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Samore: U.S. Planning for Possibility, But Hopes Not to Have to Use Military ‘Option’ Against Iran

Interviewer: Gary Samore, Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewee: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 9, 2007

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Gary Samore, a former National Security Council official involved in arms negotiations, says Iran is trying to buy time to forestall another round of UN Security Council sanctions and ultimately to stave off a possible military attack against its nuclear enrichment facilities. But he says that if all negotiations fail, and Iran develops a nuclear-weapons capability, Bush or the next president “is going to have to make a very tough decision about whether to essentially acquiesce in Iran developing a nuclear-weapons capacity or take military action, with all of those downsides.”

Iran has been in the news lately. There are talks scheduled between people from the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] and the Iranians on the Iranian nuclear enrichment program, as well as constant reports of Iran supplying lethal military material to Shiite militias in Iraq. What is Iran’s game here?

Both are connected. In both cases, Iran is trying to buy time to move ahead with its nuclear enrichment program, while at the same time trying to minimize the punishment the UN Security Council imposes in the form of sanctions. And the latest development is the Iranian offer to resume talks with the IAEA about ways to resolve questions about the past history of Iran’s nuclear program—at a time when the Iranians were not declaring their nuclear activities. The expectation in Tehran is that while these negotiations with the IAEA go on, the UN Security Council will refrain from passing an additional Security Council resolution imposing more sanctions. The Western powers—the United States, the UK, and France—will be pressing for a Security Council resolution sooner rather than later, while Russia and China may argue that such a sanctions resolution would upset whatever prospect there is for progress between the IAEA and Iran. Moscow and Beijing may therefore argue the UN Security Council should wait until the fall before it takes any action.

Now the IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said today reports from his inspectors who have recently been in Tehran is that Iran is slowing down its building of cascades at the Natanz facilities. Is that a political move, or could it be just a technical screw-up?

It’s clear Iran is having technical problems—not in terms of installing centrifuge machines, but in terms of operating them at high speeds. Their plan is to have three thousand machines, which is a pilot-scale facility, established sometime by the fall. But if they’re having trouble running the machines, then it would make sense that they might slow down the installation in order to try to figure out what the technical problems are.

There’s no point in putting machines in place and then running them if they break. So for purely technical reasons, Iran might have an interest in slowing down the installation process. But it could also be part of a political effort as well, to persuade the Security Council not to pass additional sanctions resolutions. The belief among many experts is that these sanctions resolutions are having an impact—not so much because of the sanctions that are formally imposed by the UN Security Council, but because of individual businesses that are acting much more cautiously about investing in and doing business with Iran, because of the anticipation that there will be additional sanctions and this could lead ultimately to a confrontation.

There is pressure in Iran to try to reduce the punishment, to try to reduce the economic penalty the Security Council is imposing. Both the talks with the IAEA and slowing down the installation of centrifuge machines might be intended for that purpose.

I always wondered why Tehran doesn’t just announce, “We’ll suspend our work on the enrichment plants for three months,” which is all the Western nations are asking for in order to stop sanctions, right?

Experts believe there are political figures in Tehran who would accept such a temporary suspension in order to get international negotiations going, including talks between the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue. But the belief is that up until now, those so-called pragmatic conservatives have been overruled by the hard-liners, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The theory behind the Western strategy is that if you increase the economic pressure enough, that will shift the balance of argument within Tehran in favor of those who argue that, for purely tactical reasons, Iran should accept a temporary suspension in order to suspend the sanctions, and then go through the motions of negotiating with an international coalition even though nobody has high expectations that such negotiations would lead to a final solution.

Now in Iran right now, it seems that President Ahmadinejad is not very popular. His government has imposed gas rationing, and they’ve upped the price. This has caused a lot of discomfort, and they’ve arrested an awful lot of people—the crackdown on women’s groups and these Iranian-Americans who’ve been arrested—you just wonder whether the pressure will build up?

That’s the theory in Washington and London and Paris. If you keep piling on sanctions resolutions, ultimately Tehran will crack and will accept the demands of the Security Council for a suspension in order to get these international talks going. And there is some evidence that there have been some political ramifications because of the direct and indirect economic sanctions, and that may help to explain why Tehran is doing these other actions in order to try to forestall further steps by the Security Council.

Let’s switch gears a bit. Iran has also been in the news because the U.S. military people as well as the head of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell, who spoke to the Council recently, have been publicly arguing that Iran is supplying lethal military hardware to Shiite militia groups who are killing Americans as well as obviously Iraqis. Any thoughts on why they’re doing this?

I can’t comment about specific reports, but overall Tehran has an interest in keeping the United States bogged down in Iraq. As long as the United States is trapped there, fighting against these various forces, it is vulnerable to any sort of retaliation if the United States were to take action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. So for purely short-term reasons, Iran has an interest in keeping the situation in Iraq unstable. It may have a long-term interest in stability, but its short-term interest is in keeping the United States tied down. Providing military support to various groups, especially the Shiite militia, is one way of doing that. It also sends the message to the United States that if you attack us, we can retaliate by increasing our lethal support for these groups and making Iraq even more of a mess than it is now.

The belief among many experts is that these sanctions resolutions are having an impact—not so much because of the sanctions that are formally imposed by the UN Security Council, but because of individual businesses that are acting much more cautiously about investing in and doing business with Iran.

Now, the anti-Bush people are still convinced the administration is considering some sort of military action against Iran. It seems a bit bizarre to me, but what do you think?

I think the administration is considering a military attack. But it hopes it doesn’t have to make that decision, because there’s a recognition in Washington that the military option is not very attractive—both because it would have limited utility in terms of how much destruction and how far it can set back Iran’s nuclear program, but also because of the broader risks that if the Iranians retaliate in Iraq or through Hezbollah in Israel, that could lead to a broader conflict in the Middle East, at a time when the United States is having enough trouble trying to manage the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran has an interest in keeping the situation in Iraq unstable. It may have a long-term interest in stability, but its short-term interest is in keeping the United States tied down and providing military support to various groups, especially the Shiite militia, is one way of doing that.

But if the diplomatic efforts fail, and if Iran begins to make progress in terms of overcoming its technical problems and still refuses to suspend its enrichment program, Bush, or the next president, is going to have to make a very tough decision about whether to essentially acquiesce in Iran developing a nuclear weapons capacity or taking military action, with all of those downsides.

For Bush to do it, I think he’d run into such a welter of criticism. You’d almost think he would want to put it off to the next president. There’s probably enough time for that, isn’t there?

Given the technical problems that Iran is having, and in fact if the Iranians make a political decision to slow down the program, either informally, as they may be doing now, or formally, by accepting a temporary suspension, that would make it easier for the White House to let this issue transfer to the next administration. Because Iran is still clearly short of having a nuclear-weapons capacity, in terms of being able to produce large quantities of weapons-grade uranium in a short period of time, they’re still probably years away from that kind of installed capacity. The president could argue that even though Iran has made technical progress, they haven’t really reached that critical threshold.

The Democratic presidential candidates, by and large these days, do they talk about Iran much?

When they talk about Iran, actually what they say is not too dissimilar from what the White House says. They say we should try to negotiate a solution to this problem, but no option should be taken off the table, and then if Iran acquires nuclear weapons it would pose a tremendous threat to U.S. interests and the security of our allies in the region. Most of the candidates have been very cautious about talking about whether they would be prepared to actually order a military strike.

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