A Plan To Derail Iran's Nuclear Program

Guests

Ted Koppel, senior news analyst, NPR
Zbigniew Brzezinski, counselor and trustee, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Many analysts argue it's only a matter of time before Iran gets its hands on the materials and the know-how to create a nuclear bomb. Zbigniew Brzezinski, White House national security adviser during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, proposes a plan to derail Iran's underground nuclear program.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel is with us today. In about 15 minutes, Zbigniew Brzezinski joins us to focus on the difficult choices the Obama administration faces in the year or so most analysts believe it will take Iran to build its first nuclear weapon.

And we want to take this advantage the opportunity to talk with Ted about some other important stories, as well. Those of a certain age will remember that John Cameron Swayze described it as hop-scotching the globe. As it happens, today it's all about important American allies, elections in Britain, strains with Israel, the slow-motion crisis in South Korea and the pullout that isn't in Iraq.

You can call and email questions now on Iran. Among the disagreeable options, is a nuclear-armed Iran unthinkable? The phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later, "South Park," censorship and Islamic outrage on The Opinion Page this week. But, we start with Ted Koppel. He joins us from his home in Maryland. The good line is down. I apologize. He's on the phone with us today.

TED KOPPEL: And it's a good phone line.

CONAN: Oh, good. Let's start first in Britain, Ted, and a lot of attention paid to the elections there and the differences between their elections and ours. They're much shorter and generally much more civil, but they have adopted an American innovation this time around.

KOPPEL: They have indeed. For the first time, they have televised debates for the prime ministership and there are three candidates, as you know. Two of them were quite well-known. One, the young Liberal Democrat, not so well-known, has proved to be sort of the star of the show, and television once again is demonstrating that it can be a transformative medium.

CONAN: The Conservatives thought after many years out of power that this was their chance and their candidate, David Cameron, all but a shoo-in this time around.

KOPPEL: Well, in large measure because Gordon Brown, the incumbent prime minister, had absolutely devastatingly low ratings, is terribly unpopular, and it was just assumed he couldn't win under any circumstances, and what I'm reminded of a little bit is the race in this country in which Ross Perot did just enough damage to the candidacy of George Bush, Sr., that Bill Clinton became the president.

A third-party candidate may not necessarily win, and nobody really thinks that he will in this case, but the fact of the matter he may be able to do enough damage that the Conservatives don't win and that Gordon Brown is able to stay in power, perhaps as the head of a collation government, but theoretically, even, he could still win.

CONAN: Well, we'll have to see how that pans out. A hung parliament, as they call it in Britain, where no party has a majority, coalitions must be built. A weak government by any definition, and certainly the Liberal Democrats are going to demand electoral reform as their price for joining any government.

KOPPEL: Absolutely, and particularly in this case, they are not as well-inclined toward the special relationship with the United States that Conservatives and Labour Party candidates have always espoused. We'll have to see what happens if and when the Liberal Democrats become a part of a coalition, but that might be one of their prices, a little withdrawal, a little moving back.

The wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan in which the British have been very solid and loyal allies to the United States are as unpopular in Britain as they have been in this country, and it's entirely possible that a great deal of pressure would be applied to start pulling troops out.

CONAN: Let's turn now to the Middle East, and George Mitchell, the special envoy of the president of the United States, has just returned from Jerusalem with, apparently, some progress.

Last week, while he was there, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said under no circumstances will we ever consider stopping construction in East Jerusalem or any part of Jerusalem. We consider it Israel's capital. These are not, as he said when he was on his visit here, these are not construction projects. This is our homeland.

But then, apparently, he's also instituted a very quiet freeze on construction.

KOPPEL: It was quiet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KOPPEL: Under Mr. Abbas spoke up, and now not so quiet anymore, and the Palestinians are talking about the possibility of coming back to what is now called proximity talks. Almost 40 years ago, when Henry Kissinger was shuttling back and forth between Cairo and Jerusalem or between Damascus and Jerusalem, it was known as shuttle diplomacy.

In effect, the we are now almost back to where we were when the shuttle diplomacy was in effect with regard to talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. George Mitchell is going to have to be the one shuttling back and forth.

CONAN: But there is also a new strategic concept that seems to be at play here. General David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, caused a stir earlier this year when he told Congress: Arab anger over the Palestinian construction limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.

KOPPEL: And the implication of that, Neal, is an interesting one because, you know, the president doesn't echo what a four star general says. A four star general echoes what the president says. But President Obama sequentially said something very similar, and the impression that you get is that for the first time, the United States is saying, you know, making, reaching some kind of an accommodation between the Palestinians and the Israelis is absolutely essential to the national interest of the United States. It is jeopardizing U.S. troops in the region, the fact that we don't have such an understanding.

You know, is that a major step sideways or even a step backwards in terms of U.S.-Israeli relations? It may be, but there was a very good piece in the Wall Street Journal today, by our old friend Richard Haass, making the point that it is his impression, at least Richard is now the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, used to be in the government at a very high rank. It is his position that even if the United States were able to bring about some kind of a resolution between the Palestinians and the Israelis, it really isn't going to have that much of an effect in Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan, or any of the places that we are so concerned about today.

CONAN: In a moment, we're going to be talking about difficult choices with Iran, but difficult choices with North Korea, as well. It now appears the South Korean ship that was sunk in an explosion a few weeks ago, well, that explosion was apparently he result of a North Korean torpedo, and now the South Korean government is trying very cautiously to figure out how to respond to that.

KOPPEL: Well, you would think that it would be relatively easy, a military tit for tat, but what absolutely terrifies the South Koreans -and quite frankly, terrifies South Korea's American allies remember, we still have, I forget what the precise number is, but in excess of 30,000 troops, American troops in South Korea is that the North Koreans have got literally thousands - tens of thousands of artillery pieces just north of the DMZ within so that Seoul is within range, that is the South Korean capital is within range of those artillery pieces.

And the expectation is that if South Korea were to take military action against North Korea that that could unleash a full-scale war, which ultimately the South Koreans and its American backers would no doubt win, but it would be at a terrible cost.

CONAN: North Korea also maybe has eight nuclear weapons. And the other part of this is given their need for South Korean particularly, aid, but American aid as well, why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KOPPEL: Look, anyone who thinks that he can answer the why as to how Kim Jong-il's logical process or illogical process works, is a far better student of North Korean affairs than I.

CONAN: And let's go one more topic, and that is Iraq. The United States claims it is on schedule to withdraw all military combat forces by the end of August, shifting responsibility to the Iraqis, on schedule to pull out completely from Iraq by the end of 2011.

KOPPEL: I don't believe it. I don't think it's going to happen. In fact, I am convinced that it is not going to happen. I will be ready to wager a solid 25 cents with anyone who wants to take it that, we will still have 30,000 to 50,000 troops in Iraq two or three years from now.

The real dilemma is going to be and remember, the Iraqis have not yet resolved their own domestic election. We don't know, yet, whether Maliki will remain prime minister. But whoever is prime minister, the only more awkward prime minister saying to the Americans we want you to get all your troops out of here and get them out immediately is if they say we need you to stay.

But the simple fact of the matter is they do need American troops to stay. They need American trainers, and they need an American air base. They need to build up an American an Iraqi air force, and they still need help for years to come. And the fact of the matter is, precisely because of the danger of a muscle-flexing Iran next door, the United States simply is not in a position where it can afford to leave Iraq entirely.

So you will see a tremendous drawdown, but I would be astonished if that drawdown takes us below 50,000 troops within the foreseeable future.

CONAN: Would a President Obama - should he be running for re-election, and everybody assumes he is - then be facing the situation where he might have to ask the Iraqi government to ask him to keep those troops there? Otherwise, as the man who campaigned on ending the war in Iraq...

KOPPEL: I think that is almost precisely what you can anticipate. And of course, the great difficulty is going to be, even if the Iraqis were to say no, no, no, no, we really want you to get out, and we want you to get out entirely, it is in the U.S. national interest right now to maintain a significant force in Iraq, precisely because of the dangers of Iran next door and because of the ongoing war in Afghanistan, all part of the same region.

CONAN: NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel, with us today, from his home in Potomac, Maryland. In just a moment, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security advisor, joins us to, well, debate the issue of Iran. Is it unthinkable that among the unpleasant choices facing the Obama administration, is it unthinkable that one of them is a nuclear-armed Iran? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking today with NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel about Iran, which continues to defy the United States and the United Nations over its nuclear program.

President Obama wants new, stronger sanctions, but has yet to convince Russia and China to come along in the United Nations Security Council. But for many, a nuclear-armed Iran appears to be just a matter of time.

Earlier this month, a leaked memo from Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested the U.S. does not have a long-range policy to deal with an Iran that developed nuclear weapons. In other words, there's no Plan B.

Zbigniew Brzezinski has his ideas about that. He served in the White House as national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, a position he held when the Iranian Revolution sparked the hostage crisis in 1979. He joins us in a moment.

We want to hear from you, too. If you have questions about the few available options on Iran, give us a call. It is unthinkable for Iran to become a nuclear-armed power? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Zbigniew Brzezinski is now counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington, D.C., and joins us today here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us again.

Dr. ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI (Counselor, Trustee, Center for Strategic and International Studies): It's good to be with you.

CONAN: And the question about the future, well, obviously everybody would want to do everything they can to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But if the inevitable happens, is that acceptable to the United States?

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: What is the alternative? Is the alternative to go to war? I think President Sarkozy of France once put it extremely well. He said that an Iranian bomb will be a disaster. He said bombing Iran will be a disaster. I think he's right on both scores. So we have to figure out something that is neither the first, nor the second.

CONAN: The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said very much the same thing, which suggests that the Obama administration is not, well, eagerly looking forward to the option of a preventive strike.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: We have to be sensible about this. We're deeply involved in Afghanistan. We are still present in Iraq, and you were just talking about this a few minutes ago. We have an unsettled situation in the Middle East, more generally. Do we want another war? Do we need another war? What will be the consequences of another war for us militarily, economically, internationally?

Yes, an Iranian bomb would be a disaster, but an unpredictable war that we start ourselves could also be not only a disaster, but potentially even a bigger disaster. So we have to cope with the situation in a reasonable, long-term fashion.

I think we have time, in terms of Iranian political change, is going to take place. And it's important in the shorter run not to do things which precipitate political change, while at the same time coping with any possible threat that Iran poses. And there are ways of coping with the Iranian nuclear threat if it comes to that.

CONAN: Wait a minute. You said - I'm sorry, Ted, did you want to get in here, I'm sorry?

KOPPEL: No. Although I was about to say, and fortunately for me, that I agree entirely with Dr. Brzezinski. If I may, let me just throw in that wonderful - remind your listeners of that wonderful scene in "The Princess Bride" in which there's this little man who keeps saying about difficult situations, it's inconceivable. It's inconceivable.

That's more or less - and at one point, the hero turns to him and says, you know, I don't think you really understand what that word means. You know, to say that is inconceivable for Iran to have a nuclear bomb, I think, is to avoid what is almost inevitable. I think they're going to have a nuclear bomb.

There's not much we can do about it, and I think Dr. Brzezinski is exactly right that instead of thinking short term, we need to think long term, keep them contained as best we can until such time as there's a different group in power.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Let me add, if I may, to that. I think Ted put it very well. There's one thing we can do. If it becomes clear that sanctions don't have an effect, and if it finally dawns on us that making vague threats is, in fact, counterproductive, then I think we have to face the possibility that Iran either will have the bomb or will get itself in a position much like today's Japan, namely that it could have it very quickly.

And at some point, probably before that, we should make it very clear to all concerned that any threat of the use of force by Iran, an Iran with a nuclear capability, against any state in the Middle East, Arab or Israel, would be viewed by the United States as a threat against itself.

In other words, we will be extending our nuclear umbrella. We'll be using nuclear deterrence, which we have used effectively - vis-a-vis much more threatening powers, namely Soviet Union and Mao Tse-tung's China - to the Middle East. And I think that is the best and most constructive longer-term solution to what obviously is a very unpleasant challenge.

KOPPEL: And quite frankly, Neal, I don't think the Iranians are looking to acquire a nuclear capability for aggressive purposes. I think they look at what happened with North Korea, where successive administrations have been increasingly tough in their rhetoric toward North Korea until - when? Until such time that they had a few nuclear warheads.

You know, in some curious way - and you and I have talked about this many times in the past - the American public is quite comfortable, or seems to be quite comfortable with the notion - maybe because we don't talk about it a lot - that a country that is an Islamic country, that has a very strong Islamic militant force, namely Pakistan, has 60 to 100 nuclear warheads. That's a real threat.

Iran with two or three nuclear warheads I think would feel much more confident. I don't think they would represent an offensive threat.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Linda, Linda calling from Princeton, New Jersey.

LINDA (Caller): Hello, there. I wanted to ask Mr. Koppel, for once I agree with him in the years - and I'm a lefty. Okay? For once I agree with him. I think that Iran, looking at the United States and the United States history, foreign excursions, adventures over the past 50 years at least, would want to arm itself against any action by the United States, especially since the United States is involved in Iran's neighbors' affairs, militarily, economically, et cetera.

So wouldn't Mr. Koppel agree that the maintenance of military bases in Iran - in Iraq, rather, the next-door neighbor, and any number of troops is going to be a continually exacerbating factor in, you know, propelling Iran to seek some sort of protective device in the form of a nuclear deterrent.

KOPPEL: Well, our wonderful friendship lasted for about 10 seconds because we're going to disagree right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LINDA: Okay.

KOPPEL: I'm afraid that I think that the United States has such enormous economic and strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, that absent its ability to have - as it did back in the days before the shah was overthrown - Iran as a surrogate in that region or Saudi Arabia as something of a surrogate in that region, I think it needs the kind of presence that it now has in Iraq.

And quite frankly, I think from a strategic point of view, one of the worst things that ever happened to U.S. interests is that Saddam Hussein was overthrown because he at least acted as a counterweight to the Iranians. Such a counterweight no long exists.

LINDA: Mr. Koppel, may I ask you one more question?

KOPPEL: Of course. Are we still friends?

LINDA: Well, I don't have any enemies. People regard me as an enemy, but I don't regard other people as enemies. My final question, a serious one, is: None of those countries that we're discussing right now, they seem all to have tolerated fairly well American foreign policy, as horrendous as it's been at times. What - the thing to me is: What moral basis do we have for doing what we're doing in the Middle East - moral?

KOPPEL: Yeah, no, I take your point, and I'm going to respond with a...

LINDA: If anyone did it to us, I hope we'd be out in the street arming ourselves and protecting ourselves.

KOPPEL: I think you make a very legitimate point, but the fact of the matter is if the American public were confronting eight-dollar-a-gallon gasoline, they would be out in the streets here, and you're quite right with the implication of your question, and that is we're not in that region for any particular moral issues. We're in that region because of oil and natural gas.

LINDA: Thereby, as...

CONAN: Linda, you promised only one more.

LINDA: Okay. Are we not there...

CONAN: No, no, no, we're moving on to give somebody else a chance, Linda. Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can get Moji(ph) on the line. Moji's on the line from Tucson, Arizona.

MOJI (Caller): Hi, thank you for having me. I think the underlying double standard of the U.S. policy toward Iran, since the overthrow of Dr. Mossadegh in 1963, has been a colonial, racist policy which is exacerbating the struggles of people like Mir-Hossein Mousavi, for whom I voted.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. The reformer candidate in the previous Iranian election.

MOJI: I am a green Iranian, and I am a moderate, quote-unquote "moderate" Muslim. However, the U.S. foreign policy in that region puts moderate Muslims in the position of collaborators with their colonial enemy. Therefore, it undermines the morality of the struggle of the people in the region to rid themselves from colonial hegemony exercised by the U.S. and, of course, Israel.

CONAN: Moji...

MOJI: Therefore, this lie that Iran is developing nuclear weapons is there because the U.S. foreign policy directed by Israel needs a monster. Soviet Union is gone as a monster. Now, a new enemy is needed in the region, and Muslims and terrorists and all these things are created purposefully in order to justify the U.S. foreign policy's aggressiveness in the region. And, therefore, it undermines democracies, human rights...

CONAN: All right. Moji, thank you for that. And I wanted to put some of that to Dr. Brzezinski - not the legacy of colonialism so much, but, really, he raises a point that moderate Iranians, the people who supported the reformers in the presidential elections last June, the people who came bravely out into the streets to demonstrate against the government - would U.S. support of this movement be helpful or hurtful? Wouldn't they be tarred with the brush of being, as Moji would say, collaborators?

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: I mentioned that earlier when I was speaking of other possibility of longer-term political change in Iran, and that is something we very much have to keep in mind. Iran is not a homogeneous country. The theocratic regime that defines Iran doesn't really define the reality of Iran because many Iranians are already highly educated, open to the world.

Remember the pictures of the young Iranians demonstrating at Dhahran? They, in fact, could have been pictures from a European city. We tend to overlook that there are more women studying in universities in Iran than there are men. In brief, we have the potential in Iran for gradual change towards something which increasingly, over time, will be like Turkey.

We have, therefore, to be mindful in responding to the current challenge of the nuclear problem, by not acting in a way that, in fact, stimulates very hostile anti-American Iranian nationalism. The fact of the matter is that most liberals in Iran - as far as we know, they're having public opinion polls to the effect - favor, for example, the nuclear program. We have to manage our relationship with Iran in such a way that it doesn't break out into open violence, doesn't provide more political impetus for the theocratic fanatics, and which over time facilitates peaceful change in Iran. That has to be the long-term strategic objective, and that requires some subtlety, as well as some strategic imagination in dealing with specific nuclear program.

CONAN: We're talking with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Of course, NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel is also with us. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you about some other actors in this. Israel has suggested, at various times, that it may want to preemptively strike Iran's nuclear facilities. It has already done so in the past, in Iraq and in Syria. That is one aspect of this that we've not mentioned, Dr. Brzezinski.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Yes. It's a possibility, although there are some Israeli strategists who warn that this will be very futile and counterproductive, that it would only set back the Iranian program by maybe one or two or three years, and that it would create very dangerous circumstances for Israel itself in the region.

And, of course, it would be very awkward for the United States, because any Israeli attack on Iran would be viewed by the Iranians as having been connived with the United States, and especially so if Israel uses American-controlled airspace over Iraq. And that means that Iranian retaliation probably would be less directed at Israel itself because it's not that easy for the Iranians to really hit Israel hard. But it will be directed against us, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Strait of Hormuz. Ted has already referred to the possibility of $8 per gallon -see how the American people like that. And there will be a Shiite al-Qaida then mobilized among the Shiites.

I fail to see what advantage there is in that for the United States. And this is why we - as a partner of Israel, with whom we have a very direct relationship - ought to be very clear in saying that we do not think that an Israeli attack on Iran is a constructive solution. It's only effect can be to entangle us in a war with Iran, and that's not to be wished for.

CONAN: Let's go next to Len, and Len's with us from New London.

LEN (Caller): Hi, gentlemen. Do you think Obama will lose a second term if he allows Iran to have a nuclear weapon? Thank you, and I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Okay. Ted, I think that's in your ballpark.

KOPPEL: Well, I don't think that that's going to be of - with all the controversial domestic problems that the president has on his platter, I don't think that a nuclear Iran is going to be the one that decides the election one way or another. But I did want to shunt the ball over to Dr. Brzezinski and ask some - a related question here.

In the event that Iran does develop a nuclear weapon and announces it, what does that do in terms of Saudi Arabia, in terms of Egypt, in terms of some of what we consider to be the moderate, stauncher Arab allies of the United States? Wouldn't they then feel obliged also to get nuclear weapons?

CONAN: And we'll give you all of a minute to answer that.

Dr. BRZEZINSKI: Well, they might have felt that way, too, when the Israelis got nuclear weapons, because after all, they have been in a state of war with Israel, and yet they didn't, and in part because it's terribly difficult. It's not all that easy, even if you're rich as Saudi Arabia is. But there could be some tendency in that direction, and this is why we can preempt that, as well, by extending our own deterrence to the region.

In other words, if we provide a nuclear umbrella for everyone in the region against any possible Iranian threat, we, in effect, diminish the possibility of a sudden surge in the direction of acquiring nuclear weapons by the various states in the Middle East.

CONAN: Dr. Brzezinski, thanks very much for being with us today. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser of President Jimmy Carter and now the counselor and trustee at the Center for the Strategic and International Studies. He joined us here in Studio 3A.

Ted, we'll talk to you next time.

KOPPEL: I look forward to it. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: NPR senior news analyst Ted Koppel, with us from his home. In just a moment, "South Park's" depiction of the Prophet Muhammad is on the Opinion Page, but you can't see it. New York Times' columnist Ross Douthat will tell us why.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: