Exploring the White House's Tough Talk on Iran

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Is the Bush administration redefining its strategy in Iraq to focus on a battle with Iran? NPR's Shereen Meraji gets reaction from Iranian Americans in Los Angeles. Seymour Hersh, writer for the New Yorker magazine, speaks about the Bush administration's changing justification for possible military action against Iran. Alex Cohen then talks to Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, who says there's no such thing as an Iran strategy.

ALEX COHEN, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

We begin today with this question: What's going on with the U.S. and Iran?

Over the weekend, General David Petraeus, the U.S. Military Commander in Iraq, told reporters that Iran is providing weapons to Iraq. And that the Iranian ambassador to Baghdad is a member of the Kudz force - that's the elite revolutionary guard unit accused of giving arms to Shiite extremist in Iraq.

In just a moment, we'll hear two opinions about the possibility of the U.S. launching a strike against Iran. But we start here in Los Angeles, where the Iranian-American population is huge.

NPR's Shereen Meraji talked to several Iranian-Americans to find out how they feel about increased tensions between their homeland and the U.S.

SHEREEN MERAJI: If you want to take the pulse of the Iranians in Southern California, first place you go, Westwood. Here, some signs are written in Farsi and shop owners prefer to greet U.S., salaam. The UCLA campus sits in the heart of the Westwood community.

This is the first meeting of the semester for the Iranians student group on campus. Aileen(ph) is originally from Esbahan but she's been studying in the U.S. for the past six years. When asked about her feelings towards Iran, she had this to say:

AILEEN (Student, UCLA): You know, it's home. In one word, home.

MERAJI: So what do you think about the United States taking military action against your home?

AILEEN: I hope it doesn't happen. I hope it won't happen in the future. And I'm pretty worried about my close family or close friends over there because when I went to Iran this summer, I saw a lot of military guards and guns and you know, everything, around the city. Iran won't just stand still. It will, like, get into a big war.

Ms. ENSAN JAZAAB(ph) (Comedian): If you don't start laughing I'll blow myself up. (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

MERAJI: Ensan Jazaab is a comedian who peppers her stand up with media stereotypes about Iranians. She agrees that if threatened by the U.S., Iranians won't stand down. She blames that on cultural bravado Westerners just don't get.

Ensan talks about a recent encounter at a Persian street fair in Westwood.

Ms. JAZAAB: Some guy was walking by, he was like, oh, what is this? An al-Qaida convention? And a Persian man goes, no sir, we're not al-Qaida. Al Qaida is Arab. We are Persian. We are Hezbollah. We don't blow ourselves up. We pay the Arabs, they blow themselves up. We are smart. I'm like, you know you don't want to brag on that.

MERAJI: Ensan says these cultural misunderstandings could be leading to armed conflict, but shouldn't be.

Ms. JAZAAB: By and large, Iranian culture is very warm. It's generous. They're very, you know, sociable people. They want to sit around and have their tea and you know, crack their pistachios and say, this wasn't a good joke. Tell me another one, you know? I don't think, by and large, we were war mongering at all.

MERAJI: Dr. Sadegh Namazikhah is head of the Iranian Muslim Association of North America. He said there's a strong connection between Iranians here and back home that makes people less likely to support military action.

Dr. SADEGH NAMAZIKHAH (President, Iranian Muslim Association of North America): In my opinion, there is no difference between the Iranian here and Iranian there when you talk about the intellectuality and education and knowledge. And who is going to be the loser if you have a war, it's going to be people.

MERAJI: Just down a road from Westwood is Beverly Hills where the mayor is Iranian, along with 20 percent of his constituency. Mayor Jimmy Delshad is a Persian Jew whop left Iran at 19 and hasn't been back in almost 50 years. It's no secret that he thinks the Iranian government is dangerous. But Mayor Delshad is careful to add that he wants a diplomatic solution to the current crisis.

Mayor JIMMY DELSHAD (Beverly Hills, California): I don't believe standing at sulking and not talking to your enemies. Not talking to them, I don't think is constructive. It doesn't mean that you're giving them PR. You talk to your enemies.

MERAJI: But Mahmoud Ghaffari thinks time for talk has passed. Before he writes for the popular website iranina.com and says there are many Iranian-American who support surgical strikes. He calls them the silent majority.

Mr. MAHMOUD GHAFFARI (Writer, Iranian.com): Many of them, quietly, are happy that something might happen. The collateral damage might be, you know, a few hundred thousand. But ultimately, I think America owes it to itself to go in and finish the job that it started out. We started the job in Iraq, and unless we finish it with Iran, unfortunately, this war is going to drag on for another 10 to 20 years.

MERAJI: Shereen Meraji, NPR News.

COHEN: For the past few years, writer Seymour Hersh, has been investigating the possibility of U.S. military action against Iran for the New Yorker magazine. Hersh said he's noticed a recent change in the explanation of why Iran is a threat. Hersh said, for a long time, the Bush administration was warning about an imminent nuclear threat from Iran, but now they're making a new argument.

Mr. SEYMOUR HERSH (Journalist, "New Yorker"): This new game, you're going to publicly explain across the border by race by saying you're protecting our voice who are being killed by the Iranians about which, let me be clear, there's a tremendous amount of debate about that intelligence or that assessment inside our own government. And more significantly, the White House Police International community will accept this more. It will - go down easier and so, that's the new game in town and it's got some traction apparently.

COHEN: So what might actually happen if we do strike Iran, how would that affect our efforts in Iraq?

Mr. HERSH: Oh my god. If struck Iran, the best assessment - first of all, there's tremendous pressure on this White House not to - politically, etc. There is pressure from the Republican Party that an envision with expand the war. There's tremendous pressure from within the military. Many of them believe also in invasion - but that's a deviation that's initially conceived the major assault onto Iran, you know? Hundreds of air force planes, lots of bombs. But the more limited option, I don't know, whether or not, I think there are more people in the Pentagon who would like to see a raid across the border. This sort of if you've been listening with General Petraeus has said, also warned about the Iranians in the same passion that the president has. The best guess is the Iranians would respond in a way that my friends - intelligence friends in Europe, who are very concerned about this - they believe that the response via Iran would be, what they call is, asymmetrical. In other words, they would not necessarily be a straightforward attack by Iranian missiles on America, or an American ally, or an Israel. But instead, there would be terror bombings, probably targeted against oil and gas providers in the Gulf. And that would drive the price of natural gas and our gasoline we use to drive our cars, and also panic many parts of the world.

COHEN: There's not a whole lot of support for the war in Iraq right now. So it seems like it'd be really difficult to sell Americans on the ideas going into Iran.

Mr. HERSH: That's what the whole new option is. They call it inside - some people call it the third way. We're doing nothing one way, hitting everything a second way. The third way is, they, you know, there's sort of surgical strike that would be limited and only explained to the American people by - we're only hitting the people that are killing our boys and that's - you've heard that. That's what they've been saying. They've been making this allegation. The Iranians deny it. And the idea is they talk internally of the polls showing that, you know, as many as a third of the Americans are sympathetic to the idea of somebody is killing our boys - let's kill them. And I think if they could continue pushing that idea and getting more support, they would feel that they had a political base for doing it.

COHEN: You make it sound inevitable. Is this inevitable?

Mr. HERSH: No. The president hasn't given an order and there's - the argument against it is immense, not only because people on the inside don't buy the presidents' definition of how involved Iran is in all this, but also because it's so inherently crazy. The only thing I do that gets me so frightened is I listen to George Bush. If you listen to George Bush before the war in Iraq, all these talk about negotiation, well, he didn't negotiate and now, they keep on talking the official White House's response to my story was the president wants to negotiate. He just goes around and doesn't talk. If he wants to negotiate as he says, negotiate.

COHEN: Seymour Hersh wrote the article, "Shifting Targets: The Administration's Plan for Iran" for the New Yorker magazine.

Thank you so much.

Mr. HERSH: You're welcome.

Ms. DANIELLE PLETKA (Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute): Not only is there a new bigger strategy to bring us to war, there is no bigger strategy on Iran.

COHEN: That's Danielle Pletka. She specializes in the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute. Pletka says it's absurd to suggest that the Bush administration is making a calculated shift in strategy to justify an attack on Iran.

Ms. PLETKA: We have always said that our concerns about Iran and about the actions of the regime are multifaceted. The nuclear weapons program has been front and center because it really is the most pressing and urgent of the problems, that their support for terrorism for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas has been on an issue for the United States and for many Europeans for years on end.

This is really another piece of that inside Iraq, is their support and training for Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups inside Iraq. But let's not also forget the oppression of their own people. That's another issue front and center. Their interference in the Middle East peace process, Ahmadinejad's suggestions that Israel must be destroyed - these are all problems with Iran.

COHEN: How serious of a threat is this?

Ms. PLETKA: Some will say or the Iranians are five years away. What are we worried about a nuclear weapon? Or they'll say, well, yes, of course, Hezbollah is a problem. But look, they're in the Lebanese political process.

My answer is that the Iranians have a strong capacity to miscalculate. They think they're on top. They're overplaying their hand in Iraq. They've now started exporting these shaped charges into Afghanistan to try and kill American soldiers there. These are risks that they're taking. They are provoking us. They are provoking our allies, and I think it's a huge mistake for them to go down this road.

COHEN: How long should the U.S. pursue diplomacy before looking at other options such as surgical strikes?

Ms. PLETKA: The real question is not whether the diplomacy is the right option or whether surgical strikes or military action overall is the right action. The real question is what's going to stop the regime's nuclear weapon program? My answer would be as long as we hold out the prospect that multilateral sanctions can begin to persuade the regime of the folly of this program, then we need to go down that road. When, in fact, there is nowhere left to go, then we're left either with the option of accepting an Iranian nuclear weapons program or the option of military action. I don't think we're there yet.

COHEN: Do you think it's necessary to fix the problems in Iran in order to fix the situation in Iraq?

Ms. PLETKA: It certainly would make our lives and the lives of those fighting in Iraq a lot easier if the Iranians were not interfering, if they were not constantly using all the tools available to them to destabilize Iraq. On the other hand, if we're going to hold out the prospect that the sine qua non of victory in Iraq is making the Iranians behave properly, then we are never going to see victory in Iraq.

COHEN: There are concerns that if we do take some sort of military action in Iran, it might wind up becoming a much more protracted situation, much as it has become in Iraq. Do you think that that might be the case?

Ms. PLETKA: No one is talking about the kind of thing that happened in Iraq. We're not talking about going in and capturing Ahmadinejad and throwing him in prison. Although, as I said, it does sound rather attractive. No one is talking about that seriously. What people are talking about is if precision strikes on WMD targets, on some intelligence targets and on missile sites, so that's a much more limited kind of an action. The problem there is that it, it really isn't a silver bullet - much like deposing the leader is not a silver bullet inside Iraq. Unfortunately, targeted strikes inside Iran will not solve the problem. None of these are 100 percent answers. Diplomacy isn't perfect, and a military strike won't be ideal, either.

COHEN: Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, thank you.

Ms. PLETKA: Thank you.

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