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Takeyh: Immediate Threat of War with Iran Now Reduced

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 4, 2007

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Ray Takeyh, CFR’s top Iranian expert, says that the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) presents a mixed picture for Iran policy. The report says that Iran shelved its secret weapons program in 2003, but Takeyh says it also makes clear that the country possesses “a vast and growing civilian nuclear program, which, if it completes the fuel cycle and if it can successfully enrich uranium in large quantities, as it is determined to do, then it still has a nuclear capability that can be easily converted for military purposes.” Takeyh adds that the immediate threat of an attack by the United States against Iran is sharply diminished, but so too is the likelihood of stronger Security Council sanctions.

The Bush administration surprised just about everybody on Monday by issuing a National Intelligence Estimate that contradicted one that had come out just two years earlier. The latest one says that Iran apparently stopped work on a military nuclear program in 2003 and hasn’t resumed it yet, and therefore the chances of its having a nuclear weapon capability now, even with all the civilian nuclear enrichment going on, has been put off as far as 2015. Were you surprised by all of this?

Well, first of all, you said that the Bush administration surprised everyone. Actually, the intelligence community surprised everyone, including the Bush administration. And also the estimate that Iran will achieve nuclear weapons capabilities somewhere between 2009 and 2015 is not remarkable. It’s part of the intelligence community’s and outside experts’ assessments, so that’s not really a particularly exceptional conclusion. And I would need some clarification about what a nuclear weapons program means. If it means developing missile technology and engineering to actually assemble nuclear materials properly enriched on top of a missile, and a delivery system, and if that’s what they’re talking about, then it’s important.

It’s important also to note that Iran does have a vast and growing civilian nuclear program, which, if it completes the fuel cycle, and if it can successfully enrich uranium in large quantities, as it is determined to do, then it still has a nuclear capability that can be easily converted for military purposes.

So, in your mind there really is reason to be concerned about Iran’s nuclear program?

So long as Iran is intent on having an indigenous enrichment capability of significance, there is cause to be concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Does it affect Iran’s position in the Middle East, for instance, if it is seen as not having an immediate nuclear weapon capability? Is that going to relax other countries?

Yeah, I think it relaxes everybody, but part of this has to do with the Bush administration’s representation of the Iran threat. The administration had suggested there was an immediate, imminent threat, which was frankly always contradicted by a body of evidence that was available even before the release of this NIE. Nobody thought Iran was on the threshold of developing a nuclear weapon anytime soon, so this was a particularly important contradiction in the way the administration had chosen to present this Iran case.

Do you think it undercuts dramatically the U.S. effort to get additional sanctions at the U.N. Security Council against Iran, or do you think that other countries will still go along with the sanctions?

There are several points to be made. First, the political ramifications of this report are significant, whether the technical aspects are sound or not. It essentially removes the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue. The president and the candidates for the [U.S.] presidency can go around and talk about all options on the table, but the military option at this point is not on the table.

It essentially removes the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran over the nuclear issue. The president and the candidates for the [U.S.] presidency can go around and talk about all options on the table, but the military option at this point is not on the table.

Does it evaporate international solidarity, particularly European compliance, with the American demands for sanctions? To some extent, yes. Part of the reason why Europeans were inclined to support the Bush administration in its financial sanctions policy was that they feared that, if they did not do so, the administration would resort to military force. Given the implausibility and improbability of the use of force at this point, that rationale is no longer valid. Therefore, I think there will be less support for a strong Security Council resolution, or even informal sanctions. They will probably still get another resolution but it’s going to be so watered down that it will be of no significance whatsoever. That means that the international solidarity that came together as a means of averting the administration from war, I think will have largely dissipated.

You’re not an Israeli expert, but this probably has a dramatic effect on Israeli policy, right?

And I suspect a disconcerting one, because, for Israelis, the nuclear program that mattered was advances that Iran was making in terms of its indigenous enrichment capabilities. That hasn’t stopped. As a matter of fact that is surging forward without any impediment or caution on the part of Iran. So for the Israelis, who had hoped that international financial sanctions or perhaps even a military solution would come to their rescue, this must be a very disconcerting development since none of those are very likely to happen anytime soon.

The excitement about the new NIE is a little puzzling because, what you’re saying, and what is obviously correct, is that nobody had found any nuclear weapons in Iran, but everyone knew Iran was trying to accelerate its uranium enrichment ability, and we know this can produce nuclear weapons. And so the principal question is how well the nuclear enrichment program is going.

Yes. That’s the big one. This is not as significant, but it does reflect some of the calculations that Iran made in light of the disclosures in 2003, 2002. Iranians clearly decided that the problem they got into was that they didn’t declare their facilities. That’s the only thing that Iran didn’t do prior to 2002. Eight years of secret work and Iran hadn’t declared its facilities to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. Had it done so, there would be no IAEA resolutions and no U.N. Security Council resolutions, because Iran’s program would have been compliant with its non- proliferation commitment. So I suspect the calculation that Iran has made was: “Look, we can have a very elaborate nuclear infrastructure that is significant, that is advanced, that is sophisticated, that gives us a nuclear weapons option, and that is legal, so long as we declare our facilities and so long as we cooperate with the IAEA.”

Iran does have a vast and growing civilian nuclear program, which, if it completes the fuel cycle and if it can successfully enrich uranium in large quantities, as it is determined to do, then it still has a nuclear capability that can be easily converted for military purposes.

Furthermore, at this particular point, Iranians are simply not going to engage in any particular activity that embarrasses Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA. He is the one that seems to be their most flexible interlocutor. They don’t want to put ElBaradei in a position where his inspectors find evidence of clandestine nuclear activity. Thus, in Iran, there is a combination of a desire to be solicitous of ElBaradei and a recognition that they can have a nuclear program that is large and significant, like Japan’s, and that is still legal.

It’s a rather baffling situation, then.

Well Japan can have a nuclear bomb in a couple of months. I mean, Japan’s program is not illegal. There are safeguards. Its program is subject to IAEA monitoring. There’s no one on the Security Council saying, we have to sanction Japan because of its nuclear weapons program. The problem, or the issue, is that the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty allows you to develop a very significant nuclear infrastructure that can be converted for military purposes on short notice, and it can also allow expertise and technology to be mastered by the member nations.

So there’s obviously a contradiction here. The headlines today suggest that the Bush administration was misleading the public about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On the other hand, you’re saying that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are still there, and they just don’t have a specific military program.

That’s right. I think the Bush administration was misleading the public regarding the immediacy of the Iranian threat. That was obvious before the release of this report.

What does Iran have to agree to that would satisfy you and others that it’s not a threat?

Well if Iran decided that they’re going to accept one of the main offers being put before them—whereby they will outsource enrichment, as opposed to having it completed on their territory—that would be an indication that it’s a country that wants to have nuclear energy as opposed to nuclear technology, which would give it a nuclear weapons option. But at this point that’s unlikely to be the case.

So if you were writing a headline on what the real situation is, what would it be?

Well I’m not good at writing headlines, but I wouldn’t go with the headlines you see in the papers. What I would say is that, you know, the weaponization part of their nuclear program seems to have been suspended and delayed, while the nuclear program is making significant advances. I don’t know how you’d capture that in a headline, but that’s the gist of the story.

Okay, and as far as Iran’s relations with the Arab countries in its region?

There are so many suspicions regarding Iran’s activities from the region that they are unlikely to be ameliorated by this report. Everybody’s a little calmer, but the real impact of this report is not going to be necessarily in the region, but it’s going to be in the European capitals, and certainly in Beijing and Moscow.

On the sanctions questions.

Yes.

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