NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. This week's report from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog bolsters beliefs that Iran continues work on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile delivery systems. The United States, Britain, France and Germany all expressed varying degrees of alarm and vowed to find ways to pressure Iran.
But while more sanctions would hurt, few believe they would change Iran's policy. Israeli officials speak more and more openly about military strikes, but attacks would not go unanswered and might set Iran back for no more than two or three years.
Another approach is to support the Iranian opposition in an Arab spring-style movement, which might not work and, even if it does, might destabilize a government that's already acquired nuclear weapons. Some argue that Iran can be deterred by the threat of retaliation, but the stakes are - for Israel - are very, very high. One or two nuclear weapons could effectively destroy the country.
So what's the least bad option to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.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 lack of ice exposes coastal towns in Alaska to storm surge, and the ins and outs of confidentiality agreements. But first Iran. We begin with NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, who's back with us here in Studio 3A. Hey Mike.
MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Neal.
CONAN: And it - more details, more evidence, but no smoking gun from the IAEA.
SHUSTER: That's right, lots and lots more details. Essentially, this report was far larger than any of the other prior reports from the IAEA going back eight years. And they basically laid out what their suspicions have been all these years based on interviews with people who had some secret connection to nuclear activities in Iran and based on what the IAEA said was more than 1,000 pages of documentation, intelligence from, it said, 10 member states of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
So lots and lots of information, but the - nothing solidly conclusive. Essentially, the report said there was a systematic nuclear weapons program before 2003. In 2003, it was abruptly disclosed, much to the chagrin of the Iranians, and then shut down. But it is believed, and there is good evidence, according to the IAEA, that elements of a nuclear weapons program have - may have continued.
And it wasn't really conclusive about what's actually happening now. So it's very hard to conclude that they have a full-scale nuclear weapons program. But there is no question that there are many aspects of nuclear weapons technologies and projects that the Iranians have worked on.
CONAN: There's also no timetable in there, but no surprise, Iran condemned the IAEA report. Russia, though, had harsh words, as well, and rejected any new sanctions, as they described it, an attempt at regime change.
SHUSTER: Well, the Russians have been resisting sanctions against Iran all along. There have been four sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions. They have been relatively moderate in order - crafted by the United States and other states - in order to get the agreement of Russia and China.
The U.N. Security Council sanctions of course carry the force of international law, but they're not strong. Unilateral sanctions that the United States has imposed on Iran are much more powerful. They have much more to do with the banking system now, and the United States, for several years, has been trying to force third-party banks in Europe and Asia to stop cooperating with the Iranians and making it much more difficult for them to carry out some of these suspected activities.
CONAN: Would it be fair to say that getting the Security Council to go along with internationally agreed sanctions would be a slow process at best?
SHUSTER: It's always a slow process, and it's doubtful that there - you can imagine the difficulty that there may be in getting a fifth round of sanctions. I think that the United States, the Obama administration has been careful in its response, not too aggressive at all about this, I think waiting to see where things move with it.
The - it's clear that the Obama administration wants to tighten screws on the banking side, and that may be the thing that they focus on.
CONAN: In the meantime, Israel - Israeli officials raising questions about how long they can wait.
SHUSTER: Yeah, that - there was a lot of talk and a lot of reporting about both Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Defense Minister Ehuk Barak reported to believe that there should be - they should mount an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
But I'll tell you something that's very interesting, Neal. Today, it was reported that the head of Israel's atomic energy commission - this is after the report came out, his name is Uzi Alum(ph) - said Israel can't afford to act alone. We must guard against hysteria. Iran is not an existential threat to Israel. I think that there is, at the very least, an emerging debate, now, in Israel about what should be done.
CONAN: Well, we want to focus on what's the least best option. We have a couple of people who have studied this question with us here in Studio 3A. We begin with Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brooking Institution's Foreign Policy Program, also an advisor to the campaign of GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, though he speaks for himself here. And Robert Kagan, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
ROBERT KAGAN: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: What's the least bad option?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAGAN: You know, all the options are bad. I mean, you're absolutely right in your lead-in to this discussion. I think we have to think about what it means for Iran to get a nuclear weapon and work backwards from there. I think there's a couple of things we know for sure, especially after all the turmoil of the Arab spring.
I think the odds are very high that Saudi Arabia would turn to getting itself a nuclear weapon and perhaps other countries in the region, as well. So we really are talking about not just Iran getting nuclear weapons but the nuclear weapons proliferating throughout the region.
At a time when America's sort of commitment to allies in the region is under question, not necessarily deservedly so because a lot of this has to do with what's happened in the Arab spring, the further step of Iran sort of winning in this battle to get a nuclear weapon could have a very unsettling effect on the region.
And then of course, as you say, as you mentioned, there is what is Israel going to do. So when you add all that up, I think the least bad option, obviously, is to convince the Iranians not to do it, if you can, through tougher sanctions and international isolation. that's going to be difficult. But the least bad option may in fact, at the end of the day, be some kind of military action undertaken, I would say preferably by the United States, not by Israel.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller also with us here in Studio 3A, he is former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, author of the forthcoming book "Can America Have Another Great President?" Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
AARON DAVID MILLER: Pleasure to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And sanctions, as international sanctions unlikely to be agreed anytime soon. There are unilateral sanctions. What's going to work?
MILLER: Well, there are three or four possible options. Sanctions will not work, it seems to me. Diplomacy cannot work, in large part because the Iranians use the absence of a meaningful relationship with the United States to validate their own legitimacy. They need the anti-American trope, particularly this magocracy in Tehran.
Cyber-worm, technical sabotage has clearly helped to retard, but in the end, given enough time, it will not prevent the Iranians, should they want to weaponize, from weaponizing.
The default position, it seems to me, is military action. I don't come to that conclusion happily. I think there's certainly no reason for it now. But I think if, in fact, the Israelis or the Americans choose to exercise a military option, then they have to ask themselves some basic questions: one, will it work? That is to say, can they absolutely not just retard but undermine and destroy Iran's capacity to produce a weapon, or are we just mowing the grass, and will have to cut the grass periodically when the Iranians reseed?
Second, what's it going to cost? When America acts, the issue is not just can we, it's what is it going to cost us. And then the third consideration is: Is the alternative of not acting worse, whatever the risks? And those are three very important questions that need, particularly in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest wars in American history in which victory is determined by not can we win, but when can we leave, we need to do some very hard thinking before we get into this with the Iranians.
CONAN: Mike Shuster, it's been interesting. Many American military figures - active duty and retired generals and admirals - have said: wait a minute. We don't want to get involved in a conflict with Iran.
SHUSTER: That's right, and I think that has to do with the great difficulties that the U.S. military encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fiasco of much of what happened in those two countries. And they - I think that this has been gamed out in many places, in the Pentagon and elsewhere, about what an attack on Iran would look like and what benefits it would get. And it seemed that the - at least, recent top brass have come to the conclusion that they don't want to do this again.
I mean, after all, Iran is a much larger country, geographically, than Iraq. It has three times the population. It is - there are very mountainous areas in parts of it. And it would be very difficult, I think experts believe, to mount an effective attack on the nuclear weapons...
CONAN: We're talking airstrikes. Nobody's talking invasion.
SHUSTER: The discussion has been about airstrikes, but who knows whether that - once that begins, given the nature of the problem, the fact that it's all spread out, the hostility - the long-term hostility between the United States and Iran, it's, I think, very difficult to predict and perhaps contain a conflict like that.
CONAN: Robert Kagan?
KAGAN: Well, I think you have to think about that going in. Obviously, things don't end necessarily the way you want them to. I wonder whether the military's views may be changing a little bit for a couple of reasons. One is – ironically, the impending withdrawal from Iraq. One of the reasons the military's been very wary of getting into a conflict with Iran is worry about what they might do to U.S. troops in Iraq.
Well, as it happens, starting in January of next year, there won't be any American troops in Iraq. That's one thing. The other thing is the military's gotten very upset with Iran, to say the least, because of activities by Iranian-backed elements, if not Iranian elements themselves, killing American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think, obviously, no one wants to send in 500,000 troops to Iran, but the possibility of an airstrike, especially with the capabilities the United States has, I agree with you, you have to think about the next step that might have to be taken. I wonder whether the calculations might be shifting a little bit.
CONAN: One of the effects you could guarantee is an immense spike in the price of oil.
KAGAN: Which apparently is deterring the administration at the moment, even from moving ahead with another round of unilateral sanctions against the central bank. There is this concern, at a time of economic difficulty in the world, precisely about a spike in oil prices.
CONAN: We're talking about the least bad option with Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Our guests: Robert Kagan you just heard from the Brookings Institution; also with us Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program; NPR's foreign correspondent Mike Shuster also with us.
We'd like to hear from you, as well, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Iran's president pushed back this week after the U.N. report that detailed Tehran's progress toward a nuclear weapon. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country will not retreat one iota from its nuclear ambitions, though he continues to argue those are strictly for peaceful purposes.
So what now? China and Russia insist more sanctions will not solve anything. The U.S. and other Western countries say they're considering their options, including new sanctions. Some in Israel's government warn of a pre-emptive military strike. What's the least bad option to deal with Iran? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster; Aaron David Miller, former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, now public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program; and Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, author of "The Return of History" and "The End of Dreams" and advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is here speaking for himself.
Let's get a caller in, and we'll begin with Francesco(ph), Francesco with us from San Francisco.
FRANCESCO: Hi, before President - before election, the president said that he's going to have - talk to Iranians and this and that because we have mutual interests with them. They fought against al-Qaida, all that. And they went to the meeting once, and they basically told them if you don't do this and that, they're going to bomb you, and they left. Why we can't do the - nobody talks about diplomacy.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, you were a career diplomat.
MILLER: Well, you need a balance of interest. It's not much different than a good marriage, a good business proposition or a good friendship. I mean, both sides have to be able to get and extract out of any diplomatic relationship something of value and utility.
And in this particular case, I think the president was somewhat - some would argue very - but somewhat naive in believing that American and Iranian interests would somehow be coincident, and the fact is they're not. I can think of no other nation right now in this region which we are at odds across so many fronts, whether it's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, pursuit of nuclear weapons, opposition to the existence of the state of Israel, even as an ideological trope, forget whether or not the Iranians are really serious about trying to get rid of the Israelis.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, most of our allies, the whole Arab Spring has fundamentally contradicted the Iranian message that somehow only through Islamic extremism and violence can you have relatively positive change in the Arab world.
So on almost every single issue we're at odds with Iran. The notion that somehow we're going to patch this up - and against that, by the way, you've got 50 years of conspiracy, miscommunication and the perception on the part of the Iranians, perhaps with good reason during the '50s and perhaps even later, that we were determined somehow to fundamentally change the regime.
So diplomacy, in my judgment, was never an option, and it's not an option now.
CONAN: Mike Shuster, is it fair to say that there was a sincere attempt to open dialogue with Iraq - Iran, excuse me, after the Obama administration came to power?
SHUSTER: I think from the outside it looked like there was, and I think it was very short-lived in 2009, and I also think that the Iranians did not reciprocate. They didn't show much interest. The Iranians always say we'll talk, we'll talk, we're willing to talk about anything. But when they get in the same room, not much happens.
And I think that the Obama administration was discouraged early on and then turned actually, Neal, to other options that - a lot of which, I think, most of which have been covert operations that may have been much more effective than anything.
CONAN: The Stuxnet worm...
SHUSTER: The Stuxnet worm, and there have been other what appear to be covert operations to throw the Iranian government off-balance, and they've been somewhat effective.
CONAN: Let's go next to Chris(ph), Chris with us from Kansas City.
CHRIS: Hi, I appreciate the program. I'm a huge believer in diplomacy, but you're dealing with a nation that its three pillars are the veil, conflict with U.S. and the destruction of Israel. You're dealing with a nation that science us tells us behaviorally the only thing you can predict future behavior is on past behavior. They're completely inconsistent.
Even if you reached a diplomatic agreement with the nation now, you couldn't be assured that two weeks from now, something wouldn't change. Plus they're committed to arming terrorists, and they have multiple interests that are counter to ours and even to those in the Arab nations themselves.
I think it's naive to talk about anything except (unintelligible) because two nuclear weapons wipes out Israel. We have to have zero tolerance. There has to be a military strike at the appropriate time, and we can't allow them to ever rearm. It's just - it looks really clear from the outside.
I understand all the other issues you're talking about, but the bottom line is do you want Israel to exist. Do you want terrorists armed with nuclear weapons? Can you actually deal with the Iranian government? And I think those questions all have been answered already.
CONAN: Chris, thanks very much, and Robert Kagan, let me turn that, if you will. Why won't deterrence work? If the Iranians were to launch those two nuclear weapons at Israel, they would know first they would face a devastating response from Israel, and the United States would jump in.
KAGAN: We're back to the same problems we had during the Cold War: What good are nuclear weapons? And the answer is they're not good once you fire them, but they're good before you fire them. And I think why Iran wants a nuclear weapon, I mean, Aaron touched on most of the reasons why we can't have an agreement with them.
One of them is they think it's a core national interest. They think their survival depends on it. What having a nuclear weapon does gives Iran greater freedom of movement already than they have in the region. If they step up their support for terrorism in the region or even against the United States, and then we want to try to think about taking military action against them, we will be sorely deterred, much more than we are now, by the fact that they have a nuclear weapon.
So what it gives them is an opportunity to drive things to a crisis and feel much more secure that there's nothing that anyone can do to them. And I think that's why they want a nuclear weapon. I think it's also about regime preservation at home.
You know, we are going to be much more worried about toppling them, have less capacity to topple them when they have a nuclear weapon, they believe, than when they don't.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, one's reminded of the quote from the Pakistani general after the first Gulf War: What is the great lesson you have learned? And the lesson is never fight the United States without a nuclear weapon.
MILLER: That's an interesting point. You know, if you look at the countries that actually have nuclear weapons, outside of the five permanent members of the Security Council, the Israelis may be something of an exception here but maybe not. They all are driven by this profound sense of insecurity on one hand and this driving sense of entitlement on the other.
CONAN: You're talking about Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea.
MILLER: Right. It's a curious combination. It's a curious mix. They also have remarkably efficient technological capabilities. They're not all wealthy countries, but the ones that aren't wealthy, in the case of the Israelis, they've managed to compensate by brainpower and technology.
So I think Iran is the latest edition, and I think Bob's right. I think the notion that Iran fashions itself as a great power, I believe that had there been no revolution, the shah, who was developing a civilian program on the nuclear side, would probably have wanted a weapon as well.
So the question really becomes, unless you can somehow alter the character, the inquisitive character of this regime, I'm not sure how you would - will ultimately deny them such a weapon.
CONAN: Let's go next to Al(ph). Al's on the line from Eugene in Oregon.
AL: Oh, thank you for taking my call. You know, I am one who also doesn't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon. But I think to - for the whole argument to make sense for the people of the region, how can we allow Israel, who is committing human rights against the Palestinians, taking their land and who with an apartheid system. Yet we close our eyes.
And to be honest with your guest, I've read a book by Miller, who was part of the negotiation with the Palestinians, who basically covers up for Israel taking Palestinian land. So maybe eventually it will give up its apartheid system and nuclear weapon as South Africa did.
You see, to the people, why don't we speak of a Middle East that's free of nuclear weapons, free of weapons of mass destruction? We cannot let someone have it, and somebody else doesn't.
CONAN: Well, the ad-hominem attacks aside, why can't we have a nuclear-free Middle East? And that would begin with Israel. Robert Kagan?
KAGAN: Well, you know, we are not going to persuade Israel to give up its nuclear weapons. Once countries get their nuclear weapons, no one ever persuades them to give them up. And, you know, the nuclear world is a world of a double standard. The non-proliferation treaty is a huge double standard. It permitted five countries to have nuclear weapons based on who had them at an arbitrary date.
Then India pressed ahead. What it really has to do, if you're an American, and I think if you might come from a different, you have a different view, who is a strategic threat? Who poses a threat to our vital interests, to the vital interests of our allies? For the United States, that's not Israel. That's not India. At the moment, I hope, it's not even Pakistan. But it is Iran.
And we make decisions in America based on our perception of our vital national interests.
CONAN: Well, Ron Paul, one of Mr. Romney's rivals, says Iran represents no strategic threat to the United States, maybe to some of its interests but not to the United States and not to those interests if it withdraws from the region. Aaron David Miller, is that not another approach?
MILLER: Well, you know, great powers are great powers in large part it's because of their job description. They can behave hypocritically, and inconsistently and in contradictory fashion. And we do. And I think Bob is right. It, you know, the perception of threat may be in the eye of the beholder, but essentially, we determine what our national interests are. As far as withdrawal from the region, you know, I would actually like to see a lower profile. We're stuck there.
We can't fix this broken, dysfunctional region, and we can't extricate ourselves from it. That's the real dilemma. So we're not going anywhere, and in fact, what you're going to see, I suspect, Arab Spring, Arab Winter notwithstanding, is an increase in the American footprint in certain regions like the Gulf. I mean, we're on the verge of a $60 billion arms deal with the Saudis. If the Iranian program continues, we will look for various conventional means of shoring up our allies in that region and hopefully being smart about it, creating a more effective profile.
So I don't think we're on the way out at all. As a consequence of the Iranian nuclear program, we may be on the way back in, hopefully in a smarter capacity.
CONAN: Mike Shuster, what about the Iranian opposition? Is that something with quiet support from the outside, represents a serious threat to the Iranian government?
SHUSTER: Oh, I think without a doubt. And actually it's a point I've been wanting to make about this discussion. One of the callers talked about the inherent hostility between the United States and the Iranian nation. And I think that we have to focus on the Iranian government because there's an enormous portion of the Iranian nation that hates their own government. And we saw that in the actual voting in the summer of 2009 that supposedly re-elected Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But there was an enormous movement against the current Iranian government, and it's been suppressed, but it continues to be there. It is not a small thing, and it's not an ephemeral thing. Many, many, many Iranians disagree with their government, don't want to live under their government, would like to see a change. Now, how is that going to happen in the future is impossible to predict, but it's, I think, a very important consideration when we have a discussion like this.
CONAN: And, Robert Kagan, does even the threat of a military attack spark nationalist interest and, well, tend to dampen that movement?
KAGAN: Well, that's a good question. I don't think we know necessarily what the answer to that is. I've - my preferred option of all has always been to try to support the opposition and get a moderation of this government, if not an overthrow of this government. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking it appears. And we're not - it's hard to see how we're going to get a change in regime or even a moderation in the regime in time to stop this. Now, what does a strike do to the Iranian public? I mean, I think it's true that whatever else may be the case, they're not going to rally around that government.
There may be Iranian nationalism. You could see opposition figures trying to take advantage of that nationalism for their selves, but I don't think we should underestimate the degree. And Mike is exactly right. A very large percentage of the Iranian people really detest this government and especially after what happened in the summer of 2009 and the crackdown that followed.
CONAN: Robert Kagan is with us, also Mike Shuster, who just heard a moment ago, NPR foreign correspondent Aaron David Miller. We're talking about the least bad option with Iran. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Brian(ph). Brian with us from Birmingham in Michigan.
BRIAN: Yes, yes, I am. And I'm listening to the last comments, and I'm hearing something I would agree with in principle that we have to take a look at the history of American-Iranian relations going back at least to the end of the Second World War. The United States was very effective in dealing with the Mosaddegh regime, in particular using covert action, as well as appealing to the Iranian people. We have a tremendous integration of Iranian people in the United States supporting alternatives to the current government in Iran. I think focusing on that probably more than saber-rattling is going to be a much more effective technique.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller?
MILLER: You know, I have to say watching the Arab Spring and the Arab Winter and understanding the role that we played in all of this, which frankly is marginal, the notion somehow that Iraq was the first domino to fall in the chain of democracies and that somehow the previous administration had it right, I'm not sure that's right at all. I think American fingerprints are still viewed as illegitimate fingerprints. I think when we start to monkey around in the internal politics of these countries, we aren't very good at it, first of all, either clandestinely and rhetorically publicly.
We end up creating risks of encouraging people to do things and then not being able to really deliver. You had the American ambassador to Iraq - I found this extraordinary - last week holding a press conference, apologizing to the Shia community because during the first Bush administration, we encouraged the Shia to mount an uprising against Saddam, and the American ambassador is apologizing that the Bush administration never delivered, never was there to rescue them.
So I think we have to be extremely careful about the expectations that we create or the clandestine means of operation when in fact we can end up delegitimizing the very people we want to help.
CONAN: Mike Shuster, Robert Kagan was talking about a timeline that seems to be running out. What do we know?
SHUSTER: Well, actually, I have my doubts about this. The Israelis have been saying for 10 years that there's an Iranian nuclear bomb right around the corner. That's proved not to be the case. Many in the United States have been saying for five or six years that it's right around the corner. That has proven not to be the case. I think that there's no question that the Iranians are involved in a lot of research and a lot of advanced technological work. But we have at least evidence in the gas centrifuges and how they've worked not so well in Natanz where they've built a big uranium enrichment facility.
I think that there is reason to believe that the Iranians struggle with all this technology. And sometimes it breaks down, and sometimes they're at fault for it breaking down. And it is a slow slog for them, it seems to me.
CONAN: So we sometimes see all of our problems and see their problems magically solving themselves.
KAGAN: Well, someday, the people who predict that it's going to be around the corner will be right, right? I mean, eventually, it is around the corner. And the question is how much closer are we now? I think there are some concerns that the amount of low-enriched uranium that Iran has acquired is enough to build one or two bombs. The question of now whether they have the technology to do it is the next question.
CONAN: It has to be confirmed (unintelligible)...
KAGAN: It has to be moved up. And so - but we're not talking - I think we're not talking about five years at this point. Whether we're talking about one year or two years, I think that's more the range we're in.
CONAN: Well, a subject to which we will return. Robert Kagan, thanks very much for your time today.
KAGAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Our thanks as well to Aaron David Miller. And, Mike, nice to have you in Washington. You're going back to Los Angeles tomorrow?
SHUSTER: I am, yes.
CONAN: All right. Well, sorry to lose you, but the West Coast, it will be benefit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.