Friday News Roundup - International

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:56
Thanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. President Obama unveiled a plan for a leaner military end, a shift in strategic goals. In Iran, tensions mount over new U.S. sanctions and in the EU, oil embargo and in Iraq, a new wave of sectarian violence raised concerns about security. Here with me for the international hour of our Friday News Roundup, Mark Landler of the New York Times, Nadia Bilbassy of MBC TV and Tom Gjelten of NPR. We are going to take your calls in this first international hour of the New Year. 2012, we hope will be a better year than 2011 and, of course, we'll take your calls, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to drshow@wamu.org. Good morning, Happy New Year.

MR. MARK LANDLER

11:08:15
Happy New Year.

MS. NADIA BILBASSY

11:08:16
Good morning.

MR. TOM GJELTEN

11:08:16
Happy New Year, Diane.

REHM

11:08:17
Tom Gjelten, tell me about the highlights of President Obama's new strategic defense strategy.

GJELTEN

11:08:28
Diane, this strategy is driven by the fiscal reality that the U.S. budget has just gotten out of control and savings have to be found everywhere, including in the Pentagon's budget. It is driven, I think, less by a real clear sense of what threats the United States is going to be facing. I think if there's one lesson of the last few years is that it's really hard to see ahead what are the threats that we're going to be facing. Nevertheless, the president is banking on there being less of a need for U.S. ground forces in the future. There is actually a specific retreat from the previous goal of having sufficient ground forces to fight two land wars at the same time. Now, many people would say that, you know, this is only recognizing what we already have found out.

GJELTEN

11:09:27
I mean, remember, Diane, we went to war in Afghanistan. We had to withdraw from Afghanistan to go to war in Iraq and then we had to withdraw from Iraq in order to go back to Afghanistan. So it's been pretty clear for a while that we can't fight two ground wars at the same time. This strategy now makes that, in fact, official.

REHM

11:09:46
And what about weaponry, Mark Landler?

LANDLER

11:09:50
Well, again, it's a focus on -- first of all, there's some very expensive programs. The F-35 Strike Fighter and things like that where the Pentagon is going to slow its purchases or shelf them entirely. So on some of these sophisticated weaponry programs, they'll simply abandon some of these purchases. The one other point I'd make broadly about the review is to the extent that it does place a geographic emphasis, it places a great deal of emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region where there's not likely to be as big a retrenchment as you see elsewhere in the world, even in the Middle East.

LANDLER

11:10:31
And the reason for that, I think, is that the administration believes that in the long run, the growing military might of the Chinese is something that the U.S. has to contend with. So you're going to see the U.S. maintain its presence west of -- east of Hawaii, rather, and you're going to see, for example, no cutback in the number of aircraft carrier groups. There'll still be 11 aircraft carriers. The Asia-Pacific is a big reason for that.

REHM

11:11:01
But how would that shift to the Asia-Pacific affect what's happening in the Middle East, Nadia?

BILBASSY

11:11:09
Well, I think also the president talked about the challenges that the United States faces in the 21st century that's completely different from the last decades. We're not talking about the Cold War mentality. We're not talking about conventional war in that sense. We're talking about the emersions of non-state actors, terrorist organizations. Let's just look at a few examples in the last few months. The United States managed to get Osama Bin Laden with few commando units in Pakistan entering the country without permission of a sovereign country. They managed to eliminate the number one enemy wanted by the United States. They managed to get Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen by a drone attack. They didn't need a grand force on the ground. They didn't need boots on the ground.

BILBASSY

11:11:51
They managed to participate in one of the largest military NATO launch of attack in Libya and there was no boots on the ground. So the need to have troops in this massive number and in a way the consequences of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has actually given the idea that it's not just necessitated by the economic need but also by the facts on the grounds that you don't need these people anymore. You need a leaner and meaner forces and also in cooperation with it, the intelligence, the cyber warfare, the Navy, the Air Force and so many other things that you need to deal with the threat in the Middle East now, without having groups on the ground that will be a liability for the United States.

REHM

11:12:38
And is there likely to be further cutting as we go, Tom?

GJELTEN

11:12:46
Well, I think the big question is whether this administration, this Pentagon leadership, is able to make progress on the biggest issues facing the Pentagon budget, which is actually entitlements for military personnel, pay and benefits for retirees. I mean, these are the areas where Republicans and Democrats alike have tried in the past to find savings and have been stymied, largely because those programs have a tremendous amount of support in Congress. But that is where the real sort of future challenges lie in terms of defense spending. And I think that's something that the previous administration tried to attack without success. It's something I think we will now have to see whether this administration has any better luck.

REHM

11:13:37
Mark?

LANDLER

11:13:39
I'd simply add that there's another domestic, economic component to this, which is the strategic review and visions reducing the total numbers of people in uniform by 100,000 or so. But the Pentagon and the administration plans to move relatively slowly on that because they're concerned about adding to the ranks of the unemployed, giving and finding suitable jobs in the private sector for veterans is something the administration's been very concerned about in the last few months as they wound down the war in Iraq and are winding down the one in Afghanistan. So whatever you see in terms of lower numbers of people in uniform is going to be phased in in a very gradual way so that it doesn't add to the unemployment burden.

REHM

11:14:25
Mark Landler of the New York Times. Nadia Bilbassy of Middle East Broadcast Center and Tom Gjelten, NPR National Security Correspondent. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Mark, you mentioned Afghanistan, is the Taliban truly making gestures that could lead to a deal in Afghanistan?

LANDLER

11:14:59
Well, that's a very difficult question to answer. Certainly, they have -- in asking to and saying they want to open a representative office in Qatar, done the first important symbolic step to conduct a sort of a formal negotiation with the United States. And this is a development that's been hailed even by the Afghan government, Hamid Karzai's government, although he wouldn't necessarily be included in those talks. But the imponderables that flow out of this are what role does the Karzai government play in any settlement? There's a belief that any settlement that doesn't include his government is a questionable one.

LANDLER

11:15:39
And perhaps even more important than that, what role do the Pakistanis play? Putting a representative office in Qatar in the Persian Gulf is a way to distance the process a bit from Pakistan and remove it from a potentially malign influence of the Pakistanis. On the other hand, there's also a recognition that no settlement that attempts to go around the Pakistanis is likely to be sustainable. The Pakistanis, after all, harbor most of the Taliban leadership. They also harbor the Haqqani group, most of the elements that would be destabilizing to a settlement flow either directly or indirectly from Pakistan. So the role that the Pakistanis would play is critical and I don't think we know yet what that will be based on this week's developments.

REHM

11:16:27
Nadia?

BILBASSY

11:16:28
I think the talk with the Taliban has been going on for a while. In 2010, in the Bond Conference, I think, was the first time that was mentioned that the Taliban has to be a part of any peace process in Afghanistan. Secretary Clinton said in 2011 that we have to talk to our enemies. So the United States has already been in this long process with the help of the Qatars, as Mark said, and the Germans as well.

BILBASSY

11:16:51
Now, the fact that they're having this office in Qatar and they're away from the Pakistanis, despite the fact, I think, there is a close coordination between the United States, Pakistan and the government of Afghanistan to have them there. I think it's in the process for the United States to find a quick fix, have it in mind 2014. They have to leave in 2014, that's the target. They realize after a decade of war that no peace can be brought without bringing in the Taliban into the fold.

REHM

11:17:20
But even some U.S. generals are arguing that 2014, you're going to have to leave a great many U.S. troops behind, Tom.

GJELTEN

11:17:33
Yes. I think that there is a recognition that there's going to have be -- and I think that the offense that we've seen in Iraq would probably underscore that feeling as well, that you do need to make sure that what you have been fighting and dying for, you know, is not lost overnight. And I think that in Afghanistan, that's clearly the case. Now, I think we have seen, however, a lowering of the expectations for what that post-U.S. environment in Afghanistan is going to look like.

GJELTEN

11:18:00
I mean, President Obama has made clear that his objective in Afghanistan was really to tackle al-Qaida, not to establish some kind of democracy there. And I think that, you know, reaching out, I think there's a recognition that the Taliban are going to have some kind of political role. You know, it's not defined yet, but I think this is kind of one part of that recognition.

REHM

11:18:21
Tom Gjelten of NPR. We are going to take your calls when we come back, 800-433-8850. We'll also talk about the new security threats from Iran.

REHM

11:20:05
And we're back with the international hour of our Friday News Roundup, the first for 2012. And certainly on the minds of many is what's happening with Iran and the threat from Iran addressed in the president's defense strategy. Nadia?

BILBASSY

11:20:30
Well, it looks like all signs of economic war against Iraq -- against Iran, the administration is intensifying its effort for us with the president signing this new sanction against the Central Bank. The Central Bank is actually dealing with all or most of 80 percent of Iran's oil export so that will be crippling and they will start feeling it very soon.

BILBASSY

11:20:53
And it's not just the United States, but they're asking the EU as well to implement another set of sanctions. And that will take place in -- I think they have a meeting January 30, although it might have consequences on weaker countries like Italy and Greece and others in particular who are suffering from the debt crisis.

BILBASSY

11:21:13
Also, we have seen this kind of provocation from Iran saying that we don't want any U.S. ships in the Strait of Hormuz. And the United States says this is international water. We do what we want here. And in the last few months, we have seen also this plot assassination of assassination of the Saudi ambassador in Washington. We have seen lots of other things with the downing of the Predator over Iran. So there's all kind of tensions that's happening between Iran and the United States.

BILBASSY

11:21:44
Now, on top of that, everybody talks about the nuclear program, where it's going and how can we contain Iran. Everybody's adamant that Iran should not have -- under no circumstances, should have this. But there's no mechanism somehow to check on them or to allow them in -- the inspectors to go back, or they have the P5 plus one to talk. Yesterday, I think the foreign minister said with the Turkish mediation that they happy to go back to Istanbul and to talk for another round. So it's very unclear and it's very tense.

REHM

11:22:18
And in the meantime, Iran chooses this time to test fire some missiles.

GJELTEN

11:22:26
Right, Diane. What's interesting and a little bit hard to figure out here is that I think that even though these are military provocations and raise the danger of a naval conflict in the Straits of Hormuz -- I mean, with Iran threatening to close the Straits, with planning to go back there and do another set of exercises in the weeks ahead, the United States will be facing the decision whether to send a carrier back into the Gulf and sort of challenge the Iranians, these are all military threats and dangers.

GJELTEN

11:22:59
Nevertheless, you could analyze them from an economic point of view, as Nadia was saying, that maybe what Iran is really intending to do here is to jack up the price of oil. Its oil production has been going down. Its oil exports have been going down. To the extent that it can make up for that loss of revenue by having a higher oil price, it comes out ahead. So it's possible that what the Iranians are really trying to do here is engage in this kind of economic war with the West.

GJELTEN

11:23:30
But this is very dangerous because any kind of miscalculation could actually lead to a military confrontation. And once there is any kind of military confrontation with Iran, who knows where it would end.

REHM

11:23:43
And in the meantime, the Israeli military announced the largest ever joint drill with the United States.

LANDLER

11:23:54
Well, the role of the Israeli's -- and this is yet another unpredictable and potentially volatile element. There was a fairly open debate in Israel about a month ago about whether the time was coming to launch a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. And the issue here is not so much when Iran may have a nuclear capability, but at what point will Iran be able to reinforce its nuclear facilities well enough, place bunkers over them or place them under mountains, that would make them impregnable to a strike.

LANDLER

11:24:32
And the timeline for that is considerably shorter than it would be for Iran to have capability itself. Some people say within the next six months, it'll no longer make sense to knock them out through a military strike because they'll have so well reinforced the facilities. So that's a very worrisome prospect when you lay it on top of all these other military tensions that Tom was alluding to.

LANDLER

11:25:00
And if I could make one other point about Iran that I think's important in this context. The domestic political situation in Iran is very problematic. You have parliamentary elections coming up. You have the supreme leadership of the country and almost an open split with the president. You have the revolutionary guard playing an increasingly powerful role. And real evidence that the sanctions are starting to bite and possibly stirring up the type of popular discontent that we've seen across the Arab world, which the Iranians successfully put down the last time there was unrest in Iran following their last elections.

LANDLER

11:25:40
But by all accounts, it's a pretty volatile mix. So I think, you know, as we start 2012, it's probably not a stretch to say that Iran and Israel and this whole nexus of issues may be our preoccupation for the next few months.

REHM

11:25:56
Tom Gjelten, if you think about Israel and its relationship or non-relationship with Iran, would Israel be able to take action without the United States?

GJELTEN

11:26:11
Well, that's, you know, a scenario that is explored in great detail and all the contingency planning documents that are, you know, drawn up at the Pentagon. I think the big issues are -- well, sort of the practical issues are the Israeli's refueling capability. I mean, that's a long ways to go and obviously the Israelis don't have aircraft carriers that they can fly off there. Talking about flying from Israel, they have to fly over territory that, you know, they're not going to have permission to fly over. And they're going to have to drop their payload and then fly all the way back.

GJELTEN

11:26:49
And they will have to do this, you know, a number of times. That requires a long strike capability that most military people just say Israel doesn't have. But I think that if -- you know, what may happen is if Israel sort of launches military action, the United States will then find itself in a situation where does it turn its back on Israel, you know. Or does it come to their assistance and provide that kind of practical assistance? I think for largely, I have to say, political reasons I think it would be very difficult for any American president to abandon Israel in a moment like that.

REHM

11:27:23
But surely there's got to be a lot of negotiation with the Israelis before anything like that would take place. How headstrong might the Israelis be determined to move ahead?

GJELTEN

11:27:41
And look at this in this new political context in the Middle East, where Israel's position is really arguably weaker. I mean, you now have a democratic uprising in Egypt. And I think that there's virtually no question that Israel's relationship with Egypt will change fundamentally as a result of this. And I think Israel's going to find itself to the extent that you have more popular governments coming to power across the Middle East. Israel's going to find itself more isolated than ever.

REHM

11:28:09
Mark.

LANDLER

11:28:11
And I guess the point one could make about the past is when the Israelis have raised the pressure on this and sent these types of signals, it's sometimes been interpreted as a go for the U.S. and the West to ratchet up sanctions and to pursue what Benjamin Netanyahu has called crippling sanctions. I think the problem now is you have a level of sanctions that most people agree is hurting Iran. And we're sort of edging into the types of sanctions that the Israelis were always frustrated that the West stopped short of.

LANDLER

11:28:46
And I'm not sure that's going to be the determining factor. I think now it's more of a very cold eyed calculation of how long the Israelis can wait before these nuclear facilities are no longer vulnerable and so then they find themselves powerless to an Iranian timeline on getting nuclear capabilities.

REHM

11:29:07
Nadia.

BILBASSY

11:29:08
Some might argue as well that this crippling sanction might have the opposite results actually, that it will push the regime to be more defiant. And the only way -- even if the Israelis decided to launch this military attack, which I still doubt it because I think the consequences are colossal for the region, for the world and the Iranians are not going to sit back and take it just like they did in Iraq in the '80s, I think the retaliation's going to be very strong.

BILBASSY

11:29:36
So despite everything, the sanctions in place from the Europeans, from the Americans, I think there's going to be other moves like they did with the past with this virus trying to attack the program, assassination of Iranian scientists. That could be another option. But I cannot see the military option being -- I mean, who knows? I mean, it's very unpredictable, as everyone said today. But I think everybody knows the consequences, least of all I think, the United States.

REHM

11:30:05
All right. There was an explosion in Damascus today. What do we know about it, Nadia?

BILBASSY

11:30:12
We know that this morning in an area within Damascus, the capitol called El Medina, there was an attack by a suicide bomber. Twenty-one people were killed, a few injured. The opposition immediately said that this attack was engineered by the regime, that the Syrian television was on the scene already. The ambulances were all ready to take the wounded. And this is a repeat of what happened two weeks ago.

BILBASSY

11:30:39
There was a plan over much descending on Damascus today asking for more of international involvement. And they thought that was -- the regime was trying to prove to the Arab League observers, who happened to be in Damascus today, that actually they are fighting what they called the terrorist gangs. They're trying to de-stable the regime and therefore this is an example of what's happening.

REHM

11:31:01
But the Arab League has been criticized for, what, not doing enough, not being able to do enough looking toward the UN for help?

GJELTEN

11:31:12
Well, yes, except that the Arab League got involved because they wanted to present themselves as an alternative to the UN. I mean, it's always been the UN that's gotten involved and sent observers in situations like this in the past. And the Arab leaders wanted to show that they had the capability to do this and to solve this, to deal with the situation themselves. Unfortunately, they are rookies and they've shown themselves to be rookies and they've sort of gotten in over their heads. And now they're actually acknowledging that this is not an easy thing to do.

GJELTEN

11:31:40
You had the Prime Minister of Qatar yesterday saying that mistakes have been made by these monitors and now...

REHM

11:31:45
I hate that passive use, rather than we made mistakes, Mark.

LANDLER

11:31:52
Well, what strikes me as interesting about this, too, is if you look at the pattern of the Obama Administration's involvement in Libya most notably, but also in Syria, there's a great deal of emphasis on having buy-in from the Arab League and from other indigenous groups. So in a way, it's a test for the administration.

LANDLER

11:32:15
If the Arab League is completely not up to the task in Syria and the UN -- and by extension, the U.S., are expected, once again, to play a driving role, it makes it more difficult for the administration to do what it really wants to do in many of these cases, which is not be at the forefront, to use the phrase that's often used in this connection. They do, at some level, want to lead from behind.

LANDLER

11:32:40
But events like this show how difficult it is for the U.S. to lead from behind because some of the other players simply aren't ready to take the role that the U.S. has historically taken.

REHM

11:32:50
Mark Landler of the New York Times and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." At the same time, Nadia, you had Syria releasing, what, about 500 prisoners?

BILBASSY

11:33:04
...550 prisoners. And this is what the Arab League was saying, the success. Nabil Elaraby said, basically, that we have secured almost 5,000 prisoners. We managed to withdraw tanks from the streets. The criticism, Diane, as you know, this is the first time first of all that the Arab League is investigating a member state and for crimes against humanity, could be, for atrocities. The fact that they've been there since December 26, they have 100 members. They overstretch. They have been -- kept on short leash by the regime.

BILBASSY

11:33:37
The opposition's saying, basically, that the regime managed to paint the military vehicles with police vehicles to disguise them. They managed to change even street names. And they're not doing a proper job there. They are inexperienced, they don't know what's happening. They're not reporting what's going on on the ground.

BILBASSY

11:33:55
Some will say who have devious minds thinking that the Arab states other none -- I mean, other Arab states within the Arab League led by Qatar on the Gulf, well, basically wanted to show the world that this is a last resort, that they sent the Arab League knowing in advance that they're unable to do the job because they want to internationalize the conflict. Because that will give the whole world, including the best friends of the Syrians, the Russians, the last resort to say, look, we send them Arab Leagues, one of our member states and we fail. So what are the options now? We have to go to the UN and hence the meeting between the Qatar prime minister and Ban Ki-moon in New York.

GJELTEN

11:34:32
Diane, I wanted to add one point to what Mark said about the -- sort of the U.S. view of what's going on in Syria and the diminished U.S. role here. I think that part of the calculation in Washington is who's going to win. Does Bashar Assad actually -- you know, is there really any prospect that his regime is going to be overthrown because that has to factor in. If Assad is going to be around, you know, the United States, you know, that's going to influence what the United States does.

GJELTEN

11:35:01
I mean, do you really want to sponsor a movement that is destined to fail? I mean, in Libya, it was a very different situation. I think there was a sense that Gadhafi's days were genuinely numbered. I don't think that's necessarily clear to the policymakers in Washington right now as far as the future of Bashar Assad.

REHM

11:35:19
All right. Let's talk about Iraq where bombs in Baghdad killed dozens of people, Mark. I mean, here, the U.S. finally gets a good part of its troops out and, what, the country goes back to what it was originally?

LANDLER

11:35:40
Well, certainly things really go badly off track. Almost a day after the U.S. withdraws its last soldiers, you've got the Shiite Prime Minister of Iraq going after a Sunni vice president, accusing him of in effect terrorism. He flees to the Kurdish North, you know, a clear breakdown of a fragile power-sharing situation that was organized there. Then you have all kinds of terrorist attacks, two major bombings in Baghdad now that have killed together close to 100 people.

LANDLER

11:36:16
And so fears that exactly what some people predicted, which is that when the U.S. left the country would revert to sectarian violence appeared to have been fulfilled. It's worth noting that there has not been a breakout of the large scale sectarian strife, that clearly these attacks are meant to precipitate. That hasn't happened yet.

LANDLER

11:36:40
And if you talk to some U.S. administration policymakers, they'll continue to sort of cling to the argument that this is going to be ugly and we are going to see these types of attacks. But we shouldn't -- this does not necessarily mean that the country's headed for some sort of a complete disintegration. How long they can keep making that argument is not clear in the face of what we've seen in the last few days.

REHM

11:37:08
Tom.

GJELTEN

11:37:08
Well, the only thing that has changed, and it remains to be seen how significant it is, is the United States is not on the ground there anymore. And that was a mobilizing force, particularly for some of the more radical Shiite militias, Muqtada al-Sadr for example. Now one of those militias, a rival to al-Sadr is now coming to the government. It was virally anti-American. With the Americans gone, their cause has changed.

REHM

11:37:33
Tom Gjelten of NPR. When we come back, it's time to open the phones for your calls. I look forward to hearing from you.

REHM

11:40:02
And as we open the phones, we'll go first to Fayetteville, N.C. Good morning, Todd.

TODD

11:40:11
Good morning, Diane, thanks for letting me call in.

REHM

11:40:12
Sure.

TODD

11:40:14
I just wanted to make a comment about the -- what we're looking at is an over-reliance on technological means in forms of our military policy. I mean, the last ten years of conducting counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown us that there's a huge human element fitted to those wars. And now, I understand that people are saying we're not going to be doing this anymore, but if we look at post-Iraq and post-Afghanistan and we're going to be going to engagements around the world, you know, there's still a large conventional ground force component to our foreign policy whether it's joint military exchanges.

TODD

11:40:50
And the other thing we're not really discussing, and it's not really part of this report, is that there's a projected drawdown of the State Department budget so we're really removing all of our aspects of foreign power and our ability to influence foreign countries.

REHM

11:41:04
Mark Landler?

LANDLER

11:41:06
Well, your point is right about the State Department. It's obviously vulnerable to the same fiscal pressures as the Pentagon. But to make a comment on what you said about counter-insurgency, I think we can't afford that anymore. I think ten years of Iraq and Afghanistan and particularly what you have left after ten years of counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan where many of the problems are still there and it appears sometimes that we haven't accomplished that much, have probably made people more wary about those types of very expensive long-term commitments.

LANDLER

11:41:44
You're right to say that an over-reliance, there may be an over-reliance on technology. It always is worth remembering that Donald Rumsfeld, before he got heavily involved in Iraq, was also arguing for making the military much more dependent on high-technology. So there always will be the need for boots on the ground, but the reality is after two wars of this duration, we just can't afford to do this anymore.

REHM

11:42:11
Tom?

GJELTEN

11:42:11
Well, the only thing I would add is there's an expression in the military, which is the enemy has a vote. You can't just sort of devise the strategy that you think makes sense and then plow ahead because you never can tell what exactly you're going to be facing. And, you know, I think that our adversaries have looked at our failures in Afghanistan, in Iraq and learned from that. They have learned something about our vulnerabilities and, you know, technology alone was not enough to further our aims in those two conflicts.

REHM

11:42:43
All right. To George in Indianapolis. Good morning, you're on the air.

GEORGE

11:42:48
Good morning, Diane, thanks for taking my call.

REHM

11:42:50
You're welcome.

GEORGE

11:42:52
I have a brief comment and question.

REHM

11:42:54
Sure.

GEORGE

11:42:54
My comment is that I see two things happening in Iraq and with Iran and the United States. I see Iraq becoming more friendly with Iran and maybe even dependent on Iran and I also see the United States and Iran becoming much more hostile. My question is that if the United States comes to a military confrontation over the Strait of Hormuz or the alleged nuclear program Iran has and Iraq gets upset about it, what happens if Iraq decides that they would like to send our ambassador home?

GEORGE

11:43:33
We have a huge fortress of an embassy and 15,000 military contractors, I hear. How would the United States react to that?

REHM

11:43:43
Nadia?

BILBASSY

11:43:43
Well, very often, this question is being asked to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and he always says clearly that we have strategic interests with all our neighbors and also with the United States so we're not going to be a party to a conflict between Iran and the United States should the need arise here. But saying that, there is no doubt that there is an immense bond between Iran and Iraq on every level, you know, historically, religiously, culturally, even language. The exchange of pilgrims that goes from Iran to Iraq and of course over what's happening in the last decade, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the opposition to him.

BILBASSY

11:44:27
So yeah, of course, this is a very complex situation, but I think if the need arises, I don't think that the Iraqis are that ill-calculated to go one side against the other.

REHM

11:44:43
All right to Lynchburg, Va. Good morning, Justice.

JUSTICE

11:44:48
Good morning, thanks for taking my call.

REHM

11:44:50
Certainly.

JUSTICE

11:44:51
I have a quick question for you. With the exception of the sanctions that are now being imposed on Iran and obviously other pressures that are in place on them, but prior to those, is there any real threat that they themselves would go to war, except for these other stimuli that are now, you know, putting pressure on them that might push them in that direction? But basically, it seems to me that we're pushing Iran towards war, but that they would not be going there otherwise. So it's kind of a statement and a question. I wondered what your thoughts are on that.

REHM

11:45:21
Tom?

GJELTEN

11:45:21
Well, the specific threat that Iran has made is that it's prepared to -- it has declared sovereignty over the Strait of Hormuz and it has said it is prepared to defend that. And, you know, the implication is that they could take military action to close the Strait of Hormuz, perhaps by mining it. You know, it wouldn't be that difficult for Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz. It might be suicidal. It might be stupid, but they definitely have that capability, at least in the short run, and that's the one thing.

REHM

11:45:51
And what would the outcome be if the Strait of Hormuz was closed?

GJELTEN

11:45:56
Well, the United States would respond instantaneously and, you know, with devastating force. I think the question is, in that situation, would the United States just bomb the, you know, the naval vessels that were responsible for mining the Strait of Hormuz? Would it stop there? Or once this actual -- once there was military action, would they then go ahead and go after the nuclear facilities?

REHM

11:46:22
Mark?

LANDLER

11:46:23
Ah, to go back to what the caller was saying, I think it's true to say that historically the Iranian pattern here has not been to provoke a military confrontation. If you look at sort of the last five years of the confrontation over the nuclear program, they tend to favor sort of a kind of a rope-a-dope diplomatic strategy where you never seem to make much progress, but you keep talking peppered with occasional more malign things like a plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy in Washington.

LANDLER

11:47:02
So there is a point of view that says that by ratcheting up the sanctions as much as we have at a time when they are facing sort of deep divisions internally we might be provoking them to go to a level of military confrontation that they haven't historically done and may not otherwise be prodded into.

REHM

11:47:26
Here's an email from Jeff on Iraq. He says, "If things really go bad in Iraq, do your guests feel the U.S. has any responsibility for stabilizing the situation?" Nadia?

BILBASSY

11:47:42
Well, of course, they have a strategic interest in keeping the Middle East stable and Iraq, in particular. Look at the neighbors. I mean you have...

REHM

11:47:49
But surely they're not going to go back in?

BILBASSY

11:47:51
No, no, no. I'm not saying that they're going to go back, not at all. I think the fact that the president made it a big deal that they were withdrawing all U.S. forces and now we're talking about a completely different strategy of how you can, but I think they wanted to push them towards a political settlement. What we have now, the crisis that we are having on the ground is a reflection of the political crisis that's happening in parliament, in the government.

BILBASSY

11:48:14
The fact that Prime Nouri al-Maliki is unable to bring this coalition together. Let's not forget that this is a very fragile coalition. We talked in this program over a month ago of how it took them so many efforts to try to form this coalition and now we're having al-Iraqiya, which is led by Iyad Allawi, have no confidence in the parliament. They're having another Sunni MP, a Mukluk who also wanted no confidence votes against him. It's very, very messy.

BILBASSY

11:48:42
We have also a situation in the north that we didn't even talk about in Kirkuk. This conflict that's going on all the time between the Kurds and the Arabs so the United States has a great interest in keeping Iraq stable. And on top of that, you have Syria. You have another potential for civil war there. You have Iraq refugees in Syria. You have Sunnis rising to power. You're having people coming back so it's very complicated and Iran in the background.

REHM

11:49:08
And it's all a mess, Mark?

LANDLER

11:49:11
Well, everything Nadia said is true, but I just think it's worth pointing a basic truth out as well. President Obama opposed the Iraq war. He launched his political career on his opposition to the Iraq war. Vice President Biden, who held the Iraq portfolio in the administration, wrote a piece saying a few years ago that Iraq really should be run as a federal system.

LANDLER

11:49:37
These are not people who are looking back to any great degree nor do I believe they feel that the U.S. needs to have an enduring stake in that country. Now, that doesn’t mean that we're not going to have a huge embassy there, the largest in the world, that's true. But I've been struck by the degree to which they viewed getting the last troops out of there as a major political imperative and the lack of second thoughts they have even in the face of quite an extreme level of violence over the past few weeks.

REHM

11:50:09
All right, to Geneseo, N.Y. Good morning, Tony.

TONY

11:50:14
A few brief comments on military spending in Iran, the argument in favor of deep military spending cuts is -- after spending trillions of dollars and losing thousands of lives over the last ten years, we've gotten very little. And in regard to Iran, the U.S. should do everything short of war to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Israel has nuclear weapons, that's a huge deterrent. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, then Iran and Israel can negotiate the abandonment of them, thank you.

REHM

11:50:43
Tom?

GJELTEN

11:50:44
Well, you know what the consequences of Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be is hard to foresee. If you look at the example of North Korea, North Korea has essentially gained impunity as a result of having a nuclear weapon. I mean, there's very little that the United States or any other country can do with respect to North Korea now because it does have that leverage and I'm sure that that is, you know, Iran has kind of been tutored, in a sense, by North Korea and I'm sure that that is a lesson that they have drawn.

GJELTEN

11:51:17
You know, I don't think we can assume that Israel and Iran would be able to negotiate the withdrawal of those, of that capability.

REHM

11:51:26
You know, it's interesting on this first international news roundup of the year, I think we'd mentioned Pakistan once. What role is Pakistan playing, Mark Landler, in this whole global intersection?

LANDLER

11:51:48
Well, it's interesting to reflect on the fact that we've only mentioned it once because if you look at it and line it up next to these other challenges, you could make the argument that it's actually our biggest long-term threat. It's in a deeply dysfunctional moment with, you know, open talk about the possibilities of a coup, continued huge issues with insurgents, a relationship with the United States that has even fallen off its usually dismal lows and so I think that that's, in fact, a major issue for the United States and for global security because, after all, they have a nuclear arsenal of substantial size and perhaps the least stable political situation of any other nuclear power in the world.

REHM

11:52:36
Tom?

GJELTEN

11:52:36
You know, I had another thought, Diane, speaking of this international news hour. The first point that Mark made at the beginning was that President Obama says that our defense strategy should be focused from here on towards Asia and China and the Pacific and we have spent the entire hour talking about the Middle East. I mean, we would like to be able to put the Middle East behind us and look just at Asia and China, but apparently that's not going to be so easy.

REHM

11:53:00
Tom Gjelten of NPR and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Twin Falls, Idaho. Good morning, Bill, you're on the air.

BILL

11:53:11
Good morning, Diane, what a pleasure to be on your show.

REHM

11:53:15
Well, glad to have you, sir, go right ahead.

BILL

11:53:17
I have a question about Idaho and prisoner-of-war Bowe Bergdahl from Sun Valley, Idaho, that's currently being held by the Taliban. With them opening their political office in Qatar, what would be the possibility that the United States would actually negotiate with the Taliban for his release?

REHM

11:53:35
Tom?

GJELTEN

11:53:35
Well, you know, part of that deal -- we didn't mention it, but part of the deal of opening that channel to the Taliban via an office in Qatar would presumably be that the United States would release some half dozen, five or so Taliban leaders who are currently being held in Guantanamo, including some pretty senior people, a former deputy defense secretary of the Taliban.

GJELTEN

11:53:57
I can't imagine that the United States would be releasing Taliban leaders without something in return.

REHM

11:54:03
What happened to the idea that the United States does not negotiate with terrorists, Mark Landler?

LANDLER

11:54:12
Well, what happened is a good dose of pragmatism. I mean, you can't have a settlement in Afghanistan without talking to the Taliban. So if you were to just simply say they're terrorists and we don’t negotiate with them, you're left with no end game in Afghanistan. So I think it's really simply that -- and I think you can distinguish, I hesitate to say this, but you can distinguish between types of terrorists. I mean, the Taliban may be classified as a terrorist group, but they're also a genuine political movement that had a support and actually ran Afghanistan for a while so it's not as though you're simply negotiating with a group that has no political legitimacy whatever.

REHM

11:54:52
Are you, Nadia, familiar with that person that Bill in Twin Falls, Idaho, is talking about?

BILBASSY

11:55:00
I'm not actually, but I think I agree with Tom that part of the deal was they put their presence on the table before they can go further with this talk. But to also, to add to the point about negotiating with the terrorists, I think the United States always maintained a caveat into the negotiation. They always say we're not, it's not an absolute. We negotiate with the Taliban if they respect the constitution, if they cut off their relationship with al-Qaida, if they stop attacks against Americans and civilians. They always say that.

BILBASSY

11:55:30
It's the same for Hamas, by the way. They always say we're willing to include them in a negotiation if they recognize Israel, denounce terrorism, et cetera, et cetera, but I agree there is a necessity for every conflict to include these non-state actors in any political situation. You have to bring them to the fold. You have to moderate their position and therefore you have to bring them somehow to the negotiation table, but you want -- I mean, the idea was to peel them off from the radicals.

BILBASSY

11:55:56
I'm not quite sure, in the case of the Taliban, is going to work because I don't know how much of representative the one that we're going to have in Qatar to the one on the ground. And especially now after the surge, apparently, there's so many of these young Taliban have been broken away from the leadership and they're the most radical and they're far away from Qatar.

REHM

11:56:14
Tom?

GJELTEN

11:56:16
You asked Nadia about this soldier who was captured in June of 2009 in Afghanistan so he's been held now for about two and half years and there is now these, his family is now hopeful that with all this talk that his release may actually be possible.

REHM

11:56:39
Bill I'm glad you called. Thanks Tom Gjelten for getting us that information. Tom Gjelten is NPR's national security correspondent. Nadia Bilbassy is with Middle East Broadcast Centre, Mark Landler, The New York Times, thank you all and Happy New Year.

LANDLER

11:57:04
Thank you, Happy New Year.

GJELTEN

11:57:04
Thank you, Happy New Year.

BILBASSY

11:57:04
Happy New Year.

REHM

11:57:04
Thank you and have a good weekend everybody. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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