Pace Of Iran's Nuclear Program Is 'Overestimated'

Iranians have agreed to meet with Western officials to discuss their nuclear program, amid increasing Western concern about its purpose. Steve Inskeep talks to Paul Pillar about his article in The Washington Monthly entitled "We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran." Pillar teaches in the security studies program at Georgetown University.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now let's hear an alternative view about how to think of Iran. Iranians have agreed to meet with Western officials to discuss their nuclear program amid increasing Western concern about Iran's purpose. President Obama has said all options are on the table. Republican presidential candidates are demanding action, and Israelis have spoken of a military strike.

Paul Pillar disagrees with all of them. He's a former CIA official now at Georgetown University. He's written an article in the Washington Monthly titled, simply, "We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran." He says many politicians start with this simplistic assumption about Iran:

PAUL PILLAR: The Iranian leadership is not really rational. They're crazy. They can't be deterred.

And the problem with that is, it simply does not conform with the record of this regime's behavior. This regime, like many other regimes, is overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their power and their existence in this world - not in some after-life driven by a religious ideology.

The more sophisticated form of the argument that you hear more from policy analysts rather than politicians is that no, the Iranian regime is not a bunch of crazies, but the mere possession of a nuclear weapon would affect their behavior. It would make them somehow more prone to misbehavior in the region.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about another concern that is raised about Iran having a nuclear weapon. It is feared that if Iran has the bomb, Iran's neighbors will feel they all must quickly have the bomb. And you have any number of unpleasant possibilities as more and more nuclear-armed states appear.

PILLAR: Anytime any state that did not have nuclear weapons acquires them, it is a blow against the global nonproliferation regime. But there are a couple of historical factors we ought to keep in mind. One is, ever since President John Kennedy - news back during his presidency, about how we could have as many as 25 nuclear-weapon states by the 1970s, many of the estimates of the pace of nuclear proliferation - just like estimates of the pace of the Iranian program - have been overestimates.

Another thing to bear in mind is, given the sorts of rivalries that you mentioned in the Persian Gulf region, and given the oil resources that countries like Saudi Arabia have, the question arises: Why haven't they already taken that step?

INSKEEP: You conclude that - and I'm just quoting here - it's not clear that any of this, any of these problems we've been discussing, would cause substantial and direct damage to U.S. interests. But then there is the question: Would an Iranian bomb prove to be an existential threat to Israel - which is what Israeli officials say.

PILLAR: Some Israeli officials say that. Other explicitly deny it. In fact, a former head of Mossad, Efrain Halevy, and the current head of the service, Tamir Pardo, according to reports, have explicitly denied that it would oppose an existential threat to Israel. And it's easy to see why. Israel will maintain overwhelming military superiority against Iran, and it would be absolutely suicidal for any Iranian leader to do the nightmare thing of heaving a nuke at Tel Aviv.

INSKEEP: So you argue, Paul Pillar, that people have overestimated the dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon. And at the same time, you think people have underestimated the costs and risks of going to war against Iran. What are the costs of war against Iran? And let's not even say war. Let's say what people have been suggesting: a surgical strike, as it's sometimes described, against Iran's nuclear facilities.

PILLAR: As my friend Richard Bass of Columbia puts it: Anyone who talks about a surgical strike ought to get a second opinion. That's a euphemism for war with Iran. No one knows, exactly, what the consequences of such a war would be, whether it was started by Israel or by the United States. Iran would find ways to strike back. The economic consequences are literally incalculable, but no doubt would be immense.

And then there are hosts of other consequences. Internally, in Iran, this would no doubt lead the Iranians to make that decision they don't seem to have made yet, which is to move full speed ahead and try to make a bomb. It would also further color views of the United States throughout the Muslim world, and this would be referred to again and again as yet another instance in which the United States is against the interests of Muslims worldwide and, if anything, is out to kill them.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking as you're talking, President Obama has warned of the costs of war, but has also said all options are on the table. Republican presidential candidates have not specifically called for war, but have certainly said they would be very, very tough on Iran. Why do you think that there are so many people across the political spectrum who are willing to entertain the thought of military action here?

PILLAR: Number one: The Iranian regime is a loathsome regime, but that evades the issue of what difference a nuclear weapon would make. I think the fact that we're hearing a surge of commentary and debate about this has much less to do with anything the Iranians are doing in their program. It's much more a matter of politics. And all we have to do is listen to the Republican primary campaign to see how that's playing.

INSKEEP: Paul Pillar is a former senior official of the CIA, now at Georgetown University, and the author of an article in the Washington Monthly called "We Can Live with a Nuclear Iran." Mr. Pillar, thanks very much.

PILLAR: Thank you, Steve.

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