"My Brilliant Friend" by Elena Ferrante is the first of the mysterious Italian author's Neapolitan novels. The series tells the story of a life-long friendship between two working class girls in Naples. Critics have called Ferrante “one of the greatest novelists of our time.” Yet nobody knows her true identity. Join Diane and her guests for a discussion of “My Brilliant Friend.”
Guest Host: Steve Roberts
With U.S. forces set to exit Iraq by the end of the year, there are rising concerns about security in the volatile region. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, and last week’s rampage on the British embassy by Iranian protesters have elevated tensions with the West. The U.S. Senate voted unanimously last week to impose the toughest sanctions yet on Iran, as Europe considered an oil embargo. Yesterday, Iran’s revolutionary guard troops were placed on high alert, and Tehran warned crude oil prices would double with a European embargo. Guest host Steve Roberts and a panel of experts explore the latest developments in the region and whether Israel and the U.S. are engaged in a covert war against Iran to disrupt its nuclear program.
- Robin Wright journalist, foreign policy analyst at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, and author of "Rock the Casbah:Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World"
- Trita Parsi president, National Iranian American Council; author of the forthcoming book "A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran."
- Reuel Marc Gerecht senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, former Middle East specialist for the CIA
MR. STEVE ROBERTSThanks so much for joining us. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. Diane's husband is recovering from surgery. And she'll be back soon. Iranian republican guards are on more footing in response to increasing international pressure over its nuclear program. The series of mysterious bombings and cyber attacks has led some to conclude that the U.S. and Israel are conducting a covert war against Iran.
MR. STEVE ROBERTSJoining me in the studio to talk about concerns over U.S.-Iranian relations: Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council, Robin Wright of the United States Institute of Peace, and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Welcome to you all. Nice to have you.
MS. ROBIN WRIGHTGood morning.
ROBERTSAnd you can join our conversation about American policies toward Iran and what's happening inside that country at 1-800-433-8850. Drshow@wamu.org is our email address. Reuel, let's start with the news. There was a report this morning -- there was a drone aircraft lost, perhaps shot down, near the borderland between Afghanistan and Iran some days ago. And Washington Post, reporting today that, in fact, it was a CIA mission, raising questions, concerns that perhaps the -- if that -- a wreck was captured, the technology could be very useful to American enemies. What do we know?
MR. REUEL MARC GERECHTWell, I'm certain that the Iranians will try to reverse engineer it. I'm not sure how successful they will be. It really depends how sophisticated that equipment is. I mean, it's natural the agency would be using drones on the Afghan border. You would want sort of close tactical surveillance capacity because of the Iranian supplies to the Taliban and to others in Afghanistan. It's that type of a surveillance piece of equipment that, I think, would be highly valuable, much more valuable than, say, surveillance from a satellite.
MR. REUEL MARC GERECHTSo I'm not at all surprised it's there. I'm sure those flights have been fairly often.
ROBERTSAnd you -- the assumption being it's a surveillance mission rather than an attack mission. We've come to know of predator drones attacking targets, but that's not what you think it was.
GERECHTNo. I'm highly doubtful that that drone was even armed. And, you know, what would it be shooting at? I think, again, the primary concern on that border is the Iranian supply to the Taliban, to Hekmatyar, to other, you know, insurgents inside of Afghanistan.
ROBERTSNow, Robin, the other news the last day or so, this report from a British newspaper that the Revolutionary Guard in Iran being put on high alert, have you been able to confirm that, and does this make sense to you?
WRIGHTWell, tensions have been building for the last 18 months. And there's always been speculation about, what would the international community do about Iran's controversial nuclear program? Would there be a strike by Israel, for example. Would United States support it? There are even some who've called for the United States, for the Obama administration, to take action because of the growing reports by the U.N. nuclear watchdog about Iran's nuclear program. There are still a lot of missing pieces in that -- in those reports.
WRIGHTThey don't have the smoking gun indicating that Iran actually has an active nuclear program today. But the pattern of the last 18 months -- you've seen the Stuxnet virus that has infected the centrifuge manufacturer, critical to a nuclear program being affected, and this new kind of cyber war, which the Iranians suspect either the Israelis or the United States have been responsible for.
WRIGHTThen there was -- there were three attacks on nuclear scientists who are believed to be associated with the Iran's nuclear program, two of whom were assassinated in rather dramatic fashion, out of a spy novel, where they were driving to work and someone on a motorcycle passed and attached a bomb to the sides of their car and managed to kill two of them. And then you have this very big question about what happened last month when the -- a missile technology plant...
WRIGHTIt's been some kind of explosion. And the new satellite photos indicate that the whole compound was pretty much devastated. And in the process, one of the leading figures in the missile production program was killed. And so there have been this pattern of activities that have led to an increase of tensions between the two countries.
ROBERTSWell, then -- and it's also led to a lot speculation, Trita, that there is a covert war going on. People look at the cyber attacks, the assassinations of scientists, this blast -- and this was not the only blast at sensitive sites within Iran. And there's been a lot of speculation in American press and the British press that there's a covert war going on. What's your best read as to what -- all of these individual incidents, do they add up to something larger?
MR. TRITA PARSII certainly do think that they add to something bigger, and I think we shouldn't be too surprised by that. We have been, as Robin indicated, in a confrontational mode for the last 18 months. And within that, it is also unfortunate and natural there will be escalation, and I think we've seen that. As you mentioned, there's been the Stuxnet, there's been these assassinations, there's been these sabotage and these bombs being blown up. It would be very difficult to read this as a simple coincidence.
MR. TRITA PARSIWhat I think is more interesting perhaps is we see the signs of attacks on Iran. What are the Iranians doing in turn? Are they doing anything at all? And if they're not doing anything in a sense of retaliation, why is that?
ROBERTSWell, you've been in the covert action business earlier in your life in your career. I gather you're skeptical of this widely discussed notion that there really is a covert war going on.
GERECHTYeah, I don't think there's a covert paramilitary war going on, at least not with the United States and the Europeans, and even with the Israelis, that I'm suspicious. I don't think President Obama would actually have authorized -- it would have to literally be on the first day he came into office -- a covert action paramilitary program. You can conceivably have it up and working by this time. I think that really would have had to have been approved under George W. Bush.
GERECHTAnd I don't think that actually happened for the same reason that George W. Bush was unprepared for preventive military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites. It takes an awfully lot to put something like this up to run a program like this. If, in fact, there is some type of paramilitary concerted effort taking place, I think it's much more likely that it's been done internally, that you either have the rebirth of a more militant, a more capable Mujahedin-e Khalq, which is a long-standing Islamist leftist guerilla organization inside of Iran. It maintains it's given up that type of practice.
GERECHTBut I suspect that may not be true. Or you have a new group borne in the ruins of the Green Movement. It's possible that the Israelis could've given them some assistance. I'm skeptical even there because their access to things, to information is vastly better than what the Israelis could be. How the Israelis would even meet them, contact them, manage them, I think, stretches credulity. It's possible the Israelis gave them some type of portable surveillance equipment. It's possible the Israelis maybe gave them new plastiques. But I think one has to be very careful.
GERECHTI mean, first and foremost, one always has to realize that the Iranian military, the Revolutionary Guard Corps are capable of enormous cock-ups. The capacity for them to make mistakes is enormous, so you shouldn't assume just because something goes boom and it goes boom in the sense of the facility that the Iranians didn't, in fact, blow themselves up.
ROBERTSRobin, what's your best take on this wisdom?
WRIGHTWell, look, under the Bush administration, there was the allocation of reportedly $400 million for operations on Iran, and that included everything from broadcasting to covert operations. It is true that the United States, since the 1979 revolution, has had enormous problems recruiting people inside Iran. And the Iranians actually announced last month that they had arrested 12 CIA agents, so having human resources inside Iran is not an easy task. And Reuel is absolutely right that they're -- the revolutionary guards, the Iranians in general, are capable of real ineptitude.
WRIGHTBut at the same time, there is such enormous evidence, especially with this blast at the missile plant last month where the new satellite pictures showed such extraordinary devastation that it's a little bit hard to think that it was just something inside, or the pattern of explosions. And you've had three -- in October, you had three day -- three blasts in one day. So, you know, there's a lot still to be explained. We don't have the answers to a lot of this, but, you know, it could be a mix of two. Who knows?
ROBERTSTrita, what's your information from the -- Reuel posits an interesting theory that there are vibrant resistance groups within Iran capable of doing significant damage. Does that fit with your understanding in your sources of what's going on inside the country?
PARSIWell, I think, first of all, it needs to be stated. I find it extremely unlikely that this would be anything to do with the Green Movement. The Green Movement is a non-violent movement, has absolutely had no involvement in anything like this. When it comes to the Mujahedin, I think that is perhaps a possibility. And I think a combination of the Mujahedin working for a foreign country is quite feasible because if the Mujahedin, which incidentally is an extreme...
ROBERTSFor or with a foreign country.
PARSIFor or with. Actually, more for, I would say, and I'll tell you why. The Mujahedin is an extremely unpopular group in Iran ever since they sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war. They are on the U.S.'s terrorist list because of several acts of terrorist that they have conducted, including killing several Americans. If they were doing this on their own, they would not necessarily be targeting missile sites. They would be targeting Iranian officials.
PARSITargeting of the missile sites lies more in the interests of other countries in the region that are very concerned about Iran's missile capabilities, so a combination of the two, which, incidentally, there are some evidence that has occurred in the past, I find it more feasible. But that the Green Movement would be involved in anything like this, I find extremely unlikely.
ROBERTSI want to ask you another quick question before we take a break here. You mentioned earlier how Iran is retaliating against whoever is responsible. There was the major rampage at the British embassy, caused it to close. The place was sacked. Various other countries removed their envoys. Is that an organized effort, as best you can tell, and what was it in response to?
PARSII believe that that was organized. This was a completely unacceptable act. It's in violation of all diplomatic code, and these were not students. When you take a look at a footage, actually, a few of them had been identified as having been senior besiege officials.
ROBERTSWhich is a paramilitary -- a very shadowy paramilitary organizations.
PARSIIt's a paramilitary group controlled by the government, so the government really doesn't have much of a plausible deniability here.
ROBERTSWe're going to be right back with your calls and your comments on the situation in Iran, so stay tuned and stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour, Iran, that has been in the news for many reasons, including the shooting down of a -- of an American surveillance drone on the border and a bomb blast in -- within Iran that killed a major figure in their missile defense system and leveled a missile base there. Many other things going on Iran, and I have three experts to talk about it: Trita Parsi from the National Iranian American Council, Robin Wright of the United States Institute of Peace and Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
ROBERTSCall us at 1-800-433-8850, or email us, email@example.com. Reuel, one of the -- what we've been talking about is in a context. A report earlier this month from the International Atomic Energy Agency in early November, an alarming report, reinforcing something that they've said before, which is that within Iran, the developing capabilities -- nuclear capabilities of Iran seemed to be moving toward their -- the potential for building a weapon. What did that report say? How significant was it?
GERECHTWell, I think it was a pretty significant report in that it certainly revealed a lot more information than the IAEA had revealed before. It cast into doubt the 2007 NIE, National Intelligence Estimate, on Iran.
GERECHTIt certainly lead you to believe that the regime has, since 2003, continued with a nuclear weapons program, that their use of the modeling, their use of warhead design, the integration of a warhead into a missile, all of these things, I think, unless you are trying not to reach that conclusion, more or less force you to the conclusion that they've got an active nuclear weapons program, and they're trying to figure out how to make it ballistic.
GERECHTSo that's fairly significant. Under Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the IAEA, I think the organization was not nearly as forthright on the information that it possessed, the information that it had gathered from other U.N. members. So it's pretty important, and whether it will -- you know, I think it has helped galvanize support elsewhere for further sanctions. I think the sacking of the British Embassy also was quite a catalytic agent in encouraging the Europeans to go forward.
GERECHTYou're even seeing the French, who always rhetorically are more forceful than they are in action -- but, nevertheless, the French have come out and said, we should consider, actually, an oil embargo.
ROBERTSAnd now, Robin, I want to also mention that Robin's the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World" and spent many years covering this part of the world. And, Robin, talk about this issue of sanction, not a new one. It's been around a long time. And was there a significant ratcheting up in the wake of this report, new sanctions? And what are the possibilities, as Reuel raises, of moving even more dramatically toward dealing with the oil issue, which is -- the West has flinched from really dealing with it in the past.
WRIGHTWell, there are different layers of sanctions. You have five resolutions at the United Nations since 2006, four under the Bush administration, one under the Obama administration. But that's kind of reached its limit because the Chinese and the Russians have been reluctant to go along so far with anything more punitive. And so that had led to a second layer of sanctions...
ROBERTSAnd they have vetoes in the Security Council?
WRIGHTAnd, yes, they're both among the five veto-wielding countries. And so a lot of it now is what happens unilaterally either by communities of nations, like the Europeans or the United States. And United States, because it does so little trade, has had limited impact. It's tried something new kind of banking sanctions to cut off financial transactions. But the European Union now is moving in an interesting way, talking about giving serious consideration to an oil embargo. I think there are going to be very strong voices against it.
WRIGHTBut there is clearly a greater will in the aftermath of both the IAEA report and the sacking of the British Embassy to say to Iran, this is unacceptable. You really are becoming a pariah nation worldwide. And so that's moving. And then you see the United States Senate voting 100-0 to impose -- to cut off any country that does business with Iran's central bank, and that would have an enormous impact on oil sales as well.
WRIGHTSo there are a number of different kinds of things that are being discussed to take sanctions to a whole new level. Before, they've kind of been targeted at certain revolutionary guards, leaders or Iranian officials, whether it's travel bans or freezing their assets or cutting off certain shipping lines that are believed to be facilitating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
ROBERTSIs there any -- is there -- Trita, is there any evidence that a stronger sanctions regime, particularly if it got to oil or the central bank assets, as Robin described, would this have any effect?
PARSIIn fact, I don't think there is much evidence to support that at all. Even the administration, even though they are quite happy with the amount of sanctions that they have managed to get, they have far greater international backing for the sanctions that they have imposed than the Bush administration did. But they also admit that, so far, we have seen no indication that the calculations of the Iranian regime has in any way, shape or form changed.
PARSINow, could it happen that with even stronger sanctions, the oil sanctions, for instance, that this could change? Theoretically, yes. But we also have to keep in mind what happened in the Iraqi case. In the Iraqi case, we had complete sanctions on the Iraqi regime. Hundreds of thousands of people died under those sanctions according to the United Nations. And it did not bring about an end to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
GERECHTActually, it did bring an end in all probability to the mass -- weapons of mass destruction program. You may not like the method and what happened inside of Iraq, though I'd certainly put most of the blame on Saddam Hussein, not on the sanctions. But there are pretty strong indications that that sanctions regime, which was put into place, actually did got the WMD program.
PARSIWhat's unfortunate about that, though, is that we didn't believe that until we actually invaded the country, got ourselves stuck in a completely unnecessary war. We saw the sanctions. As we are entering into this -- further into this sanctions mode, we are in a confrontational dynamic. And in that confrontational dynamic, we actually increase the likelihood of a military confrontation rather than decrease it.
ROBERTSI should also mention that Trita also has a new book. It's just coming out, if I'm not mistaken.
ROBERTS"A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." So -- but given the frustrations, Robin, over the years with sanctions not really being able to change the basic habits and the basic strategy of the Iranian rulers, hovering in the background is this possibility of a military strike. It was discussed openly to the dismay of some people in the Republican debate recently. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has hinted at the possibility of an Israeli strike.
ROBERTSHistory shows that the Israelis are willing and able to carry it out, which they did in the early '80s, and that's caused a lot of alarm in American ranks. Defense Secretary Panetta, quite upset about the possibility -- destabilizing effect of an Israeli strike. What's your best read from all your sources about Israeli thinking and planning on this?
WRIGHTOh, I think that the Israelis feel that Iran really does represent an existential threat and want to make sure that Iran doesn't get a bomb, doesn't test a bomb, doesn't get to the capability level, even though it's past the threshold of knowledge and -- which will make Iran, you know, dangerous down the road, too. My sense is that, though nothing will happen before the U.S. presidential election, that the White House is quite intent to make sure that there isn't some kind of military operation.
WRIGHTAnd I think the Israelis actually will have a bit of trouble justifying it because there isn't yet that smoking gun that lets them say Iran has tested a nuclear weapon. We have evidence that it has had it together. Even Israeli...
ROBERTSI think the test, it's a little late, don't you?
WRIGHTWell, absolutely. But the mere fact that even Israeli intelligence -- two former senior intelligence agents have suggested that military strikes might not be the best tactic and that we still have, what, two years, three years, whatever, until they get to a really dangerous point, the timeline is, of course, the big issue because if sanctions don't work and if a military strike is unattractive because of the potential dangers, the repercussions, the unintended consequences, the fact that this could lead to all kinds of actions by Iran -- you know, what are the options?
WRIGHTAnd the great hope is that there will be some kind of movement inside Iran, whether it's the Green Movement or someone else challenging the regime, that there will be some kind of internal force that changes the system. And that clock is moving very, very slowly, and the regime has managed to quash any effort at pro-democracy movements.
ROBERTSTrita, that leads into my next question because while the evidence, as Robin says, is that the regime has been pretty effective, many of their allies in other parts of the Middle East have not been effective. Starting with Syria, a close ally of Iran, has not been able to quash the democracy movements there. And, of course, in other countries, like from Egypt to Yemen to Tunisia, there have been a lot of movements in the last year. What's your best read about the possibility, realistic possibility, of an internal Arab Spring eruption or evolution within Iran that could significantly affect the regime?
PARSII would have to say, first of all, that I don't think it has been quashed. What you have is a situation in which resentment towards the regime, opposition to the regime is still extremely, extremely strong. But the opportunity to translate that into an action plan that has a high likelihood of success doesn't seem to exist right now. So what do the Iranian people do in that situation? Well, then they're patient, and they're staying back and waiting for that opportunity to emerge.
PARSIIt doesn't mean just because we don't have protest in the streets of Iran that people are suddenly forgetting all of their demands. But I think this is an important one...
ROBERTSBut what's the difference between Iran and Syria? Why has this erupted in Syria and not Iran, you think?
PARSIWell, one of their differences is because Iran did have a revolution in 1979, and they replaced the dictatorship with a worse dictatorship. So people are more cautious about doing revolutions in which they very easily can lose control over the process, and they can end up replacing a regime and getting an even worse regime come in to its place. So neither Egypt, Syria or any of these other countries have had that experience.
PARSISo the Iranians are a little bit more cautious. They have to think more than just one step ahead. But I think it's important to also note that part of the reason why it's difficult for the Iranian people to do this is precisely because of the tensions that exist between the -- Iran and the outside world. The more these tensions heighten, the less of an opportunity do the Iranian people have to actually bring about peaceful democratic change internally.
ROBERTSReuel, your take on this question.
GERECHTWell, yeah. I mean, this is a little invidious to say, but, I mean, in Iran, the Green Movement was led by the college-educated. In Syria, the insurrection has been led by those who really aren't. It's the -- largely, the Sunni poor. The Sunni poor have proven to be braver. They have just taken a hell of a lot more heat. They've -- and also I say the leadership in the Green Movement proved to be fairly ineffective, and I think that's largely because the leadership of the Green Movement was really part of the regime.
GERECHTAnd it took them a long time to have an epiphany. I think someone like Mousavi has had that epiphany, but it took them a while to move away from their baby, which was the revolution and the order which they helped to create. So it's been a much more complicated situation in Iran. And, again, if you're going to have an insurrection and it's turned violent -- Syria was originally peaceful, which is why it's possible.
GERECHTI don't completely disagree with Trita there. It's possible that you could have people in the ruins of the Green Movement who are deeply frustrated with the regime, who now realize there is no chance for peaceful evolution. I think once upon a time the Green Movement did, but you could have people turning towards violence. But it's -- the Iranian situation, I think the regime has handled it much more adeptly than has been the case today in Syria.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've got a number of emails and questions from our listeners. So, Robin, let me start with you. Jeffrey emails us: "Could you ask your guests if it's legal for the U.S. to be involved covertly attacking Iran? When anyone in Congress have to be informed, should the common citizen be told?"
WRIGHTSure, it's legal. This is a question that Reuel, a former CIA officer, would probably answer better than I can, but, yes, it's legal. When it comes to assassinating foreign heads of state, there are limits, but covert operations is what the CIA is all about.
ROBERTSAnd what are the requirements for telling Congress? There's a very closely held list, is there not? Just the heads of the committees...
GERECHTYeah. I mean, if it's a lethal finding, then the president more or less has to have the intelligence committees on board. If they...
ROBERTSWhen you say lethal finding, you mean -- explain what a finding is in legal terms.
GERECHTYeah. If you are going to engage in a covert action program, the president essentially has to authorize it. There has to be a finding for it. That finding essentially has to be approved, though that's not -- I mean, approved by the members of the intelligence committee. You can't move forward with that finding unless the members, the senior members of the intelligence committee, are on board.
GERECHTNow, when it comes to such things as assassination, that's simply presidential directive, so a president can unmake a presidential directive. He can make it. So there is no binding statute that would keep, for example, the president of the United States to -- from killing a member of a terrorist organization. Barack Obama is doing that fairly frequently. So that is -- that one is fairly easy, I think, to handle. And a covert action program, which would allocate millions of dollars, requires a good deal of correct congressional support.
WRIGHTAnd it's interesting that there's actually a whole team of legal advisers, lawyers at the CIA that goes over every single...
WRIGHT...operation to make sure that there is a legal basis for it. This is not just something they come up with an idea, go to Congress and get approval.
GERECHTI mean, I would just say 20 years ago, and I had -- I won't get to the details of them, but fairly minor different projects. And I was -- this was under Reagan. I mean, we were constantly running back and forth to the lawyers.
ROBERTSAnd this is partly because of the history here, right? After the...
ROBERTS...the various church commission and others looking into earlier CIA operations...
ROBERTS...the rules got a lot tighter.
WRIGHTAnd I think it was under President Ford that they actually talked about banning the assassination of foreign leaders.
PARSIBut there's also international law. This may be correct that this is not illegal under American law, but there's also international law. And I think we shouldn't forget about that.
ROBERTSLet me also ask from Randy, tweets us: "If Iran can reverse-engineer" -- this is a point you made earlier, Reuel, the possibility of this drone if it fell into the hands of American enemies. "If Iran can reverse-engineer it, China can, and Iran deals with China."
GERECHTSure. Absolutely. I -- if that drone isn't destroyed, if parts are still whole, I think you can rest assured that the -- both the North Koreans and the Chinese, and probably even the Russians, will get, you know, their hands on it.
WRIGHTRemember, that stealth helicopter that was left behind at Osama bin Laden's compound, it was a stealth helicopter. And one of the things that the United States was so concerned about was, would the Pakistanis give the Chinese access?
ROBERTSAnd wouldn't a drone like that have a mechanism where you could blow it up remotely if it fell into the wrong hands?
GERECHTYou would think so, but, I mean, it's entirely possible that the device malfunctioned. And before they knew what happened, it had already crashed.
ROBERTSThe -- very quickly. "Iran is a nuclear proliferator," writes Matt, "and is quite possibly in the process of developing a bomb. The IAEA has a budget less than that of Vienna police." So are they really capable of doing very much here?
PARSIActually, yes. If the Iranians were to implement, ratify the Additional Protocol, the IAEA would be given very, very effective tools of inspections and verification that would make it extremely difficult for the Iranians to be able to diversify the program towards a nuclear program.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, sitting in for Diane. I'll be back with my guests, your comments, your questions. Stay with us.
ROBERTSWelcome back. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Our subject this hour is Iran and all of the many ways in which American policy intersects with that country as well as European policy and three experts to talk about it. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council. And his new book is "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran."
ROBERTSRobin Wright is a journalist, foreign policy analyst, U.S. Institute of Peace, and her book is called "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World." And Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He's a former Middle East specialist with the CIA, and he, too, has written a book, he tells me. It's called "The Wave: Men, God and the Ballot Box." So we've got a lot of expertise here.
ROBERTSAnd you can tap that expertise by calling 1-800-433-8850, firstname.lastname@example.org. A couple more emails. This is Henry from Florida. "Iran has as much right as Israel and the United States to possess nuclear technology and nuclear weapons. The Iranians should withdraw from the NPT and go all out. They will never be left alone until they detonate a nuclear device. What is good for Israel is also good for Iran." Robin.
WRIGHTWow. Iran, as part of the NPT, does have the right to nuclear energy, and Iran claims that that's all it's interested in is peaceful nuclear energy.
ROBERTSSay what NPT is.
WRIGHTOh, the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And Iran, under the shah, wanted 22 nuclear reactors for energy, which the United States supported. It still has only one. It has plans, it says, for others, but it's taken a very long time to get these -- to get even the first one going. The question is, of course, it is not supposed to move toward weapon. That's also part of the NPT. It is supposed to declare everything that it's doing on the nuclear front.
WRIGHTAnd it has not cooperated with the international community in terms of giving it access to its scientists, in terms of providing information on what it was doing earlier that -- on weaponization up through 2003. It is blocked at every turn. And so it is actually in violation of the very agreement that it has signed.
ROBERTSNow, another dimension that we haven't talked very much about, Reuel, is the digital war. You mentioned, both of you -- Trita and Robin mentioned Stuxnet, the virus that infected Iranian systems. But Nick writes to us, "Please ask your guests about the digital war going on right now, Stuxnet, the small army of digital warriors Iran has put together, and the possibility that the drone was hacked."
GERECHTI'm skeptical that the drone was probably hacked, just given the complexity of sort of aiming and hitting it within the short period of time that it's in flight. I mean, I suppose it's possible. I'm sure we'll learn more about that. I would add, on Stuxnet, obviously, there is some concerted Western effort there. I'm not terribly impressed with Stuxnet. I mean, there have been some pretty serious studies of Stuxnet done by the hacking community.
GERECHTThere's even something called the Stanford theory, which says that the Stuxnet wasn't really a serious attempt because it was so poorly done, that it was more like a shot across the bow. Now, that's not true. I mean, I think Stuxnet was the best that whoever did it could do, whether it be the Americans or the Israelis.
ROBERTSBut there are a lot of reports that it had really destroyed some of the...
GERECHTI think -- I'm -- if you look at the Iranian enrichment that the IAEA has shown has continued, it's a blip.
ROBERTSNow there's another email from Leonard and, Trita, if you can answer Leonard. "Please ask your guests about the explosion at the Iranian conversion facility in Isfahan. Any idea if this was a covert operation?"
PARSIWe don't know yet, but I think there has been approximately 18 strange explosions taking place in Iran this past year. Compare that to about three or two the previous year, that all adds up to a picture in which it is increasingly difficult to say that this is not a concerted effort. Add to that that the former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, has gone out and been very, very vocal about opposing a military attack by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities, being very skeptical about what they could achieve and, instead, having been quite candid yet a little bit subtle about the fact that these different explosions, et cetera, are something that Israel has something to do with.
ROBERTSLet me turn to our callers. Many people want to join the conversation. And Joanne in Rockville, Md., you're on "The Diane Rehm Show." Welcome.
JOANNEYes. I think people are really sick of war, and we're sick of being led in that direction. It sounds a lot like a repeat of the Iraq and the neocons and yellowcake and the whole thing. And, you know, I don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons, nuclear energy or something else. I don't want Israel to have it either. In fact, I don't like the idea that we have so much of it. I think people are just disgusted of putting our money into figuring out how we're going to deal with oil and security and everything else in the Middle East. I just think we don't sound very wise. We sound awfully stupid.
JOANNEAnd we sound as if we're making the same mistakes that we made before. Do we ever learn? The only person on the show that's making any sense to me right now, real sense, is the fellow whose name I don't remember...
ROBERTSIt's Trita Parsi. And I -- we very much appreciate your call, Joanne. Thanks a lot. What about this drawing of parallel, Robin, between the build up -- you mentioned the weapons of mass destruction that were not found in Iraq. Answer Joanne's attempt to draw a parallel between these two situations.
WRIGHTWell, I think there is a sense of deja vu when you look at the question of Iran. And, again, we may be able to accomplish some of the military objectives that the Israelis could or someone could in terms of setting back the program. But what are the unintended consequences? How long do you get involved? Are you really looking for regime change? And does this actually make it harder to engage in regime change? There are a lot of imponderables that haven't been addressed.
WRIGHTBut the broader issue, I think, that she addresses is this war weariness in the sense that, particularly in a time of global economic crisis, who's got the money to pay for another war? Our coffers have already been drained by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this is a time that people are looking for job creation, not engaging in another military conflict. So I think she reflects this sense of not another war in the volatile Middle East.
ROBERTSNow, Trita, one of the dimensions that you referred to earlier, the possibility of moving against Iranian oil supply, it's the fifth largest oil producer in the world. Is one of the moving parts here the fragile economic recovery that makes the West less able and willing to really use that kind of sanction given the potential economic fallout from it?
PARSIAbsolutely. And just to comment on what the caller also said, I think there are some similarities, also a lot of differences between the Iraq situation and the Iran situation. I don't see an administration here that actually has the intent of starting a war. I don't think that is on their agenda. However, I think there is a risk of essentially sleepwalking into a confrontation. Adm. Mullen warned about this extensively right before he left as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying that there's no communication between the two sides.
PARSIAnd when there's no communication, you increase the likelihood of miscalculating. And when you miscalculate, you escalate. And that's what we're in right now. Both sides are escalating without necessarily having the intent of going all the way to a war, but nevertheless, every step is viewed as just an incremental tactical step without taking a look at the larger picture in which, strategically, we actually are gravitating towards a conflict.
PARSINow, as to your question, if we then also then escalate by introducing oil sanctions, this would have a significant impact on the old market. And just to bring it home to understand what that means for the United States or what it means for this administration, it is that every time the dollar -- the oil goes up a dollar or so, it has an immediate impact on gas prices in the United States. When gas prices go up in the United States, job creation becomes all the more difficult. That's part of the reason why the administration has been very, very vocal in pushing back against oil sanctions.
ROBERTSLet me turn to Tim in Delray Beach, Fla. Tim, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
TIMThank you. My question is, what is the wealth of treasure with Iran? I mean, this isn't the first time -- remember 1953, the United States and Great Britain overthrew a democratically led government in Iran, and for 35 years, supported a guy who is just repressive as today's Arab leaders. And then we turned around during Iran-Iraq War and we support Saddam Hussein. So, really, what I see with this most recent report is yet another means, another method of, I guess, bringing Iran under control, so to speak, for lack of a better term.
ROBERTSOK. It's -- Reuel.
GERECHTWhy, I think the principal reason is terrorism. I mean, if Iran didn't always had the -- Islamic republic didn't always had the list of state sponsor of terrorism, if it hadn't had, according to 9/11 Commission report, a liaison relationship with al-Qaida -- it probably still has that relationship -- if it hadn't give, let's say, passage to members of al-Qaida before and after 9/11, it is these type actions that, I think, are unnerving.
GERECHTIt's the launching -- the attempted bombing of the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C. It is the terrorist aspect to the Islamic republic, which is so deeply disturbing.
ROBERTSAnd would you add to that America's deep and longstanding commitment to Israel and the fear that a nuclear program mounted on missiles in Iran could also reach Israel and endanger the security of an ally?
GERECHTYeah. I think that's -- I think it's secondary. I think the -- there is certainly concern for Israel, and there's certainly concern for our European allies. I mean, the whole missile defense program now is aimed towards being able to detour, to stop the ballistic nuclear threat that could come from Iran in the not-too-distant future.
ROBERTSAnd let's remember, as Robin said earlier, that the biggest, most recent plant was -- blast within Iran was, in fact, at a missile base, presumably not an accident, Robin.
WRIGHTWell, this is what we don't know. There was enormous devastation at this plant and the death of one of the founders of the missile program. But, you know, this is one of the many unanswered questions, and we may not know.
ROBERTSWe have another email, Trita, picking up on some of your earlier comments, from Cathleen, who says, "There are former Bush administration officials -- Flynt Leverett, his wife Hillary Mann Leverett -- who advocate direct negotiations with Iran and says that Iran wants to negotiate directly with the Obama administration." Is that true? Is there evidence that they really do want to negotiate directly, and is it the Obama administration that's resisting it?
PARSIThere's elements both in Iran, as well in the United States, who want negotiations, and there are elements in both countries that oppose negotiations. Negotiations that took place in '09, that the Obama administration initiated, unfortunately did not lead to the results that the administration had hoped for. But there were negotiations taking place. Bottom line is this, to make negotiations work, to resolve the conflict that is more than 30 years old, it's going to take more than a couple of weeks.
PARSIIn fact, in the cases in which the United States had been successful in negotiating in resolving a major conflict, it's usually taken a minimum of four years. For instance, taking the case of Vietnam, negotiations took place between 1990, 1994 to normalize relations. It takes a lot of political capital and a lot of political will, and the same thing needs to take place on the Iranian side. To make these two things match have been extremely difficult. And it's been very easy for elements in Iran who oppose negotiations to sabotage them.
ROBERTSI'm Steve Roberts, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Robin, you wanted to add something?
WRIGHTYeah. You know, I've always believed that -- I always believed in any crisis that you try diplomacy first and don't give up on it easily. But my sense is that the two sides are so on such different wavelengths in terms of what they want. The United States wants to talk about the nuclear program. Iran wants to talk about sanctions, you know, the grand bargain, the whole kit and caboodle before they cooperate on nuclear program.
WRIGHTAnd Iran also is in the run up to two critical rounds of elections. In March, they elect a new parliament, in the following year, a new president. And President Ahmadinejad can't run again because of the constitutional limit. It's a two-term limit. But the bigger issue is really the -- is the supreme leader willing to reverse 30 years of rejecting the United States? And my sense is that he's not there, and it's not going to happen until he is.
WRIGHTHe's a man who is elevated to the position, was very weak, has kind of created around him an inner circle that has a vested interest in containing his kind of raison d'etre. His justification for his position on policies is based, in large part, on kind of rejecting the United States and all that it represents.
ROBERTSReuel, you want to add something.
GERECHTYeah. I mean, Barack Obama has tried harder than any president before him to get the Supreme Leader to just say, hi. That's all he wanted, was hi. And instead of getting the Supreme Leader to say hi, the Supreme Leader gives the speech where he refers to the United States under Barack Obama a (speaks foreign language), Satan incarnate. That is not a nice thing to say. That is not how you start a dialogue.
GERECHTI think we have exhausted that. I think it's crystal clear that Khamenei looks upon the United States as the quintessence of evil. And it is in opposition to the United States that he defines the Islamic Revolution that he defines the Islamic republic.
PARSINegotiations are going to be extremely tough. But to say that diplomacy has been exhausted after two rounds of talks over the span of three weeks in October 2009, I don't think that's true. Diplomacy is going to take a long time. It's going to be difficult. The problem is this, it's much easier, politically, to impose sanctions and enter into a confrontational dynamic on both sides rather than take the political risk for diplomacy.
ROBERTSNow, Robin, quickly to the end, this issue has come up in Republican debates and talk -- rather bellicose talk from Romney and Gingrich and others about what they would do as president. Is that -- how would this affect the ability of the Obama administration, its flexibility, given the rhetoric coming out of the Republican primary?
WRIGHTIt makes it much tougher for the Obama administration. That's why, I think, we won't -- not only will we not see a military strike before the election, I doubt we'll see much diplomatic effort. But the problem with the Republicans is they make these grandiose claims, and they back it up with very little. Romney said, under Barack Obama, Iran would get a nuclear weapon, and under Mitt Romney, it wouldn't, but he doesn't say why.
WRIGHTWhat else could be done? And the -- one of the great problems with Iran is a lot of things have been tried and nothing has worked. It's not just a couple of weeks or a couple of rounds of diplomacy. You know, they've met in Iraq three times with the American ambassador and the Iraqi ambassador. There have been many attempts over the years to try to get them into the same room, on the same page talking about a common agenda, and they just haven't been able to get there.
ROBERTSFinal word on this, Reuel.
GERECHTYeah. One of the reasons the Iranians released the hostages, the American hostages is because Ronald Reagan was becoming president of the United States. And Ronald Reagan was seen as being somewhat of a mad bomber. The -- if the Republicans were actually serious -- and I agree they're not -- if the Republican were actually serious, it would actually make Barack Obama's hand easier.
GERECHTIt would allow him leverage to suggest, you know, if not me, them. But I believe that Robin is absolutely right. I don't think Romney or Mr. Gingrich are that serious.
ROBERTSThat's going to have to be the final word from Reuel Marc Gerecht, senior fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Also with me this morning, Robin Wright, journalist, foreign policy analyst, author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World," and Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and his book is "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran. I'm Steve Roberts, sitting in today for Diane. Thank you so much for spending an hour of your morning with us.
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