Experts Discuss Nuclear Proliferation

The nuclear programs in India, Pakistan, and Iran have all been in the news lately. To parse out the latest developments in nuclear proliferation, Host Liane Hansen speaks with Michael Krepon, of the Henry L. Stimson Center and George Perkovich, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Syria is only one of several nations that the International Atomic Energy Agency is keeping an eye on. India, Pakistan and, of course, Iran have all been in the news lately because of their nuclear programs. Michael Krepon is an expert on South Asia and nuclear proliferation as well as co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center. And he joins us. Welcome to the program, Michael.

Dr. MICHAEL KREPON (Co-Founder and President Emeritus, Henry L. Stimson Center): Thank you.

HANSEN: George Perkovich is the director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Welcome to the program.

Dr. GEORGE PERKOVICH (Director, Non-proliferation Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thank you.

HANSEN: And they've both joined us to talk about this latest round of nuclear activity. Michael Krepon, I'd like to start with you because back in August of 2007, the United States and India cemented a deal that would give India access to nuclear fuel and technology for energy use. But this has been met with strong resistance from some sectors of India's parliament. In your opinion, is the deal dead?

Dr. KREPON: I don't think it's dead, but I think it could be suspended. A coalition government is managing Indian politics, and it's a very fractious coalition. Left parties would not have a problem if India signed a nuclear deal with China. But they do have a problem with the nuclear deal with the United States. And the right-of-center parties, which would have loved to strike a deal, they're playing a cynical game, and they are not supporting it.

HANSEN: So what would a suspension of the deal mean for India?

Dr. KREPON: Well, it will mean national elections in India and a new coalition government. There'll be a new government in the United States. And it's conceivable that some kind of a package deal could move forward. But we're talking about two very contentious democracies. They like to lead, but they don't like to follow.

HANSEN: Let's talk about Pakistan, and I'll ask this of you, George Perkovich. International investigators recently found electronic blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon. The blueprints were on the computers of a nuclear-smuggling network run by A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani nuclear scientist. And there's no way of knowing how many copies are out there or who has them. How concerned is the international community about this?

Dr. PERKOVICH: Well, there's a lot of concern. And one thing to note, that the reality is that this blueprint was found in the computer of a Swiss family. Not the Swiss Family Robinson, the Swiss Family Tinner. They would know where they had forwarded these blueprints. But yeah, it would be of great concern if those blueprints got to a country that did not already have nuclear weapons.

HANSEN: What if Iran is actually found to have Khan's blueprint?

Dr. PERKOVICH: Well, if they're found to have them - I mean, that's the proverbial smoking gun - so the dynamic internationally changes, and at that point, all bets are off. The more difficult situation is if we don't find that they have the blueprints, but we don't know that they don't have them. That really complicates the international diplomacy on this.

HANSEN: This past week, Iranian officials said they were willing to negotiate with the West over their nuclear program. You think that's actually going to happen?

Dr. PERKOVICH: In my lifetime or - you know, this week, or before the election? Not before the election, I think. And right now, Iran feels fairly ascendant, like they've been winning. And so they are always willing in principle to negotiate if it's to accept your surrender. But if it's on the terms that the U.S. and others would seek - which is, hey, Iran, here's what you need to do, they're not interested.

HANSEN: I guess it's a worst-case scenario, but if the negotiations fail, do you think the United States will take military action?

Dr. PERKOVICH: The Iranians pretty much quit negotiating in the summer of 2005. There's actually not been any give and take, and the Iranians have just taken the position, we're going to do what we want, and you can't stop us. And so it would be kind of a breakthrough if actually they decided, yes, we're prepared to negotiate. And if that began and then failed, my sense is that everybody who's looked at possible military scenarios conclude that there are no good ones. Where it gets most complicated, though, is - I think Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has testified before other military leadership, testified that they believe Iran fundamentally is deterrable.

The problem is that Israel isn't as convinced of that and has reason not to be so convinced. So one thought is that, you know, the Israelis might come to a crucial existential decision which says, well, we can't just sit here and let them do that. And so a military action may not be perfect, may not solve the problem, but it's better than doing nothing.

HANSEN: Michael Krepon, continue those thoughts.

Dr. KREPON: The United States faced a lot worse nuclear nightmares than the one posed by Iran. We faced Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, and for decades employed other means to deal with these nuclear threats. So there are other options to the military option. But the military option, as the Bush administration has clarified and as both senators McCain and Obama have clarified, it's still on the table.

HANSEN: But what if the Iranians are paying attention to the military exercise that Israel recently ran through as kind of a rehearsal for a bombing attack on Iranian nuclear facilities? I mean, is there a likelihood that Israel might act?

Dr. KREPON: Well, I think the likelihood is greater for Israel than it is for the United States.

Dr. PERKOVICH: But that's a twofer in the sense that if Israel acts, actually the U.S. would have to be complicit in ways, including possibly that they might need to fly over Iraqi airspace and so get U.S. permission to do it. And so it will be regarded in the world as a combined U.S.-Israeli intervention in any case. And Michael's absolutely right that both presidential candidates have said that force has to be on the table, which I think is a mistake. In other words, I don't think it helps move the Iranians in the direction that we want to move them.

And on what I've noticed, it's kind of a cultural, political requirement in Washington for politicians who are afraid of each other that you have to say, you know, I'm leaving force on the table. Because you don't want to be the wimp who didn't say, you know, I'm leaving force on the table. It's like wearing a tie in a certain club. You have to do it, you know, even if it's hot outside and doesn't make sense. And so these guys do it to get into the club in Washington, but it doesn't necessarily get the right response in Iran.

HANSEN: George Perkovich is director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Michael Krepon is an expert on South Asia and nuclear proliferation, as well as a co-founder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank. Thank you both for your time.

Dr. PERKOVICH: Thank you.

Dr. KREPON: Thank you.

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