Middle East
12:00 pm
Thu March 15, 2012

Parsing The Potential For Diplomacy In Iran



The Iranian government continues to deny U.N. nuclear inspectors access to a military base where some believe they tested atom bomb parts. But Iran also says it's willing to resume talks with the United States and five other big powers, though skeptics argue Tehran is just playing for time. At a news conference yesterday, President Obama stressed diplomacy but added time for talks is running out.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have employed so many of the options that are available to us to persuade Iran to take a different course that the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking.

CONAN: Veteran diplomat Dennis Ross argued in a recent New York Times op-ed there's still time for negotiations in what may be the 11th hour. Where do we draw the line with Iran? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ambassador Dennis Ross, most recently served as President Obama's special assistant for the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia. He's currently a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on the program.

DENNIS ROSS: Really nice to be back with you. Thank you.

CONAN: And let me start first with the sanctions track and news today that SWIFT, the international agency that handles transactions for, among other things, oil sales, has cut off several Iranian banks. How does that change things?

ROSS: It will absolutely squeeze the Iranians even more. They had something like 2.2 million electronic transfers through SWIFT, which means they're going to have to somehow figure out a way to adjust and conduct their financial transactions as this is going to be a difficult adjustment for them. It's just going to add to the problems they already have.

CONAN: So, painting them into a corner. We've seen the rial - the Iranian currency - devalue - depends on who you talk to - 20 to 50 percent, and their ability to sell oil has been hampered. They're already trying to barter oil to some of their customers.

ROSS: They are trying to barter oil with some of their customers in some cases - India being a good example, nearly half of what the Indians buy, they pay with their own currency, which means Iran can only buy goods from within India. Many of its customers are not just bargaining hard, but they're basically saying we're not going to buy unless you discount dramatically. A lot of the Iranian oil right now is actually on ships, on tankers that they're storing because they don't want to sell it and hoping to get a better price.

And even there, they're likely to run out the number of ships that are available for them. So they're feeling the squeeze. They're feeling the pain. And one of the reasons they're prepared to return to the table under terms which they rejected a year ago at a time when they were imposing conditions. They said they wouldn't even engage in talks on their nuclear program or engage in the idea of certain conference building - certain confidence-building proposals unless in fact there was a complete ending of the sanctions or lifting of the sanctions and unless we recognize even before talks the right to enrich. Suddenly, those conditions are no longer out there. They're coming back. And the only thing that's different is they're under more pressure.

CONAN: Should the United States and its allies - this is the P5 plus one as this formulation is known - the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Should they resume negotiations with Iran without those confidence-building measures, i.e. without the IAEA inspectors getting into some of those bases that Iran has denied access?

ROSS: Well, certainly, the Iranians allowing that access would create a different kind of climate for the talks, but I think, at this point, the position we have had all along - and not just the United States but the other members of the five plus one - has been Iran should demonstrate transparency, for sure. But we're not the ones who imposed conditions for talks. Now, we have said there's no point in having talks if they're not prepared to discuss their nuclear program. Last year when the talks broke down after two sessions, one in Geneva, one in Istanbul, it was the Iranians, who as I said, were imposing conditions for the talks continuing.

Now, they're dropping those conditions. So I think it makes sense for us to engage in the talks, although I think what the president said yesterday is right, you know, the time available for talks to succeed is also shrinking.

CONAN: Does that mean that if there are a new round of talks, everything hangs on that? We're talking months is what we keep hearing.

ROSS: Well, I think there's - when I say there's time and space, I think there's time and space in the sense of months is the right way to think about this. I do think that Iran can't come into these talks and go through the motions. This time around they're going to have to demonstrate that they're serious. If the talks are going to succeed, you're going to have to see that there's not only a serious engagement, but they're prepared to consider what would be really tangible steps that would bring them back into compliance with their international obligations and restore the confidence of the international community.

CONAN: And as you look at it, though, Iran is not a unitary political system. There's considerable division between President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Khamenei - Ali Khamenei. We saw the prime minister - the president called up before the Majlis, the parliament, yesterday and getting into a shouting match with some of his critics, deriding them in some tough language. Iran has got some major problems of its own.

ROSS: You know, we have seen what is probably the most severe struggle for power since the time of the Islamic revolution itself. There is no question they have severe problems, which I think, by the way, the isolation internationally, the shift in the balance of power in the region, and the sanctions which are unprecedented are exacerbating. They're not necessarily the cause of that, but it's not a surprise that that struggle for power is becoming more acute at a time when having resources is itself something that's becoming more acute.

Having said all that, the supreme leader, I believe, is the decision-maker. I think he may well be influenced by others, but I do believe he's the decision-maker, and he's capable of making a decision. The challenge, I do think, is how he decides and what he decides is the greatest threat to Iran, and specifically the system of power that he presides over. He is someone who has built an edifice based on hostility towards us and conceding to us has always been, in his words, a problem because if - he argues and has said, as much for internal purposes as any other, I suspect, that once you begin to concede to what he calls the arrogant powers, nothing will satisfy them until the Islamic Republic itself is gone.

So the fear that if he's conceding to us, he may threaten his hold on power is one element. Conversely, if he doesn't concede and the pressure continues to build, will that, in fact, create a threat to the system of power that he presides over? If he answers the question by focusing on the consequences of not making these concessions, then there's clearly going to be a diplomatic way out.

CONAN: And we'll get callers in on the conversation in a moment, but there is historical precedent to talk about as well, and that is Khamenei's successor, Ayatollah Khomeini, the guiding spirit of the Iranian revolution, near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, announced that he would swallow the bitter poison and accept less than his demands from Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and there was, finally, an end to the bloodshed.

ROSS: You know, when you go back and you look at that historically, it's a very interesting and I think constructive example. Khomeini had declared they would fight the Iraqis forever. He said 20 years longer, whatever it takes. And then, in 1988, the Revolutionary Guard and Mousavi, who was then the prime minister, came to him and said, we don't have the troops. We don't have the money. We can't continue to carry on this war. We have to bring it to an end. You're going to have to accept the ceasefire, which was a conclusion of that war. And he then, as he said, drank the poison from a chalice - it was the equivalent of drinking poison from a chalice - and he did it because the consequences of not doing so were so high, not withstanding everything he'd said before.

Khamenei, who is the, you know, is the supreme leader today, made a decision in 2003 to suspend enrichment, and he did it at that time in the aftermath of our defeating in three weeks the Iraqi army, an army that they couldn't defeat in eight and half years and basically had to sue(ph) for peace with when they feared that they might be next.

So when there's a context created that they view as being sufficiently costly, and you give them a way out - I mean, it can't just be, you put them in the corner and leave no way out, but you give them a way out, and they feel they have to find that way out, then there is hope for a diplomatic outcome. Whether it succeeds or not, I think, depends on the question I was posing before - how does the supreme leader define what is the greatest threat from his standpoint? Does he see conceding less as the greatest threat, or does he see the consequence of the pressure continuing to build being the greatest threat?

CONAN: This is Dennis Ross, Ambassador Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, just left the Obama administration, where he was a special assistant for the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia. Where do we draw the line with Iran? Let's start with Bill. Bill with us from Iowa City.

BILL: You know, one of the things we really have to do is to convince both Iran and Israel that we mean it, that we will lead the attack if they actually get the nuclear weapon. And one way to do that would be to sign a mutual attack pact with Israel, not just nuclear technology, but them actually getting the bomb. If we did that, they would never get the bomb and Israel would wait.

CONAN: So in other words, reassure Israel - I'm just trying to clarify what you're saying, Bill, reassure Israel that should Iran actually acquire nuclear weapons, not simply the capability of making nuclear weapons, but actual nuclear weapons, we would lead the attack?

BILL: Yes. And every power has always tested a weapon before it does them any good, and also if Iran knows that they wouldn't get one. They're not suicidal. They are rational(ph) .

CONAN: And, well, Ambassador Ross?

ROSS: I think - look, this is a complicated question, to say the least. The issue, I think, with the Israelis is several-fold. Number one, they view Iran with this kind of a capability, including - even if they haven't finally turned the last screw and tested a weapon, but they have everything but that, they see it creating - casting a shadow over the region, making Iran far bolder in terms of their activity and their threats and their actions and increasing the probability that Hezbollah, as an example, would become far more aggressive against the Israelis. So they worry about that. But I think that they also worry about the fact that if Iran gets the weapon at some point, they might well use it. And I think, from an Israel standpoint, to face an existential threat and give up the military option of dealing with it is a big decision.

Now, having said that, the Israelis, by the same token, have also made it clear throughout, they have always viewed this as being not a case of Israel against Iran, but the world against Iran, to the extent to which it becomes clear from an Israeli standpoint that they know that the world, in this case led by the United States, is going to ensure that Iran doesn't cross this particular threshold - then it clearly will affect the Israeli calculus.

One fear the Israelis have is that diplomacy could drag on so long and put Iran in a position where they reach the point where they have such a depth and breadth of a nuclear program and its infrastructure that even if Israel were to act militarily, it would have almost no effect, and therefore they would be facing an existential threat, not know for sure that the rest of the world would deal with it, and would have given up their military options. So from their standpoint, they want to be certain that if a diplomacy is going to be applied, there's some kind of time frame within this that Israel doesn't lose what could be the option.

The question of exactly kinds of assurances we give the Israelis, you had the prime minister here meeting with the president. What you found were a great deal of convergence on the issue of objective, meaning prevention, not containment, preventing Iran from having such a capability and not simply living with it and containing it. You also had convergence on the issue of the means, the preferred means, meaning the best way to resolve this issue is through diplomatic means. There is still a question of timelines because the Israelis fear that they lose their military option well before the United States would do so.

And the problem here is that no Israeli leader is going to want to tie his hands and reduce his freedom of action when facing such a potential threat. He wasn't going to come here and ask the president for certain kinds of assurances that were so explicit because the president would in turn ask him for similar kinds of assurances. And I think at this stage, in effect, neither leader really wants to be in a position where their hands are tied when it comes to deciding exactly what you're going to do and at what point you're going to do it.

That said, I think there is time for diplomacy, number one. Number two, when the president says, you know, the time will run out, it's another way of signaling both the Iranians, don't come into negotiations and simply play for time or simply think that this is some kind of game and we're not deadly serious about the commitment to preventing; but it was also a message to the Israelis, saying, look, I'm not going to go into this in a way that creates a trap and is open-ended. The diplomacy will be serious. It'll be real. We need the time and space to pursue it. And you have the assurance from us that we're not simply going to be fooled.

CONAN: We're talking with Ambassador Dennis Ross. Where do we draw the line with Iran? You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. The U.S. military leaders have said they don't believe Iran is quite ready yet to build a bomb. The IAEA says a lot of suspicions, no smoking gun as yet. We have the, of course, recent example of Iraq to worry about in terms of intelligence. There's another question that has also been raised, and that is Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons of its own. Why would deterrence not work? Why would Iran use its small stockpile of nuclear weapons when it knows it would face complete destruction in return?

ROSS: Israelis, of course, have never admitted that they have such a capability.

CONAN: You and I know they do.

ROSS: There certainly is enormous suspicion that they might have such a capability. Let's presume for a moment to say that you could recreate the circumstances of the Cold War, where Israel has this capability, Iran has the capability. Why doesn't the logic of the Cold War and the balance of terror apply? I would say several factors are at a play here. One is that you're talking about a very small country with a very concentrated population looking at a regime that has a messianic kind of ideology, that has said that Israel is a tumor, a cancer to be wiped out in the area, and have talked about wiping it off the map, parading weapon systems. Their weapon systems, when they parade their missiles, actually have these slogans that this is targeted for the - what they call the Zionist entity. So if you're Israel and you're looking at that, are you going to say we can have high confidence that the balance of terror will hold? That's the first question.

The second is, the - during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had all sorts of channels of communication. Iran and Israel do not have channels of communication. Given the vulnerability that the Israelis are likely to feel, and I would say the vulnerability potentials that the Iranians would feel as well, each country would be on a hair-trigger. They could not - they would each feel they couldn't afford to strike second. The problem with being on a hair-trigger in area where there's lots of local triggers for a conflict is that you can quickly set in motion a train of events that may not be so easy to control. I've described it once as a kind of Guns of August on steroids.

And if you look at a particular scenario that is not that far-fetched, that you could see Israel and Hezbollah getting into a conflict much like what existed in 2006, as soon as it takes place in an atmosphere where the Assad regime is gone and suddenly Iran looks at Hezbollah - and Hezbollah is the only place they have successfully exported the Islamic Republic - and to see - I mean, the Islamic revolution - and to see what - see Hezbollah potentially threatened under those circumstances, even if Hezbollah is the one that's triggering the conflict, you could see the Iranians saying, you know, we're going to raise the level of – the level, the readiness level of our forces. They're going to - we'll threaten the Israelis because this is something we can't tolerate. The Israelis see this and do they wait and say, gee, we can't afford to wait and see if we're wrong about whether this is going to lead someplace?

The kind of uncertainties that are triggered are such that you could easily envision a scenario that produces a nuclear war even if it's not intended. Those who say that, you know, that Iran, once they got this would necessarily use the weapons, I don't assume that, but you can set in motion a train of events that couldn't be controlled.

CONAN: Ambassador Ross, thanks very much for your time. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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