PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


Recent Events in Iran and the Progress of Its Nuclear Program

Speakers: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, and Matthew H. Kroenig, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Anya Schmemann, Director of Communications, Council on Foreign Relations
January 17, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations


ANYA SCHMEMANN: All right, if folks will get their hot drinks and we'll get started. I'm Anya Schmemann. I'm the director of communications here at CFR, and it's a pleasure to have you all here on this rainy morning.

We do so much by email and telephone these days but we thought it would be a nice opportunity to really get us around a table in a small group to discuss, you know, this really important challenge that's really getting a lot of attention these days; that is, what to do with Iran. The situation seems to be escalating. Tensions are rising.

So there are two possible paths: to diffuse those tensions or to take some decisive action. And I'm pleased to be joined here by two colleagues today: Ray Takeyh and Matthew Kroenig.

Ray Takeyh is a longtime Iran watcher, known to many of you. He's our senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies here at CFR. He recently served in the State Department as a special adviser. He's the author of several books, including two recent books on internal dynamics in Iran, "The Guardians of the Revolution: Iran's Approach to the World" and "Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic."

Matthew Kroenig is an assistant professor at Georgetown University and is a Stanton nuclear security fellow here at the council. It's a year-long fellowship that we have for nuclear issues. He also served as an adviser -- Hi, Michelle (sp) -- for the Department of Defense, and is the author of "Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and Spread of Nuclear Weapons."

Michelle, we do have a plug over here for you if you need it.

QUESTIONER: Great. Thank you. It's on the record, right?

SCHMEMANN: We are on the record indeed.

We have two pieces for you at the end of the table written by these folks. Ray Takeyh had a piece over the weekend in the Washington Post. Matthew Kroenig has a provocative piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine titled "Time to Attack Iran" -- he will explain what he means by that -- and Ray's piece, "How the West Should Answer Iran's Nuclear Aggression." There's a lot of issues to discuss. The nuclear part of it is really just one of several aspects, so we'll get into that.

Just to frame this, we have two very different statements here. Matthew, in his piece, wrote, "Addressing the threat now will spare the United States from confronting a far more dangerous situation in the future." And Ray's piece says something a little different. He says, "A tense situation can provoke accidental conflicts and mishaps." Parties might act impetuously and irresponsibly. The international community should not necessarily ease pressure. But it does suggest that eschewing -- I like that word -- "conduct" -- one should "eschew conduct that further inflames the situation."

So let me just turn to my colleagues for just some very quick opening remarks and we'll get right to questions.

Matthew, what do you mean by your piece? And, again, I'll quote another line: "A military strike intended to destroy Iran's nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States." Why would a military strike -- how could it be successful? How would it help? And why can we not live with a nuclear Iran?

MATTHEW KROENIG: So, my analysis in this article came out of work I did last year where I was a special adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and where I worked on defense strategy and policy on Iran.

And so, having -- you know, so Michelle -- or Anya had say that there are two very different paths here: either diffuse tensions or take action. And I think if that was the choice, the choice would be simple. We would obviously not take action. But I'm afraid the choice we're rapidly confronting is between two far more dangerous options; that is, either allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons or conducting a military strike designed to prevent that from happening.

And, based on my work last year, I came to the conclusion that, given that choice, the United States' best course of action is to conduct a surgical strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, pull back and absorb an inevitable round of Iranian retaliation, and then seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis. So, some of you might have already seen the article but I'd just like to take a couple of minutes to provide a kind of an overview of the argument.

So, first, a nuclear-armed Iran obviously poses many dangers. We can go into more detail on all this in Q&A if you're interested, but I think a nuclear-armed Iran would step up its support to terrorist groups and the proxies would be more aggressive in the region in terms of course of diplomacy, would likely transfer sensitive nuclear materials to other states.

And there's always the possibility of nuclear war. I don't think Iran would intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war, but in a crisis between Iran and Israel or Iran and the United States, a kind of Cuban missile crisis-type situation, it's not hard to imagine things spilling out of control and resulting in a nuclear exchange.

So these are serious threats to the United States if Iran acquired nuclear weapons. We would put in place a deterrence and containment regime to try to deal with that. And so I think that that would work in the sense people say deterrence would work.

If we're talking about deterring Iran from intentionally launching a nuclear war, I agree that deterrence would work, but I think that for the other threats I mentioned, the threat of military -- massive military retaliation is simply incredible. If Iran were to transfer sensitive nuclear materials to Venezuela, for example, the idea that we would launch some kind of massive retaliation response to that I think is incredible.

So these are dangers that we'd have to live with as long as Iran existed as state and possessed nuclear weapons. So this is challenges we'd be dealing with for decades and perhaps longer. So, not an attractive option.

So, what does the military option look like? Part of the reason I was motivated to write this article is I think there is a lot of misinformation out there. And so, I wanted to clear some of that up.

And so, first, I think that a strike -- there's no doubt that a U.S. strike would significantly set back Iran's nuclear program. Again, we can go into more detail in Q&A, but I think it's unlikely that there are significant operational nuclear facilities that we don't know about.

The United States could certainly destroy Iran's known facilities and, in my estimation and others' estimation, it would significantly -- again, a U.S. strike as opposed to an Israeli strike would significantly set back Iran's nuclear program from, I guess, somewhere from three to 10 years. So that buys a lot of time for further diplomacy; for something to change where Iran ends up without nuclear weapons.

There would obviously be serious consequences to a strike in terms of Iranian retaliation: increases in oil prices, the possible effects on Iranian domestic politics, the international reaction. But my experience leads me to believe that consequences wouldn't be as grave as may people fear, and that the United States could put in place a strategy to mitigate those consequences.

So, I'll just mention one here. A lot of people worry that a strike would somehow turn into full-scale war. And so Iranian retaliation is a real fear, but put yourselves in the shoes of, say, the supreme leader. You wake up one morning and you find that, you know, five or 10 of your key nuclear facilities have just been destroyed, but your military is still intact, your regime is still intact. How do you respond?

You're certainly going to engage in some kind of retaliation. You want to save face domestically, re-establish deterrence internationally. On the other hand, you're not going to want to pick a fight with the United States and Israel that leads to the complete destruction of your military or the complete destruction of the regime.

And so I think that Iran would most likely aim for some kind of calibrated response that the United States could certainly absorb. And I think that the United States could play on those fears with a kind of deterrence strategy. We could communicate to the supreme leader, like we did this week, what our red lines are and, say, for example that closing the Strait of Hormuz would elicit a major U.S. response.

So, again, I think, if managed well, what we might be able to achieve is destruction of Iran's key nuclear facilities in exchange for kind of a token Iranian retaliation. We can talk more about that in Q&A.

So, in sum, I think the options are awful but, if forced to chose, a strike is the least-bad option. And it seems like the administration, at least in their public rhetoric, is coming around to this view. So, just in the past few weeks Gary Samore, Dennis Ross, Leon Panetta -- and although he doesn't speak for the administration, Joe Lieberman -- have all made comments to the effect that the administration assesses that the risks of a strike are less than the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran.

So there's been quite a bit of controversy surrounding this article, and to be honest, I'm a little bit surprised by that. It's been the stated policy of two successive presidents that a nuclear-armed Iran is, quote, "unacceptable," and that, quote, "All options are on the table to prevent that from happening." And we're rapidly approaching the point where we have to either accept the unacceptable or exercise our last remaining option. And one of those things is a paradox and the other one isn't.

So I look forward to your questions and comments.

SCHMEMANN: OK, thank you. That's a helpful overview.

You mentioned you imagine yourself in the supreme leader's shoes. Ray, your recent pieces have been exploring the motivations and calculations of the regime. Can you give us any insight? What are they thinking and why are they escalating the situation? How far are they likely to go? And what are the red lines, really, for the United States government?

RAY TAKEYH: Well, if I knew the answer to that -- (laughter). I would say, actually, the following about this in the five minutes or so that's allotted to me: I think we are on the threshold not of war but of diplomacy, and I'm not entirely sure that's a good idea but I think that's where we're heading.

Since 2005, the United States government has had a fairly consistent policy toward Iran. And it's been what is called the two-track policy -- namely that on one hand you have an openness to dialogue and on the other hand you have a series of coercive measures in order to provoke that dialogue.

There is a threshold question here. The threshold question is whether the supreme leader of Iran is susceptible to engagement with the United States and potentially resolving differences with the United States.

That question is answered in affirmative by the entire professional class: State Department bureaucracy, Pentagon bureaucracy. It's answered in affirmative by both the local parties. That's the two-track policy. The two-track policy suggests that under certain circumstances, Iran's supreme leader would be susceptible to an arrangement with the United States.

That was a policy of the second Bush administration and it has continued in the current administration. I mean, I realize that many of the Republican candidates are rejecting their patrimony, but that was a policy of the second Bush administration.

The core logic of the United States' policy, with widespread consensus within the bureaucracy and rather a substantial partisan pedigree, is that under certain circumstances you can actually have an arms control agreement with this country. The rationale is -- (inaudible) -- and Matt rejects it, but I think he's outside that consensus.

And I'm not quite sure if I would answer that question in affirmative today. But, nevertheless, I think the surge -- the pressure at this point is towards further diplomacy in the sense that nobody wants escalation of the conflict.

To the extent that one can decipher a pattern to Iran's conduct, I would say they have their own three-track policy: number one, the idea that they will meet provocation with provocation, threat with threat, violation of sovereignty with violation of sovereignty. You kind of have seen some examples of that, however maladroit those efforts may have been: the assassination, or attempted assignation, of the Saudi envoy in Washington.

There is a large position in Iran that the Saudis have been collaborators with the United States and Israel in intelligence operations directed against the Islamic republic. And the example of that was the defection of an Iranian scientist who subsequently went back through Saudi Arabia. So that essentially is the idea of provocation with provocation.

Shortly after EU, led by Britain, suggested that they would want to have sanctions against Iran in aftermath of the issuance of the IAEA report last November, you saw the storming of the British embassy and pillaging of that embassy.

And recently, with the passage of the central bank sanctions signed by the president in the Defense Authorization Act, you see the discussion of the closure of the Strait of Hormuz. That's the provocation-provocation. All those efforts are maladroit and perhaps bluff, but you see some aspect of that working out.

The second aspect of Iran's diplomacy is being open to diplomacy. And I suspect we're sitting in the eve of a 5 plus one meeting March, April, whenever. The idea is that you have engaged in protracted, sporadic and largely inconclusive diplomacy. And once everybody gets to the table, there will be incentives to stay at the table because everyone wants to avoid a conflict of the type that's been discussed.

What has surprised me about Iran's conduct is they have not engaged in a more systematic diplomacy -- you know, meeting every three, four weeks. They have a path in front of them, the so-called Lavrov plan. The deficiencies of that plan are obvious by just looking at the name of the person on it: the Lavrov plan. You can stop there.

It's a step-by-step plan. You know, Iran does this; the international community does that. You can discuss each of those steps for six to 12 years and then discuss a mechanism for implementation of that and mechanism for dealing with the violation of implementation of that.

I'm surprised there hasn't been more of a systematic dialogue between the two states. I attribute that to incapacity of Iran's negotiator, Saeed Jalili, to do so. But I think they'll negotiate another IAEA work plan. The first one was negotiated by Larijani in 2006. And so that diplomacy will continue.

And beneath that is a sort of incremental -- incremental gains in Iran's nuclear program. So here, the supreme leader has uniquely and uncannily -- and I'm not sure how -- understood the limitations of the American bureaucracy; namely, we deal with crises, not problems. And so long as Iran is a problem and not a crisis, then I think he'll just make some incremental gains in his -- in his -- in his -- in this surge of the nuclear technologies.

As I said in the piece, I think in 2005, the idea of systematic Iranian enrichment was viewed as a provocation. That has come and gone. The other red line was Iran should not enrich up to 20 percent -- come and gone. Now the transference of that technology to new facilities, which are hard and mountainous -- that was viewed as a provocation.

But all these have come systematically but incrementally. Iran's nuclear program is not going to be rash. Here, there's a difference between Ali Khamenei and Saddam Hussein. He's not impetuous; he's cautious -- difference between he and Gadhafi: He's not rash; he deals with things systematically, and his time horizon is long and protracted one.

But gains are made. And at each step of the way, the international community acclimates itself to those gains. So now there's a discussion of introducing new generational centrifuges, which will allow them to enrich large quantities of uranium.

What level of uranium enrichment do you need to have a bomb? South African bomb was 80 percent. You don't have to get to 90s. My understanding is that in 1945, '46, earlier, the United States experimented with level of enrichment that is required to have a bomb. And you actually can manufacture one with 20-percent enriched uranium. I mean, it will be huge -- (laughs) -- and you have to deliver it on a freight train. But nevertheless, the notion that you have to get to upper 90s to have enriched uranium for bomb capacity, I think it's -- that's ideal, but you can -- you can have it at lower levels.

So I suspect in the next few months, it will look pretty much like the last few months. There'll be diplomacy, incremental gains; and occasionally, given what has taken places between the two countries, some degree of provocation on both sides with both parties -- all parties -- invested in not having those particular activities lead to a more full-scale conflict. That doesn't mean -- that doesn't mean incidents cannot happen. And that doesn't mean the situation can't get out of hand. I mean, everybody is sort of on the tiger's back today. And when you're on the tiger's back, you don't always pick the place to dismount. But I suspect we're going to go on the way this has go on -- gone on, I'm sorry, to be grammatically correct.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Well, a troubling situation no matter how you look at it. Let's jump right into questions. We have about 40 minutes -- (audio break) -- get my attention, I assume that most of you will have questions.

Arshad, let's start with you; David and then Elise.

QUESTIONER: Just one for Matt. You talked about how your assumption is that Iran would respond to a military strike by the United States in a calibrated or token manner.

SCHMEMANN: Can you speak up, Arshad, a little bit?

QUESTIONER: Yeah, sure -- sorry. Matt had said that it was -- it's his assumption or expectation that Iran would respond to a U.S. military strike in a calibrated or token manner. Can you elaborate on why you are so convinced of this?

And secondly, can you talk about the -- if in your view, even if it's a small probability -- but a small probability that they would not respond in a calibrated or token manner, how do you then try to manage the -- manage the conflict?

KROENIG: Excellent question. So -- I mean, the first thing I'd like to say is that I in no way want to be seen as kind of dismissing the dangers of the military option. I think it is a bad option and a dangerous one. I just think compared to the bad and dangerous option of a nuclear-armed Iran, it's less bad.

So why do I think that Iran would aim for a calibrated response? I mean, I think that we've seen -- what we've seen since 1979 is that despite all the extreme rhetoric that -- it's had -- the country has had a fairly pragmatic foreign policy, and its primary goal is to continue to exist. And we haven't seen anything -- and we know that it restrains itself now, for example, in terms of support to proxies and terrorists because it's afraid of U.S. or Iranian retaliation.

So again, if the United States conducts a surgical strike against key nuclear facilities and communicates that through back channels to the Iranians -- I mean -- and through public diplomacy -- you know, in order for something like this to happen, there would have to be a building of international support before there'd be a lot of statements from the administration if we make it clear that we're interested in the nuclear program and not in the regime -- and we conduct the strike -- again, the supreme leader has just lost his nuclear program. It would be a major loss. It's one of the crown jewels of the regime. On the other hand, his military's intact. His regime is intact. He's going to want to continue to exist. And he knows that a full-scale war with the United States could mean that he loses his military and loses his regime.

So my guess is that -- again, that he would aim for some kind of response where he could claim that he retaliated to a domestic audience and to an international audience but that he's not going to want to do something that's going to compel the White House to engage in a full-scale war.

If things do get out of hand -- I mean, it's interesting that a lot of -- when I've discussed this with other people, a lot of times they don't question that Iran would aim for a calibrated response, but they say that, well, there'd be irresistible political pressure on the White House to retaliate. And so it'd be the United States that would want to escalate.

And so maybe that's true, but I think that the United States should be willing to trade Iran's nuclear program for some kind of limited Iranian retaliation. I think it's -- would be in the national interest of the country.

If things got out of control, as you suggested -- which, again, I don't think if we kind of followed the strategy I laid out here would happen -- it's the opinion of our best military planners' sober analysis that the most likely outcome is that the United States would set back Iran's military 20 years in a few weeks. You know, this isn't a balanced military situation.


QUESTIONER: Set back the nuclear program, you said?

QUESTIONER: Oh -- the military.

KROENIG: The military.

QUESTIONER: Military -- sorry, sorry.

QUESTIONER: I wanted to ask either one of you to run through -- part of what makes this such a fascinating game of three-dimension chess here is all of the other countries that are involved. I mean, previous times that we have had these confrontations -- including with North Korea, if you think about the '94 crisis and crises before that -- you had a limited number of players. But here you've got the Chinese; the Russians, who you've already alluded to with the Lavrov plan; the Europeans -- everybody's got a slightly different calculus, and everybody's got one while they know a presidential election is under way here, which is going to, you know, force some decisions.

So if you could just talk for a moment about where you see the different interests laying, as they have now reappeared.


TAKEYH: I think at this stage and partly because there are so many equities involved, which is why everybody wants to somehow get to some sort of negotiations -- nobody has high confidence that those negotiations will succeed, but I think that's why you have quite an intensified Russian diplomacy; similarly, I suspect, although less active with the Chinese, who tend to on this issue follow the Russians.

You have at the same time this sort of a severance of economic relationship between Iran and Europe, although I don't -- I'm not quite sure Iran's trade with South Korean and Japanese are going to be impacted even in the aftermath of the passage of the central bank deal, because I think there are ways of mitigating that.

I can't --

QUESTIONER: Were you surprised that Europe was willing to go that full severance? Because they certainly haven't been until now. I mean, what changed?

TAKEYH: No, I -- the European policy has been the most (surprising ?). Now, I'm not sure if that's the function of leadership in Europe -- Merkel, Sarkozy and so on -- or there's been some sort of a reorientation in European approach, because if you go back to the 1990s, European policy toward Iran was what they called "critical dialogue," where they were critical of the United States while having a dialogue with Iran.

That has changed. Europe has now become -- has sort of embraced the American logic that sanctions are a way of approaching this thing, partly to avert a military conflict. So I think to some extent that has to do with their appreciation of the dangerous nature of this issue. And in the process of co-joining with the United States, they may have created antecedents for a military conflict, something they're trying to avoid.

I can't speak about the Israeli calculation about this because I tend to be one of those people who think that Iranians have successively and successfully crossed a variety of Israeli red lines. And so Israelis do have some sort of a credibility crisis here. Now, that makes it a dangerous situation, because they also have concerns that are bordering existential, while at the same time they have to be considered as harboring under some sort of a -- some sort of a credibility crisis here, given the fact that their red lines have been successfully breached by Iran.

And so the whole diplomacy at this point is to keep everybody at bay, which -- I think the best way of doing that is to get to the table, which I suspect will happen sooner rather than later.


QUESTIONER: I'd like to just kind of bring that -- expand that out and also bring Matt in. So you're saying that you -- I mean, Israel -- it does seem as if Israel is really moving to the -- to that red line in terms of --

TAKEYH: They've been moving to that red line for -- (off mic) --

QUESTIONER: OK -- OK, but basically, you know, this new -- this new IAEA report and all this stuff about Iran possibly, you know, a little bit more sure about moving to weaponize -- you know, last week, Defense Secretary Panetta kind of laid out a -- the ultimate red line for the United States in saying that it's if we see Iran going for the actual bomb.

So -- and I feel as if you're going a little bit further than that: You're saying let's go now; don't worry about whether they have the actual bomb; let's just take it out now. Is that where I -- is that where I see you? And do -- is that in line with what you're hearing from your military contacts? Because it does seem as if although they may be grudgingly accepting that this might be inevitable, they're very reluctant -- we've heard a lot of military and intelligence people say this would be -- and Dempsey even said this would be a complete tragedy, totally horrible.

But on the other side of the coin, do you believe that Iran, Ray, is really going for the bomb and that this diplomacy is really just playing for time so that they could become a nuclear state? Or do you really feel as if -- when you say that Khameini is susceptible to diplomacy, is --

TAKEYH: I said that's the consensus in this city.

QUESTIONER: OK, but is it --

TAKEYH: I'm not sure if I agree with it.

QUESTIONER: -- do you -- what do you think? Is this diplomacy for diplomacy's sake, in true getting to some kind of bargain with the West; or are they really going for the bomb? And Matt, are we going to really have to make that choice?

SCHMEMANN: Let me start with Matt here and then Ray.

KROENIG: So -- it's an excellent question -- so the -- Secretary Panetta's remarks -- and it seems like the administration's public talking point is that building nuclear weapons would be a red line. And they frequently point to the fact that the intelligence community says that there is no hard evidence that Iran has made the decision to build nuclear weapons.

But I'm afraid that that rests on kind of a misunderstanding about how nuclear weapons are built. Once you have enough highly enriched uranium, you have 95 percent of what you need to build a nuclear weapon. Actually fashioning it into a simple gun-type device is fairly easy. And so I think by setting the red line there, the administration is -- if that really is the red line -- is making a mistake. And I think -- because what you do at that point, if Iran has that capability, is your nonproliferation policy is reduced to praying that Iran doesn't finish the job. By the time they're turning screws on an actual nuclear device, it's too late; you've missed your opportunity.

So from my point of view, what I lay out in the article are other red lines. So I say that if Iran begins enriching above 20 percent toward the 90 percent that it would like to have for a nuclear weapon, if Iran kicks out international inspectors or if Iran installs the advanced centrifuges, the P2 centrifuges, at Qom, that those should be the red lines. And I really think that we should, you know, begin making the case for this now. So I -- Ray said I don't think an arms control agreement is possible or desirable or something like that -- I would be delighted if Iran agreed to give up its uranium enrichment program. I just don't see that happening.

And so I think that we're running out of time and we need to start making the case now and preparing the public and the international community that this is an option we might have to exercise and lay out those red lines so that everyone, including the Iranians, knows what those are.

QUESTIONER: Do you really believe that we're going there, though? I mean, just -- it does seem as if the administration is very reluctant. Are they resigned, do you think?

KROENIG: Resigned to accepting a nuclear-armed Iran or resigned --

QUESTIONER: No, resigned to going after.

KROENIG: It's difficult to say. As I said in the opening remarks, the public rhetoric has clearly changed. When I was working in the Pentagon, Secretary Gates would say things like, well, we -- the military option's on the table, but we wouldn't really like to use it because the consequences would be disastrous. And just over the past week, the rhetoric has really changed. Again, so a number of former and current senior administration officials have essentially said that -- again, the administration judged the risks of a nuclear-armed Iran to be greater than the risks of a strike or have said that they're convinced that President Obama would use force if necessary. And so it's difficult to know what's motivating them. On the one hand, maybe they've made up their mind that they will use force. My hunch is that they won't actually make that decision until they're absolutely forced to. So other possible motivations are that it's to send a signal to the Israelis not to go -- we've got this under control -- or to send a signal to the Iranians that, no, we're serious, you should really take the diplomacy option seriously; or that it's a signal domestically to -- for President Obama's re-election campaign to not let the Republicans outflank him on this issue.


TAKEYH: I think Iran is going for the nuclear weapon. He's going for it systematically, cautiously and intelligently. I don't think they'll stop just short, the Japan model. I don't -- nobody just stops short other than the Japanese. The history of proliferation is when you get there, you cross.

And I think, from the perspective of the Iranian regime, life may look better on the other side of the mushroom cloud. You know, after several years of sanctions and so forth, Pakistan and North Korea being the models, the international community's economic sanctions solidarity is likely to erode. The contracts come back.

The argument is going to be this country is too dangerous to be left alone. So the path back to re-engagement with the international economy and re-engagement with the region on your own terms may actually be on the other side of Condoleezza Rice's famed mushroom cloud. That makes some degree of sense if you're sitting from the perspective of the supreme leader.

If he goes back and gets -- makes rather substantial and irreversible concessions on his nuclear program, does he get his central bank back? The conventional balance of power in the Gulf is decisively to Iran's disfavor. We have sort of opened up the armory. If he disarms, do the Saudis give back their planes and trains and automobiles that they've been getting? If you -- and I don't think he had an incentive of system -- of engaging the United States.

So the threshold question that is answered in the affirmative in this city, I would disagree with Matt widely in the bureaucracy and in both political parties. And under certain circumstances, you can get a deal, whatever those circumstances may be. I think he views -- the Sino-American model are often proferred as a model of how to deal with this country. Most people stop in 1973.

If you take this, what he saw when the Chinese engaged the United States, is that eventually they traded in their ideological identity for material gain. And that's not a compromise he's prepared to make. He doesn't want to be the noncommunist leader of a noncommunist party overseeing a prosperous capitalist state. He's maintaining his ideological identify of his regime. And he understands that engagement with the United States imperils that.

And you can't say tactical agreements, because the best way of stopping the American cultural and political invasion is at the beginning, not the middle. So if he maintains this regime, potentially gets some sort of a capability, nuclear capability, then you can re-enter the international community the way Pakistan has or -- I mean, the North Korean case could be suggestive as well.

I mean, the entire international community today is invested in success of a leader that we know nothing about -- we don't even know how old he is -- because we are afraid of an alternative to someone we know nothing about. Whatever -- (inaudible) -- he is, he's got to be -- he's more familiar to us than someone who we think is in the late 20s.

SCHMEMANN: Jonathan.

QUESTIONER: A question for Matt and a question for Ray.

Matt, can you please defend your assertions that Iran could give nuclear weapons to someone else when -- why would they give away the crown jewels, which could be easily traced back to them? And secondly, they are now experiencing a serious degradation of their ability to support their proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories because of what's going on in Syria.

And Ray, what would the -- surely the Iranians would have to give something in order for the president to politically be able to accept or to agree to return to the 5 plus 1. What would that be? But -- and wouldn't he be taking a considerable political risk here domestically, given the vehemence by which the Republicans are going after the Iranian issue, by going back into talks at this point? What is his incentive politically?

SCHMEMANN: (Inaudible) -- some short answers. What would they give away and what would they give up?

KROENIG: OK. Well, thanks for that. That's a softball question for me. I wrote a book in 2010 called "Exporting the Bomb" about why countries have provided sensitive nuclear material and technology to other countries in the past.

So I think it's unlikely that Iran would purposely transfer nuclear weapons to a terrorist group. I think it's unlikely that they would transfer nuclear weapons to another state. But what I do think is very likely over the coming years would be that Iran would provide uranium enrichment technology to another country; say, a U.S. adversary, Venezuela, is a possible example.

Iran and Venezuela already have a nuclear cooperation agreement. So Iran could easily announce tomorrow that Venezuela is a member of the NPT in good standing, has a right to peaceful nuclear technology, and for that reason we're going to help them with the uranium enrichment facility.

And so, in that way, Iran could contribute to nuclear proliferation. And countries have done this in the past for strategic reasons, basically as a way to constrain their common enemies. So I do think that a U.S. adversary would be the most likely customer.

And even if a country like Venezuela never acquired nuclear weapons, just having a uranium enrichment facility there would obviously cause a lot of headaches, just like Iran's nuclear program has caused headaches for us for a decade, even though they haven't yet acquired nuclear weapons.

TAKEYH: My understanding of the requirements that the international community has, 5 plus one, about Iran returning to the table is they have to write a letter to Lady Ashton saying this time they're going to be serious, as opposed to Geneva and Istanbul of last year. That's my understanding. Maybe David knows something else. So they'd have to meet that bar, which is a low bar. So that's how you get back to (it ?).

I don't think there's a domestic political penalty about engaging in diplomacy with Iran if the president gets back to the table and there's a discussion. I don't see that as a divisive domestic political issue to the extent anybody cares about this issue in terms of the larger public.

SCHMEMANN: All right.


Matt, I think I understood you to say that for the administration, the way you're hearing things, that the objective is not the regime but the nuclear program. But we are hearing more and more from Republican candidates that, in fact, the problem is the regime.

And so I'm wondering, actually, from both of you, what impact, if any, that's having, the fact that we are hearing more -- maybe it's from candidates who may not be around a lot longer, but we are hearing more and more that the problem is, in fact, the regime, not just the nuclear program. And I'm wondering what impact, either in Iran or among other partners, that that's having, that that talk is out there.

SCHMEMANN: He wants Matt -- (inaudible).

KROENIG: It's an interesting question. In the Pentagon last year, in my office, there was kind of a three-way debate. And I was actually the moderate in that debate, because the options were seen as deterrence and containment on one side, regime change on the other. And then -- so my advocacy for a surgical strike and pulling back was kind of the middle position.

So it's my position that, you know, I think that the problem is the nuclear program, and that if we can rid Iran of its nuclear program, we should be content with that. But there are others who disagree and think that as long as this regime is in power, we're going to continue to be threatened by them.

Just sticking in terms of the military option, there's no way to really guarantee that you can remove the regime, short of a ground invasion. And I don't think there's any appetite in either party for another ground invasion. So there are things you could do to try to destabilize the regime militarily -- attacking the military, attacking command and control sites. But I think that, realistically, the most we can hope for with a strike is setting back their nuclear program.

SCHMEMANN: Ray, any signs of Arab spring in Iran? (Inaudible.)

TAKEYH: Well, that's a separate question from the regime, because I think its marginalization is fairly intact.

What I would say -- the history of Iran in 20th century has been a history of the population seeking its rights through political protest, in some cases succeeding, as in the 1979 revolution. But the history of the -- the history of Iran in 20th century into 21st century is an attempt to form a population seeking political space, in contrast to despotic regimes. That's from the constitutional revolution to the `53 crisis to the `63 crisis to the `79 crisis to the `97 crisis to the `99 crisis to 2009 crisis. So there's been a sporadic explosion of popular discontent.

Therefore, in that particular country, given that national historical narrative, I'm (unprepared ?) to say that we're not going to see that again. So it's entirely possible that you're going to see a greater degree of re-engagement with popular protest.

I would say one thing that separates the next round of protests from previous ones in the 1990s is that before there was a hope within the population that the system could be reformed through its own provisions -- elections, parliamentary, legislation, expansion of press.

Now, increasingly within the Iranian body politics, it is recognized that -- some may not be recognized beyond the boundaries of Iran -- that this particular regime cannot reform itself. It either has to be displaced -- you cannot condition its despotism through its own constitutional provisions. I would say (yes ?). So that makes the gap between state and society a fundamentally unstable situation.

QUESTIONER: So are they taking -- yeah, but can I just -- in terms of -- is the regime, is the supreme leader, hearing this shift in rhetoric in the United States? And is that having any impact on --

TAKEYH: I can't account how Ali Khamenei makes his decisions. I mean, he talks to 10 people. You know, I don't know what sources of information he uses, how he makes his decisions. I do believe that he has a well-formed global view that is internally consistent. And it's a combination of -- I mean, he's not Kissingerian; he's Huntingtonian. He believes in clashes of civilization. He believes that the sort of an Islamic realm is under pressure from the cultural invasion and subversion of the West. He's been talking about that theme for 20 years. He hasn't rediscovered that. So he has that suspicion of international community.

He's also a North-South person, sort of a Berkeley `68 rhetoric. You know, the North is determined to exploit the resources of the South for its own industrial development. However you look at it, whether it's the Berkeley mindset or Huntingtonian mindset, the central antagonist is the United States, in one case as a source of cultural subversion, and in another case as a source of capitalist exploitation.

I don't think he can relieve himself of that ideological template, and I'm not sure if anybody around him suggests that's not necessarily the case.

QUESTIONER: Are they taking a risk by going -- holding parliamentary elections?

SCHMEMANN: Let me actually just get a few --

TAKEYH: I don't think so. I think those --

SCHMEMANN: Here, just on the election, could you just expand on that? Let's do this quickly, but then we do have a couple of questions here.

TAKEYH: I think the -- Iran has had elections on time, and its electoral cycle goes on. It went on during the Iran-Iraq war. They never suspended it. At the risk that Iran's is the potential for popular protest --

QUESTIONER: That's what I mean.

TAKEYH: -- and I can't tell you if it's going to be popular protest or not going to be. I would say this regime, given the historical narrative of that country and the nature of that population and the nature of that regime, that's an inherently unstable situation. What provokes a larger conflagration, whether it's the martial actions or not, I don't know.

QUESTIONER: Yeah, but -- I mean, just in the context of the Arab Spring --


QUESTIONER: I mean, is this election any -- and given, like, where you were in the last election and where you are now, you don't think this whole next context gives any difference --

TAKEYH: I think it may. I think that's possible. I just don't know if it's going to happen.

SCHMEMANN: Hold the thought. We'll come back to it.

Viola (sp).

QUESTIONER: Matt, I wanted to follow up on a couple of things that you said. You said rapidly approaching the time when this might be necessary. What's the point at which you think that would occur in your sort of gaming this out? And you also mentioned Gates's precautions last year. But doesn't his -- weren't his precautions primarily aimed at Israel?

And Ray, I wanted to ask you, if I understand you correctly, you said -- you're basically saying that the supreme leader is interested in engaging with the U.S., but only to the extent of kind of dragging things out for them to pursue their own ends, not to -- not --

TAKEYH: He's not looking for an arms control agreement.

QUESTIONER: He's not looking in any sense to --

TAKEYH: The end game is not an arms control agreement.

QUESTIONER: There's no way he would ever --

TAKEYH: No, it's not -- we're not heading to SALT II. (Laughter.)

KROENIG: On how much time do we have left, again, I think the -- you know, once you have enough highly enriched uranium to make a weapon, you're basically there, actually fashioning it into a simple gun-type device relatively easily. So how long does it take them to get to significant quantities of highly enriched uranium?

David Albright estimates that right now, that if Iran were to decide today that it wants to dash and build its first nuclear weapon, it would take about six months to get enough weapons-grade uranium. But that timeline is shrinking as they're -- I can go into the details of why if you're interested over the course of this year.

And, in fact, Olli Heinonen, former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and currently at Harvard, had an article that came out in Foreign Policy this week or last week where he argues that by the end of this year, that timeline will have shrunk to one month so that, by December 2012, if Iran decides to dash, it'll take one month to do that.

And that's really dangerous for a number of reasons, including because IAEA inspectors aren't in Iran all the time. And so it's possible that IAEA inspectors could leave, Iran dashes, and they come back in and we're facing a fait accompli.


QUESTIONER: Matt, why can't the United States, which successfully contained the Soviet Union and brought about indirectly its dissolution -- why can't it simply contain a nuclear Iran?

SCHMEMANN: Go ahead.

KROENIG: Well, I think that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, we'll do our best to deter and contain Iran. But, you know, I think the -- first of all, we have to remember that the Cold War was a dangerous time. We came very close to nuclear war a number of times. There were a number of proxy wars. I'm not sure that --

QUESTIONER: That was with a country with thousands of weapons as opposed to seven or five or 10.

KROENIG: True. But it was a dangerous time. And, you know, so when I do the comparison, you're right that the Soviet Union's capabilities are much greater, but I also think that there are a number of other differences that make me worry more.

So, for example, you know, having five or seven weapons arguably makes the situation more dangerous. If you look at the nuclear balance between Iran and Israel, for example, I don't think either side would have secure second strike capabilities. The United States and the Soviet Union both thought that they could absorb a nuclear attack and then retaliate.

If you're Israel or Iran, you know, Israel is a small country. Some people have said it's a one-bomb country; that it couldn't afford to absorb even one nuclear attack. And you're Iran with five or seven nuclear weapons and you get into a crisis, both sides have incentives, I think, to use nuclear weapons first or to do things that would prevent the other side from disarming them in a first-strike nuclear attack such as delegate nuclear launch authority to lower-level commanders, put nuclear weapons on high alert that increase the risk of an accident.

So I think that there are many dangers that we'd be dealing with with a nuclear-armed Iran, not the least of which is a possible nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel or Iran and the United States.

And, again, maybe we would be successful in undermining the regime and getting a more friendly government come to power as we did in the Soviet Union, but it's possible that we'd be dealing with those threats for decades or longer as well.

QUESTIONER: Can I just -- the Israel question. You weren't able to address that earlier. Gates actually -- Gates' caution was actually aimed at Israel more so than dissuading, you know, speaking up against a potential U.S. strike.

KROENIG: That's exactly right. And so I think there is a lot of confusion in the public about the Israeli option and the U.S. option, and they're very different for a lot of reasons.

And you're right. When Gates was talking about a strike would be disastrous, he was talking about Israel. But there are dangers with that kind of public rhetoric if you're really trying to convince Iran that we would use force if necessary but then, immediately after, talking about the military option.

So I do think it was aimed at instilling caution in the Israelis, but I also think it had negative effects on the message we were sending to the Iranians.


QUESTIONER: (Could I ?) follow up on one of Jonathan's (sp) questions? Assuming the Iranians do get to the talks in -- (inaudible) -- even though (Ashton's ?) not gotten their letter yet, the U.S. has been talking about a confidence-building measure of asking Iran to give, I guess, its stockpile of 20 percent uranium and to give up the 20 percent enrichment in exchange for an offer to not impose another round of U.N. Security Council resolution -- even though I don't see that one's -- (inaudible) -- coming.

You know, how do you see that playing out? As poorly as in Istanbul last year, or --?

TAKEYH: I'm not sure what mood the Iranian negotiators will come to the table, whenever that happens. My guess is that they are -- they are unlikely to relinquish that stockpile. And we're no longer talking about, interesting enough, about 3.5 percent enriched uranium but 20 percent. So their goalpost has moved yet again.

But I think it'll be deliberated. It'll be studied. It'll be talked about. There will be technical talks. At the end, I'm not sure if that particular offer is one that is attractive to them, although I can see them conceding to not enrich beyond 20 percent as a retort to that. But I'm not certain -- I just can't see that arrangement coming to fruition. But I can see it being deliberated in a protracted manner.


QUESTIONER: To go back to what you call a surgical strike, could you go through that scenario? I mean, if we do it the way we usually do it, that would take out all air defenses. It'll take out their command and control. Then you've got to take out, as you say, we know where all the sites are.

What kind of civilian collateral damage are you going to have in that? And how long would it take, because then I assume you've got to go back and see what you did?

And the second part, for Ray, is -- my time in Iran is they've never forgotten our overthrow of their government in the '50s. What do you think this would do to our relations with all the Iranians that we go in, clearly killing a lot of people? I mean, what kind of future and how are they going to look and how is it going to look in kind of the rest of the world?

SCHMEMANN: Surgical strike?

KROENIG: And so, obviously, the president would have a range of different options if he were deciding to do this. And so, you know, I think most professional military planners like to reduce the danger to U.S. forces as much as possible. So they would prefer to take out air defenses, to hit some command-and-control sites and then, also, I think, they would prefer to eliminate some of Iran's ability to retaliate in the aftermath of the strike. So maybe going after naval assets or ballistic missiles.

So that would, obviously, be a much bigger option.

On the low end, if Israel has done this kind of thing in the past, they've gone in, bombed the nuclear sites and gotten out. And so I would be -- I would advocate for something closer to that kind of minimal strike.

So you're absolutely right that you would have to go after some air defenses even in that scenario. But I think that the smaller force package would be the best way to go in terms of limiting the dangers and limiting the likelihood that Iran would want to escalate.

So in terms of civilian casualties, you know, it's -- one of the -- collateral damage is one of the unfortunate downsides of any conflict, obviously. I think the likely casualties in this kind of strike would be much less than many people assume.

If you look on Google Maps, the major nuclear facilities are out in the middle of nowhere. They're not in civilian areas. And so some of the -- so, for example, Natanz -- (inaudible) -- are out in the middle of nowhere.

Now, there are centrifuge manufacturing component factories in Natanz and Tehran. And so then that would be a decision, I think, that would go to the presidential level of how important is it to get those sites, and are we willing to accept the increased risk of collateral damage in order to get those.

But those are the less important facilities. Again, the big facilities that we'd definitely want to get in a strike are not located in urban areas.

TAKEYH: I'm not -- I mean, to some extent, the response to your question is contingent on the scope of civilian casualties, whether they can be mitigated or not, and whether the regime will be beneficiary of some sort of a nationalistic surge.

All these questions are almost impossible to predict with any degree of precision or confidence. My guess is they'll operate at two levels. It'll congeal the regime in the sense that differences between different elements of the regime are going to be put aside. So it's going to be more of a consolidated regime. Where you saw a lot of fissures and differences between them today, that's likely to be mitigated, if not evaporated.

The larger question between state and society, whether the bonds between the two that have been so damaged as a result of the 2009 election can be rehabilitated is I'm not entirely sure. But I think it will consolidate the regime within itself and within its core constituency, whatever percentage of the population; that is 5 percent, 10 percent.

But in terms of the larger national unity, I just don't know. My suspicion is probably not, but I can't tell you that with any degree of personal confidence.

SCHMEMANN: So we've come to the end of our hour, but we did start a few minutes late. So if you don't mind, we'll maybe just go two or three minutes over.

But maybe we can just wrap up a few last questions and then have the two of you just address them.

QUESTIONER: I just had a quick one --

SCHMEMANN: So, Mike, quickly, and then Paul.

QUESTIONER: The inference I've drawn from a lot of this is that if this is going to be done, it's going to go done by the United States; that the Israeli option, so to speak, just isn't practical. It's too small. What it could do compared with the consequences is so vast that it's just increasingly coming off the table. But then that is not calculating Israeli politics.

SCHMEMANN: OK. So note that one.


QUESTIONER: What does a likely limited Iranian retaliation look like? And secondly, my recollection is that Bob Gates said that a military strike would slow the Iranians down by one to two years. You say 3 to 10.

Can you explain why the difference?

SCHMEMANN: Douglas, did you have a --

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Just of your assessments, both of you, Matt and Ray, on the covert campaign and how effective that's been in slowing the -- is it slowing the program down, if at all, in your view?

QUESTIONER: That's what I was going to ask is what's the -- you know, can you balance that out? Can you do that instead of surgical strikes?

SCHMEMANN: Matthew, see if you can answer those. Ray will have the last word.

And then this conversation can continue after we're finished as well.

KROENIG: Well, I'll start with Secretary Gates' comment that a strike would set back Iran's program one to three years. That was for an Israeli strike, as Mike pointed out correctly that the U.S. strike would do much more damage.

I and others estimate a U.S. strike would set Iran back three to 10 years, but with the caveat that it's impossible to say because it depends on so many questions like does Iran decide to reconstitute its nuclear program at all. How quickly does it try to reconstitute the program? How able is it to get needed supplies on the international market? How able is the United States and the international community to put in some kind of post-strike enforcement regime?

So there are a lot of variables that go into it. Any estimate of delay is -- (inaudible) -- but the U.S. option would impose a much more significant delay.

So getting to Mike's question, I think you're absolutely right that the U.S. -- or the Israeli option would do less damage to Iran's program and that Israel would be less able to manage some of the consequences.

So in my view, if this is going to be done, it should be the United States that does it. That said, we've asked Israel a number of times not to do this, and they have given us no guarantee that they won't. So they might have a different calculation.

In terms of what would limited retaliation look like, I think Iran's most likely response is it would launch salvos of ballistic missiles toward U.S. bases and ships in the region, possibly against Israel as well. It would likely try to step up its support to proxies in Afghanistan against U.S. forces, encourage Hamas and Hezbollah, I think, to retaliate against Israel, possibly look to sponsor terrorist attacks around the world against U.S. interests and then also, I think, to harass and possibly attack commercial and naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz.

I think that's probably the most likely limited option.

MS. : It's not that limited, though.

QUESTIONER: It doesn't sound so -- (laughter).

QUESTIONER: How do you de-escalate from there so quickly, as you say?

QUESTIONER: What about support from other -- what would happen in other Muslim countries? I mean, there would be turmoil, wouldn't there, anti-American turmoil?

QUESTIONER: Not on the Gulf. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: Yeah, but Egypt and other places, Pakistan, there would. Afghanistan, there would.

KROENIG: Yeah, there'd be a whole other set of questions about the international reaction to this and what we'd try to do beforehand and afterwards to try to manage that. And --

QUESTIONER: How do you de-escalate from global attacks on American interests? How does the U.S. then go in and say, OK, well, that was -- thank you very much for the retaliation, but we're finished now? I don't understand how --

MS. : You've got your central bank back. (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER: I don't understand how it doesn't spin out of control.

KROENIG: Right. Well, I mean, I number of things I would say in response. First, again, I don't think that this is some kind of, you know, clean, easy solution. I think it's a bad option. I just think a nuclear-armed Iran is an even worse option.

And the other thing I said, the type of retaliation I talked about, you know, sounds bad and indeed, it is. But we've seen what the -- to some degree, what the harassment of U.S. naval vessels in the Strait of Hormuz looks like this week. It wasn't that bad.

We've seen -- you know, Iran has ballistic missiles it could use to retaliate against U.S. bases and ships in the region, but they're not very accurate. There's a good chance that they would launch a number of salvos that wouldn't even hit anything, and that maybe would be in the U.S. interest to claim that it hit something just for them to save face and to help de-escalate the crisis.

So they would certainly ask Hamas and Hezbollah to increase attacks against Israel, but, you know, put yourself in Hezbollah's shoes or in Hamas' shoes. Again, you're not going to want to do anything that's going to lead Israel to invade and completely destroy you. So I think, again, that those actors would seek calibrated responses.

SCHMEMANN: Let me go to Ray for covert ops and the last word.

TAKEYH: I don't have anything beyond conventional answers regarding cyberwar against Iran facilities. It is suggested by IAEA that they have retarded Iran's program. I accept that.

I think assassination of scientists is not a good idea because Iran's scientific apparatus is much larger and much more sophisticated than Egypt in 1950s or what have you. And that, essentially, engenders some esprit de corps within the scientific community, which may be the last bastion of Iran's public institution that has some sliver of a nationalistic embrace of this particular program.

So three, four scientists killed over a couple of years is, in my judgment, not a particularly good idea, if you're looking at it from the question of slowing down the program beyond the ethics of it.

There's things that seem to be exposing military bases and so forth. My estimation is that it further commits the supreme leader to his program as opposed to thinking that now is the time to cede this particular program and, quite possibly, makes diplomacy more difficult even if you had any confidence in it. It's arguably that Iranians came last year to Geneva and Istanbul without a determination to concede, but those meetings preceded the assassination of one of their scientists. And the other one whom they made -- got promoted to head of atomic energy organizations -- I don't know if that's good or bad idea for you.

So I'm not sure if that's a productive approach to disarmament.

I will say one more thing about the military use which Matt talks about. I think, from my perspective, Iranians will definitely retaliate against Israel. No matter if Israel was not a source of this conflict. And if they hit a daycare center in the outskirts of Tel Aviv, you know, there's an escalatory dynamic there that's potentially perilous.

SCHMEMANN: Matt, last word?

KROENIG: Just on the covert options, there are things you can do with 30,000-pound bombs that you can't do with computer viruses. And so that's why the military option would do much more damage than covert operations ever could.

SCHMEMANN: All right. Well, thank you. I apologize for going over time. You have our email addresses. You've met my colleague, Lucy, who's our media liaison who can help you with all your needs.

We're also interested in hearing from you if you have ideas for future roundtables that you'd like -- (inaudible). We'd be happy to do it.

So thank you all and have a good week.

More on This Topic