Iran: The Nuclear Challenge

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A panel discussion marking the release of CFR's new ebook, Iran: The Nuclear Challenge. The essays in this volume, all authored by fellows in CFR's David Rockefeller Studies Program and edited by Robert Blackwill, inform readers on how, not what, to think about Iran's nuclear activities.

ROBERT BLACKWILL: Well, good afternoon. Welcome to the council. I'm Bob Blackwill, a senior fellow here. And I think you all, or many of you, have the book that we want to talk with you about today about Iran's nuclear program. I'll just say a few words about it, and then we'll launch ourselves; I'll introduce my colleagues.

The origin of the book was a conversation now I guess about three months ago in which we all noticed that punditry and prescription was dominating the discussion about Iran and its nuclear program. And there is another op-ed, as you all know, or four of them, in every newspaper every day. So we decided instead to look at the subject with no prescriptions and no ideology and no partisanship and just analytically as best we could manage, so that's what we did. Second, we decided not to write dataless essays of thousands and thousands of words. So the average length of the pieces are about 3,000 words. It's accessible; it's less -- as you see, less than a hundred pages.

In those hundred pages, we look at: the current state of the program, of the Iranian nuclear program, as best we can understand it from unclassified material; the use of sanctions and where they are and their likelihood of significantly influencing the Iranian leadership; the potential for a negotiated settlement -- and as you know, there has been -- there have been two meetings of the 5 plus one plus the Iranians and a third scheduled in a couple of weeks in Moscow; the consequences of U.S. and Israeli military action against Iran; the prospects for regime change; and finally, the issues that should be considered if Iran acquires either a latent or an actual nuclear weapons capability. So those are the subjects, and then a concluding chapter about how to think about it.

So today we're going to talk about a few of those. We're going to be epigrammatic. You'll a chance to look at the -- but we don't want to go on forever.

I'm joined here by Elliott Abrams and Rob Danin, two of my colleagues. I'm sure you know their backgrounds and -- both scholarly and as practitioners. Rich Falkenrath, I think, is stuck in the shuttle on the way down from New York, but he may come through that door. So I'm going to start and look at a U.S. attack on Iran. As I say, in each of these chapters, we try to look at the pros and cons without coming to any conclusions about how you might evaluate them.

So, analytically, let's imagine that an American president decides to use military force against Iran. What are the conditions that presumably would have been met in order for him to decide to do that? Well, first -- and this may seen banal, but -- and perhaps self-evident -- but he would have had to have decided that the Iranian nuclear programs represented a threat to vital American national interests. I say that's something of a banality because that seems to be genuinely believed across the national security elite although not unanimously. So that's first; second, that the Iranian leadership had decided if not to actually acquire nuclear weapons, but at least to establish through their programs the capacity to do so on a very short timeline; third, that sanctions and negotiation didn't promise a means to successfully deal with the Iranian nuclear program; fourth, that cyber and other covert action did not promise to sufficiently delay the programs; and finally, that in a net assessment, the pros of attack outweighed the cons. So those presumably were -- would have been in the president's mind.

Now I'll be much more epigrammatic because you're familiar with a lot of this. What would be the objectives of a U.S. attack? To set back for many years the Iranian program. I think you all know that we can't -- the United States is not in a position to prevent in perpetuity the Iranian program. We only can delay it because they have the technical capacity of course to reinstitute and the scientific know-how. So put it -- set it back for several years. Second, what would be the target set? Well, the most important targets, five or six of them, would be the buried uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and the more -- newer Fordo uranium enrichment facilities buried in the mountain near Qom, the reactor under construction at Arak, the Iranian conversion facility at Isfahan, possibly the nuclear reactors at Bushehr, and whatever sites that our intelligence community believe are either known or suspected weaponization sites.

How long would the attack last? Well, there it's a conceptual dilemma for the president and the U.S. military because, in terms of the international reaction, it would be probably better if it lasted a brief time because international opposition might well increase as time passed. But the issue is whether the military goals that I mentioned a minute ago of substantially setting back the program for several years could be accomplished in a brief military operation of, say, several hours or would it take several days or even longer to accomplish that.

What would be the potential Iranian responses to a U.S. attack?

And here I'm -- just because of the time constraints, I'm just going to give you the escalatory ladder, beginning, perhaps, with the mildest reaction and going up the ladder. But here I want to mention a theme of the book or the origin of the book. You'll notice that those who favor an attack, I would say almost unanimously, minimize the Iranian reaction, and those who are against an attack maximize the Iranian reaction. And, of course, it's difficult to know. But anyway, I'll just go right down them to end my part of the initial presentation.

So the first thing they would do is end -- in the face of an American attack -- end all negotiations with the West on their programs. And then going up the ladder, they would presumably accelerate, rebuild, disperse and hide their facilities with even more determination to acquire nuclear weapons as a deterrent of future U.S. attacks.

They would perhaps seek to persuade or coerce Muslim countries to restructure their relations with Iran in a more positive way and damage their relations with the United States. They could -- continuing up the ladder -- try to promote an oil boycott against the United States if they could find sympathetic countries. They could encourage domestic unrest in Arab countries in the face of an American attack, especially those friendly to the United States.

They could prompt, perhaps, massive Hezbollah and Hamas missile barrages against Israel, continuing up the ladder. They could attack -- Iran could attack Israel directly with Shahab ballistic missiles, attempting to draw Israel into the war if they thought that would be in their interest. They could conduct clandestine violence against American facilities and citizens throughout the Muslim world and beyond, the American Express in Paris or such targets.

They could increase material support for Taliban operations against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, something they're already doing, according to the media, and seek to accelerate radical Shia terrorism against U.S. facilities and personnel in Iraq. They could target energy production facilities in the region, especially in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf.

And now continuing up to direct attacks on the United States, they could attack U.S. warships in and around the Gulf, mine the Gulf, attempt to close the Straits of Hormuz, where, as you know, 20 percent of world oil trade passes, thus producing a sharp spike in global oil prices. They could use ballistic missiles to attack U.S. military installations in the Gulf.

And finally, perhaps at the top of that escalatory ladder, they could conduct terrorist operations against the American homeland, including through Hezbollah agents who are already well established in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

So that's the -- that's the Iranian escalatory ladder. And it's very difficult to know, in the face of an American attack, how far up that ladder they would go, although you see lots of opinions about that.

I'm going to stop there and ask Rich Falkenrath, who's joined us, to talk about an alternative, which is, first of all, what's the state of the program, and then second, what are the opportunities and chances for this issue being resolved, the Iranian nuclear programs, through negotiation? So Rich.

RICHARD FALKENRATH: Thank you very much, Bob. My apologies for being traffic-delayed getting here.

The state of the program I think it's useful to divide between what we know and what we assess or what we don't know. So we know they have a uranium-enrichment complex that is currently operating some several thousand centrifuges that were procured covertly and in violation of Iran's IAEA and NPT commitments, mostly from the A.Q. Khan network in the 2002 to 2004 time frame.

Those enrichment operations began in 2007 and are being carried out at the moment currently at a facility in Natanz, which is only partially buried, but increasingly at a second facility in Fordo, which is deeply buried and thus more immunized from external military strike. According to the IAEA, the estimate is at the moment Iran has a stockpile of 6.2 tons of 3.5 percent enriched uranium and some subset -- the exact number is known (sic) -- enriched to about 19 (percent) to 19.5 percent enriched uranium.

If you forgive me, a slight technical anecdote: Uranium that comes out of the ground has a natural enrichment of .7 percent U-235, U-235 referring to the number of neutrons in the uranium -- in the uranium atom. That is not useful for weapons and, in most cases, not even useful for a nuclear reactor. It really needs to get up to about 90 percent to be useful for nuclear weapons.

The 3.5 percent enrichment level that they have happens to be the enrichment level most commonly used in reactors. It's called low- enriched uranium. So it is, in principle, dual-use. It raises suspicions because the reactors that Iran has in Bushehr are being supplied separately under a fuel agreement from the Russians, so why do they need their own indigenous supplies? And of course the centrifuges they're using -- (inaudible) -- were procured in violation of their agreements secretly and undercover. So it is suspicious.

That amount of uranium -- it's a complicated technical calculation, but if you were to continue to enrich that amount of low- enriched uranium, 3.5 percent enriched uranium, the 6.2 tons, you would end up with a much smaller quantity of highly enriched uranium -- it's just a physical question of how you get there -- of about -- enough HEU, 90 percent enriched uranium, for five nuclear weapons today. And there's a lot of variables that go into it, and there's an error bar in these assessments, but that's a fairly conservative assessment.

To do that, Iran would require doing something that we would detect, which is to change the enrichment operation of its centrifuges where IAEA inspectors currently are. They -- either the IAEA inspectors would notice that, or they would be thrown out. So we'd have some warning, and it would take some number of months, probably three, four months to enrich the 3.5 percent uranium to a bomb level.

That's the part we know about, and it's actually -- these are -- this is the declared portion of the program, and worldwide knowledge of it is fairly precise. It is possible -- it always is -- that Tehran has another -- fissile material production capabilities undeclared and unknown to us. That was the case in North Korea, after all, in the '90s. This is -- and it was the case in Iraq with its nuclear weapons program in 2001 -- 1991. So that's possible, but we don't know. That's an unknown unknown.

The known unknown is the state of the weaponization program. And in order to build a weapon, you've got to do a lot of other things besides fissile material, and you have a lot of choices about how to do it, what design to use, how to configure it, how often to test it, how tightly to compartment it, how many people to involve in it -- many, many choices. And here the intelligence is more complicated and uncertain, both what's known publicly and, indeed, what's known behind closed doors in the U.S. intelligence community.

A famous NIE from 2007 assessed that Iran stopped weaponization work in 2003, around the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. That assessment was controversial -- (inaudible) -- and we're not in a position to evaluate its correctness or incorrectness right now. But there is a view that the actual work on building the bomb that would turn into a -- the device that would turn into a bomb with fissile material at its core -- that work was that on -- work on that was halted in 2003. We -- if that's still the case, we don't know. If it -- they had changed it, it's one of those sorts of analytic and intelligence questions for which you don't have high confidence that you would know it had been changed. So even if it were right then, if they decide to do something different now, our ability to know that is low, and we just have to be very modest.

There is some indication in a number of different places that they have a nuclear weapons design that they are working on, and they have certainly people with the expertise to assemble basic uranium- based -- highly enriched uranium-based weapons that could be used for bombs.

The third part of it is a delivery system. And here the main delivery system that we think about is a ballistic missile, and they have quite a large and diverse ballistic missile arsenal, no ICBMs at the moment, but a number of medium-range ballistic missiles that comfortably reach Israel and southeastern Europe and the region. They are the -- in many cases, the best delivery weapon -- the best delivery system for a nuclear bomb because they're so fast and hard to shoot down. Problem is they actually -- it's a bit of a design challenge to figure out how to take a bomb and stick it on the top of a ballistic missile and fire it at Mach 20 through the atmosphere and re-enter the atmosphere at the same velocity and have that all work.

So it's a somewhat complicated technical challenge, and it will take them some time and some testing, which is externally observable, which they have not, to the best of our knowledge, carried out. They have tested ballistic missiles repeatedly, but they obviously haven't tested a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile. They can't really. And so they would need to do that before they had a reliable nuclear weapons capability.

And so that's a very quick summary of what we know about the program, what we don't know and what we assess. There's another part of it, which is four -- which -- this is an interesting anecdote -- four of the scientists who work on it have been assassinated in the last year and a half, which is a(n) interesting fact.

Now, on the prospects for a negotiated settlement, the subject of the chapter I wrote, the Iranian government -- the position of the international community, the P-5 plus one, Germany plus the European Union is, under U.N. Security Council resolution, that Iran has to stop all enrichment, full stop. It's fairly straightforward policy. And Iran has said at every opportunity, with essentially no deviation, they will never agree to that, that this is a matter of national sovereignty and it's guaranteed to them under the NPT, and they're going to keep doing it. And in fact, they've -- seemed to have elevated the issue to one of national significance. But you know -- you know, beyond its intrinsic importance, that's their position.

So the talks -- it took two years to get back to the table after previous EU attempts at it had failed. They are now back to the table. They've had two rounds -- everybody knows this -- Istanbul and Baghdad. They're scheduled to have another round in Moscow next month. From afar, watching it and trying to read the tea leaves of what's going on, they're not going particularly well, and it has been a bit of a triumph merely to get -- at the last round to get an agreement to have one more round and to keep talking.

And I would have to say two things. First, the national interlocutors with Iran seem held together by a rather fragile consensus of what to ask for. And there's various different alternative diplomatic scenarios that we can assess and talk about, and if we have time, we will. It's not clear to the extent to which they're really accepted by all the interlocutors on the other side of the table from the Iranians.

On the Iranian side -- others may have better insight into this -- to the best of my reading of this, gives absolutely no record, no evidence in any statement or action, that they are prepared to permit the meaningful, real curtailment of their nuclear weapons mobilization timetable that a nonproliferation official will be seeking in this scenario.

And there are things you can do that are not meaningful, that are sort of confidence-building measures, like capping, for the moment, their enrichment to the 20-percent level, but not removing the material from Iran. That is something which, if the international community were to agree to with Iran -- and Iran would be very smart to take it because it would permit it do an enormous amount of enrichment that would be extremely weapons-useful, and it would have no impact whatsoever on how quickly they could acquire a nuclear weapon or how many weapons they could acquire. And that's a function of the physics of uranium enrichment operations.

There are other scenarios, like physically removing the enriched uranium from Iran, that do make a difference. And if Iran were to agree to that, if you were to -- somehow to persuade Iran that, yes, you can do the -- you can exercise your sovereign right to enrich, have at it, and after you do that, we'll take it out of the country -- that would matter. I mean, that deprives them of the physical ingredient necessary to build the bomb. And so there were -- there's a proposal along those lines tabled by the international community, but the removal from Iran was rejected.

And from my vantage point as someone who's studied nonproliferation, it's for a quite sensible reason, which -- it actually would make a difference. If the enriched uranium were removed and the Iranians couldn't access it, it wouldn't be useful. And so they'd merely be spending a lot of money and energy rearranging the neutrons on uranium hexafluoride to have them be exported from the country. And so it would be a rather foolish thing to do from every respect.

My own personal vantage point -- and this is not advocacy, this, I think, is an analysis -- is that these -- this round of talks has no prospect of securing a meaningful curtailment of the uranium nuclear weapons -- weaponization timetable. That does not mean that there will be an Iranian bomb in a year; it just means that I don't see Iran eliminating its ability to step right up to a nuclear threshold. At least I see no evidence why they would do that. And therefore, other objectives are likely to be driving this separate and apart from the one that ordinarily drove, say, an arms control negotiation during the cold War, which was an attempt to, in a negotiated way, achieve a more stable military equation in the region. That I think you would have to be Pollyannish in the extreme to see that as a plausible outcome of the current round of talks.

BLACKWILL: Thank you, Rich.

Elliott Abrams on regime change.


Regime change as a subject comes up whenever we discuss Iran, for one reason, which is that this goal of changing regime policy has not been achieved. There have been sanctions on Iran for a very long time. There have been efforts at the U.N. to get Iran to change its policies in a variety of areas, one of them, of course, being the nuclear question, but others - support for terrorism, for example, we haven't had a lot of success. If you think of Iranian policy 10 years ago and Iran policy today, there is a great continuity, a great steadiness. The question then arises, well, if the regime cannot -- regime policy cannot be changed, why don't we change the regime?

The first question that arises if you think about that is, well, would a different regime react -- would a different regime act differently? It's pointed out, for example, that the nuclear program began in at least some form under the shah. But the question that's raised is, would a new regime, not the Islamic Republic, perhaps a democratic regime, act differently?

And here I think there's a pretty good argument that the answer is yes, unless you believe that Iran has eternal interests that are completely at variance because of the United States, that it has fundamental interests as a country that will lead it into confrontations with the U.S. I think that's a hard argument to make.

First of all, there was a previous government, the immediately prior government, which was an ally of the United States. And we don't have the kinds of problems, for example, border dispute, that's going to be a perennial. So if another regime, if a successor regime has a very good chance of being more friendly to the United States, not in confrontation with the United States, why not try regime change?

The first question, I think, to ask then is, what do you mean by regime change? What is being proposed by this? Does it mean creating instability and violence in Iran? Does it mean arming rebels against the regime in Tehran? Does it mean seeking a mass uprising against the government? That is a difficult path to go down.

First of all, it could fail. That is, we could seek to overthrow the government of Iran and fail in doing so. And that would likely produce even worse behavior for the United States and worst conduct generally on the part of that regime than we are seeing now, if you assume that regime survival is probably the top interest of that regime, like so many others.

Even a successful policy -- suppose you say, well, we ought to pursue this and in one or two or three or five years we would be able to overthrow the regime, of course then we get to the timetable question. If you are attempting to solve the nuclear standoff and prevent the regime from getting nuclear weapons, and you believe that they could have a weapon in a year or two, a two- or four- or six-year plan to overthrow the regime is not going to help you.

In fact, the effort to overthrow the regime, if it is this kind of intense effort, could lead them to speed up the nuclear program even faster than it has been going in recent years.

So one other question to raise about such a -- such an approach: Do we have the tools for success? Do we know enough about the country, the people, the opposition to the regime, the potential opposition to the regime to make us believe that such a policy has a good chance of succeeding?

I'd add one other caution against such a policy. We have an international coalition against Iran. One can debate how effective it is, but if you look at the level of sanctions against Iran, it goes up because we keep getting votes in the Security Council. And that coalition includes, obviously, the center around the P-5 plus one. Such an effort at regime change might destroy that international coalition.

So what does that tell you? If you don't -- if you reach the conclusion that that's not a smart path to go down, you drop it. Are there no other options in pressing the regime? Here, I'd say there's at least one alternative that recent history presents, which is the American relationship with the Soviet Union in the last, what, 10 or 15 years of the Soviet Union, in which we attempted to constrain their conduct, which presented a military and ideological challenge.

We made clear our desire for the demise of the regime, but we did not engage in this narrowly defined effort at regime change. We did not seek in, you know, in 1985, 1990 uprisings, military confrontations in the -- in the Soviet Union. One thing we did do was we blunted their effort to use victories overseas, including military victories overseas, to present a picture of great success and to cow their own population. We did this mostly in the Third World. That is an approach that certainly presents itself with respect to Iran.

We didn't use economic sanctions against the Soviet Union in those latter years. As a matter of fact, U.S.-Soviet economic relations probably improved in those years. We did use a very strong ideological element in the approach to the Soviets. We spent a lot of money on it; we spent a lot of energy on it.

I would say objectively speaking, we're not doing that now. If you look at the money we spend on what's sometimes called democracy promotion in Iran, it's about a million bucks a year through the State Department -- a million two, I think, which by the standards of Washington is a really small program. And it hasn't been significantly increased since the June 2009 Green Revolution.

One could ask the question whether such a program would elicit a very strong reaction from Iran, this kind of ideological challenge. Here I would say the indications are probably not. The economic pressure, which is really very serious now, has not elicited much of a reaction from Iran in terms of change to policies. If you think of the change from a Bush policy, which was more confrontational, to an Obama policy, which was an offer of engagement, you really had no significant response from the Iranians.

What would a policy like this look like? You'd have more rhetoric about Iranian human rights abuses, lack of freedom, more about the cost of the regime to the Iranian people, more about Iranian support for terrorism. You'd seek a kind of pariah status for the regime in the international community and at the United Nations. You'd challenge the entire ideological basis of the regime.

You'd make an effort to break through what the president called the electronic curtain that Iran is increasingly building. We're doing that, but you'd -- Internet freedom, Internet access -- you'd do that. We do it. You'd do more of it; you'd do it better. We'd do broadcasts into Iran in Persian. Against, we would do more of it; we would do it better. We'd be addressing the people not the regime.

Is that regime change?

Well, you know, it depends on your definition. Do you mean, by regime change, the narrow definition of seeking to overthrow the government in the next year or two? Do you mean an ideological challenge seeking to undermine the regime over a 10- or 20-year period, something more on the Soviet model? There's a wide area, I would argue, for the United States to think over.

We have not done that highly activist approach. We have not done zero. We do try some of these things. There are American programs in these areas. And the task today is to judge the risks and rewards of these various forms of quick-motion or slow-motion efforts at regime change in the context of the nuclear and diplomatic and economic confrontation we're now in with the Islamic republic.

BLACKWILL: Thank you, Elliott.

And then finally, our colleague Rob Danin, who will address dealing with an Iran that either has an actual or latent nuclear weapons capability.


ROBERT DANIN: Thanks, Bob.

Well, what I've done is really first tried to assess what does it really mean for Iran to have nuclear weapons capabilities. I think there's a tendency to immediately assume, in sort of conventional parlance, if you'll pardon the pun, you know, that either Iran with the bomb immediately uses it or -- and the question is -- focuses around whether it uses it to strike Israel or not -- or another tendency to then assume that you have a natural deterrence regime that emerges that -- and so that the Middle East is inherently stable and that mirrors the sort of later days of the -- of the Cold War.

And what I've tried to do is show that actually, in the -- especially in the initial period of an Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons capability that you actually create an even more unstable Middle East. And first we look at how is Iran with a bomb likely to act. Taking away the decision of whether or not it uses the bomb, which is unlikely in the first order, what is it able to do? What is it -- how is it likely to affects its behavior?

Well, I think it's safe to say that an Iran with the bomb will feel more confident, is likely to feel more assertive. And the question then is how is it able to exercise this assertiveness. Well, first and foremost is its ability to control the shipment of oil and other goods through the -- through the straits. It's able to exert its greater regional dominance and destabilize its neighbors. It will likely seek to, even more so, become the voice of Shiites everywhere and affect behavior in countries in which there are large Shiite populations, be it Afghanistan, be it Iraq, be it Lebanon, to be sure.

And moreover, it's -- at least one has to assume that an Iran with nuclear weapons -- or otherwise it wouldn't be pursuing it -- such weapons -- will feel greater -- that it has a greater degree of security and therefore is able to take even greater risks than it already has. And this is a regime that's proven its ability and willingness to take risks in the pursuit of its foreign policy. Its set of calculations are different than we see in other states, which is not to say it's irrational; it just plays by a different set of rules. And we've seen its export of terrorism, its willingness to use terrorism and use force and project force beyond its borders in ways that other states don't.

Now, what does it mean for the rest of the region? Obviously, the rest of the region is extremely concerned about Iran's procurement of nuclear weapons. That's no secret. There are questions about whether or not Iran with nuclear weapons actually has the capacity and what types of capacity it has to actually be the custodian of such weapons. There are questions about what kind of doctrine it would -- it would adopt with nuclear weapons. Would this actually be a weapons of pure defensiveness? How would it be integrated into its overall military posture?

To be sure, it's likely that other countries are going to have to game out how to believe Iran behaves. And so one likely effect is going to be a greater effort to move closer to the Iranians to appease it, at least on one hand. To be sure, this isn't going to be -- mean that Iran has become more popular; it just means that if you're a neighbor, you want to be all the more cautious in the -- in stoking Iranian hostility.

You know, for the United States, which has been the guarantor of security in the region and has had its allies in the region rely on the U.S. pledge to prevent nuclear acquisition by Iran, this will be a great blow. It will be a blow to the U.S. standing, U.S. prestige and U.S. interests in the region.

How will countries like Israel react to this development? Aside from what may be a temptation to strike against Iran before it acquires a second-strike capability, which Israel is believed to have now that it has a nuclear triad of nuclear -- of submarines, aircraft and ballistic missiles, is how other countries are going to react. They will likely seek to acquire their own nuclear weapons.

Now, obviously, that will take time. And that's what creates a dynamic that is inherently unstable. How is that dynamic period in which others countries are pursuing nuclear weapons used, and what kind of alliances are formed?

So what I suggest is on the one hand, states are going to want to try to appease Iran. That doesn't mean that they necessarily gravitate away from the United States, though the United States' own credibility and reliability will have diminished as a result of having allowed Iran to attain something that the U.S. said it would not allow to happen. More generally, it's obviously a blow to the NPT. Here Iran has been a signatory and has demonstrated or will have demonstrated that it's possible to be a signatory and not acquire nuclear weapons and not face -- other than the quite brutal sanctions regime, but not face sort of a greater price for having defied the international will.

What I then go on to suggest in final to the United States -- and this is not so much policy prescription as much as sort of analysis -- again, if the goal is to maintain the regional status quo and to maintain the certain balance of power within the region, then what it's going to require is a more robust American commitment to security in the Gulf and that the status quo will not be sufficient.

I use the term "constrain" for -- towards Iran. And that means -- because there's a tendency to say, well, then we enter a new sort of containment regime. "Containment" has a certain passivity associated with it, which is why I didn't want to use that term, containment sort of as if you can draw a cordon around the -- Iran, and everything will be all right, whereas in reality, containment, at least in the Kennan sense of the word, you know, was really about having to push back on the Soviet Union, at least in its more assertive days. And I think in this -- that case, you know, then we have to think in the same terms about Iran.

So therefore, you know, in the first instance, what would be required in order to constrain Iran from benefiting from this new -- from its acquisition of nuclear weapons? Well, first and foremost would be a declaratory policy that would be very clear about the do's and don'ts. What would trigger a response? One, obviously, any use or inclination or alert status by Iran would be -- would invite an immediate American response. Secondly would be any transfer of nuclear materials, know-how to third parties. Second (sic) would be a need for the United States to ramp up its missile defense in the region to keep those states that are threatened by Iran secure. It will mean to entice others not to comply or not to rush towards Iran, or at least to constrain them from doing so.

I mean, in short, what we're really talking about is raising the price for Iran to gain the political benefits of having attained nuclear weapons and depriving the benefits of nuclear status to Iran. And that's going to require a very robust presence by the United States, along with a very assertive foreign policy and defense policy.

BLACKWILL: Thank you.

OK, I think we'll now move to whatever questions you might have. If you could identify yourselves by name and professional attachment, and we'll start over here and then go wherever you wish.

QUESTIONER: (Off mic) --

BLACKWILL: There -- Paul, there's a mic right by you there.

QUESTIONER: Oh, OK. Paul Richter with L.A. Times. Question for Richard: You say your sense is that the P-5 plus one coalition has only a fragile unity at this point in their negotiations; they're saying the opposite. What signs do you see that they are, you know, not unified?

FALKENRATH: We actually -- we did an event -- Bob chaired it as well -- in New York, and that exact same question was asked to Nic Burns about it. And I can't say I have a definitive inside cable that lays out the differences, but this is a very unwieldy coalition, and I think that there will be particular differences.

I think there are differences over the willingness to conduct it in a coercive manner. I mean, this is a -- to negotiation occurring under coercive circumstances, which is very intense; international sanctions, some of which are truly multilateral and some of which are unilateral or only carried out by a handful of the nations. And one of the things on the table is the extent to which to alleviate that and to bring them back and back off of the sanctions. And on that one, my recollection, in reviewing the sort of state of play in the different countries' positions, was there was a quite a bit of difference over to what extent these sanctions would remain in place and what sorts of steps Iran would have to take in order to back off of them.

There is this formal position, enunciated in a Security Council resolution, which is really quite categorical, in which the objective is no enrichment, period. And for the international community now -- or the six countries conducting negotiations -- to offer anything else, there's somewhat -- a bit of an awkwardness because they are on record as demanding cessation of enrichment and anything short of that in a sense requires them to go back on a prior commitment. And I think there's no doubt that the different countries have different degrees of commitment to holding the line at that.

BLACKWILL: Yeah, Paul, can I analogize for a moment?

It's always easier of course to remain unified before the other side has put forward a proposal, and we can analogize the U.S. government, which always begins to divide and contest once the other side has made a negotiating proposal. And so we're now in a situation where the P-5 plus one are simply repeating the U.N. Security Council resolution requirements. But if Iran were to itself make a proposal short of that, we would see then their reactions, and I think there would quite likely be some division among the P-5 plus one, especially on the part of the Russians, but maybe perhaps not only the Russians and then of course the Chinese.

Here, sir.

QUESTIONER: Thank you, the panelists, for the thorough analysis. And Li Ma Yung (ph) from China U.S. Daily. So far the sanctions had -- doesn't -- didn't come out -- didn't result in the uranium compromise. And recently Secretary Hillary has said that if there's no achievement in the Moscow negotiation, there would be further sanctions. So my question is, what further sanction options does U.S. have in the Iranians?

BLACKWILL: Well, there is a chapter in the book you have which looks at that, and there are two parts of it -- and my colleagues may want to chime in. One is, can anything more be done through the U.N. Security Council? And I think the general judgment is no, because the Russians and the Chinese do not wish to go further there in the U.N. with sanctions. Then, still on the process, could there be coalitions of the willing, especially the United States and Europe and perhaps some other sympathetic countries, which would go further?

But ones that have been mentioned is a broader boycott of Iranian goods beyond oil. Another is sanctions against the Iranian capacity to fly in and out of Iran; that is to say that especially the Europeans would not permit flights in or out of Iran from their own national airlines or from the Iranian airline.

Another that is -- that has been suggested has to do with Iran's banking system beyond the central bank, which of course is a subject of current discussion. So there are a variety of others. The question is, which I tried to answer and perhaps some would debate it, I don't think much -- anything else is going to happen in the Security Council, but could the United States persuade these -- its allies to go further?

I would make one other point about sanctions. And it's one that makes it analytically difficult to know how successful they are because it is, I guess, commonly believed the sanctions are now biting, at least to some degree, in Iran, and Iranians who are not in the government say that. But the regime will say that sanctions are -- will have no effect on their -- on their policies until the moment that they change their policies because of the sanctions, if they do so. So there's no leading -- early indicator of what they're going to do. And so it's difficult to know whether sanctions will actually have the effect that the P-5 plus one hopes, which is to produce flexibility on the part of the Iranian regime with respect to its nuclear programs.

FALKENRATH: Bob, can I add --

BLACKWILL: Yeah, please. Then we'll --

FALKENRATH: -- just a conceptual point, because there's an excellent chapter on this -- this is really a conceptual one. Most of what the United States has done historically on sanctions unilaterally have been direct sanctions. So you directly sanction the country in question and anyone who trades with it.

The new ground that's been broken -- and Megan (sp) goes through this in her chapter -- with Iran in the last half-decade have been secondary sanctions which don't target so much the country per se and its immediate partners, but other third parties that have dealings with both it and the United States. And for them, it's quite a large universe of people who could potentially be gone after unilaterally by the United States as punishment for their separate dealings with Iran.

And you're seeing that in the financial side too. And there is substantial room for expansion there, if the U.S. government wished to. And a lot of precedent has already been set, starting really in the latter half of the Bush administration and continuing with gusto and strong, congressional support under the Obama administration.


QUESTIONER: Hi. I'm Mark Landler with The New York Times. I wonder whether each of you would maybe take a crack at this. The Israeli argument, as you well know, is that Iran is stringing along the West and that it's in their interest to prolong this as long as possible. What signs would you look for in the negotiation that would lead you to conclude that that's in fact the case and that further negotiation plays into their hands as opposed to keeping alive the prospect for some positive developments or positive outcome?

BLACKWILL: Elliott, do you want to start this?

ABRAMS: Well, I'll start. It would be -- it's logical for Iran to be attempting to do that. And I think if we were doing a war game here and any of us were playing Iran, the logical thing to do would be to attempt to continue the talks in a fashion that does not lead to increased sanctions but also does not force them to give up anything.

So to me, the question would be whether they are giving up anything of value in the negotiation, in a deal that is proposed. That is, have they -- to the extent we know what's going on around the table -- have they offered to give up anything of real value in terms of their nuclear program? And of course, if there is a deal, have they?

That is -- for example, a deal that -- a deal in which they ship enriched uranium out of the country is a very different from one in which they keep everything they have. A deal in which they say, well, we won't enrich to 20 percent anymore but it is agreed by the P-5 plus one that unlimited enrichment to 3.5 percent is OK -- those are two very different things. Do they agree to implementation of the additional protocol and really robust inspections, and are there then really robust inspections, the kinds of things that would lead you to say that step interferes with their ability to get to a nuclear weapon.

And I think that's the real test. And if the negotiations do not lead to those steps, either because there are agreements that don't reach them or there are no agreements, then I think they're open to the interpretation that the talks have become an end in themselves.

FALKENRATH: I actually disagree with my friend Elliott here a little bit, and I think the refutation of the argument which you ascribe to the Israelis, which in fact a lot of other people hold that aren't Israeli, would be that the Iranians walk away from the talks. If they decline to continue them, then clearly there's something wrong with the argument that they're just playing the West along. And that was -- seemed to have been in the offing.

To Elliott's point, and Elliott -- there are any number of things which a crafty Iranian negotiator could put forward to tantalize us with the notion that they were really considering what we would regard as the meaningful curtailment of their nuclear weaponization timetable. There's a lot, or we could do a long list. And negotiations, though, are long and take a long time and there's a lot of other details, and there's a lot of ways to tease someone with something and then have it never come to fruition, all the while you're doing everything else.

But if they were to walk out after, for instance, a revelation that they had been attacked by an offensive U.S. information weapon, and then that would say this argument that they're just stringing everyone along actually doesn't hold water, because they just cancelled the talks.

ABRAMS: Let me just -- you know, I half agree and half disagree. That would depend on the P-5 plus one or U.S. reaction. That is, the Iranians presumably have to think about what is the reaction if we walk away from the table. And if they think the reaction is the Americans are going to bomb a week later, that's one thing. If they think what's going to happen is that the Americans and the others in the P-5 plus one will weaken their -- our conditions to get them back to the table, then that's a tactic; it's just a negotiating tactic. So walking away from the table can be proof that they don't mean to negotiate, or it can be a useful tactic in the negotiation.

BLACKWILL: Just one last point on this. And both my colleagues have mentioned this, but I'll make it explicit again, which is, if you wish to look for steps Iran could take which would prove their bona fides in, I think, our collective judgment, those steps would have to be related to lengthening the timeline for their nuclear weapons breakout. That's it. If the steps did that, then they would be consequential. If the steps did not do that, then I think it would not fit the conceptual question you asked.

Sir. We're going about 10 more minutes if you have 10 more minutes worth of questions.

QUESTIONER: Bill Jones, Executive Intelligence Review. Ambassador Blackwill, in your perspective of the consequences of an Iranian attack, it doesn't seem that you took any consideration to the reaction from the Russian and the Chinese. If an attack against Iran occurred without a U.N. mandate, as I assume would be the case in your scenario, and given the tension in the relations between China and the U.S. -- China and Russia and the U.S. at this point, it would seem to me that it might not be a casus belli but it would really put the world in a situation which we haven't been in since the Cold War, that they would see this as an attack -- especially the Chinese, who are getting a lot of their oil from Iran -- as an attack against their national interest. And therefore the world situation would change overnight as a result of this.

But that never seems to be taken, not only in your analysis but in all the prognoses that are done with regard to the effects of an Iranian attack. Could you say anything about what you think would happen? It seems to me that would be an important aspect of this.

BLACKWILL: I think it's -- it's a good point. It's in the chapter; I just didn't have a chance to do it. It isn't clear -- first of all, it's clear that the Chinese and the Russians would strongly oppose such unilateral American military action, so that's clear. What exactly they would do about that would depend on the general quality of the relationship at the time and so forth.

My own judgment is that it would likely damage the U.S.-China, U.S.-Russia relations, but I think it's hard in the abstract to be very precise about how much. But it is another factor -- and I'm glad you mentioned it -- which would have to be taken into account as you were doing the net assessment, which was, remember, the last one of my list of what a president would have had to have concluded, that this would have to be part of the net assessment and what you were trying to get done with the Chinese and what you were trying to get done with the Russians and how likely this would affect that in a negative way and how important it is.

So I think it's a good point.


QUESTIONER: Yuri Sigov, Business People magazine. I would like to ask you about the 1st of July, when the sanctions on oil export from Iran to European countries, some other countries, will be imposed. How seriously will you think it may stop or really block the capability of Iran to continue the nuclear program?

BLACKWILL: It doesn't have any effect whatsoever. It might have an effect on -- eventually on the -- or even before the sanctions go into effect -- on the Iranian negotiating position, but the sanctions -- those sanctions -- that is to say, on oil to Europe -- have nothing to do with the nuclear program. They have plenty of money to do what they want with the nuclear program. So the connection is to how much pressure they feel under and whether that would change their -- their policy.

But I think -- again, I like the question, because one of the conundrums in this -- and Rich mentioned it earlier, and all of us up here have been involved in negotiations with other governments -- they tend not to happen very fast. They tend to be drawn out because two sides -- and this is true of the U.S.-South Korean trade agreement; I mean, this is not just with adversaries -- because there's a period in which the two sides, on the opposite sides of the table, feel each other out and what are their flexibilities and what are their nonnegotiables and so forth.

Well, here we have a situation in which two countries-- and of course, I'll -- just the U.S. and Iran for -- which have been enormously hostile for three decades to one another, which have had no relationship with one another over this period, are now seeking, in an extraordinarily accelerated way, along with America's other counterparts in the negotiation, to reach an agreement with Iran while its nuclear modernization programs go on.

And the administration and the P plus 5 -- P-5 plus one have been very careful not to say, well, we only give it four more months, or we only give it six -- very careful not to. But there does come a point when there's an intersection between how much time you have in their program. So what is being asked of these negotiators is, if they can reach an agreement, a meaningful agreement that from the American perspective would be pushing out the timeline on Iran's breakout capability, they're being asked to do that in a time frame that has absolutely never been accomplished before, ever. Maybe this time it will be accomplished, and the sanctions may play a role in that, but this is tough for the negotiators.

Any other questions? Yes. I think this will be the last one. thank you.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. (Name inaudible) -- Voice of Vietnamese Americans. What leverage will the U.S. have if we engage or not engage China in the big picture comparing involvement between Iran, Pakistan, India and the Southeast Asian Sea -- now China Sea regarding the nuclear weapons and also oil, energy, in the big picture?

BLACKWILL: Well, I think it's back to the other question about -- the good question about what would be the effect -- that your colleague asked -- on U.S.-China relations in the situation we've been describing if America were to attack? And China would have a variety of means to show its displeasure, including in your part of the world. Would it? I don't know. But that would be -- that, again, would have to be part of the calculations.

FALKENRATH: If I could --

BLACKWILL: Please do.

FALKENRATH: I mean, one has to just put on the table an alternative theory, which is that such a move by the United States would be a great expression of presidential will and determination or national will and determination.

It would be the president saying, I said they could not get nuclear weapons, I meant it; I said containment is not my policy, I meant it.

So in the aftermath of that, you have to ask yourself what is the Chinese reaction. And one part of that reaction is anger. Another part is probably respect at this display of American power and determination. And it may actually also enhance America's reputation in that region of the world in the nations which are looking at China as a problem and at the United States as part of the solution to that problem, China's neighbors. So there is a down side; there is an upside; there's no way of weighing those in the abstract, I think, (in the past ?).

BLACKWILL: I think it's a good point. I would -- just one last point on this, which is, the chapter -- I wrote the one on the U.S. military option. Much would depend on the success of the attack. And if the attack seemed to be successful, if the United States, before the attack, persuasively demonstrated that it did everything possible to avoid this, if the Iranians seemed inflexible and obdurate, if, after the attack, U.S. diplomacy was successful with the region and beyond, perhaps you could minimize the effects. And that would then, presumably, influence both the Russians and the Chinese. So that too would be a factor.

But I very much reinforce what Elliott just said about the complexities of such a demonstration of American resolve. Some countries would like it; some countries wouldn't like it; and it would depend on how well it went.

I think we have to wrap up now, so -- I'm sorry, I think we do have to wrap. So thank you very much for coming.

I think there's a sandwich over there if you want to grab one as you go out the door, or whatever. Thanks for coming.







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