RIAL POLITIK: Defusing the Iranian Nuclear Crisis

Monday, December 13, 2004

Iran—the same country that took American diplomats hostage twenty-five years ago and whose leaders often refer to the United States as the "Great Satan"—may be on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. How worried should we be? What can the United States do, if anything, to defuse the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran? Is a military response feasible? Or should the United States focus on strengthening the movement for democratic reform within Iran? Peter Robinson speaks with Larry Diamond and Abbas Milani.

Recorded on Monday, December 13, 2004

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge: What to do about Iran's nuclear revolution?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: the nuclear crisis in Iran. Iran, the same country that 25 years ago took American diplomats hostage and whose leaders routinely refer to the United States as "The Great Satan" is now on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. How worried should we be? Are there any signs at all that Iran will not always be our adversary? What, if anything, can we do about it?

Joining us today, two guests: Larry Diamond is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of political science at Stanford University. Abbas Milani, also a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a former professor of law and political science at Tehran University.

Title: Mullah's Ruse

Peter Robinson: James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine, "Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons and unless its policy is changed by the incentives it is offered or the warnings it receives, it will succeed." True? Larry?

Larry Diamond: I'd say inevitably true.

Peter Robinson: Inevitably true, regardless of warnings or incentives?

Larry Diamond: Inevitably if we do not use a smart policy to stop it.

Peter Robinson: All right. Abbas?

Abbas Milani: I think it's definitely the truth and that it might already be too late in the sense of trying to stop it.

Peter Robinson: All right. Let me begin with a provocative point. Columnist Hugh Hewitt, "Allowing Iran to have nukes is tantamount to allowing a very horrible war, a war that will probably destroy the State of Israel, to take place at some unknown point in the future. The Mullahs are on their way out whether it be this year or in the next few years but as they go out, the temptation for them to save themselves by doing something they believe is their religious duty, destroy the Jews, will be enormous." Is that something that the United States should be concerned about; a nuclear Iran will be extremely sorely tempted to attack Israel.

Abbas Milani: Well first of all, I very much question the truth of the statement in that religiously they're required to kill the Jews. There's nothing in Islam that says they should kill the Jews. In fact, before this regime came, Iran was one of the safest place for Jews to live in.

Peter Robinson: But isn't there an anti-Semitic strain in what the Mullahs themselves preach? I'm not trying to cast aspersions on Islam but in what they preach, isn't there an anti-Semitic strain in that or not?

Abbas Milani: There is certainly anti-Semitism in what the Mullahs preach but they preach it for political purposes and they preach it because they want to get mileage in the Middle East but there's nothing inherently anti-Semitic about Islam. In fact, Islam historically, has been very tolerant of Jews.

Peter Robinson: Is a nuclear Iran dangerous for Israel?

Larry Diamond: The answer is yes, of course, which is why the Israelis are seriously contemplating a preemptive strike if the Iranian nuclear program is not halted by negotiations within the next year to 18 months. But let me say, Peter, the Iranian nuclear program is dangerous for two other reasons that I think are even more sobering. What worries me about Iran going nuclear is first of all, the very serious possibility that this will completely undermine the nuclear nonproliferation regime. And it will burst open the door to another ten or fifteen countries going nuclear including several others in the Middle East, not least Saudi Arabia. Now at some point, if you have not two or three rogue states, North Korea and Iran with nuclear weapons, but five, seven, eight states that are either disrespectful of international norms or could be in the case of Saudi Arabia overtaken by radical actors who are disrespectful of international norms, they could transfer one of these bombs to a terrorist group. And the ultimate security nightmare for the United States is not an Iranian missile or a North Korean missile coming over the horizon into an American city with a nuclear bomb because we're going to know where it came from. It's going to have a return address and that capital would no longer exist. The ultimate nightmare is that what happened on September 11th is going to happen at some point in the next few years with a nuclear bomb that will wipe out downtown Washington or downtown Manhattan.

Peter Robinson: Is a nuclear Iran something that the Bush Administration--any American Administration, if Kerry had won--something that an American president should simply judge unacceptable?

Abbas Milani: I think the Administration has declared that this is unacceptable. They have repeatedly declared that they're not going to accept it. But what they will not accept and what might have happened already on the ground because of policies that have been pursued in the past five or six years are two different things. In other words, it might well be that because there was a failure to develop a coherent policy in the United States, because there was a failure in Europe to make a very serious attempt at stopping this program and because there was a failure in the Iranian opposition to engage in this in which nobody has really seriously talked to the Iranian people about the positive and negative aspects of this, might be too…

Larry Diamond: Can I just say we need to be very careful in our use of language. If we say this is unacceptable, we are the most powerful country in the world, it means we can't accept it. It means we need to do anything including invading Iran and displacing the regime in order to make clear that we will not accept it.

Peter Robinson: That is exactly what I mean when I ask the question.

Larry Diamond: I know and that's why I wanted to be clear in the response. I think we need to make clear that Iran and the people of Iran will pay unfortunately a very heavy price in terms of isolation from the world and a loss of a lot of the economic and social opportunities that await this country in integration into the world if they go down this route.

Peter Robinson: Larry's talking about a soft option; isolation. What about the military options?

Title: In the Footsteps of Alexander

Peter Robinson: James Fallows, "The problem is that Iran's nuclear program is now much more advanced than Iraq's was at the time of the Osirak raid," that's when Israel took out a reactor. "Already the United States government has no way of knowing exactly how many sites Iran has or how many it would be able to destroy or how much time it would buy in doing so." That is to say a set of surgical strikes is already impossible, implausible? How would you judge it?

Abbas Milani: Well, I think there is good evidence to indicate that the Iranians in anticipation of the possible strike have dispersed their sites. There are report anywhere between a hundred to two hundred sites that could be potentially centers for this kind of…

Peter Robinson: And that's an unworkable problem from the military point of view?

Larry Diamond: From a defense and security analyst, what the President is hearing is that the military options are not very good.

Peter Robinson: If they're not good for us…

Larry Diamond: They do not assure anything like the probability of success that Israel achieved with the Osirak strike. That's the problem.

Peter Robinson: So when you said a moment ago that Israel itself is threatening to take out these sites, Israel's not likely to have any more success than we. That's bluster isn't it?

Larry Diamond: I don't think it's bluster.

Peter Robinson: That is to say, they're serious about making an effort.

Larry Diamond: Right, but it's not likely that they would have prolonged success in derailing the program.

Peter Robinson: But that represents a new danger in itself.

Larry Diamond: Enormous new danger.

Peter Robinson: Israel, when they went into Iraq, they knocked out the program. It was clean so to speak. If they go into Iran and only knock out half of the program and they have a much richer, bigger country than Iraq and…

Larry Diamond: And consider what will happen if there is a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. And Abbas I know can elaborate on this but let me say first of all, Iran will withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and will claim that they now have justification to develop nuclear weapons as a means of self defense. Secondly, the population will rally around this regime in a dramatic, nationalist cause.

Peter Robinson: You'd agree with that?

Larry Diamond: And I think it'd be a disaster.

Abbas Milani: There is a lot of evidence that that has already happened. In fact, the way this argument has been pitched, you can read in Time magazine, you can read in BBC report that there has been kind of a coalition of forces in Iran in favor of the regime because people feel that the West's position is an untenable, unfair position. Why is Brazil allowed to develop a peaceful nuclear program and Iran is not?

Peter Robinson: Because the people who run Brazil are not crazy.

Abbas Milani: Well right, but that's not the way…

Larry Diamond: And you're not going to want Brazil to have the right to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium either.

Peter Robinson: Larger operation than pinpoint strikes. James Fallows again, "In circumstances of all out war, the United States could mount an invasion of Iran if it had to but as a tool to slow or stop Iran's progress toward nuclear weaponry, the available military options are likely to fail in the long-term." Why or should they be likely to fail? If we can replace the regime in Afghanistan and replace the regime in Iraq, why should we be unsuccessful in doing so in Iran?

Larry Diamond: Peter, Iraq has 25 million people and look at how bogged down we are now there. We have 150,000 coalition troops in Iraq. We probably needed at the end of the war and need now twice that number.

Peter Robinson: Population of Iran is 60 million…

Larry Diamond: Is three times that.

Abbas Milani: About seventy.

Peter Robinson: Seventy million.

Abbas Milani: And the size of the country and the kind of terrain that you have--half of it is mountainous terrain.

Peter Robinson: It's said that Iraq is the same size as California. Iran's closer to Texas. We're talking about a very large area.

Larry Diamond: It's more so the size of the population and the armed forces that we would confront and the popular rallying against foreign invasion.

Abbas Milani: And last but not least, you have to remember that Europe has been very, very unambiguous that they're not going to support this. Jack Straw…

Peter Robinson: British Foreign Secretary.

Abbas Milani: …British Foreign Secretary, says under no circumstances--this is an almost verbatim quote--and the Iranians read this…

Peter Robinson: So our best ally in Iraq says no way in Iran? All right.

Peter Robinson: Our guests argue that the military options are not feasible. So what other options do we have?

Title: Rial Politik

Peter Robinson: I'm going to quote you, Abbas, and an article you wrote together with Mike McFaul, "In the long run the world's only serious hope for stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is the development of a democratic government in Tehran." How do we do that?

Abbas Milani: Well luckily half of the problem is already solved.

Peter Robinson: Good news at last…

Abbas Milani: Well that's the good news. There is a democratic movement in Iran. There is a very viable democratic movement in Iran. This movement was truly on the verge of trying to dislodge this regime two years ago when this regime was on the rope. They were absolutely intimidated. They were frightened by the presence of U.S. forces.

Peter Robinson: So the first year or so after September 11th, our response in Afghanistan and Iraq initially…

Larry Diamond: Particularly Iraq.

Peter Robinson: …particularly Iraq--initially was having a salutary effect in Iran. It was strengthening the hand of the pro-democracy forces.

Abbas Milani: The first three weeks after the invasion of Iraq, I have never seen the Islamic regime as timid, as afraid, as willing to cooperate as the…

Peter Robinson: Why though, because if the military prospect of moving on from Iraq to Iran is as daunting as you just laid out, what were they afraid of? They couldn't have thought they were going to be next because they knew that the military situation was just as difficult as the two of you just laid it out.

Abbas Milani: But remember that the first two weeks the United States had absolutely walked over Iraq. Then within two weeks they had dismantled the Iraqi army that the Iranian could not dismantle in eight years. The U.S. did it in eight days. I would be frightened of them, of course.

Peter Robinson: Well so what you're saying is…

Larry Diamond: The situation looked a little different a year and a half ago.

Peter Robinson: Yeah, but what you're saying is there is mil--the military option--there's some pressure that could be brought to bear.

Larry Diamond: Peter, not even the hardest neoconservatives are seriously arguing that we should have a land invasion of Iran. A preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities to buy time--people are seriously arguing.

Peter Robinson: Some are saying that.

Larry Diamond: But the weight of opinion is that it will not be effective and it will have these calamitous, political blowback effects.

Peter Robinson: All right. So tell me what happened--during those first three weeks they were frightened. The Mullahs were frightened.

Abbas Milani: Very much so.

Peter Robinson: That strengthened the hand of the democratic movement in Iran and then what happened afterwards? What has happened since?

Abbas Milani: I think you can draw kind of a graph as U.S. involvement got more and more complicated as the number of U.S. casualties increased, as the insurgency gained power. Some of it may be with the help of the Iranians. The regime in Iran became more and more intransigent and they began to feel their oats. They began like now…

Larry Diamond: Very much so.

Peter Robinson: So the corollary of what you're saying is that one clear step that George W. Bush ought to take with regard to Iran is to succeed in Iraq?

Larry Diamond: It would help.

Peter Robinson: It would help. What else?

Larry Diamond: I think that the strategy is clear. You know, the Hoover Institution had very recently a pair of conferences on Iran's nuclear program. And I'd say we had some considerable consensus among a number of experts, that the only strategy that offers a realistic hope of at least suspending Iran's program of nuclear weapons development is a strong coordinated strategy between Europe and the United States of enhancing the carrots by having the United States put more incentives on the table, including…

Peter Robinson: What carrots?

Larry Diamond: For example, lifting of the economic embargo, a process of beginning to arrange for Iran's entry into the World Trade Organization. If it makes the internal reforms that would be needed for that, which would be very salutary for the eventual democratization of the country and Europe needs to get serious about the sticks it would deploy if Iran doesn't negotiate. Now that type of agreement…

Peter Robinson: Let me just ask--now these incentives are directed toward the--in other words, what you'd want is a repeat of Libya? The Mullahs remain in place but they begin to behave better?

Larry Diamond: Ah, but you see here is the difference. In contrast to Libya, and Abbas could talk about this at greater length, there is a serious democratic opposition inside Iran. There's a great deal of political pluralism. And I think very strongly, Abbas may disagree, that opening up Iran to the world with economic exchange, with an American embassy on the ground in Tehran, with greater exchanges between Iranian civil society and American civil society, greater flows of students and ideas, would help to till the soil for democratic change in this country.

Peter Robinson: You'd agree with that?

Abbas Milani: Absolutely I agree. I think the embargo is hurting the Iranian people. It's hurting the American companies and it's essentially spanking the hands of a very small clique of people who are around the power and offering an excuse for the regime to cover up its economic failures.

Peter Robinson: So the carrots would be largely economic but you mentioned that the Europeans have to get serious about the sticks that they would use. What sticks?

Larry Diamond: In other words, if Iran resists a responsible policy in terms of…

Peter Robinson: Nuclear policy?

Larry Diamond: …of clearly forgoing the enrichment of uranium or the reprocessing of plutonium, without which they can't develop a nuclear bomb, if they're not willing to agree to verifiable steps in those regards, Europe has to get serious…

Peter Robinson: And do what?

Larry Diamond: …about imposing significant sanctions on the regime leaders, on their assets, on their ability to travel to Europe, as well as the ability of Iran to do business in Europe.

Peter Robinson: Next, the role of Iranian public opinion.

Title: You Like Us, You Really Like Us?

Peter Robinson: And the reason that we should so hope the Europeans pull themselves together and deal effectively with Iran is that Iran is now--because public opinion has now shifted against the United States--that they're going to be more willing to deal with the Euro--why are you emphasizing the role of the Europeans here?

Abbas Milani: First of all, public opinion has not shifted against the United States in Iran yet. Public opinion is predominately favorable to the United States. Public opinion is, in fact, very critical of Europe. Iranians think…

Peter Robinson: And you base this on? There's no polling that's done?

Abbas Milani: There is some polling.

Peter Robinson: Oh, there is some polling.

Abbas Milani: Couple of polls…

Peter Robinson: And you're in touch by email, you're talking to dissidents in Iran all the time.

Abbas Milani: I'm doing that.

Larry Diamond: Just reading what they write in newspapers.

Peter Robinson: In other words, it's an open enough society so that you can develop an informed feel for what's going on?

Abbas Milani: There is a lot of anecdotal evidence. I mean, you can read everyone from Kristoff to Friedman, journalists who have gone to Iran, a couple of polls that have been done in Iran. All of these indicate that of all the Moslem countries in the world, the only place where the people are predominately pro-American is Iran. The Iranian people are very different than the Iranian government. And that's a very important point.

Peter Robinson: So one piece of fixed advice is the good will of the Iranian people is an asset we should not blow.

Larry Diamond: It's a precious asset and…

Peter Robinson: Whatever you do, hold onto that. Is that right?

Larry Diamond: Yes, and this relates to a key guidepost of our strategy. The Iranian people are very anti-regime and very pro-American but they're also very nationalistic and proud people.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Larry Diamond: And they don't want to be told by the United States or anybody else that they can't have nuclear weapons when another country in the region has it and when other emerging countries seem to be after it. So we need to pursue a strategy, Peter, of very smart, very ambitious and I might say very respectful, public diplomacy that reaches out to the Iranian people and explains why we're not targeting Iran. We're trying to save the global nuclear nonproliferation program. And we need to portray to the Iranian…

Peter Robinson: What does public diplomacy mean, Larry?

Larry Diamond: It means talking…

Peter Robinson: Condi Rice has…

Larry Diamond: …to publics abroad and not just governments abroad. It means the people of the United States and the government of the United States directly talking to and engaging the Iranian people.

Peter Robinson: So you're talking about…

Abbas Milani: It means the State Department, for example, it means the State Department putting out a couple of papers that explain rationally away from any kind of a priori political judgments, why economically it does not make sense, for example, for Iran to develop…

Larry Diamond: Or strategically.

Peter Robinson: What about a sort of Radio Free Europe or Radio Marti kind of effort for Iran? Should we have…

Larry Diamond: We are strongly in favor of that.

Peter Robinson: That makes sense?

Larry Diamond: What we are emphasizing in some of the work that Abbas and I are doing now is that such a radio station has to be independent of any political party or objective. It can't be supporting one political party. It can't be supporting…

Peter Robinson: You mean in Iran?

Larry Diamond: …in Iran. It can't be supporting for or against the restoration of the monarchy. It has to be focused most of all on the independent, unbiased conveyance of news and information as well as basic democratic ideas and values. It has to have credibility if it's going to be effective.

Peter Robinson: Finally, advice for the Bush Administration.

Title: Hands in the Nukie Jar

Peter Robinson: Advice for President Bush. Short-term, what should he do within the next six months with regard to Iran. Give me something specific. Abbas?

Abbas Milani: My guess is that the agreement that they have made with Europe is not going to hold because the Iranians are…

Peter Robinson: That the mullahs' agreement with Europe will not hold. They're going to move forward with their nuclear program.

Abbas Milani: They're going to move forward. They're going to invariably cheat and they're going to get caught. They're already preparing public opinion for the cheating. They just announced last week in Iran that they have arrested some people who are trying to illegally import centrifuges in Iran and give Iran a bad name. Clearly if you know the kind of politics that Mullahs play, this is preparation for the time when they get caught so they already have a track record saying that this is not us. This is some rogue…

Peter Robinson: It's not us.

Abbas Milani: …some rogue element. They're going to cheat on that. When they cheat, the United States has then the opportunity as Larry was suggesting to get Europe on the same page with the United States. Iran's problem will not be solved unless Europe and the United States are on the same page.

Peter Robinson: Larry?

Larry Diamond: Let me say that I think there is growing concern in Europe about not just Iran getting nuclear weapons but the point I made at the beginning--the potential for this development to totally breach and gut the global nonproliferation regime. And this gives us, I think, a real resource to bring in the Europeans into a common approach.

Peter Robinson: Larry, longer term for Bush. Give me some objective way by which to judge this administration's policy toward Iran. Four years from now when George W. Bush leaves office, what must be different in your judgment?

Larry Diamond: Oh, Peter, that's tough. Obviously the greatest success would be if we had brought a verifiable halt to the nuclear weapons development program and a freer Iran. Those are the two objectives.

Peter Robinson: And those are both within reach? Those are both plausible?

Larry Diamond: The first is plausible in the near term, at least a suspension that holds as a result of the structure of carrots and sticks, incentives and sanctions. The second, we don't know when a moment may arise as in Ukraine, as in Czechoslovakia, as in so many other countries that suddenly had a democratic moment. We don't know what event, what split in the regime, what development it might trigger.

Peter Robinson: But that's what we're waiting for. We have to be alert to a democratic moment.

Larry Diamond: Exactly and we have to till the soil and I think one thing very specific that would help would be to take a certain appropriation of money to establish a truly independent radio station that would not be controlled by the United States government, that would not be controlled by any political force, but would simply give the Iranian people independent news, information and democratic hope and ideas.

Peter Robinson: It's television so we have to wrap it up. Prediction: four years from now, will Iran have nuclear weapons? What do you think?

Abbas Milani: Yes, I think four years from now, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.

Peter Robinson: Larry?

Larry Diamond: I'm not willing to throw in the towel. I honestly don't know but I think it is potentially preventable and a goal worth working for.

Peter Robinson: Four years from now, will Iran be--I'm not asking necessarily whether a democratic revolution will have taken place--but will Iran be more or less democratic?

Abbas Milani: If you give me a little longer than four years, I can tell you with some certainty that in not too distant future, Iran will be democratic because…

Peter Robinson: It's generational? The bad guys will die off sooner or later?

Abbas Milani: It's more than generational. There is some fundamental economic problems that is going to break the back of this regime. There's some fundamental tensions that are arising within this regime--the revolutionary guards are becoming more powerful. They want a bigger share of the pie. They are very much vying for power. It is not all rosy and you have 70% of the Iranian youth wanting democracy, wanting nothing to do with the theocracy. These are good news. You have an incompetent economically corrupt system. You have a oil rich country. You have a technocratically sophisticated Iranian society. You have a diaspora who is willing to help support the democracy…

Larry Diamond: Peter, put it this way. If we do what we should do, what we must do and what I think we can do to lead an energy revolution in the pursuit of alternative fuels so that we bring down the price of oil from $50 a barrel to $25 a barrel, I think this regime is toast in the next five to ten years and I think we will see a wave of democratizing change throughout the Middle East.

Peter Robinson: Larry Diamond, Abbas Milani, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.