An update on the plane crash in the French Alps. Saudi Arabia launches air strikes against Yemen rebel bases. And President Barack Obama slows U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week's top international news stories.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced the U.S. would withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan as early as 2013; Syrian government troops opened a new front outside Damascus in their ongoing crackdown on anti-government protesters; and Nigeria’s security police said they captured the alleged spokesman of the Islamist group behind a series of bombings that have killed hundreds of people. A panel of journalists joins Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Hisham Melhem Washington bureau chief, Al-Arabiya News Channel.
- Susan Glasser editor-in-chief, Foreign Policy.
- David Sanger chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta calls for a new timetable for the mission in Afghanistan. Clashes broke in Egypt after dozens were killed at a soccer stadium and Russia says it will veto a UN resolution on Syria. joining us for the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup," David Sanger of the New York Times, Susan Glasser of Foreign Policy Magazine and Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel. I do invite you to join us as well, call us on 800-433-8850, send your email to email@example.com, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to all of you.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMGood morning.
MR. DAVID SANGERGood morning.
MS. SUSAN GLASSERGood morning, Diane.
REHMGood morning. And first to you, Hisham, we learn this morning that two American women have been abducted in the Sinai in Egypt. What is this all about?
MELHEMThe latest sign of the deteriorating security situation throughout Egypt, not only in Cairo and the major cites as we've seen it portside, tragically a few days ago, when more than 70 people were killed, but also in Sinai last year, Sinai witnessed a variety of suspicious activities. Al-Qaida is resurgent there and then you have the banditry that we've seen that is attendant to a decline in lower northern -- in the country.
REHMWe see that NBC and MSNBC is saying they have now been released. So, you know...
MELHEMThis does not look politically motivated. This is not Al-Qaida, which makes it, you know, less dangerous, but nonetheless, it's not good for the Egyptians. And it's another sign, as I said, of deteriorating security situation and the failure of the military council to run Egypt in a way acceptable to most people today, even when people are venting their anger because of soccer fans and the clashes that we've seen in Portside, which happened, by the way, in a context that is raising a great deal of questions about the activity or the non-activity of the police. Egypt is abuzz with rumors and conspiracies and all sorts of accusations, which tell us there is a crisis of governance, a deep crisis of governance that could drag the country into increasing civil strife.
SANGERYou know, Diane, I'm just back from Cairo just two weeks ago and what struck me about the military interim government is that this is a military that really doesn't want to be running the country. They want to preserve all of their perks. They want to make sure that their esteemed place in society is preserved. They don't want to be negotiating with the IMF, which is what they were doing as I was leaving. They don't want to be providing kind of basic police services. They don't want to blamed for garbage that isn't being picked up or any of the other things that just aren't happening in civic life.
SANGERAnd so the result is that you get this strange vacuum where there's anger at the military, on the one hand, for not turning over power more quickly to a political -- although obviously those who were in the square weren't wildly happy with the outcome of the election, but also angry that the military isn't doing the one thing that you think military should be good at, which is security.
GLASSERWell, I think that's a really important point when you look at it's not just clashes that are happening. I mean, people are dying, right? You know, the scale of the violence has escalated fairly significantly in recent weeks and so I think that's going to increase the political pressures that you see on all sides for this. And part of the reason that the military, in a way, is stuck just like the protestors are stuck, because there's not a clear consensus in society. It's going to take years, in fact, of both a political process to work that out. So I think there's a big concern for the economy. This tourism thing is yet another sort of really deadly blow.
GLASSERI mean, you know, in the years since the revolution toppled Mubarak, let's remember that basically one of the pillars of the Egyptian economy, which is tourism, has absolutely collapsed. I mean, you know, the story there is that hotels are empty. That you can, you know, go to these historic sites and find no one else and this is more about...
REHMI was there just two years ago and what a sad turn of events.
SANGERI walked into the Egyptian museum with two of my research assistants...
SANGERGorgeous place. It was us and the mummies. I mean, the place was empty.
SANGERThe place was empty. Then we went out one Friday morning out to the pyramids and I think we were the only Americans there.
MELHEMYou know, I mean, we keep talking about the sorrows of Egypt and there are so many things that would make you despair. I mean, you have elections in which more than 500 people were elected and only eight women were elected. That's cause for despair to me. You look around and then you see the deepening fissures between the Muslim communities and the important, but much smaller, Coptic Christian community. You see a military that belongs to the old regime. These are old men who are the product of the old regime and the only vision they have, if you want to call vision, is to maintain their economic and political special place in society.
MELHEMThey want to be like the Turkish military was for decades before the Dogan era in Turkey. My feeling is that they are not going to be like Turkey. They are driving Egypt to become like Pakistan, where you have a corrupt military officer corps that insists on maintaining its perks at the expense of the country. They don't want to pay taxes, they want to maintain their economic interests and their privileged political interests. But as David exactly said, they don't want to be responsible for day to day governance.
REHMSusan, would you agree with that bleak assessment?
GLASSERYou know, as Hisham was saying it, I was just thinking about the state of Pakistan today and thinking what a terrible scenario that would be for Egypt. Aside from their rapidly growing nuclear arsenal, you know, Pakistan today is not only a basket case, but it's one where governance has failed in every possible way. The news this week in Pakistan is that the judiciary is attempting to put the prime minister on trial for refusing to pursue sort of the charges against someone else.
GLASSERSo you have a complete breakdown that puts aside even the whole question of the war on its borders and Pakistan's own role in supporting that conflict. It's just a nightmare scenario not just Egypt, but for the Middle East. And I hope that things haven't gotten so far off the rails that it can't be pulled back into a more real political process this year. This is crucial, I think everybody thinks, for what kind of transition Egypt is going to have.
REHMSusan Glasser, editor in chief of Foreign Policy Magazine, David Sanger of the New York Times, Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya News Channel. Do join us, 800-433-8850. One of the most worrisome places in the world today is Iran and the concerns on the part of Israel about Iran's constructing a nuclear weapon. David Ignatius reported this morning in the Washington Post that the Defense Secretary has said that Israel really is on the verge of attacking Iran. Susan?
GLASSERWell, you know, I was looking also at the almost chilling comment by Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defense Minister, making the point, in very alarmist language, that perhaps time is running out for such a strike. There was also the intelligence report earlier this week from the U.S. head of intelligence suggesting that the likelihood of a strike in the spring had gone up significantly. And so I think that, you know, on the one hand, we've had bouts of this Iran war fever that have broken out fairly periodically over the last five, six years, really, it's been in Washington. At the same time, there is some reason to believe that this current wave of anxiety here in Washington and in other world capitals is somewhat more justified this time.
SANGERWell, I think Susan's exactly right. This wave is a little bit different and then I think it's worth asking the question, why is it different? What's changed now that didn't happen before? And the answer to that question largely lies underneath a mountain outside of the holy city of Qum, which is where a facility that President Obama exposed about two and a half years ago, but which the U.S. has been tracking well back into the Bush Administration, is actually going to production.
SANGERAnd this is a second enrichment site for the Iranians. The first one and the biggest one, the one we've talked about many times on the show before is the one at Natanz. The reason this one is important to the Israelis is that it is built very far underground, under a mountain, on a military base. And the concern is that once it's up and running, it's fairly immune from any form of attack. And the phrase you're hearing the Israelis use and you're hearing Mr. Barak use in particular, in fact he invented it, was a zone of immunity.
SANGERIn other words, at some point in the future, the Iranians get to a point where it doesn't make any difference whether the Israelis attack them or not. And so his timing is based on that vision of the zone. The American vision of the zone is very different. The American vision is that there are many things you can do to stop Iran from producing a weapon, even if they get into the Qum site.
REHMWould Israel go on its own without U.S. support, Hisham?
MELHEMI think this Israeli government, the particular, would do that, yes. And look, there is a long history in Israel, it's part of, if you want to call it the military ethos that we can solve most of our problem, if not all of our problems, by military means. And this one of them. And now, of course, the Israelis framed issue as an existential threat and we can argue with that. I think there are serious divisions between the United States and Europeans on one hand and Israelis, in terms of interpreting the intelligence and the time frame for the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon. But a war is not the option, is not the answer.
REHMHisham Melhem is Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya News Channel. Short break and when we come back, we'll talk about the young Panetta's statements on Afghanistan.
REHMAnd just to update the story with which we began this morning, two American women, their Egyptian guide who were captured by armed Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula on Friday have been released unharmed after several hours. Masked gunmen had held up the tourist bus at Wadi al-Sual in South Sinai as it left the historic monastery of St. Catherine. That's a relief. But during the break, we were talking further, David, about the possibility of forestalling an attack by Israel or anyone else on Iran. Tell me what the options are.
SANGERWell, there's -- obviously, there's the traditional military attack. But what you have seen happen in Iran in the past two years is a series of efforts to sabotage, some of them involving the United States, some of them involving Israel, obviously the assassination of scientists and all that. And then, of course, the biggest piece of sabotage of all was that Iran was hit in 2010 by a very ingenious computer worm called -- that later became known as Stuxnet, which made its way into the computer controllers that run the centrifuges, these big machines that enrich uranium.
SANGERSo that raises a question. If you wanted to forestall an Israeli attack, is a second Stuxnet possible? And the answer to that is it depends. I mean, pulling it off the first time was one thing 'cause the Iranians weren't ready for it. Presumably, this time, they are ready for it. It made a huge difference. It took out just shy of a thousand of their 5,000 operating centrifuges. They're up and running again so whatever delay was bought by Stuxnet is now over. But I think you've got to assume that both in Israel and the United States, there's a big debate underway about whether or not a second cyber attack is workable.
REHMWhat about the Senate Banking Committee's approval of the new penalty against Iranian banks, Susan? How important is that?
GLASSERWell, you know, I think it's part of what we've seen as a multi-front sort of diplomacy in the last few weeks, in particular as the saber rattling has escalated over the Straits of Hormuz, which we haven't talked about. But, you know, there's this incredible growing pressure on world oil markets as a result. You have a lot of players who are anxious about whether the prospect of increased conflict with Iran is going to lead to some major sort of global shock when it comes to resources.
GLASSERThe Chinese, of course, are worried about that, the Europeans, the Russians. So add more pressure of more sanctions, this affects basically their ability to undertake financial transactions. It's the infrastructure by which money moves around the world that we're now targeting. And, you know, I think it is a significant upping of the pressure again. What the U.S. (unintelligible) have tried to do is to increase, you know, dial that up at the moment in the effort perhaps also to aim at the Israeli audience, right, in the effort to sort of say, we have other tools at our disposal, to buy more time before a strike seems like the only option.
REHMAll right. And this issue will be the subject of our first hour on Monday. We'll continue the discussion then. Hisham, explain for us Secretary Panetta's new timetable on Afghanistan.
MELHEMThis is now the indication that this administration is very eager to telegraph everybody that we are getting out of there and as soon as possible, probably reducing forces at the faster rate than the president initially said, by the end of 2014. Obviously there are serious problems because we're not developing the contacts with the Taliban leadership as fast as the United States would like. The Pakistanis have their own concerns. The Europeans have their own concerns.
MELHEMAnd I think given the reaction of the Europeans, Secretary Panetta tried to walk back a little bit. But essentially he was saying we will start to reduce our role -- our combat role in the middle of next year. And, look, this came at a time when we had the revelations that the American military believes that the Taliban would inherit Afghanistan in the future. And the interrogations that they conducted with Taliban leaders who were captured shows a sense of confidence that the Taliban will win in the end.
MELHEMAnd the whole American strategy so far is not to win the war decisively, but to make it clear to the Taliban that they cannot win. And that will force them into negotiations. We are getting gradually to that point where we can negotiate with the Taliban. And anybody who tells you that he cannot negotiate with the Taliban are not going to answer the questions how to -- how do we get out of that mess.
SANGERWell, you can negotiate with the Taliban. The question is, will the Taliban negotiate back with you if they think you're leaving anyway and at what pace you're leaving? Now, on the one hand, what Secretary Panetta announced yesterday is not a new plan. It is newly being made public. But I think that the military's thought all along was to try to replicate what they did in Iraq, which was pull back from a combat role for, I think in Iraq's case, 16 months before the U.S. actually left so that it forced the local forces to provide the security, but with the knowledge that the U.S. wasn't far behind. This is a sort of, you know, letting go of the bicycle analogy, right?
SANGERIn the Afghan case, though, it's quite different because nobody believes that the Afghan security forces have been trained up to the point where they're really ready to take the lead in many of the most contested parts of the country. So it does mean that in various parts of the country, the Taliban are going to come back or warlords will have a larger role. And the big question is not whether this is an exit strategy for the U.S. Of course it is. The question is, is there an exit strategy for the Afghan government because it's not clear that they can hold together with the U.S. pulling back to this degree.
REHMSusan, to what extent did France influence the U.S. decision here?
GLASSERWell, and vice versa. I think it's very hard for the United States to put pressure on its allies, such as France, to sort of stay the course in Afghanistan when it's very, very clear that that's not going to be our strategy at the same time. So I think these things play against each other. But on Afghanistan and also on the conversation about Iran, one thing we haven't mentioned, which clearly is relevant to both of these stories, is the U.S. presidential election which is taking place this year. And I think the context for Panetta's comments have to be looked at in the context of this U.S. presidential contest.
GLASSERAnd, you know, there's a strong sense across the political spectrum, you know, both in the Republican Party as well as the Democratic Party. There's just not the appetite for a war that's gone on for more than a decade, at this point, that has not produced any dramatic, you know, results one way or the other. As far as the American public is concerned it's been a long commitment that they didn't make. And they're eager to get out of it. So, you know, it plays well there.
GLASSERAnd, you know, there's a big debate. Was this a gaff on the part of Secretary Panetta? Was it very calculated? You know, put me, at least for now, into the camp of thinking that this was politics and good politics on their part from the point of view of reassuring people we're really getting out.
REHMBut you've got the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee arguing that the decision is definitely premature, Hisham.
MELHEMI mean, you're going to hear that from many Republicans and many people in this town. But I think the administration is doing the right thing. Look, David raised an important issue about Iraq. The difference in Iraq is that the surge -- supposedly the military surge did not succeed more than the arrangement with the Sunni tribes in Central Iraq. There was a political arrangement. This was the genius of David Petraeus. It was not the military option only but it was the political arrangement with certain powerful Sunnis who were fighting us in Central Iraq. We don't have an arrangement like that.
MELHEMSo what worked in Iraq was the political arrangement, more so than training the Iraqi army and that the great Iraqi army is maintaining law and order now. It was the political arrangement. We don't have a political arrangement in Iraq (sic). And if you read the latest reports, it reveals that many in the security apparatus in Afghanistan are in bed with the Taliban. And the Taliban penetrated every facet of life and penetrated the Afghani government and Afghani security services. And that is the impossible position the United States finds itself in.
MELHEMAnd that's why they have to talk to some Taliban people. If those Taliban people, as we've seen, are distancing themselves from Al-Qaida and that's what you want. The Americans in the end they're going to say, Diane, we don't care what happened in Afghanistan as long as it becomes like Las Vegas. Everything remains in Afghanistan stays in Afghanistan. If they don't deal with Al-Qaida and if they don't harm our interest, we will get out. We are not in the business of nation building and we're not going to turn the Afghans into (word?) and Democrats.
REHMSo what happens with Karzai? What kind of pressure does all this put on him, Susan?
GLASSERWell, a clearly enormous pressure. The stake of his regime, you know, is what we're talking about here, which is something very different than what's at stake for the Americans. And I think that's what is important to understand. We're talking about two parallel conversations here. One, which is the American political timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan, two, what happens in Afghanistan.
GLASSERAnd that's where the Iraq example is very relevant because whether you call it primarily political or military, our exit from Iraq, it's very unclear that that has established the conditions for, you know, a new peaceful, stable Iraq governed by competing political parties who are going to resolve their differences without a military solution. And I think that's important to remember here because in reality, you know, that Petraeus negotiations with the Sunni chieftains enabled America to exit Iraq. It did not necessarily enable Iraq to exist in a peaceful democratic way going forward.
GLASSERSo when you ask about Karzai in Afghanistan, I think the question really of his fate is a lot more up in the air than the question of, are Americans going to be able to find a pretext in a moment at which they sort of say, okay we're leaving now. And arguably the surge strategy in Iraq was very comparable to what's happened in Afghanistan from the point of view of laying the political context for the American departure. We also had a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. And that also enabled the competing forces to wait it out, to bide their time. And I think that's what's happening right now in Afghanistan.
SANGERI think Susan's right and I think we have to look at the calculation that's underway in the White House. And the question is, if we stayed another five years or another ten years, would it make that big a difference to the outcome -- the political outcome? And the answer that they've come to is clearly not, that you've got to leave some time. And that if you can't make a big change in the security situation or the political situation over the ten years, plus we've been there, what's another five going to buy you?
SANGERAnd I think it really is that very pragmatic conclusion the president's come to. That is not where he was when he came into office, let us remember. Remember that's when Iraq was the bad war. Afghanistan was the good war. And Afghanistan was a war of necessity. You have not heard those words from this White House in two-and-a-half years.
REHMDavid Sanger of the New York Times, Susan Glasser, editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya News Channel. We'll take a short break. When we come back, your calls and more about the clashes we've been hearing in Nigeria. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Susan, what is going on in Nigeria? There seems to be a great deal of violence. Why?
GLASSERWell, you know, it stems back to a very sort of shadowy Islamist insurgency, as the phrase goes, known as Boko Haram. You know, it's believed to be sort of a collaborator, if you will, with Al-Qaida or a distant branch affiliate, if you will. But what's clear is that it has the possibility to show that the spread of this kind of terrorist insurgency can happen far, far from the Afghanistan question that we've been talking about right now. And I think it's a major destabilization in a country that had been looking to go in the other direction.
SANGERYou know, this is a case where the Obama Administration, I think, has, by and large, played pretty much a role of sitting back and letting it play out. Because I think that their view is that their influence over this situation is extraordinarily low. And what strikes me about President Obama through all of these conflicts is that you see him doing a calculation in Libya, in Syria, in Nigeria about what is it that there -- what unique American assets are there that can influence the outcome. And I think, in this case, he hasn't found many.
MELHEMActually it's not clear as to what extent is the relationship, if there's any relationship, between Boko Haram and Al-Qaida. I mean, there's still debate as to whether this is an offshoot of it or -- I doubt that. I mean, this is part of the Nigerian mess. You have clashes between Christians and Sunnis. You have economic disparity between the very poor north and the more affluent south. You have all sorts of, you know, social problems.
MELHEMAnd then, you have this group that is somewhat reminiscent of the Taliban. They believe that Western education, Western values...
MELHEM...are haram, which is unacceptable in Islam. So this is another kind of -- like the Salafies we have in some parts of the Arab world and in Asia.
REHMBoy, talk about a can of worms, Susan.
GLASSERWell, that's right, yeah. Remember that just two years ago they thought that they had basically eliminated the group as a meaningful political threat. So it's also a reminder that, you know, we don't know what we don't know. Now American analysts have said that they believe there are links with Al-Qaida, that there's training back and forth, that there is -- that this resurgence is connected in some way with the spread of these tactics and these groups.
REHMAnd finally diplomats at the U.N. have been involved in intense negotiations to try to come up with a draft resolution on Syria. What's the latest, David?
SANGERWell, they have a draft resolution and the problem here has been Russia. The Russians feel as if during the debate over the resolution in the spring on Libya that they were sucker punched. That they passed and voted for a resolution that allowed for humanitarian intervention. Remember, at that time, the Libyan forces in Benghazi were about to lay siege to the city. And that instead, when the operation actually happened, it transformed into a regime change operation that ultimately resulted in the ouster of the ruling party there at the time and, of course, the killing of the dictator.
SANGERIn Syria, they're afraid that if they pass a resolution similar to this, that they're going to see the West do exactly the same thing. And they're not ready to throw Assad over the side.
SANGERThe fascinating element here has been, though, that it is the Arab League, which we never thought would separate itself from Assad, that, in fact, has sort of been pushing this the hardest.
REHMBut nevertheless, you've got all this violence continuing, Susan.
GLASSERWell, that's right. Even by the U.N.'s own statistics, something more than 5, 6,000 people have already been killed in Syria since the unrest began.
SANGERMore than in Libya.
GLASSERThat's exactly right.
REHMSusan Glasser of Foreign Policy magazine. When we come back, it's time to open the phones. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones. First, let's go to Defiance, Mo. Good morning Darrell, you're on the air.
DARRELLGood morning, Diane. I'd just like to say that I'm a Navy veteran and it seems to me that both Afghanistan and Iraq were major disasters. What we've done to Iraq is just shameful. And what we're trying to do to Afghanistan is the same thing. We've been there for ten years. The only thing that's come out of Afghanistan is heroin.
DARRELLI live in St. Louis and right now, we're at an epidemic of heroin overdoses that we didn't have until the Americans went to Afghanistan. They couldn't get the pipeline, that's the reason we went into Afghanistan. Russia and China have them now. You know, and, as a black man, I would love to hear my president stand up and tell Benjamin Netanyahu to tear down the wall in Israel.
REHMAll right, sir. Thanks for calling. Susan?
GLASSERWell, you know, Afghanistan's major crop is poppies for heroin, but at the same time, it's almost entirely exported to Russia, right next door, and Europe. None of that Afghan heroin sees its way here. But it's a terrible story, of course, about an entire country whose economy is dominated by the heroin economy. That's absolutely correct and it is part of the tragedy of Afghanistan that predates, by the way, American involvement there.
REHMAnd let's see, here's an email from Allan in Herndon in Virginia: "The U.S. and other world leaders need to force the nuclear disarmament of Israel as part of forcing Iran to give up their nuclear program. As long as there is a nuclear Israel, it is difficult to justify denying Iran." David Sanger?
SANGERThis is an argument that you hear very frequently throughout the Middle East and yet, on the other hand, it sort of contradicts the fears that you hear in the Arab world. I mean, Israel has had a nuclear weapon or we believe it's had a nuclear weapons capability now for, what, 20, 25 years? And yet, when you talk to Arab leaders about whether they're worried about a nuclear Israel or a nuclear Iran, it's a nuclear Iran that worries them the most.
SANGERThink about what we heard in WikiLeaks, cut off the head of the snake, the Saudi king tells the United States about Iran. He's not talking about Israel. You heard the same from the King of Bahrain. So why is that? And that is because they fundamentally believe that the regime in Iran is a very unpredictable regime that could well lose control of a weapon or give it to Hamas or Hezbollah.
SANGERAnd so in the end, while they have to talk about their concerns on Israel -- and I fully agree that you can't get into a discussion about disarmament throughout the Middle East without talking about the Israeli capability here. It's Iran that has even the Arab states the most concerned.
REHMAll right. Give me a worst case scenario, Susan. What happens if Israel does attack Iran?
GLASSERWell, I was still shaking from our conversation during the break that, you know, sort of suggested a regional version of a World War I-like scenario in which it's the retaliation that really becomes the problem. And it's, you know, what is Iran to do in reaction to an Israeli attack? Does it strike against the U.S. forces in the Gulf, for example? Does it bring in its Sunni neighbors, in some way, into the conflict? What does the United States choose to do in response to any possible retaliation?
GLASSERThat's where you can see things escalating very quickly and in a very out-of-control way. But just to go back to David's important point about it's Iran's neighbors that, in many ways, are most concerned about this nuclear weapons development program because it is their neighborhood.
GLASSERIn the end, those nuclear weapons will not be able to strike the United States. They will be pointed at Israel. They will be a regional potential for conflict that exists at the heart of this.
MELHEMThe fear of the Gulf States, of Iran, is understandable. They do live already in the shadow of a powerful Iran that is assertive. It was very assertive in Iraq. It was assertive in Lebanon and it's assertive in helping the Syrians. So the fear is not that Iran will use the nuclear weapons to attack Jeddah or Kuwait or Dubai, but the fact that a nuclear Iran will have immunity from the West. And that's why the Iranian argument is that, look how many people used to support Saddam Hussein, that if Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons, the United States would not have invaded and there is some merit to that argument.
MELHEMThe point is if Iran becomes a nuclear power, then the Iranians will feel that they have room to maneuver and to act and to be more assertive and more belligerent because they know that they have the protection of the nuclear umbrella. Now, we talk about the nightmare this scenario is, you refer to David Ignatius' speech and how David ends his speech. He talks about the American worrying about the unintended consequences and if we learn anything from two wars in Afghanistan and particularly in Iraq, are the unintended consequences.
MELHEMNobody of those who planned the war in Iraq suspected that this will drag on for eight, nine years. This is probably the longest unnecessary war in American history and the problem is that we don't know, not the Israelis, not the Americans, nobody knows how the Iranians will react.
MELHEMThey could react by dragging the Arabs into this conflict, by attacking American interests in Iraq and in Afghanistan, by activating the Lebanese-Israeli front, by activating dormant cells in this country so they have options. And if they are against the war, they will use those options in the five days that David has talked about that could drag on to five weeks and five months.
REHMDavid, is there anyone or are there groups in this country urging the United States to move with Israel to attack Iran?
SANGERThere have been discussions within the U.S. government about basically the three different options of how this could work. One is let Iran, let Israel do this by itself, handle it by itself. Most of those war games studies have come out exactly the way Hisham and Susan have just described, which is, sooner or later, the United States gets sucked in.
SANGERThere was a public version of this that was done out of the Brookings Institution a few years ago that showed that. The second possibility is to have the U.S. and Israel do it together, on the theory that Israel does not have the capability to do it right and quickly. Okay, it doesn't strike me that that's the way President Obama thinks about this problem. I think the chances of that happening are probably about zero.
SANGERThe third possibility is to try to come up with some other combination of sanctions and covert action that they could persuade the Israelis would actually build more delay into an Iranian acquisition of a weapon than a military strike. And, in fact, I think you can probably argue that a military strike may not be the best way to delay the day that Iran gets the weapon. You can also argue that a military strike actually just drives the Iranians further underground and while you may not have to worry about it for two or three years, they will get back to where they are today.
REHMAll right. Let's move on to Carl. He's in Battle Creek, Mich. Good morning to you.
CARLGood morning, Diane. I would like to ask the panel to react to the situation involving the Christian minorities in the Middle East, especially in Syria, whether it's a real existential in society, if a civil war were to break out within the next year, for example.
GLASSERWell, you know, we've seen these concerns in Egypt as well. Let's remember the sort of rise of sectarian violence that accompanied the revolution last year. I think basically what you're talking about is a period of instability in which the existing order in many of these societies in their world is being overthrown, what are the new ground rules for minorities?
GLASSEROn some level, it's unsustainable that Christians in Syria have been in effect under the protection of the very heavy-handed authoritarian regime of Bashar Assad. If that falls, on the one hand, they're ready to be anxious about, you know, what's their place in the new order going to be. On the other hand, I think what we've seen is the very unsustainability of relying for your protection on, you know, an authoritarian regime that is busy persecuting other segments of society. So it's really not a sustainable situation for those ethnic minorities, including Christians in Syria, in Egypt and in the other countries.
MELHEMLook, I mean, it's useful to remember that we're talking about the original Christians in the world. These are the Christians of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt and the concerns of the Syrian community, the Christian community in Syria, should be seen in the context of what happened to the Christian community in Iraq under the American military occupation where we've seen 50 percent of the Christians of Iraq -- and we're talking about, you know, Christians with deep roots like the Jews who used to live in Baghdad, you know, at the turn of the 20th century.
MELHEMAt one time, they were 20 percent of the population of Baghdad and at the turn of the 20th century were Jews. So there was a time when you had a human mosaic, religious mosaic living and co-existing in what is today the Middle East. Things are changing now because the regimes have changed. They are more repressive and they repress anybody who is against them, whether they are Christians or non-Christians or Muslims.
MELHEMBut what happened in Egypt and what happened in Iraq now is deepening the concerns of the Christians of Syria who, by the way, lived for centuries in harmony with the majority Muslims.
REHMHere's an email about Nigeria. It says, "The crisis in Nigeria stems from the incredible poverty and corruption, wasted wealth and lack of governance in an oil-rich nation. The wealth stays at the top and with companies extracting that wealth practically none of that wealth gets to benefit the people of Nigeria." Susan?
GLASSERWell you know, bad governance is at the heart of a lot of these conflicts in many ways that we're talking about today. I'm just looking at a New York Times piece about that very question. The Nigerian government appears to have only a shaky grasp of how to confront the threat of Boko Haram responding with such a broad, harsh crackdown that many residents see the military as more of a danger than Boko Haram How many countries, if you change the name, could we write that line about, right?
REHMExactly. All right. To Houston, Tx., good morning, Colin, you're on the air.
COLINYes, ma'am, thank you for taking my call.
COLINMy question is about Afghanistan and I'm wondering -- it occurs to me that a political solution, a sustainable political solution in Afghanistan has to include the Taliban. I feel like Hamid Karzai is definitely moving towards that, some reconciliation with the Taliban for when we leave. So at what point does the Obama administration figure out that that's true and shift our policy towards allowing them into the political system rather than forcing them to wait on their arms and do whatever we're trying to get them to do right now.
SANGERWell, the Obama administration hit that conclusion a little more than a year ago and they then set out to try to figure out how do you negotiate with the Taliban, which is not always easy because the Taliban is split up into many different groups and factions. They had many false starts. They negotiated with the Taliban who turned out not to be a Taliban. They negotiated for a while, or the Afghans did, with a Taliban who ended up assassinating one of the chief Afghan leaders who was trying to work on reconciliation.
SANGERMr. Ribbani. And now, what's happened is that an office has been set up by the United States in Qatar. The Taliban has set up an office in Qatar. They have begun to have talks about having talks. There are negotiations underway about whether or not to free five detainees who are held at Guantanamo Bay as sort of a confidence-building measure in return for which the Taliban would release an American soldier who wandered off his base and got kidnapped.
SANGERThis would just be a start. But the question is, can you then build a real negotiating process? And if you're the Taliban and you know the Americans are leaving anyway, do you just talk and talk and talk and talk on the assumption that by the time the Americans leave, it won't make any difference what you've agreed to.
REHMDavid Sanger of The New York Times and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And to Vienna, Va., good morning, Nathan, you're on the air. I don't know why this -- there we are, Nathan. Good morning, you're on the air.
NATHANGood morning, Diane. Technical difficulties, I see. I just wanted to make a quick point about the conversation as it relates to a nuclear-armed Iran. And I'm not a foreign policy analyst, but from where I'm standing, the situation seems remarkably analogous to the situation which resulted from North Korea getting a nuclear weapon. And admittedly, there are some marked differences between the North Korean regime and the Iranian regime.
NATHANThe North Korean regime is in a more, relatively speaking, stable area of the globe, but its regime is much more overtly militaristic towards its purported enemies. Now, versus an Iranian regime, which if they were to get a nuclear device, what would happen? And from where I'm standing, I believe the Iranian regime would use every measure necessary to keep that device secure simply as a deterrent to Israel, the West, to strengthen their position in negotiations.
NATHANThe nuclear device unused, the threat of one, is much, much more beneficial to the Iranian regime than the actual using of the device, for all intents and purposes, is signing the regime's own death warrant.
SANGERYou're absolutely right. And there's a possibility that the Iranians don't even actually want to go quite as far as building the device, that they want to walk right up to the line, not do what the North Koreans did, which was set off two nuclear tests and demonstrate to the world that they had it, but instead have the entire world know that they could build a nuclear weapon in a matter of weeks. And frankly, that virtual bomb would give them all of the influence that Hisham was talking about without actually bringing on the trouble and the wrath that comes from actually having a weapon.
SANGERAnd there are many people that believe that's the strategy. And when you listen to the testimony that you heard from the head of the director of national intelligence on Monday and Tuesday, what he suggested was that there still has been no political decision that they can detect in Iran to actually turn those last screws and build that weapon.
GLASSERWell, I think one other thing we haven't mentioned today, which bears thinking about, is what is the political situation of the Iranian regime itself? You know, the neighborhood is very, very different than North Korea, as the caller very astutely pointed out, I thought. Remember that the protests of three years ago in the wake of the sort of rigged presidential election. They might have petered out, but at the same time, there are some internal dynamics in Iran that suggest, you know, they don't have the unfettered free hand that existed in North Korea as well. They have to pay attention to their politics at home and in their neighborhood.
REHMSusan Glasser, Foreign Policy magazine, David Sanger of The New York Times, Hisham Melhem of Al-Arabiya New Channel, one of these days, we're going to do a show with nothing but good news worldwide. I hope we'll all be here for that. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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