Iran's Nuclear Program Symposium: Policy Options for the United States
Council on Foreign Relations:
International policymakers face a host of unattractive options in their desire to confound Iran’s nuclear ambitions, experts at a three-part CFR symposium said this week. U.S. and European diplomats insist they remain committed to negotiations, but privately sound increasingly grim about prospects for diplomacy.A long but worthwhile read.
Iran's Nuclear Program Symposium: Policy Options for the United States
- Iran's Nuclear Program Symposium: Iran's Motives and Strategy [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service, Inc.]
- Iran's Nuclear Program Symposium: Iran's Nuclear Development and Production: A Status Report Audio
- Iran's Nuclear Program Symposium: Iran's Motives and Strategy Audio
Resident Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Kenneth M. Pollack
Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution READ MORE
Richard N. Haass
President, Council on Foreign Relations
April 5, 2006
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Council on Foreign Relations
New York, NY
RICHARD HAASS: Why don’t we get started? This is—I’d say this is the clean-up position, except it’s only batting third. We also have the somewhat unenviable task of having to come after two what I thought were truly thoughtful and interesting panels, and I really want to commend those who were before us this morning in both. We’ve also got the difficult task of figuring out what do we do about this difficult problem, but that’s the purpose of this. We’ve clearly got a challenge on our hands, and the question is, how do we best tackle it?
We’re fortunate, to guide us through this conversation, to have two individuals who have thought about it and have written a lot about it; really, as much as any two people, I think, have shaped the debate. I’m a great believer—and if I weren’t, I’m in the wrong line of work—but I’m a great believer in the idea that ideas matter, and I’m surrounded by two people who are very much purveyors of ideas, and I want to thank both of them for being with us.
I want to begin with Ken. One of the many reasons it’s not a debate is Ken is not at his best today. He’s, as they say, under the weather; he made a valiant effort to get here. But I would say 80 percent of Pollack is worth 100 percent of most, so we’re pleased to have him, in a sense to welcome him back to the Council on Foreign Relations, where he spent some of his wayward youth. And he’s now in an institution where I spent some of my wayward youth, so I guess it all equals out.
And we have Reuel Marc Gerecht on my left, on your right, who’s at another institution, AEI. And in his writings in The Weekly Standard and more broadly—again, he has, I think, been one of the most interesting and influential voices out here. And even when he and I don’t agree, he has, more than anyone else, forced me to reexamine my own thinking. And this is my way of saying—to acknowledge that and to say thank you for that. Again, I think he’s made some real contributions.
I was making a list when I was thinking about what we were going to talk about, and I wanted to begin with, in government, the way things often work is you figure out—first you know what it is you want to achieve, and then you figure out how to get there. So let’s begin with the what-we-want-to-achieve when it comes to Iran. And I was scribbling down here—if I can find my notes—what I thought were the things we might want to achieve when it came to Iran, and I made an arbitrary list, say of five—but it could even be more—things.
I said one is to get them to satisfy our goals in the nuclear realm, to essentially reconsider their nuclear policy. Second of all, to stop terrorism, support for terrorism. Third of all is to help us in the neighborhood, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan, or at least not hurt us. Fourth is to change their policy vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Fifth is domestic, to deal with democracy and human rights in Iran.
I’m a great believer that you can’t say we want to do all of them and they’re all equally important, because the word “priority” has to kick in here somewhere. If all things are equally important, then all things are also equally unimportant. So if that’s the list, and maybe there’s other things that should be on the list, what ought to be driving U.S. policy? Is it a degree of emphasis or proportion? Before we figure out how we go about it, what is it we want to go about?
REUEL MARC GERECHT: I thought we were going to start with Ken? (Laughter.)
I did want to thank Ambassador Haass, and I also want to thank Ken. Ken and I have actually done this over a few years, in a variety of venues, so I have to say this is not the first time that when he’s appeared with me that he’s been sick—so there may be some causal connection. (Laughter.)
KENNETH M. POLLACK (?): You mean “sick,” or “perverse”?
GERECHT: Yeah. I also fulfill a basic function for anyone at Brookings, particularly Ken, since March 2003, that he can point at me and go, “See, I am a moderate!” (Laughter.)
I mean, I think if you look at what—I think there actually is a consensus, more or less, in the United States and I think, actually, amongst the EU-3—the Brits, the French and the Germans—on ideally what you want, at least looking at the nuclear issue, and that is, obviously, you want them to stop their enrichment program. That, I think, we then differ perhaps a little bit with the Europeans; the Americans would like more than that. I mean, certainly we bring up issues of terrorism, so do they. We bring them up a little bit more forcefully.
On the Israeli-Palestinian controversy, obviously that comes up quite sharply to the foreground, and I think you’ll probably see even more of that, because we are about ready to see whether the Iranians are going to meet their own rhetoric. Are they willing to come forward with a great deal more cash to support Hamas? If they do, that obviously is going to cause greater problems. I personally, actually, am not terribly worried about that. If they do come up with more money, let them come up with more money, and the United States isn’t going to be able to stop it, and I actually don’t think that’s terribly important vis-a-vis the way things are going to go amongst the Israelis and the Palestinians. But I think you’re going to see a lot of attention paid to that again, so there’ll be some attention in Europe on it, a little less.
Democracy promotion, that’s an evolving one. I mean, it’s evolving in the United States and it’s evolving in Europe. I would have argued that until fairly recently, I didn’t think the administration was all that serious about it, and I had many individuals that I would call friends, and sort of in the same camp, who would still argue that the administration really isn’t terribly serious about democracy promotion in Iran. I think that’s probably unfair.
I think within the context of where the Bush administration is now and within the context of the bureaucracies, that they actually are trying to figure out ways to encourage democracy in the country. Given the fact that the American government, particularly the institutions that would have to deal with this—the State Department first and foremost; the CIA, in such a weakened state, when it comes to Iran. For the life of me, I might add—I mean, my former employer—I think my figures are correct—I don’t think it’s a classified secret—at least after I say it, it won’t be—(laughter)—that there are around 175 people on the Iran desk and there are about 35 analysts working on the analytical side in Iran, and it beats the hell out of me how they can have all those people working on Iran, given that when I was working on Iran in the 1980s, we certainly had more access in the country than we do today and we had far fewer people, and even then we were overstuffed.
So I don’t know what’s going on there, but the government is trying, obviously, to focus more attention on Iran. I don’t think that democracy promotion and support will ever be terribly serious, and so we just start the very difficult and slow and brutal and ugly process to add some clandestine capacity to support dissidents in the country. We certainly aren’t there yet, and if you go amongst the Europeans and you talk about it, they get very nervous.
HAASS: Well, let me just at least push it, though. I’m not asking so much what is; I’m asking, from your point of view, what should be—to the extent you had to basically go in to advise the secretary of State or the president and say, here’s how to rank our goals vis-a-vis Iran, and here’s almost the proportion: Should it be that nuclear comes first and that ought to be 80 percent of what we’re about now, and these other things should slide? What do you see right now as what we should be focusing on?
GERECHT: Well, I would keep it simple. I mean, I think the more you divide it, the more difficult it becomes. I would, you know, have the—which the government is—go through this process that they’re going to have to do on Iran before they have the great debate, and that process is, all right, first we’re going to give the United Nations roughly three months, probably—maybe even less, now—to see whether they go forward. The Europeans are going to try to come together, the French in the lead. We’re going to see whether in fact any type of sanctions regime which can pass the pinch test is going to happen, and then the United States is going to have the great debate. And that debate is, are you willing—is the risk, is the danger from having the clerical regime go nuclear, is that sufficient to contemplate preventive military strikes? We have not had that debate. We are going to have the debate. I think we should have that debate sooner, not later, so we don’t have to get bogged down.
And the other issue is democracy promotion. I do not view those two as mutually exclusive. And we should get serious about it, because in the end, everybody agrees—whether it’s the United States or Europe or amongst Iranians themselves. I mean, this is all really, in the end, about regime change. If you had a different type of regime in Iran, you wouldn’t have this issue. Now, that is a very difficult, hard proposition. I disagree with those who argue that the regime is, you know, on the precipice and can go over. I don’t think that’s the case. However, I do think that change there, if it were to happen, would happen quite rapidly.
Those are the two issues you should focus on. Focusing on the Israel-Palestinian issue, I just don’t see any profit in it. It’s a diversion; it’s not pertinent to Iran. And I’d keep the whole attention on the nuclear issue, to force us to have the debate, and on democracy promotion. So that even if we, in the end, punt on the nuclear question and we allow the clerics to go nuclear, which I think is probably right now the good bet—I think the administration, in all probability, will punt, though I think the odds of a preventive military strike are going up—then you’re going to have to have, you should want to seriously encourage change inside of Tehran and think about ways that you could do that.
HAASS: I can guarantee we’re going to have the debate in this country on what to do about the preventive military strike shortly; indeed, we’re going to have it in about five minutes. (Laughter.) But before we get to it—sir?
POLLACK: Thank you, Richard, and let me say what a pleasure it is to be back here at the council. It’s always wonderful. And also wonderful it is to again be sharing a dais, both with Richard and with Reuel. I always enjoy jousting with you.
And yes, I’m looking forward to having that debate, although I love the fact that Reuel keeps insisting that that’s the debate that we need to have, rather than the debate about what the diplomatic option might look like and whether we want to accept a diplomatic option. I think that’s also a debate that might be worth having.
MR. : (Inaudible.) I promise we’ll—
POLLACK: Let me answer your question specifically, though. Obviously, you know this, because you taught me this—(laughter). You need to prioritize, but you also can’t assume. You shouldn’t assume that there’s only one thing that you can ever do. And you can devote different amounts of attention to different things, and sometimes things get bundled, but I think that’s the issue with Iran.
I certainly agree with Reuel that the nuclear issue is by far the most important issue facing us, but you can’t disentangle it from the list of the other four, because in point of fact, what we’re worried about with Iran is that once they acquire nuclear weapons, it makes those other four issues vastly more difficult. And that’s, I think, a very important point to keep in mind about Iran. I’d be interested to know if Reuel disagrees with me on this. I don’t think we’ve actually had this specific debate.
But my own feeling is, my problem with Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is not that I think they’re going to get one and pop it off at Tel Aviv or Riyadh or something else that we care about, nor that they would purposely give one to terrorists, which is something else that you hear about oftentimes, but that once they acquire them, they will feel unconstrained in their willingness to employ terrorism, subversion and other rather unseemly—and I’m being very kind here—methods of advancing their decidedly anti-status quo foreign policy. That is my fundamental problem with Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and that gets to those other four issues.
And so I wouldn’t simply agree with the Europeans that it’s all about the nuclear weapons and if we can get the nuclear weapons off the table, we’re done with the Iranians. I think this gets to a point that Reuel was making. We have to keep, at the very least, the terrorism issue as part of this, because it is absolutely intertwined with the issue of the nuclear program.
HAASS: Okay, now let me try a different tack. What I heard this morning were two themes—may or may not be accurate—but I heard two themes coming out from the panel which, if not contradictory, were at least complicating.
One is that, particularly from the first panel, that Iran is likely to want some nuclear capacity. We can argue how much, but they were—whether it’s for symbolic reasons, hedging reasons, strategic reasons, domestic political reasons, what have you—some combination of the above. By the way, no one said they wanted it for electric power generation reasons. I just point that out. (Laughter.) And that it would be very hard for them to accept zero in that area, simply because it would look as though they had buckled. That seemed to be part of—one thrust, at the first panel.
The second one, while not totally inconsistent with that, also said that the Iranian people were clearly not obsessed with the nuclear issue and that a lot even of what motivated the regime, or elements of the leadership, might have been things like respect, regime maintenance, survival and all that. So one gets the sense that the nuclear issue is important, but not necessarily the be-all and end-all.
Anyhow, when I have thought about this challenge and what to do about Iran, I come up with four options. It might be my dearth of imagination, but there are essentially four options, as I see them. And they are—let me hasten to say they are not mutually exclusive. But there are—at the end of the day, what makes policymaking interesting is you’ve got to think about emphasis and priorities and also time sequencing. So I’m not going to let people get away with saying we’ve got to do all of them, or whatever, because it’s not that simple.
One is a diplomatic option, and we had elements of it talked about this morning, where you essentially make an offer to Iran, either zero or perhaps some very limited amount of nuclear capacity, highly verified, and we offer them some package of carrots and sticks to get them there, saying if you do this, here’s the reward; if you don’t do this, here’s the limited penalty—sanctions, political, economic—and we can talk about sequencing and the rest. But that’s one option, which is essentially some version of what’s essentially in the European-American-Russian-whatever diplomacy, though it’s certainly not developed on the sanctions side. But anyhow, one option is a diplomatic option.
The second one is the military option. As Reuel correctly called it, it would be a preventive military option, not preemptive, because there’s not an imminent threat of use. It would be preventive, to basically short-circuit the development. And for argument’s sake, let’s take off the table that we can do with Iran what we did with Iraq. Let’s take off a war option of invasion, regime change and all that, essentially that way, but something more limited, to basically destroy or set back their nuclear development, a classic preventive military strike.
A third option is to focus on the regime itself to bring about regime change, to basically say, and borrowing from what Reuel said again, if Sweden were to have nuclear weapons tomorrow, we wouldn’t worry as much about it. We would not be having this meeting here today. Clearly the character of regimes matters at least as much or more as the nature of their capacities. So as a result, if we could bring about a very different leadership and regime in Iran, we would worry less; not that we wouldn’t worry at all, but we would worry less about what capacities they were developing. So if we felt we could bring about a very different political outcome th ere soon enough, that might—that would be a third option.
And a fourth option, which is essentially his prediction, is the default option, which is to live with it, and to basically find—to think about deterrence one way or another. Some cynics have called it the North Korea option; that after you huff and puff you essentially find a way to come to terms.
So essentially a diplomatic option, a military option, a regime change option and a default option that has some version of living with it or—
Let’s focus on the diplomatic. One is, is there any reason not to try it? And if the answer is no, or sort of to speak without double negatives, if we were to go about it, what would be the sort of package that you would see as desirable to put forward?
GERECHT: Well, I mean, that one’s easy for me because I can’t—I don’t see it as desirable or working. I think the dates you need to keep in your mind are 1979, 1986 and 2000. Every time the United States has tried to engage, it’s either gone into disaster or was incredibly embarrassing. I think Ken may have had a part in the last one. (Laughter.)
POLLACK: I don’t think that’s why was a disaster. (Laughter.)
GERECHT: No, no. (Laughter.)
HAASS (?): But it may still be embarrassing.
POLLACK: We can debate that, too—
GERECHT: Sure, we can debate it.
That I don’t think you have as much—on the American side, which I would call sort of the realist argument here, there’s been this expectation that, you know, the Islamic Republic, the ruling elite was going into Thermidor. You know, Thermidor is just around the corner. Well, guess what? It hasn’t gone into Thermidor. Now the population has gone way beyond Thermidor, but the ruling elite has not.
The notion that the Iranians are going to give up the nuclear weapon because of a combination package where, in fact, by going to them to present this package you are essentially telling them, we do not have the guys to strike you militarily—that is in fact the only reason—that’s what brings them to the table. Anything that brings them to the table is going to have to entail the absolute assurance that you are going to use military force against them. We aren’t very good at that. I mean when you look at the American position, are you scared? I’m not; I don’t think they are.
Now, there is a possibility, and certainly you saw that after 2003, maybe into 2004, possibly even later, there was real fear in Tehran that the Americans had—were loose; that you saw them in Afghanistan, you saw them in Iraq. What some people saw as flexible positions about Iranians in Afghanistan I would describe as sheer panic.
Well, that is evanescing. I mean, it is disappearing. The Iranians, everybody in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other more important institutions in Iran, in the clergy, they all watch CNN. If you watch CNN, you know that America is in a quagmire in Iraq and we are growing weaker by the day.
So I don’t see this notion of trying to bribe them—because that’s what we’re really talking about. There are those out there who think the Iranian clerical regime is bribable. I don’t. I think you are going to be taken to the cleaners, as was Mr. Brzezinski in 1971, as was MacFarlane in ’86, and as was Clinton and Albright in 2000.
HAASS: Well, let me just see if I understand you. You juxtapose a diplomatic option as an alternative to a military option. What if they’re seen as complementary? What if you basically raised the credibility of your military option so the Iranian saw this essentially as an alternative; if you said, here is a diplomatic practice, and we require zero or negligible nuclear activity, or you face the certain prospect of sanctions and the credible prospect of military force? Would you still say not to do it, or would you still say it would have no chance of succeeding?
GERECHT: Well, I would say that it still has no chance of succeeding. I don’t think the—I think the clerical regime since 1989 has been dedicated to developing nuclear weapons. I found it always amusing that people thought Rafsanjani was going to trade it away when he is, in fact, the father of the nuclear bomb.
But I just don’t see how you even package it. I’m willing to entertain the idea, but I just don’t see how you package it. I mean, what are you going to do? You’re going to go to the Iranians and say, we’re going to give you a strategic guarantee on the Persian Gulf, which means—well, what’s that mean?
We promise not to have the U.S. Navy like, you know, there. We’re not going to have any bases any more. All those agreements we have with the Persian Gulf states, you know, we’re really not going to have them. What are we going to do in Iraq? We guarantee you that nothing is going to be born in Iraq that is going to cause you displeasure, and if they move in a democratic direction, you know, we are not really going to support it.
I just don’t see—when people talk about offering carrots to them, I can’t—I have a really hard time envisioning a carrot that if I were a cleric would seem appealing and I’d want to bite it. (Laughter.)
So if—again, if someone—I’m willing to entertain the idea, but I just haven’t seen—I’ve seen approaches which make sense amongst Westerners, but that makes sense in Iran I have yet to find it. And I can’t fathom why this time around, when we’ve had this engagement notion in the past, why this time around, when the stakes are much higher for them, success—the possibility, as Ken said, if they actually get the nuke, I think they get to change the strategic equation—why they are going to trade this away.
HAASS: Ken, do you have a different view of the—
POLLACK: I do.
HAASS:—desirability and prospects of a diplomatic opportunity? Because if you don’t, I do. But go ahead. (Laughter.)
POLLACK: Yes, I do. I have very strongly different view.
And let me start—I don’t want to just disagree with everything that Reuel said, but instead I’m going to lay out what I believe. But I do want to start by making a point which I think is very important—a very important different between Reuel and myself—which is, Reuel started with a critical assumption which is nothing but an assertion, that the Iranians are not going to listen to anything but the credible threat of military force.
I do not accept that assumption, nor do I accept the assertion that the only reason they’ve come to the table so far is because there’s a threat of military force on the table.
I believe that this regime is very concerned about its economy. I believe there is tremendous evidence to indicate that even figures like Khamenei himself—not necessarily Ahmadinejad, whose ideas of economics, I think, are—well, I think I have a 2-year-old son who really knows more about economics than Ahmadinejad. But I think it’s very clear that the rest of the government is very concerned about the state of the Iranian economy. They’re fully aware that the economy is in very desperate straights, and that it is the economy that is causing the greatest concern in terms of popular unhappiness with the regime, turning the people against the regime. And what we’ve seen from the Iranians over the last 15 years is that they are hypersensitive to threats to their economy.
And in fact, I would completely disagree with Reuel that what has brought them to the table is the threat of military force. In fact, what has brought them to the table was the fact that the Europeans for the first time actually showed a spine and said to the Iranians, if you are not willing to sit down and negotiate with us, if you are not willing to suspend, you will face real economic sanctions. What first brought them to the table after the revelations about Natanz and Iraq was the was the Europeans saying to them, if you do not come and sit down with us, we are ending our trade talks with us. That’s what brought them to the table.
I think that makes it very clear they are extremely concerned that the Europeans will join us in comprehensive economic sanctions against them. And everything that they have been trying to do arguably since 1990, but certainly since 2002, is to keep the United States and Europe from coming to a common position on economic sanctions against them. That is their great nightmare.
Reuel keeps talking about the need for us to have a debate here what we ought to be doing, would we be willing to go to military strikes. I would put it to you that our goal should be to force the Iranians to have a debate—the debate over whether they want their nuclear program more or whether they want a healthy economy more. And frankly, that is the debate they don’t want to have.
That is what the diplomatic option is about. It is about putting this leadership on the horns of a dilemma. For the last 15 years they have been able to have their cake and eat it, too. They were able to keep their weapons program and their support for terrorism, and at the same time get the trade and investment that they needed from Japan and Europe.
The great threat that they face is that the Europeans and Japanese are finally going to actually live up to their rhetoric and they’re going to join us.
Now, what will be required to do that?
First, we have to be serious about the carrots for two reasons.
First, we’re not going to get the Europeans and the Japanese on board to join us in a package of graduated sanctions—the sticks, which I’ll come to in just a moment—if we’re not willing to put up the carrots. The Europeans want to be able to say to the Iranians there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Secondly, again, this is about creating a debate inside Iran. As you apparently heard—unfortunately I’m at a disadvantage because I was not here this morning—but apparently you heard the first two panels make the point that the Iranian people are relatively ambivalent about the nuclear program, and I think this is critical. The Iranian people have higher priorities than nuclear weapons. Their highest priorities are jobs, their livelihood, political freedom, social issues. That’s what they care most about. And that is why—and I’m sure that Ray Takeyh, if not others, made the point this morning that the regime has very consistently tried to portray the nuclear program as being about their economy. It’s about power and technology as far as they are concerned, which is all about jumpstarting their economy. And they are terrified that someone is going to break it to the Iranian people that this is really about nuclear weapons.
And so we also have to make clear to the Iranian people that what we are most concerned about are the weapons and support for terrorism, and we’ve got no problem with anything else. And if they are willing to give up those things, there is not just a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but there’s also a trail of bread crumbs to get there.
So, the carrot side. I think we need to say to the Iranian people if you are willing to give up the weapons and the terrorism, you will get some form of security guarantees—and I agree with you, Reuel, it can’t just be, we stand up and say we’d never invade Iran. And that’s why I proposed, among other people, that what we need is an actual process of arms control, negotiations, confidence-building measures, et cetera in the Persian Gulf.
And interestingly, when I wrote that in Foreign Affairs in 2003, that very same moment—that very same month—the Iranian ambassador to the U.N., Javad Zarif, wrote a similar article in The New York Times advocating the exact same thing, which suggests that there is a possibility here that it could happen, and we could inaugurate a process similar to the OSCE process that we inaugurated in Europe, which did have very real impacts on Soviet perceptions of their security was part of the end of the Cold War.
POLLACK: Okay, to finish up on the carrots quickly, with our economic sanctions, we’ve got to be willing to bring them into the economic—into the global economy. We got to be able to do—we need to do a bunch of other things.
We also have to provide them with power. I got no problem with safeguarded light-water reactors. If they want the technology we can find a way to give them that, too. And make it very clear: the only things we object to are the sticks—are the weapons and the terrorism on the stick side.
I think it’s very clear that we can talk about these kind of symbolic sanctions—you know, travel bans, and—I know Patrick is in the room somewhere; he’s even backed off this concept of banning them from the World Cup because I think if there is anything that would set the Iranian young population off on a jihad, it’s that. (Laughter.)
We can start with that, that’s fine. But ultimately, what we need to show the Iranians is there is a package of graduated sanctions out there where the longer that they delay, the longer that they refuse to comply with this, the more the international community is willing to ratchet up the heat on them.
And that heat has to come in the area of investments. That’s the key, okay? Iran’s economy is right now heavily dependent on outside capital to keep it afloat because, frankly, all of its internal capital gets chewed up in graft. All the economists will tell you they are desperate for foreign capital for investment. Their five-year plan calls for $20 billion a year in investment just for the next five years, plus $70 billion over the next 10 years to recapitalize the oil industry.
There are only three capital markets in the world that can provide that kind of money for them: U.S., Europe, Japan. Russia, China, India cannot possibly do it. So it is a very real threat.
And what I’d say about investment sanctions is that it is—(inaudible)—a wonderful thing. This is what Denny Pletka taught me, your friend Denny Pletka taught me, which is the nice thing about investment sanctions is, first of all, no one starves to death from cutting off investment; a very important lesson we learned from the Iraq sanctions. It hits the economy long term. It is something that is very frightening to the government, but won’t necessarily cause babies to die.
And secondly, investment sanctions can be tailored. You can take specific deals off the table. Ban Western investment in the phase 17 of South Pars. Move up, ratchet up further, ban all investment in South Pars. Ratchet it up further. Ban all investment in Iranian natural—(inaudible)—natural gas. Move it up further, ban all investment in Iranian petroleum.
There were all kinds of ways that you can cut this so that over time what the Iranians see is a unified international position slowly squeezing their economy. And what the Iranian people will see is two paths: one where they cling to their weapons and their terrorism, and as a result their economy is crippled and they are cut off from the rest of the world; or they can give up these two things, which quite frankly really aren’t important to most Iranians, and instead have a much better world where they’re integrated with the global community, their economy is healthy and their lives are much better.
HAASS: Let me—rather than have you respond to that—you’ll have your chance—(laughter)—I’d rather have you introduce another subject, which is the military subject. I want to get some things on the table, then we’ll open it up.
Just say either we decide not to try a diplomatic proposal along the lines that Ken just laid out, or we tried it and it basically came up short; for whatever reason it didn’t have the desired effect, or if the nuclear program continued pell mell, and okay.
So then we’ve checked that box. Now we look at—we say we can’t do an invasion because we’ve only got one army and that’s busy. So what about, as you again accurately describe, a preventive military option?
I guess the questions I have is, particularly given your background, do you think we adequate knowledge to carry one out? What sort of an impact might it have, in two ways, the impact? Maybe three ways. One would be the impact on Iran’s nuclear program. Two, what would be the impact on Iranian politics? Would this tend to frustrate or promote political dissent, resistance to the regime? And thirdly, how do you think the Iranians would react more broadly? They would basically—what tools do you think, or policies, do you think would be unleashed by such a policy on our part?
GERECHT: On the first question—I mean, one thing the EU-3/IAEA process has revealed is that the Iranians actually do not have what we feared they might have, which is the clandestine dual-track program that runs from A to Z. They have clearly revealed in this process that relatively few facilities are absolutely critical to them. We now know, I mean, beyond a shadow of doubt that Natanz and Isfahan, for example, are critical to them. There’s another facility in Tehran and another one outside of Tabriz which is also important to them.
They’ve actually revealed in the process—and by the way, I think they’re aware of that—that they have essentially exposed their hand, which also means that if you look at the Iranian nuclear program in a historical context, for them, what they have done so far really is the Manhattan Project. It is an enormous achievement for them.
I mean, I think the initial Iranian response, if one can sort of guess and do the sort of collective intuition, is that when it became broadly aware inside of Iran to what extent the clerics had actually moved this program forward, it was I think the sort of surprise and shock because the general expectation of the clerical regime is that whatever they do, they’ll muck it up. Well, actually, in this case they didn’t. I mean, they did actually a pretty good job, which tells you also how far they had come; that if you were to take out these facilities and destroy them—and we certainly have the capacity to do that—you would probably set their program back significantly. Now, would they try to redo it? Sure, but they’re going to have to redo it in a much more clandestine manner. We’re going to be watching.
If we have the will—and granted, that is a big issue—if you have the will—I mean, this is an advantage of being a superpower; you can come back at it. Now, there is, no doubt about it, going to be political repercussions for that. The Iranians will—the clerics will come back at us, I think, in some form of terrorism. They usually do. Terrorism is part of their DNA, which is one of the reasons that you really—if at all possible you do not want to allow this regime to have nuclear weapons.
They are certainly going to, I think, try. Now, I think the extent to which they can really hurt us profoundly is not as great as some people fear, but they will certainly try. And you have to be prepared to absorb that, and you’re going to have to be prepared to respond to that.
And you may get into a situation that you are going to have to escalate this profoundly. There’s no doubt about it. I think those who argue that you can bomb and then you can’t be prepared for the consequences—or that the consequences of this may not be severe; they could be. I mean, the Iranians could come back and they—I don’t actually worry all that much about Afghanistan and Iraq, where I think their hands are tied, and given the violence in Iraq, it may be difficult to tell the difference if the Iranians try to turn it up a bit, that I think the issue is outside of Afghanistan and Iraq.
And it is possible, let’s say they kill 3 (thousand) or 4,000 Americans in some type of an event, or they took down another airliner. I think the United States would have to respond to that with great force. And you could get yourself in a situation where you would have to decide, all right, you cannot live with this. If the clerical regime were to come back and engage in more terrorism, you would eventually have to contemplate an invasion of the country. I don’t think that’s likely, but you should be prepared to think about that and talk about that.
So I don’t—I don’t—the actual military aspects of this, I don’t think—I think those who argue that you have to do 100 sites, 200 sites, I actually think they’re being a little intellectually dishonest. I think if there were only one site they still wouldn’t do it. The real issue is that they just don’t want to think about that the consequences of U.S. acting unilaterally to take out these sites. For them in their world of foreign policy, it’s just too much to bear.
I think you could do it. You’re going to have to be prepared to absorb what is the Iranian response to that. You’re going to have to threaten the clerical elite specifically and let them know that you can reach out and strike them, and let them know that that which they fear most in the country, which is in fact the possibility of internal upheval is there.
Now how this will affect the—how this will affect the internal politics of the country, certainly the initial response is going to be one of outrage. I mean, that’s natural. For me the issue is not the initial response; what it does longer down the road. I think what it does longer down the road is people realize that the regime has, in fact, taken—has taken the country on a collision course with the United States. I do not believe there are that many Iranians out there who really think that’s a good idea, even amongst the clergy. I think this is actually likely to cause a great deal of political convulsion to probably unstick the situation in Iran, which is right now I think rather frozen solid.
I don’t think, by the way, on what Ken had said—I mean, I don’t think the regime is publicitary (sp), by the way.
MR. : What?
GERECHT: Publicitary (sp), that it actually cares what other people think. I don’t think, if the majority of Iranians are not committed—are not committed to the nuclear weapons program, that the clerical regime will suddenly change its mind and say, oh, I’m not going to go for the nukes. That doesn’t really matter.
I am—the primary, I think—the issue—I think on the issue of being able to hit it, is it feasible, I think the answer to that is yes. Internally, actually, will it make the situation better than it is now, which I think is rather bad, where most of the reformers and the dissidents have been stuffed, will it actually bring up—in time, not immediately—but in time greater political dissent, more combustion inside of the country? Yes. Is there the issue of terrorism? Absolutely. But that is one of the other reasons why you don’t really want to have this regime get into the position that it’s going to have nuclear weapons because terrorism is in its DNA.
I don’t think the United States has ever confronted a country where amongst the ruling elite that the element of anti-Americanism is so visceral, so vibrant and long-lasting. I mean, people have expected this to die out a long time ago, to diminish, and it hasn’t done that I would argue. It’s actually amongst the ruling elite it has remained alive, and it’s quite lethal.
HAASS: Ken, with a neighboring country you were one of those who advocated the use of military force under certain circumstances. Do you feel that way about Iran, too?
POLLACK: I would not want to take it off the table, and I think that it is a mistake to, from—
HAASS: Well, let’s posit that we won’t. The administration’s made it clear they’re not going to take it off the table, so let’s—the question is—and there’s two ways to take something off the table. One is to take it off the table and bury it. The other is to take it off the table and do it. (Laughter.) So let’s deal with the latter, which is imagine they want to take it off the table and do it. Do you see it as feasible and desirable?
POLLACK: I think that it’s a very difficult operation, and I don’t think that it is by any means our first choice or something we ought to be looking at doing in the near term.
I see—I see a lot of problems with it. I mean, again, I think Reuel is actually—is very honest about this, and you know, he’s—one of the reasons I like debating Reuel is he’s one of the few people who I disagree with where we actually agree that this is a big undertaking. You get lots of people saying, oh, no big deal, we can do it in an afternoon, there wouldn’t be any ramifications.
That said, I do have some different views about both the costs and the benefits of the operation, and let me walk through them.
First of all, let me start on the benefits side. Reuel, I think, is ultimately correct in what he’s saying to you, which is—and this is very important—we’ll be going to war with Iran, all right? I do think that he’s underplaying a little bit the extent of this operation. This would be a very big operation. He’s right that we now have greater confidence that there are a certain number of key facilities, and some of those key facilities could be easily destroyed. But there are some very important buts involved.
One, those facilities that we know about could be easily rebuilt. (Inaudible)—that I’ve spoken to estimate to rebuilt Natanz, to rebuild Isfahan, to rebuild these key components, which in many cases are quite vulnerable, would take about two to four years. In other words, from the day we blow them to smithereens, the Iranians are back online in two to four years, okay?
HAASS: I like four years, by the way.
POLLACK: Four years might be nice. But you know, again, what if it’s two? And we’ve been wrong on this before, and even four it’s an interesting number and they’ve got to—
HAASS: Let’s say it’s three.
POLLACK: Well, this is the point.
HAASS: I like three. (Laughter.)
POLLACK: You get—you got to get into—(inaudible)—the questions, and you got to weigh that it’s—you know, how many years are we actually buying ourselves?
Point number two, those two to four years, that’s only for this part of the program. In point of fact, the Iranians have 87 tons of uranium hexaflouride that we know about. That’s enough to make 15 nuclear weapons all by itself. We also know that they are manufacturing centrifuges as fast as they possibly can, and we don’t know how many centrifuges they have. Once they put together about a 164-centrifuge cascade, it’s just a matter of time before they can get enough fissile material to acquire a nuclear weapon.
The Iranians, we also know, have very large tunnel complexes associated with their nuclear facilities, and this is where I think Reuel is skating a little bit thin on the point. If we want to take out those tunnels, it is extraordinarily difficult for us to do so. There are planning cells in the Pentagon that are looking at this question, and the target tiers honestly keep coming back and saying it will require nuclear penetrator munitions to take out those tunnels, okay? Could we do it with conventional munitions? Possibly. But it’s going to be very difficult to do so. And so we may miss all of these centrifuges and all of this already manufactured uranium hexaflouride, which suggests that the Iranians can get to work a hell of a lot faster. They will have to necessarily rebuild Isfahan before they get to work on this. They might already have another facility that can substitute for Natanz if they’ve already got the uranium hexaflouride and the centrifuges ready to go. So we just don’t know.
It may not be three years; it may be less.
In addition, on the benefit side, we have to think about what kind of impact this is going to have in Iran. It would be an unprovoked attack on Iran, okay? We can talk about a surgical strike where all we do is go in with a bunch of airplanes and flatten a few buildings. Okay? That’s effectively what Osama bin Laden did on September 11th. And look at how we reacted. How many Americans said well, yeah, you know, we probably shouldn’t have been doing those things that Osama didn’t like anyway, okay?
I think that it is highly likely that if we mount what would be a very big air campaign, especially if we’re going to try to get at those tunnel complexes, I highly doubt that the Iranian people is going to say, yeah, it was really a mistake for us to have gone down this path. Maybe they’d get there in four or five or 10 years’ time, but my guess is you’re going to see a furious Iranian nation, especially given our long and sordid history with the Iranians.
Yes, there are lots of Iranians who feel very kindly about the United States today, but they still remember their history. In fact, they remember it better than we do and, in fact, they exaggerate the role that we played in it. They all know about Mossadeq, they all know about the Hoiser (ph) mission in 1979. I think it would play extremely badly in Iranian politics, which gets to your second point.
I suspect that this would only cause a rally-’round-the-flag effect, very different from Reuel’s perspective.
GERECHT: No, I actually said that would—
HAASS: He said initially. He said—(inaudible)—
GERECHT: There’s no doubt about it, it initially would happen.
POLLACK: I apologize, Reuel.
But again, you get into this question of timing. You know, how much time are we actually buying ourselves? How much time is that initial rally-’round-the-flag effect going to take and what happens to us in the meantime?
Which brings us to the cost side. Again, I think Reuel has been very, very good in laying this out. I will simply add that the one area I think I would still disagree with him on is on Iraq. The Iranians have very significant assets inside Iraq, they have a much greater capacity to inflict damage on us, on the Iraqis, on anybody else inside of Iraq, than the current crop of insurgents there.
Well, the Iranians haven’t always been working to our advantage. There’s been a very important element to them not working to our disadvantage either. They’ve seen it in their interests not to foment civil war in Iran. They have seen it in their interest to encourage their various allies among the Shi’a to participate in reconstruction. That has been very important in whatever success we had in Iraq so far.
If Iraq is not already a complete basket case, to a great extent, it is because the Iranians have been, for their own reasons, passively cooperative. And again, if we go to war with the Iranians, I think that their cost benefit analysis about what’s going on in Iraq will change fundamentally.
And a more important point for me is again, I’m not willing to take this off the table. At some point down the road, if the diplomatic option fails and I’m the first one to say it because the Europeans could prove completely—(inaudible)—it may fail, we may need to look harder at this option. But the uncertainties are enormous.
HAASS: Let me—
POLLACK: And I prefer not to look at them while we still have diplomatic options available.
HAASS: Before we turn to Reuel, let me now push you on that. You’re saying, the way you just laid it out as I heard you, is the potential cost seem to be at least as great, if not greater, than the potential benefits of acting. And it seems to me you only go down such a path if you are confident in your analysis that not to act brings about an even more expensive future.
So let’s turn to the not to act future just for a second, which is again, I’d say is close to implicit in your analysis, and in fact is actually explicit, to some extent Reuel’s, which is this is, you didn’t use words intolerable or unacceptable but there are those who do and maybe you will in a second.
Do you think in Iran, just imagine Iran does have—go down the enrichment path,—(inaudible)—path, and ends up with a nuclear—like North Korea, with enough nuclear material to make certain weapons and for all we know, they’ve actually weaponized them, whether within a short amount of time of weaponizing, do you—and this assumes basically Ahmadinejad is still president or somebody like him—do you believe that constitutes and unacceptable, or should that constitute an unacceptable or intolerable outcome for the United States?
POLLACK: Well, I’ll put it this way: I would really prefer not to live in a world where Iran has nuclear weapons. And I think that there’s a lot that we can and should do to prevent that. I think that’s a critical.
And I also make this point: I think that if you really did believe anyone who truly does believe that the United States cannot live in a world where Iran has nuclear weapons needs to be talking about invading Iran. Because at the end of the day that may be the only way to prevent that eventuality.
HAASS: Okay, let me just ask you one more time and then I’ll turn to Reuel. If you believe that it may be a situation that is not unacceptable—sorry to use double negatives—what is it we do to make that a less dangerous world? Imagine again we come—we for whatever reason Reuel, we tried diplomacy, it doesn’t work. We decide not to go down the military route because it’s too uncertain in terms of its consequences, so if we’re left with an Iran that has enriched may or may not have weaponized, may or may not have a handful of actual weapons, what policy do we adopt in such a world to make that world less onerous for us?
POLLACK: Containment. I think that there’s—I’d much prefer not to have to go down the path of containment with Iran. But given my reading of Iran’s behavior since the death of Khomeini, I think it is possible to contain Iran. And I’ll say this: I don’t believe that it would have been possible to contain a Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons. And that to me is a very important distinction. The nature of the character of this regime, its decision making is fundamentally different from what we saw with Saddam Hussein. These are not nice people. They are nasty, they are aggressive, they are anti-American, they are anti-status quo. But they are not imprudent.
HAASS: One last question.
When you say they’re containable, there’s containable in terms of not using the weapons themselves, and containable in terms of not transferring the weapons. When you say you believe this Iranian regime is potentially containable, do you believe it on both fronts?
HAASS: Thank you.
GERECHT: Let me just make two little quick points and I’ll come back.
One, I would disagree strongly with Ken on the nature of the Iranian presence in Iraq. The relationship between the Iraqi Shi’a and the Iranian Shi’a is not, I would argue, as Ken described it. The notion that these individuals are walking puppets of the Iranians or whether the Iranians—
POLLACK: Come on, Reuel. You know I don’t think that.
GERECHT: Well, the description I mean—
POLLACK: (Inaudible)—thousands of agents in Iran.
GERECHT: Iranians stick out like sore thumbs. I mean, they are—the notion that—
POLLACK: That’s how we know there are thousands there. (Laughter.)
GERECHT: We don’t know. We don’t know there are thousands there actually. I mean, either these—(inaudible)—I mean, not particularly this is a problem I would argue on the right, where there tend to be more delusional people on Iran. That they talk about Iran as if it’s some type of mogul wave inside of Iraq. And I just think that’s it not true and I think the capacity for the Iranians to act inside of Iraq without Iraqis is quite limited. That’s not to say that they wouldn’t do it. That’s not to say that the Hezbollah wouldn’t be activated. That’s not to say that—(inaudible)—intelligence service would not be activated.
But I think the actual damage that they can inflict before the Iraqis themselves say, uh-uh, I’m not going to go along with this, is really quite small.
That’s not to say that the American military isn’t paralyzed by that possibility, I think it is. I think you will find the Pentagon actually quite forcibly arguing against any type of preventive military strike against Iran because it is so strained and so fatigued in Iraq. But I think the discussion of the Iranian power in Iraq has been wildly exaggerated and we shouldn’t make those boys ten feet tall.
And also I would mention I do not think that the discussion—I mean modern Middle Eastern history has made mincemeat of those who believe that economics is the primary calculus which moves men. Politics ideology has won every bloody time. That is one of the reasons the Middle East is in such a mess. And the notion for the Iranians, certainly for the clerical elite, the notion that in fact they’re thinking about the nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry as an economic enterprise and that’s how they’re selling it, I don’t know if Ray’s still here and I don’t know if Ray actually said that, and I have enormous respect for Ray, we all do, that it’s about one thing, it’s about—(inaudible)—it’s about power. That’s what they’re after. They know it. Everybody knows it. And actually, that’s one of the things which I think appeals to many Iranians, is that they do actually have this notion that they have a certain centripetal eminence in the world and nuclear weapons will add to it.
Again, I don’t disagree with Ken on the convulsive effect that a strike would have. I actually think it would be in the end a healthy thing for Iran internally, though the terrorist ramifications of that are not something that one should deal with lightly.
Again, in a post-9/11 world, I would not walk away from that. I don’t think you can allow someone to check you because they’re going to threaten you with terrorism. I think you’re going to have to deal with that, but it is absolutely true that with a regime like Iran’s, you’re going to have to be prepared to get in a very ugly situation quite quickly. Because if they do come back and take an airliner out of the air or if they come back and somehow strike at the United States and it kills a lot of Americans, you’re going to have to respond to it and you’re going to have to respond to it quite forcefully.
HAASS: So can you say what you mean by that? When you—imagine the scenario as we do—a limited number of cruise missile and aircraft strikes against known or suspected Iranian sites. They then do things which we trace back to Tehran—either they do them overtly or they do them covertly—whether it’s terrorism or destabilization or what have you. And by the way, meanwhile the price of oil is $125 a barrel, but let’s just put that aside.
So clearly—and they have announced they’re going to continue down the nuclear path or whatever—they will announce that this proves why they need a nuclear weapon in order to prevent future American aggression, which is what they would say. What is your follow-on military? What is the nature of your follow-on military response? What is it you then start attacking in Iran?
GERECHT: Oh, well, I mean if they respond to you with terrorism, I mean, I think we should have done this—I mean, the Clinton administration should have responded in 1996. I mean, you should have taken out immediately the Ministry of Intelligence headquarters. You should go for the red guard units. You should hit them all over the country. You need to go after the means of internal repression and control and those units that are used overseas to attack.
And we shouldn’t have allowed—I mean, the Europeans really shouldn’t have allowed the Iranians to go on a massive killing spree in the 1980s and 1990s and allowed them to get away with it. They should not—the French in particular—should not have allowed the Iranians to get away with the attack on Tapti on the ( Gujarat ?) in 1986. The Americans should not have allowed (Hoba ?). There are many, many precedents that we have allowed the Iranians to get away with it because we keep thinking oh, things will change, we don’t want to do it, we’re scared of the response. Where we, in fact, check ourselves and we have fed, I think, a view in Tehran that terrorism at times can work and the only thing that really checks it is, in fact, the fear that this time around the Americans are going to get serious.
Again, it depends on what the Iranians do, but not matter what they do, you’re going to have to respond to it quite forcefully and you have to be prepared to get in a situation where the United States is, in fact, going to be in a state of war with the Islamic Republic, even if we do not invade it.
HAASS: Well, both of you, interestingly enough, you come at this from different directions, but you end up in a very similar place as I hear you, which is what may be designed as a limited military option. You cannot go into it assuming it will stay limited and since the prospects of Iranian response and retaliation to a limited strike are extremely high, it seems to me you’ve got to assume—based on what both of you are arguing—that we will have to basically have round two and possibly round three. So the whole concept and the debate of a preventive strike is almost a distorting concept, something I take away from this conversation because again, you’ve got to assume Iranian response. You’ve got to assume you’re not going to therefore let that response simply sit unresponded to in turn. So very quickly, a limited military operation becomes a relatively unlimited military operation.
POLLACK: Yes, I would agree. I think that those people who think that you can have a quick strike and it’s all over—it’s possible that—I mean, the clerical regime has responded to intimidation I think fairly well in the past in the sense that they do back off, but you can’t assume that. You can’t assume that if you take out their nuclear facilities that they are going to take it lying down and quiver and shake. You have to assume that they will come back and try to hurt you.
I mean, I actually think the Iranians did initially try to contract out, for example, what led to Pan Am 103. I think there was a broad consensus on their part inside the ruling regime you take down one of my civilian airliners, I’ll take down one of yours. So if you—and again, I think that might be a good parallel. I doubt it seriously that the way the Iranians would respond would be as in Iraq where their actions would be blatant, they’d be evident, they would have to use Iranians who are members of the guard (corps?) or members of the Ministry of Intelligence. They will not be able to use the Iraqis in an effective way that could really hurt us. They’ll have to use their own forces.
That, I think, is unlikely because the Iranians do like to have some cover. They don’t have to have a lot of cover. I mean, when they’ve gone after us before, they haven’t had enormous cover, but they have had a fig leaf and I think they’ll try to do that, that they would try to do that again. They would try to come at us in some way that it gives them some plausible deniability and they’re not confronting a situation that their action is likely to provoke an armored unit running to Tehran. Because regardless of what CNN describes, the Iranians I guarantee you are scared of the possibility of the Americans and George W. Bush in particular could go off the reservation and could actually respond with enormous force against a direct Iranian provocation.
HAASS: We could go on up here. I will resist the powerful temptation to do that other than to say in the last few minutes, that to me is a big idea. Again, a degree of overlap between two otherwise somewhat varied perspectives, but it almost changes the way we need to have the debate on people who blithely talk about limited, preventive strikes or, to use the administration’s favorite word, preemptive strikes—had better think about deleting the word limited from the vocabulary.
I don’t have my glasses on so if I don’t recognize people by name I apologize.
QUESTIONER: Excuse me. I haven’t heard much about—
MR. : Will you let people know who you are.
QUESTIONER: Sorry. Donald Smith, Houlihan Lokey. I haven’t heard much about how Israel fits into the military option. Could anybody comment?
HAASS: Let me (for discussion rephrase ?) your question. Now, do people think that Israel has this sort of an option themselves that we’re talking about? Do they think that Israel has a different set of red lines than what we do? Is this something the United States should welcome as administration officials have? Or is this something that we should discourage and if we decide military force is to be used, better we do it than farm it out to the Israelis?
POLLACK: I think the Israelis know for a fact this a very serious technical problem—okay. They have a great deal of difficulty getting to the Iranian sites. We can get to the sites. We have the military wherewithal to blow up anything in Iran we want to and to do it repeatedly if we have the will to do so, as Reuel is suggesting. The Israelis don’t. The Israelis have probably just 25, maybe as many as 33 aircraft that could actually reach most of the Iranian nuclear facilities. They would get there carrying almost entirely fuel. As a result, the bomb load they can carry is very small. They can’t carry the super penetrating munitions that would give them any likelihood of actually going after some of these tunnel complexes. And as a result, the Israelis just can’t do Osirak again. Even though (Reuel is right?) we now know that there are a more limited number of key facilities. It’s not—there isn’t just one, there are several. And as well, the Israelis also know what I just said, which is that the Iranians can rebuild them very quickly.
And the Israelis have a huge problem and it is one of the reasons why first of all, when you talk to the Israelis, they will tell you they have no problem with a diplomatic option. They think it is the best solution to it. And second, why they are making so much noise about this because I think
HAASS: Let me try to get to as many questions as I can.
QUESTIONER: You’ve mentioned—Jim Hoge from Foreign Affairs. You’ve mentioned several times both of you of the importance of political will if we do get to the point of a military option. And we have an administration which is very weak in terms of public credibility at the moment and a military that’s really stretched. I wonder if either of you can enlighten us a bit on—and if we’re going to have to do a phase one, phase two, phase three, is there the public support and is there the military support in this country for such an operation?
GERECHT: I’ll go first to Kenneth. I mean, I try never to talk about what the American public—I’ll talk about the Shi’ites in Najaf, I won’t talk about the American public. So I don’t know if there’s American support for it or not. You know, there’s no doubt about it you cannot overstate the extent to which the Bush administration right now is fatigued and stressed and Iraq consumes it.
So again, if you’re a betting man—we all should be—you’d have to bet that the United States is going to pump this issue, that it looks down the road and looks at everything and says nuh-uh, it’s just too much, we’re not going to do it and the Iranians will go nuclear. We will adopt some type of containment strategy that Ken may advance soon in some article.
POLLACK: (It’s in the?) book and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
GERECHT: And that I don’t think it would be terribly effective. I think actually the administration realizes that maintaining a sanctions regime on Iran is an enormously difficult task and it in all probability won’t work. For the same reason that, I mean, if you go to the Europeans—and, I mean, I was recently in Paris and I was astonished when I was with some friends from U.K. and, I mean, they were almost scaring me with their aggressiveness. You know, but they all realized that they were arguing that sanctions actually shouldn’t be graduated. They should come like a (tsunami?) right in the beginning and that if they don’t do that, then the Iranians will replace them with Asian suppliers. There’s only a matter of time before they get—the Europeans—get checked. I think the French are actually analytically—as they often are—I think they’re right. But you know, that approach—I think that’s the direction we’re headed.
The only wild card in that—and it’s a big wild card, by the way—are the Iranians themselves. I would argue the Iranians have an almost innate capacity to shoot themselves in their own feet. And they constantly do things that are not in their own interest, that they actually are imprudent, which makes it possible that they could get themselves in this situation by their actions in Iraq, by their actions elsewhere, that the Americans could say all right, no, we’re not going to let these boys have the nuke. It’s just too much to allow this type of regime to have nuclear weapons and you could find the president—conceivably, not likely—conceivably saying all right, we’re going to strike.
HAASS: Do you believe that would be the right policy? Do you believe that it ought to be unacceptable to the United States?
GERECHT: Well, I hate using that word because my friend, Christopher Caldwell at The Weekly Standard pointed out to me an essay that Raymond (Aron?) had written when he says anybody uses the word unacceptable then they’ve already accepted it.
So I would strike. I don’t like the idea at all, but I would do it because I fundamentally do not trust this regime and I’m willing to endure the hell that a strike might bring.
HAASS: I like clarity. (Inaudible)—anxious to speak.
QUESTIONER: About a million years—
HAASS: Want to introduce yourself?
QUESTIONER: Richard Whalen and I’m a writer and I spent some time with the conference board. I belong to the Republican wing of the Republican Party. I want you to understand that in 1970 when Richard Nixon tasked me to write the report of the Gates Commission—
HAASS: Mr. Whalen, is this a question?
QUESTIONER: write the report of the Gates Commission and the draft and bring an all-volunteer armed force, I said can we maintain the forces that we need for all our global responsibilities. He said nobody will know until we face the future.
We face the future today. The one thing the U.S. could do to prove that it is serious is for the president to ask for the resumption of the military draft and to say that it is necessary to prevent a potentially catastrophic turn in foreign policy.
HAASS: Okay, I’m going to take that as a statement rather than a question and we’re going to—again, that’s not the subject for today and I think that I’ll take the presider’s prerogative here and I believe that the chances of that happening are less than 10 percent at the extreme and closer to nil to be politically accurate.
I’ll try to get people who I haven’t heard from earlier today. So if I don’t call on certain people, please don’t feel offended.
Walter Russell Mead.
QUESTIONER: Hi. It sounds like what’s happening is one of the alternatives is sort of collapsing. The limited strike is collapsing into a decision for all-out war and maybe you get lucky and a limited strike will work.
But it seems to me the diplomatic option also is on the verge of collapse in the sense that either you go into the diplomatic option with a bottom line that says at the end of the day you go to war if you have to, or you go into it with the bottom line at the end of the day you accept the weapon, at which case it seems to me reasonably likely that the Iranians would know what your bottom line was. And so unless you can successfully conceal that from them and make a convincing play that you’re actually going to—you have to pretend very hard that you’re going to go to war to make it work. So can you do that?
POLLACK: First of all, Walter, I don’t think that I necessarily accept your premise. I think that it is a comment conceit to say that well, you have to define what it is that you’re willing to do at the end of the day before you ever get in. And I point to the fact in my experience, most of the negotiations that we conduct, we don’t know what we’re willing to do at the end of the day. And what we’re doing is we’re looking for tactical advantage in the hope that we never have to answer that question. And quite frankly, it works for us a lot of the time. Not always, but a lot of the time.
Second point—I think that it is possible to keep the Iranians guessing because, frankly, I don’t think that there’s any reason for them to assume that we wouldn’t do this. As Reuel has pointed out, this is a president who has demonstrated a willingness to use force and I think that I absolutely agree with his point that I think that the Iranians really are somewhat nervous. Now again, there’s a matter of timing. Again, and I agree with Reuel—he made this point, he’s right. Right now, the Iranians think that we’re completely mired down in Iraq and therefore, it’s not likely that we would strike them. But I think over the longer term, they don’t know what we might do and they are also, I think, very nervous if we pull out of Iraq. And there are people who talk about we ought to pull out of Iraq by going through Iran. (Laughter.). It’s just one of those things—(laughter)—just as I as an American decision maker would be very concerned about jumping into something like a war with Iran because I don’t know what the outcome would be so, too, I think the Iranians fall into that same category because of the track record of this president and, quite frankly, because of what they believe about the United States to begin with.
HAASS: Let me try to get some more questions. Yes, ma’am—first row.
QUESTIONER: Thanks. Beth Salindas (sp) from The Washington Post.
It seems like both Ken and Reuel agree that an air strike would lead to a natural Iranian attempt to rebuild. So do you envision a way in which you’re, you know, doing some sort of no-fly zone and patrolling the skies and preventing a rebuilding? How do you do that? And if that’s not the case, would it slow the program? I know you were debating two, three four—would it slow the program significantly more than a suspension during negotiations has halted their progress? And I guess the military option that we’re discussing is about hitting nuclear facilities. Is there a military option for regime change short of invasion?
POLLACK: First, Reuel put it right actually. It’s about will power. We have tremendous military capacity. If we wanted to do so, we could blow up a lot of things in Iran. I would actually go beyond the target set that Reuel that just laid out. I think there are a lot of things that we could and would like to destroy in Iran.
GERECHT: See, I’m the moderate. (Laughter.)
POLLACK: If we went down this path. Again, it’s the willingness to do this and again, we have to recognize—I think that Reuel should be commended for being very honest about this. This would be a war with Iran. It would be a very nasty fight potentially and we have to be ready for that. And if we’re ready for it, we’re willing to do, there’s a lot of stuff that we can do to the Iranians and yet, we could prevent them probably from reconstituting.
Now, I qualified that because we haven’t always had perfect intelligence on the Iranians and it may be that they already have something out there, a plan b, that they could set something up and they might be able to reconstitute. Of course, if we really are, you know, patrolling the skies on a daily basis and blowing buildings up on a weekly basis, I think it’s going to be a little tough for them to reconstitute, especially a nuclear program where there are tell tale signs of the program, it takes a long time to do this. That’s all pretty tough but, you know, again it’s about having the will to do this and being willing to really get in and mix it up with the Iranians.
But again, just to reinforce a point that Reuel made—there is the prospect—you asked about regime change, could we hit targets. It’s possible. And, you know, I may be wrong and it may be that you do get a rally against the regime effect. I think it unlikely, even Reuel thinks it unlikely in the short term. And I think that that’s, you know, when we talk about hitting regime targets, I would agree with him in the target list he laid out. I don’t think that we should assume, though, that’s going to cause a revolution in Iran. I think it will inflict pain on the regime. And again, this gets for me it’s an interesting question because if you’re trying to inflict pain on the regime, that’s really part typically of a coercive strategy. And then the question becomes well, don’t—you know, might you ought to get them to do something like suspend.
And you know, to your last point, I’m fine with suspension as long as it’s a real suspension. I think we have had a real suspension. The problem is the suspension has been temporary and we need something more permanent.
HAASS: (That’s another thing?)—what Tim was just getting to at the end. Is it possible (for a?) use in military force? One is to directly destroy known or suspected nuclear targets. The other extreme is invasion. The in-between one is some (version?) of coercive or what Tom Shelling used to call a compelling strategy, that you would basically hit targets of value to the regime until they adopted some behavior—for example, satisfying you on the nuclear score. And the question I would have on that is two-fold—whether we could dish it out, if you will, long enough to achieve that goal—big question mark—and secondly, again, while we were doing so, presumably they would have their full menu of retaliatory options and we would have to be willing to withstand that.
MR. : And we wouldn’t be too popular in the world.
HAASS: No, where part of the costs of it would not simply with the Iranians, but exactly that—the sustainability of that at home and internationally and I think that’s an enormous (question mark?) because by then, oil would be at $150 a barrel. It just went up $25 as we—you wanted to say something. I’m sorry—okay.
MR. : I’d just say quickly—I mean, what astonishes me with this administration—which makes at least me worry about—is that given the ugliness that is waiting down the pike when you think about the military options and the difficulties involved and that it would really, truly be a gut-wrenching process—which is why we probably won’t go there—why isn’t the administration working harder to support internal change? I mean—and that isn’t—you don’t have to believe that internal change is likely. I don’t believe that, for example, military strikes in Iran would so convulse the system that you would see the clerical regime collapse. I think the clerical regime is an enormously adept, talented and deep dictatorial system. And it’s going to take one hell of a lot to change it.
However, you know, stronger regimes have gone down and what I find astonishing is that the Bush administration has really been—even though I started this presentation out by saying I think they are moving that direction—I think they are—they haven’t been very vigorous at thinking up ways and putting in the (fronds?) and going through the very hard homework of all right, how are we going to start supporting people inside of the country who want change? How are we going to reach out to dissident clergy, who I’d argue are the most important people in the country? How are you actually going to begin that process, which isn’t going to be quick, that you might actually begin to set sparks? And you never know what spark will work, but you start beginning the process of setting the sparks to see if you can actually get that system, the society, to heat up.
And so that a society, which really properly defined has been a society of exhausted revolutionaries where young men haven’t been willing to go out onto the streets, where that might possibly reverse itself.
MR. : I’m glad you put the question of regime change on the table. We haven’t really talked about it. I would simply say that when many people talk about it, they only talk about that aspect of it—specific aid funneled to a potential or actual opposition elements. They don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the larger context and regimes tend to be much more likely to change, I would suggest, in a context often where there’s forms of American diplomatic engagement rather than attempts at diplomatic isolation.
MR. : I would agree with that. I mean, I’m all—I’ll favor if I think the Bush administration, even though it’s going to take a lot of heat from the right, I think the Bush administration ought to come out and say I’m willing to open up the embassy right now—right now, open it up. I was married at the Iranian embassy in Washington, D.C.—it’s (Grape Nuts?) by the way—and I think they should give it back—give it back to them right now.
Now, we’re not going to do it. I mean, I already know—I mean, I think I actually used this line before, perhaps here—no, it’s not going to happen because all you have to do is imagine—(inaudible)—standing on the tarmac listening to “The Star Spangled Banner” and you know that isn’t going to happen. But if—there’s no reason why we shouldn’t challenge the Iranians in that way.
HAASS: Let me—we have very few principals under my tenure here at the Council on Foreign Relations, but one of the very few we do have is we try to start and end meetings approximately at the time we promise. We’ve now been here since fairly early this morning. It’s now 2:00 this afternoon. And while we run what I call an intentionally non-profit institution, I expect many of you don’t. (Laughter.) So I want to get you back to your business.
What I want to do is thank the two gentlemen flanking me for, I think, really highlighting—(applause)—in an intellectually honest way the choices. And I really want to thank the people who put this together. This has, to me, been a fascinating and useful day. I come away more impressed than ever with the importance of this challenge, but also the difficulty at fashioning a sustainable policy for (dealing with this?). We may not have solved it, but I think we did eliminate it.
So thank you all for your time and your interest. And again, let me thank these two gentlemen and the others who spoke today. (Applause.)