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Heavy fighting continued near Syria’s capital as opposition fighters tried to drive out government forces; Israel said striking Iran over its nuclear program is “very far off”; and the search for 21 people still missing in the Costa Concordia shipwreck continued. Michael Hirsh of National Journal, Karen DeYoung of The Washington Post and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera join Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Abderrahim Foukara Washington bureau chief of Al Jazeera Arabic.
- Michael Hirsh chief correspondent, National Journal magazine; author of "Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street."
- Karen DeYoung senior diplomatic correspondent, The Washington Post.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The Arab League will likely extend its observer mission in Syria. Greece says it's confident officials and investors will reach a deal to avoid default and the Obama Administration denies it asked for direct talks with Iran. Joining me in the studio for the week's top international stories, Michael Hirsh of National Journal Magazine, Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post and Abderrahim Foukara of Al-Jazeera Arabic. Throughout the hour, you can join us. I'll look forward to hearing your questions and comments and good morning to all of you.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHGood morning.
MR. ABDERRAHIM FOUKARAGood morning, Diane.
MS. KAREN DEYOUNGGood morning.
REHMGood to have you here. Abderrahim, chairman of the U.S. Joints Chiefs of Staff met with Israeli leaders today. What are they talking about?
FOUKARAWell, obviously, there's a lot of tension between Iran, Israel and the United States on the one hand, but there's also been some tension between the Israelis and the Obama Administration as to -- not just the ratcheting it up of the rhetoric, but...
REHMOn the part of the Israelis?
FOUKARAThe Israelis, because the Israelis feel that or at least some within the Israeli cabinet feel that Iran has reached a point where it has become dangerously close for it to develop a nuclear weapon. We've heard over the last few days, interestingly enough, the defense minister, Ehud Barak, saying that the matter is not quite so urgent. But I suspect that message was more directed at mollifying the concerns of the Americans. It does not quite reflect the general mood within Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet.
DEYOUNGWell, I think that's correct. I mean, the Americans, I believe, they have a plan of sanctions. They don't believe that Iran is going to have a bomb developed, certainly not within the next year. They have their sanctions timeline established and they don't want the Israelis to interfere with that. I suspect that General Dempsey, the chairman, has gone over there to both reiterate that message and to see if he can discern some truth among various comments that the Israelis have made. Obviously, we had this situation last week, where yet another Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated.
DEYOUNGThe Iranians have accused Israel and the United States. The United States has said, we don't have anything to do with it. The Israelis have not said anything basically and so I think that that's Dempsey's message, saying, look, we want to work together on this. We have to be together on this. Here's what's happening, these sanctions are going to go into effect. Don't do anything that we don't know about.
REHMBut that's the question, would Israel strike Iran without notifying the U.S., Michael Hirsh?
HIRSHWell, that's at issue in these talks that Dempsey is holding with the senior Israeli leaders. But I think it's also important to put this into some context now, not only do you have tougher than ever sanctions being lowered on Iran and now joined by an oil embargo that the Europeans are supporting along with President Obama. You have considerable evidence that there already is a war going on against Iran and its nuclear program, a covert war, for the last couple of years that probably includes the Stuxnet virus, which disabled many Iranian centrifuges.
HIRSHVery likely includes this series of attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists, which many experts believe bear the telltale signs of a Mossad type activity, Israel's secret service. And so what you have is a whole host of things going on even as the discussions continue about a possible overt Israeli attack. But I've been told by a number of experts that one of the reasons you're getting some signals from Israel saying, well, we're still not close to deciding an actual attack is because they think this combination of sanctions and covert activity has actually been somewhat effective.
REHMWhat about this so-called secret letter from President Obama to Iran, Abderrahim?
FOUKARAWell, I mean, first of all, as we were saying before the program, we don't really know for sure whether there was a letter or not, but there have been contacts. And I don't think it's a secret that both on the Iranian side and on the U.S. side, there are still people who believe that this whole issue could be addressed through negotiations or at least who believe that negotiations could be used to diffuse the current tension between Iran on the one hand, Israel and the United States and others in the region on the other hand.
FOUKARABut I may just add this, you have to look at the reports about this letter within the broader context. Yes, there is military escalation in the Gulf over the issue of the Straits of Hormuz. Yes, a mistake could happen that could lead to a general conflagration. But I think the escalation of the rhetoric, particularly on the part of Israel, could, I guess, on one level, be seen as basically just helping compound the pressure on Iran when the Israelis feel very nervous that the neighborhood, the configuration of the neighborhood, is changing in the light of this so-called Arab Spring. And to try and bring some of the Arab neighbors along in those efforts to put the pressure on the Iranians is a significant gain. Neighbors, particularly such as the Saudis, who've had a cold war going on with the Iranians for a long time.
REHMKaren, is it plausible that the U.S. did send such a letter to the Iranians suggesting talks?
DEYOUNGI'm sure there was a recent communication, but there are communications all the time. They go through a number of secret channels. They go not so secretly through the Swiss embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran. They go through various people at the United Nations where both Iran and the United States has a representative. Remember that the offer to hold talks has been on the table since the beginning of the Obama Administration and to the extent that Iran has outlined what this letter has said, it basically just repeats what administration policy is.
DEYOUNGWe're willing to talk. If you don't talk, we have things we can do, no options are off the table. So in that sense, I don't -- what is more interesting is what was just said, the way the Iranians have responded. For them to say publicly, here's an offer to talk. You know, they said a lot of not nice things along with that, but I do think that the most interesting thing at the moment is how the Iranians are reacting to all of this.
REHMWhat is the chance, Michael Hirsh, that Iran would close the Straits of Hormuz?
HIRSHIt's very difficult to say, but I think that the extent there was a communication recently, we're talking about here, from Obama, from the Obama Administration. I think it was a warning not to do that, that that's a red line for the U.S. You know, something like a fifth of the world's oil go through the Straits of Hormuz, a huge economic impact and with all the other economic turmoil going on in the world with Europe and the U.S. economy, it's the last Obama can stomach in a presidential election.
REHMSo what would be the reaction, Karen, if they did?
DEYOUNGWell, I think the important thing to note is what the U.S. intelligence community, I think, is concerned most about right now. This has sort of put the nuclear threat at something of a distance. They've been watching very carefully how the Iranians have armed themselves along the coast. You have missiles there, you have submarines, you have small boats, you have a lot of troops there. They're worried that someone in the Revolutionary Guard will do something that they would consider stupid, even if it was not a decision by the Iranian government as a whole, and it will spark something.
DEYOUNGThere's a lot of armament there. Remember what happened in the late 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War when you had a similar thing where the Iranians were trying to close off the straits. You had a number of exchanges. In one case, you had a U.S. vessel, the Vincennes, shoot down an Iranian aircraft killing almost 300 people, a commercial airliner which they mistook for Iranian fighter and so with that many weapons in that small of space, I think that there's a lot of room for error.
FOUKARAI honestly think that that is the most significant threat that is the most significant problem, an error, an accident, something that triggers off a war by accident. Look, if you look at what the main actors in this whole situation are saying and doing, it seems to me that almost everyone is playing a double game. Take the United States, for example. The United States is, on the one hand, talking about military escalation, on the other hand, it is rescuing Iranian fishing vessels.
FOUKARAThe Iranians much more so than Saddam ever was in Iraq, are very good at brinkmanship and I find it hard to believe with all the assets they have, their influence in Iraq, their influence in Syria, giving them access to the Mediterranean, their influence in Lebanon, I find it hard to believe that they would risk all that by a military confrontation with the United States, which they know in military terms they cannot win.
HIRSHAnd the danger of an accident in a way that this has occurred in the past in terms of, you know, IRGC, Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanded vessels seeming to act on their own occasion. All this has been heightened by what's going on next door in Syria, where it appears what began as an Arab Spring-inspired protest may be evolving into something of a proxy war with Iranian interests and those of other Shiite regimes somewhat in support, if not overtly -- the Iranians are, but some of the other regimes aren't, of the Alawite-sect government of Bashar Assad with some of the Sunni regimes in support of the protestors. So you have a very dangerous situation here.
REHMAnd we'll talk more about Syria when we come back. Here in the studio, Michael Hirsh of National Journal, Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, Abderrahim Foukara of Al-Jazeera Arabic.
REHMAnd here's our first email from Carl who says, "So Israel bombs Iran, then what? We barged into Iraq on false pretenses and regardless of the consequences. May be good for Israel, but not for us." Karen.
DEYOUNGWell, I think that, you know, there's a bit of a difference in that we now know that the reports of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were not true. I don't think anybody doubts that Iran is developing at least the capability to produce a nuclear weapon. And so the question is, what's the timeline there? The Israelis believe that a political decision has already been made in Iran to go ahead and develop a weapon.
DEYOUNGThe Americans believe that this is still on the fence, that they have the capability, but the political decision has not been made to take those last steps that would actually lead to development of a bomb. And they say that's where the game is right now. That's why...
DEYOUNG...that's why there are sanctions. That's why they're pressuring Iran.
REHM...Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post. Also here, Michael Hirsh of National Journal and Abderrahim Foukara of Al-Jazeera Arabic. If you'd like to join us by phone, 800-433--8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. What about the latest on the unrest in Syria, Michael Hirsh?
HIRSHWell, there continues to be conflict between protestors, many of them armed in perhaps three dozen different cities. The Arab League had a monitoring mission, as you referred to earlier, that has been there for the last month. Its term expired. There are discussions now to extend it for another month. But the perception is that it has had very little affect. You know, we've now had some 5,000 people estimated killed during this ten-month-old uprising.
HIRSHAnd I think, you know, one of the biggest dangers right now is the way regional powers and other powers are getting involved in one way or another. Whether it's Iran secretly helping the Syrians to ship oil, the Syrian regime. Whether it's the extent to which some of the Sunni dominated regimes in the region are continuing to urge and push for an ouster of Bashar Assad who obviously says he's not going to go. And the extent to which Russia, for example, is now siding with Syria, a longtime ally. Russia, you know, has a port there that it uses.
HIRSHSo it's become enormously complex and begins to feed into these larger tensions over Iran and Iran's role in the region.
REHMDo you believe that there might be international intervention, Karen?
DEYOUNGWell, I think that if you compare it to the Libya situation, neither the United States nor NATO wants to do this at all. They think the situation is very, very different. In Libya, you had pretty much a coherent opposition. People were on one side or the other. You don't have that in Syria. You have a lot of different opposition groups who have not come together in a coherent group. The Libyans had a piece of territory to defend. They had Benghazi. They had the eastern part of the country. They had a fairly well-armed military force, again, which the Syrians to not have.
DEYOUNGSo I think the -- certainly the Americans and NATO are waiting and watching and really want to avoid any kind of military thing. On the other hand, the Russians, who refuse in the United Nations to pass a resolution that would try without military force to put pressure on the Syrians, they see Libya as very important. They say, look, we disagreed with what happened there. We didn't like what NATO did. We really don't want them to do it in Syria, and that's why we're going to stand by Syria and try to come up with what they say is a nonviolent solution with this -- which the Americans say is just foot dragging.
FOUKARAYou know, a few months ago, there was obviously a lot of sanguine rhetoric about Bashar al-Assad and what he was doing in Syria from people like the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan who suddenly went quieter, from various western, particularly the European leaders, who also went quieter. And it wasn't until today that we started to hear the French President Sarkozy making some pointed remarks about how much the international community could tolerate from Bashar.
FOUKARABut the fact that all those voices went quieter at one time led some sections of the Syrian opposition, both inside Syria and outside, to say, what about the United States? The United States is not doing much. It's not doing as much as it was supposed to do. And I think that on some level what's going on with Iran, given how vital Syria is for Iran and given how vital Iran is for Syria, some members of the opposition may take heart from the fact that there is now a concerted effort to compound pressure on the Iranians.
FOUKARALike David said, Syria, at the end of the day, it has become this small piece in a big game of chess, if you will, that involves not just the West and not just the opposition inside Syria. It also involves the Russians. And the Russians are giving even military support to the Bashar element.
REHMAnd of course, you meant Michael Hirsh.
FOUKARAI'm sorry, Michael. I'm sorry.
REHMThat's all right. Go ahead, Karen.
DEYOUNGWell, you know, there's been -- the West -- certainly the United States has tried very hard to promote the Arab League solution. They would like the Arabs to take care of this. And they were very heartened when the Arab League voted to suspend Syria's membership and to send in this group of monitors, which Syria kind of grudgingly accepted. I think there's general belief now that it hasn't really accomplished very much. The Arab League itself has gone to the United Nations saying, help us. Help us train people.
DEYOUNGBut I think that, as I think Michael said earlier there, the mission finishes -- finished as of yesterday. They're having a meeting on Sunday and they're going to put out a report. Nobody thinks it worked very well. But the question is, where does it go now? The Arab League itself is divided on this question. There are a number of members who don't want to go any farther, who see -- Algeria sees themselves as being the next domino to fall in this situation. Iraq does not want to be involved in it. And so you have a number of members there who do not want to go forward.
REHMBut meanwhile, the killings continue, Michael.
HIRSHYeah, and the danger of this exploding into more of a sectarian type bloodshed. I mean, the very fears that Mideast regional strategists have had about a country like Syria for so long, which it's dominated the regime, is Alawite Shiite sect. But, you know, the country is not. It's mainly Sunni. You have Sunni allies. You have Iraq -- the Iraq government apparently now, you know, lining up with the Bashar Assad regime to some degree.
HIRSHAnd so what you're seeing here is not just the potential for internal bloodshed in a sectarian way inside Syria, but it becoming a broader conflict. And of course, you know, look at Iraq. With the U.S. withdrawal of troops you have the possibility of sectarian bloodshed recurring there as well.
REHMAnd as if the world did not have enough problems, look at what's happening in Pakistan, Abderrahim, with at least Pakistani officials talking about reopening routes that NATO needs to get supplies into Afghanistan. How significant is that?
FOUKARAIf you'd allow me 15 seconds...
FOUKARA...I just want to say one quick thing...
FOUKARA...one quick thing about Syria. You know, it seems to me that the most significant threat that, if I were Bashar, I would feel that right now is to think that over 11 months, for all the killings -- the daily killings that has been happening in Syria, Syrians have been coming out in greater numbers.
REHMContinuing to put their lives...
FOUKARAIt's unprecedented. It's absolutely unprecedented.
FOUKARASo the psychological impact of that is obviously a very big -- is going to be a very big part of it. Now to Pakistan, the -- and it's interesting that we're talking about Pakistan while we're talking about Syria, what the military is doing in Syria. Because if I may just quickly go on a tangent, one of the models that's being now debated in the Middle East in light of the Arab Spring, whether in -- particularly in a place like Egypt, is are we going to have a Turkish model or are we going to have a Pakistan model where the military continues to call the shots.
FOUKARAAnd I think that the military in Pakistan, obviously in addition to controlling what goes on domestically, it also -- it wants and has been able to control the message of foreign policy, particularly in dealings with the U.S. Now you have this issue of the reopening of the route for the U.S. and asking about -- and thinking about imposing tariffs. It seems to me that what they're really doing is we cannot live without some sort of dealing with the U.S. But at the same time, the U.S., over the last few months, has made a lot of Pakistanis feel that it has infringed their sovereignty.
FOUKARAAnd one way of reminding Pakistani public opinion that the army is the guardian of Pakistani's sovereignty, they're going to say, yes, we will be able to impose tariffs on them. So tariffs become a symbol of sovereignty.
DEYOUNGYou know, the Pakistani parliament has a committee now that is reviewing U.S. relations. And I'm sure they're doing that with a lot of help from the military. But they are supposed to come up with a document that will say, here are the new parameters of our relationship with the United States. While that's being done, everything's been suspended.
REHMWhat's likely to be in that document?
DEYOUNGI think it will be tariffs and charges for the transport of supplies for Afghanistan, which actually, it seems to me, sort of a clever way of doing it, you know. If you ask the U.S. military now, they would say, oh, my gosh, that's free. Now, how can they charge us for it? But the Americans have suspended almost all of their military aid to Pakistan. It's going to be far less than it has been in the past. And I think this is a way to re-channel it in a way that's much easier to keep account of than it has been in the past.
DEYOUNGSo the Pakistanis, they want that. They want assurances from the United States that their border will not be violated by troops on the ground similar to the Osama bin Laden raid, that there will not be U.S. manned aircraft crossing their borders similar to the incident in November.
REHMAnd what about drone strikes?
DEYOUNGDrones, I think this is the interesting thing. I think drone strikes will continue. You know, the Pakistanis have always privately agreed to them and publicly denounced them. I think that they will try to make a framework that both parties agree to, a smaller area in which the Americans are allowed to do it. And the Americans must inform the Pakistanis before the attacks. That's going to cause problems with the Americans.
REHMKaren DeYoung of the Washington Post and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Michael.
HIRSHYeah, almost all of these questions about Pakistan -- U.S. Pakistan relations do go back to this issue of sovereignty, an incredibly tender point with them. Because of the drone strikes, things really spiraled downward after the killing of Osama bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad in the beginning of May. You had the strike in November by NATO in which, I think, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed. This caused an even deeper rift.
HIRSHAnd as we were saying, I think a lot of what they're trying to do is just, you know, get back some semblance of respect over sovereignty. And even a lot of the internal politics now going on with the government, the former ambassador Husain Haqqani may be brought up on charges of treason related to an alleged memo that -- in which he allegedly asked for American help against a possible Pakistani coup. This has further riled the military. The military continues to dominate the civilian government there. And a lot of this really goes back to all of this -- all these disputes with the Americans over the violation of Pakistani sovereignty.
REHMAnd let's go now to the EU economy. Karen, what's the latest on the Greece debt deal? Is Greece likely to be able to avoid disaster?
DEYOUNGWell, that seems to be the question of the moment along with Hungary, which is also about to go bankrupt. But I think that Greece is still negotiating with its creditors. There is a deal on the table. It's not clear whether it's going to be enough to satisfy its creditors. I think that the EU, particularly the Germans, would like Greece to take even more austerity measures. There are many increasingly who feel that it's gone too far. That, in fact, you can squeeze so tightly that you stop all economic activity.
DEYOUNGAnd that there comes a tipping point where it just doesn't work anymore.
HIRSHYeah, I mean, the great irony now is that the German-dominated EU economy and policymaking is focused on austerity at a time when they badly need growth to get themselves out of this debt. And there probably will be a deal on Greece. The negotiations are going on right now in Athens between private sector bond holders in the Greek government over a so-called haircut.
HIRSHBut the larger danger looming is Italy. Greece is a manageable economy given the size of the rescue funds they've set up. But if these austerity policies continue under the iron hand of the German Central bankers, you have a possibility that Italy could default. Already it's -- the rate it's paying on its sovereign bonds are very high. And that's the thing that most market observers are fearing right now.
REHMAnd what's happened in Italy also in regard to the cruise ship. The Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off the coast of Italy. The captain is in deep trouble, Michael.
HIRSHYes, he certainly is. Captain Schettino who's -- well, the allegation is that he not only irresponsibly piloted his ship much too close to the coast and caused it to run aground and sink and you now have -- I think there are still 21 people officially missing, more than 10 or 12 that are listed as dead. But there are questions about what he was doing on the bridge at the time, who was up there with him. It's interesting that in Italy, this exchange between Captain Schettino during the accident and the Coast Guard...
REHMAnd the Coast Guard.
HIRSH...commander has now become a famous -- I think it's gone viral on the internet in YouTube in terms of the Coast Guard commander has become something of a hero, telling Schettino, get back on that boat. That's where you need to be and Schettino making all sorts of excuses for why he wasn't there.
REHMYou know, it's fascinating that the company that owns the ship has suspended him and now says they will not pay for his defense. And the company that owns the ship has asked to be listed as a victim. Wow. We're going to take a short break here and when we come back, it's your turn to ask the questions. Call us on 800-433-8850.
REHMWelcome back. It's time to open the phones. Our first caller is in Porter Ridge, (sp?) Fla. Good morning, David, you're on the air.
DAVIDGood morning, Diane, thank you for taking my call.
DAVIDAnd thank you to your guests. I love your show.
DAVIDI wanted to challenge the premise as I see it as being put forth around the discussion of Iran in that it is -- and almost all of the discussions follow this premise, and that is the threat that Iran poses and if you will follow me and see if this makes sense. We overthrew the government in 1953 and installed a dictator to the loss of Mosaddegh. We essentially 'sicked Saddam Hussein on them indirectly, funding a subordinate to a loss of a million people or more.
DAVIDWe have acknowledged that there are assassination squads and sabotage squads now operating in the country. We have invaded and occupied the country on its eastern border and we have invaded and occupied the country on its western border. We have bases in the countries to its north and to its south. Just miles off its coast is one of the largest naval installations in the world.
DAVIDLeaders of both parties speak openly about bombing and annihilating and yet somehow they threaten us. It's grotesque. It reminds me of the image in "The Exorcist" where the head turns completely around.
REHMAny comments, Michael?
HIRSHWell, I mean, that's, you know, that is the case one hears against intervention in Iran. Certainly, you hear it in American and political debate right now. Ron Paul, the Libertarian candidate has been making very much that case. I guess, you know, the response would be that there is a very grave danger of a nuclear weapons spiral in the Middle East if Iran gets the bomb.
HIRSHIranian leaders have very openly threatened Israel, which obviously is a long-time U.S. ally. And while U.S. and Israeli interests are not identical, clearly the U.S. is obligated to support Israel. And you have, you know, people like Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki, for example, in recent weeks, very openly suggesting that if Iran goes nuclear, then Saudi Arabia might have to as well. And then, you have the danger of a nuclearized Middle East where there are, you know, hair-trigger tensions and that does affect U.S. national interests.
REHMAll right, to Fort Worth, Tx. Good morning, Cody.
CODYHi, Diane, thanks for taking my call.
CODYMy question is kind of similar to the last caller, but maybe I can add some details. From my understanding, the U.S. military's own end-analysis of Iran is its military pursuits of primarily a deterrent strategy and that if it were to develop a nuclear weapon, it would be along in that deterrent strategy so adding to the why is Iran a threat if its threat is to prevent an invasion from an aggressive military. Why is that a threat to the U.S.?
FOUKARAI mean, there are so many different pieces to this. I mean, one of the arguments that the Iranians have been making is, obviously, we want nuclear capability for peaceful purposes. There aren't a lot of people in the United States, at least in official Washington, who believe that. There aren't a lot of people in official Riyadh or in any of the other Gulf capitals who believe that.
FOUKARABut the problem that these governments, the Saudis and other countries in the Gulf, together with the government of the United States, the problem that they have is not with the governments. The problem they have is with the peoples of the region because a lot of people in the region, they say, okay, if the Israelis have nuclear weapons, why can't an Islamic country such as Iran have nuclear weapons?
FOUKARAAnd obviously, it's going to be very difficult to settle that argument, but just to hark back to what Michael said earlier, when Iran was declared as part of the axis of evil by George Bush and Iraq was invaded, that obviously gave them a ground to argue among themselves that, well, if we are next, what is the best thing that we could do is to develop a nuclear weapon, even if they don't say we want to develop a nuclear weapon.
FOUKARAAnd I think if they look now at Libya, for example, if they look at Gaddafi who has been toppled and they -- some Iranians will obviously feel vindicated. How much peace does that bring to the Middle East, especially at a time when there's already a lot of turbulence, is obviously the big question.
REHMAll right to Phoenix, Ariz. Good morning, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETHGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
ELIZABETHI have a couple of questions and a comment. My first comment is if the U.S. and Israel want Iranian nuclear transparency, then Israel better be just as transparent. They started the Middle East arms race, now they have to live with it. And really every country has their right to defend themselves against Israel who -- they're the most aggressive and warmongering place in the Middle East.
ELIZABETHMy question is, when is your panel going to start talking about the fact that Iran signed the NNPT and Israel has not?
REHMI'm not sure many people would agree with our caller that Israel is the most warmongering country in the Middle East.
MS. KAREN DE YOUNGWell, it is true that Israel has a nuclear weapon.
YOUNGThat Israel has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty...
YOUNG...and so that is an argument and I think it's a valid argument. I think that, though, if you look at geo-politics, if you look at real-politick, there are a number of reasons why Iran is considered a threat. We can argue whether that's correct or not. One is that they have signed this document, which gives them certain international obligations in terms of allowing the outside world in to look at their nuclear facilities and to not develop a weapon.
YOUNGAs far as the United States is concerned, Iran is a terrorist nation. It supports international terrorist groups in various countries. The previous caller mentioned the Iranian military. One of the problems is that when you say Iranian military, what are you talking about? Are you talking about the Iranian army? Are you talking about the Revolutionary Guard which seems to operate independent of the Iranian military? And the feeling is that they are erratic and operate by rules that no one else seems aware of.
YOUNGSo again, you can argue, and I think you can, you can make a very good list of all the reasons that all of these callers have outlined. If you deal with the reality of the world, the United States views Iran as a threat and it views Iran having a nuclear weapon as a real threat, not only for Israel's sake, but for a lot of countries in the region that share that concern.
REHMAll right. Here's an email from Eleanor who says, will you discuss the U.S. support of the anti-Assad protestors and the Sunni-led Saudi Arabia involvement?" Abderrahim?
FOUKARAI mean, what happens in Damascus is crucial to Saudi Arabia, especially -- I mean, I said at the outset that there's been a sort of cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and this is all part of it. If you have a Sunni-led government in Damascus, in Syria, that obviously changes the whole geo-political configuration in the region because Saudi Arabia is a Sunni country. Iraq is now currently led by a Shia-dominated government.
FOUKARAAll of a sudden, if you have a Sunni government in Damascus, then Iran's influence, by definition, will considerably dwindle and, all of a sudden, the Saudis will have at least temporarily the upper hand in their cold war with Iran.
YOUNGI think that the Saudis, for a long time, were quite content to coexist with Assad in Syria and they were one of the ones arguing early on here that he was not going to be overthrown, that he was too strong, that the popular opposition was not going to be strong enough to turn the tide. And they -- I think their preference for a long time was stability over the kind of Sunni-spread that we were just talking about.
YOUNGI think that that's changed, however, as they see the real possibility of other countries, as we talked about earlier, becoming involved there. They see that the opposition is not going to give up. They see a real possibility that they can get rid of Assad and install a Sunni government so I think a lot of things have changed.
YOUNGOn the question of U.S. support for the Assad protesters, you know, I think they're trying to support them from the outside. They're not quite sure what to do yet and they want to operate within a larger context with the Arab League, which doesn't seem to be succeeding, so there are going to be some decisions to be made as the protests increase and continue.
REHMAll right. To Joanne in Clearwater, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.
JOANNEGood morning, Diane. I was glad that you brought up the secret letter because I, too, am wondering about the so-called secret letter to Iran and if it was really sent. And if, in fact, it was really sent, it appears as though President Obama basically wants it to be top secret and why is that?
HIRSHWell, look, let's go back. At the beginning of the Obama administration in early 2009, Obama tried the outstretched hand approach. There was a year's worth of efforts to get the Iranians to have open talks on the nuclear program, a bunch of offers and counter-offers that went nowhere. They actually held off on imposing additional sanctions during that whole period and that ended badly.
HIRSHThere was no effort -- there was a green movement inside Iran, sort of an early version of the Arab Spring where there was some confusion, but that, too, ended being suppressed by the Iranian regime. So there basically have been no negotiations of any kind, either with the Americans or with the Europeans, who are formally leading the talks. As Karen was saying earlier, there are all sorts of back-channels, including the Swiss through which the messages have been sent.
HIRSHI believe one related to the Strait of Hormuz, a kind of, you know, warning shot, don't close the Strait, was probably issued. But there are no negotiations going on right now. The Iranians, in turn, who are, you know, feeling the pressure from the additional sanctions want to continue to try to open negotiations through Turkey which has been, you know, somewhat sympathetic to the Iranian case. But I think it's not true to say that there is any real hope right now that any of these various contacts that we're talking about are going to turn into meaningful negotiations.
REHMAnd on that very point, Lynne in New York sends this message. "The U.S. and others have repeatedly been wrong about how far advanced the Iranian nuclear program has progressed. We don't know if sanctions will have the desired effect, more likely they will only spur Iran to faster nuclear capability. If we have again miscalculated and Iran does develop the bomb, what is our plan? At that point, could it be we don't have a plan? Can your guests envision one or do we do nothing and hope Israel will take care of this as it did with Iraq's nuclear program." Abderrahim?
FOUKARAWell, obviously, it all harks back to Iraq and what the Bush administration did at that time in terms of weapons of mass destruction. They kept talking about weapons of mass destruction as the reason why he wanted to go to war in Iraq and in the end, no weapons of mass destruction turned up. So in terms of credibility this time around, obviously there are some big hurdles for the United States to surmount in terms of convincing people that this has to be done because Iran has nuclear weapons.
FOUKARAIt just cannot be proven, it hasn't been proven categorically so far that it does have nuclear weapons.
REHMAbderrahim Foukara of Al-Jazeera Arabic and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How large a military does Iran have, Michael?
HIRSHWell, it doesn't have anything that certainly could threaten the United States directly and it's widely believed that it would not be able to threaten Israel's very advanced military. But there have been questions in the last couple of years about the kind of air defense systems that they've been importing from Russia. And I just wanted to add one other thing, the real wild card here is that Iran, in response to Stuxnet and in response to this series of assassinations of its nuclear scientists and other elements of covert war, has been moving very quickly to shift its uranium enrichment to a very hardened-underground facility near the religious city of Qom.
HIRSHAnd this is what really has the Israelis upset. To the extent that there is a possibility of an Israeli attack, it would largely be because of this timetable and so...
REHMThe timetable is when this nuclear material...
REHM...could be attacked, but otherwise, it gets moved...
REHM...into an area where it would be invincible?
HIRSHWhich is happening right now so you don't have -- this is not the Osirak reactor that the Israelis hit, you know, in Iraq in 1981, I believe it was. This is not the Syrian facility that the Israelis are also believed to have taken out several years ago. This is a whole different type of challenge and that's what the Israelis fear right now that the Iranians could get themselves to the point where they are virtually invulnerable to an air attack.
REHMSo Karen, what happens if they get the bomb?
YOUNGWell, first of all, I think that the West is pretty confident, I know the Americans are, that they will know in advance, that there are a series of things that have to be done to move from this highly enriched uranium, which they're now producing to actually weaponizing it and putting a bomb together.
YOUNGI'm sure they have lots of plans for what they will do. I mean, the U.S. military is never without plans. The intelligence community has lots of plans for what they would do. The idea now is that, they have, the Americans have passed really stringent sanctions that go into effect in six months. They've given the Iranians some time to think about it. I think their hope deeply is that the Iranians will just -- the Iranian people will revolt.
REHMKaren De Young of the Washington Post, Michael Hirsh chief correspondent with National Journal magazine, Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief of Al-Jazeera Arabic, thank you all. Have a great weekend everybody. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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