg's on the line with us from Oxford in Ohio.

GREG: Hi, Neal. Thanks for having your show. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

GREG: I just wanted to point out that, in my opinion, appeasement would be the best option for us at this time. I've grown up, my whole life has been spent watching these wars that pretty much have gone nowhere. And just imagining that happening all over again, kind of, just horrifies me. So I'd like to see that the last option.

And I think sanctions haven't worked at all, they just are satisfying the sense of nationalism. They're kind of giving fuel to the fire of Iran's leaders. So I think allowing them to have a weapon and then that being a first step, it can open up a dialogue, and then from there we can move on. But at this time, I think that's the best option we have.

CONAN: Trita Parsi, should Iran, should that be their ambition, be allowed to have a weapon?

PARSI: I absolutely don't think that the Iranians should be getting a weapon. The non-proliferation treaty, which they have signed, essentially means that they're foresworn weapons. The problem is that it's not necessarily weaponization that we're focusing on right now.

For the last decade or so, the United States' position has been to not permit the Iranians to have enrichment, which is a very preliminary step, but is also a step that is used to produce fuel for peaceful purposes.

I think that we should proceed and through diplomacy, make sure that we get maximum amount of inspections and verification and insight to the program to make it next to impossible for the Iranians to diverge anything that they're doing toward a military direction. And by that, also ensure that we limit the amount of enrichment that they're doing.

I think that remains a possibility, but if we continue to waste time by just going forward with sanctions, unfortunately, that opportunity may also be lost.

CONAN: Who's wasting time here? The Iranians have thrown spanners into the diplomatic works at seemingly every opportunity. They have rejected opportunities to buy nuclear materials from Russia, their - probably their closest friend where they might be able to get that safely, without a problem. This has been - this is a two-way street, no?

PARSI: Well, first of all, I think you're quite incorrect in saying that they have refused to buy fuel. They asked to buy fuel, and we came and said that instead they should give up their low-enriched uranium, and we would produce the fuel rods using their own LEU.

Just a couple of weeks ago, they again said that they're willing to buy the fuel and stop enrichment at 20 percent if anyone was willing to sell them the fuel, but no one was willing to sell them the fuel. So I don't think that's correct.

The Iranians have in no way, in my view, been particularly helpful when it comes to diplomacy, for various reasons, and it is not an uncommon thing. In every negotiation at some point, one of the parties, including the United States, will, for tactical reasons, try to waste some time.

That's always the case, and we shouldn't be surprised by that. But the thing is if we want to succeed with this, we have to go in with the level of political will necessary to sustain diplomacy for the amount of time that it usually takes. And in a negotiation like this, it usually takes more than four years to actually get to a final settlement.

That's the case when the United States negotiated with Libya, for instance. But if we are in a situation in which we believe that it is actually politically easier, less costly, to send off young American women and men off to war than it is to send our diplomats to go and negotiate, then I think we're faced with a much, much greater problem than the nuclear issue of Iran, per se.

CONAN: Stephen Walt, a lot of people would say four years, Libya was not close to acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran, given what we know about its program, would seem to be much closer than that. Four years may be too long.

WALT: Well, remember the first prediction, I think, that Iran was going to get a nuclear weapon was back in the 1980s, where I believe Jane's Defence Weekly predicted they would have one within two years. And ever since then, there have been repeated predictions that Iran was about to get a nuclear weapon, and we've seen those steadily up until the present day.

This raises the interesting question: Given that it took the United States only two years to go from not having any nuclear capability at all to having one, during the Manhattan Project in World War II, why hasn't Iran gotten a nuclear weapon yet if they are so hell-bent on acquiring this particular capability?

I think one possible argument is that Iran really has no interest in getting a nuclear weapon, that is to say crossing the line to actually manufacture one. I think it is far more likely that Iran would like to have the capability of getting one quickly if the regional security environment ever called for it. And there are two good reasons for that.

One, right now, with Iran not having a nuclear weapon, if some nuclear terrorist used a bomb somewhere in the world, Iran would not be suspected of having anything to do with it, and that's good. Secondly, if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, there is some danger that its neighbors would acquire them: Saudi Arabia, possibly Turkey, even Iraq. And that, of course, negates the fact that Iran is a much potentially stronger conventional power than most of its neighbors.

And if it ever had a decent government, it would be in a dominate position in the region. Iran's strategic interests are probably advanced, in fact, by being close to having a nuclear weapon but not actually crossing the line, and that, by the way, is what American diplomacy should be trying to achieve, an Iran that is not crossing the nuclear line because we haven't pushed it to go ahead and weaponize.

CONAN: Let's go next to Brian(ph), Brian with us from Charlotte.

BRIAN: Hi, thanks for the opportunity that you've given me to be on...

CONAN: Yeah, you need to turn down your radio, Brian.

BRIAN: OK, it's off, the radio is off. What I want to tell you is the only thing that U.S. can do after all the commotion that it's creating here now, it's helping the opposition to get rid of what's there right now. What I think is they know they might have some weapons from - nuclear weapons from Soviet Union when it was dissolved, to get it, get help and get rid of all this commotion it's creating for Iranian people and U.S. people, actually Middle East, the whole Middle East.

CONAN: Well, let me extend Brian's point, and Trita Parsi, let me ask you. Some people say we should wait and hope, support the Iranian opposition and hope that they would be able to either starkly reform the government that's in power now or replace it.

PARSI: Well, I think there's certain things that the United States can do that would be helpful for the opposition. For instance, in the next round of negotiations, if they take place, I think it would be better not to just talk about the nuclear issue but also add the abysmal human rights situation in Iran on the agenda.

I think the Obama administration has missed opportunities in making sure that he actually really made the human rights issue in Iran much a more important factor here.

Other things that we could do and, in my view, should do is to, for instance, lift some of the sanctions that make it so difficult for people inside of Iran to be able to get access to technology that they need to circumvent all of the different filters and obstacles that the Iranian government puts on communication inside the country, as well, as with the outside.

That's one of the key things that the opposition has been asking for, making sure that they have access to the communications tools that enable them to be effective inside the country. And unfortunately, because of our sanctions policy, that's become very, very tricky to do because these are technologies that for various reasons we have put on the list of things that they cannot get access to.

CONAN: So these are - don't sanctions, though, in general make it more expensive for the Iranian government and therefore make the Iranian government less popular?

PARSI: Oh, the Iranian government is extremely unpopular as it is. I mean, we all saw what happened in 2009, when they stole an election, and there was massive human rights abuses taking places in front - the entire world could see what the regime was up to.

But the problem with the current sanctions is that they're putting a lot of pressure on the economy as a whole, and the government itself usually has far better tools to be able to circumvent the sanctions and shift the cost of these sanctions and this pressure onto the population, and that has now taken place extensively, particularly when it comes to these financial sanctions that the Obama administration and the Bush administration also pursued.

It's not really differentiating between an activity undertaken by the revolutionary guard or an activity taking place by an ordinary citizen. So everyone is being hit by it. And it's not led to the type of situation in which people will say oh, we have to rise up against the regime because these sanctions are so difficult. On the contrary, the effect that you're starting to see is that people are saying you all know, the entire world know that we're not happy with this government, so why are you putting pressure on the people? You should be putting pressure on the regime. Instead, the people are being punished, and now you're starting to increasingly see that they're starting to vent some of their frustrations towards the United States and not just towards the regime.

CONAN: Here's an email from Adam: Iran might seek nuclear weapons to balance other powers in the Middle East. Why not denuclearize the region by first focusing on Israel's nuclear weapons to deter Iran's ambitions? Stephen Walt?

WALT: Well, a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East would be a wonderful thing. I think it's unlikely that we're going to be able to get it, because I think for a variety of reasons Israel would be reluctant to give up its own nuclear arsenal; plus the fact for the Iranians, they have to at least think about the fact that there's a nuclear-armed Pakistan next door, a nuclear-armed India and a nuclear-armed Russia. So even if there was some larger movement in the Middle East to maintain a nuclear-free zone, you can imagine Iran being a little bit concerned about its other neighbors.

I think that also tells us that regime change alone is not enough here. The idea of having a nuclear-enrichment capability and having control of the nuclear fuel cycle is something that even the Iranian opposition supports. The leader of the so-called Green Movement, Mousavi, was in favor, in fact was one of the leaders of the nuclear program. So we could get an end to the clerical regime and you would still have an Iran that was interested not necessarily in a nuclear weapon but having a full nuclear capability that gave them the potential to go nuclear if at some point they felt that was necessary.

CONAN: I wanted to explore the idea you raised earlier. Some of the consequences that might flow from a military strike, and again, whether it was by Israel or by the United States, likely the United States would be drawn in one way or another. And those - even those who say this may be the only option we have left, don't believe these would go unanswered, but nor do they think they could set the Iranians back if that's their determination for more than a couple or(ph) three years.

WALT: Right. And I think that's one of the compelling arguments against the sort of preventive war here. It doesn't prevent them. In fact, it just gives Iran more incentive to want to get a capability so that it would be immune from being attacked in the future. They certainly have observed the difference between the fact that no one is attacking North Korea, and the West was willing to do regime change in Libya. And if we have then demonstrated that we're willing to attack them as well, that's just all the more reason they have to disperse the program, harden it and go back at it again.

This would, I think, unify support for the regime, which is weakening over time, tarnish the American image. We would be seen, however inappropriately, as beating up on yet another Muslim country. There would be some retaliation. We don't know how significant it would be, but it could be significant, and it would undoubtedly cause a spike in oil prices at a moment where the world and American economy don't need it. Last point I'd make here is it's not, I think, it's not surprising that the loudest voices in the United States who are calling for the military option were also among the loudest voices calling us - for us to invade Iraq in 2003 on a similar set of suppositions, that this was a very bad regime that wanted to get some kind of weapon of mass destruction and couldn't be trusted to have them.

I think, again, I have no love for the clerical regime, but to go to war with all the potential negative consequences on the basis of these kinds of future fears strikes me as a very bad bet indeed. It was Bismarck who said, you know, preventive war is like committing suicide for fear of death, and that would be a little bit like what the United States or Israel would be doing if they decided the military option was the way to go right now.

CONAN: Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Also with us, Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And John's on the line. John calling us from Flagstaff.

JOHN: Hello. Thank you, Neal, for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JOHN: Once again, a very good show. I would like to suggest that we could do basically two things, that the least bad one is establish a more effective sanctions program and get as many of our allies to cooperate with that as possible. And secondly, I think - and this is as important, if not more so, get our ally, the Israeli government, to open up 100 percent Dimona for an IAEA inspection. If we could get Israel to abandon its nuclear warheads, we're in a much better position morally to get Iran to stop what they're doing. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John. Israel, of course, not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and unlikely, Stephen Walt, to open its reactor to anybody.

WALT: I think that's right. They've been pretty secretive about their nuclear program since day one. It seems to me if we're in a period where the United States is not able to get Israel to agree to even a settlement freeze, we're not in a period where we're going to be able to get them to agree to open up Dimona or uncover their nuclear program. And even if they were to do that, that doesn't help the problem. It would be only an Israeli decision to give up their nuclear weapons program, and I don't believe Israel will do that.

And frankly, if I were Israeli, I would want to think long and hard before I did that, particularly if there were other political concessions I thought I might have to make down the road.

CONAN: Trita Parsi, as you look ahead, one caller mentioned the plot that the last time the president spoke about relations with Iran, he was talking about a plot where - alleged plot where an Iranian agent was attempting to set a bomb off in a restaurant half a block - half a mile from the White House that would kill the Saudi ambassador. As you look ahead towards any potential diplomatic openings, doesn't that sort of thing get in the way?

PARSI: Oh, absolutely. If it turns out that this plot is true, it is a tremendous problem, and it's also at the same time an indication of how our failure to resolve this problem and pursue more serious solutions for it is causing the situation to deteriorate. Now, we don't know the end conclusion of that plot. But just imagine this. Imagine if that plot had been unveiled in the midst of an actual diplomatic effort. The most likely thing that would have happened is that we would have cancelled talks with Iranians as a result of the plot.

Now the plot is taking place in the midst of a sanctions frenzy, and our response to that is not to cancel the strategy but to actually double down on sanctions.

CONAN: Well, because they don't seem to be dissuading Iran from, again, if this is accurate, adventurism at the very least.

PARSI: Well, there's very little data that would show that this actually can be successful. I mean, the Iranian sanctions regime is essentially second to none to the success that we've had with the Cuba sanctions regime. We have sanctions on them for 50 years, and we've not seen the type of changes that we want to see. And again, it comes down to political will. If we really believe that this is a serious problem, then we need to muster the political will to come up with the solutions and pursue them patiently rather than going for the easy options.

CONAN: Trita Parsi...

PARSI: The easy options...

CONAN: Trita Parsi, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. His new book is "Single Role of the Dice." And Stephen Walt, thank you for your time as well. Stay with us. This NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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