TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon has led to national and international disagreements about how close Iran is to having the bomb and what can be done to stop them. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington last week and met with President Obama about possible airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
President Obama believes there's still time to pressure Iran into negotiations with the strict economic sanctions that have been imposed on the country. Netanyahu thinks Iran is close to developing a nuclear weapon and that Israel must strike preemptively to prevent that from happening.
My guest, David Sanger, has been reporting on the Iranian nuclear program for many years. He's the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and has a new book coming out in June about President Obama's foreign policy strategy. David Sanger, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Now, I'm sure you hate to prognosticate, so forgive me for asking this as my opening question, but what do you think are the odds that Israel, with or without the U.S., will attack Iran's nuclear facility in Qom in the near future?
DAVID SANGER: I think that the odds are probably about 50/50, but I'm not sure I'd say that's in the near future. I think it's interesting that after the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the prime minister said that this was a problem that would not be solved in weeks or months, but also could not go on for years.
GROSS: And do you think that Israel's goal would be to just stop this nuclear facility, or do you think Israel is trying for regime change?
SANGER: I don't think that with a bombing of the nuclear facilities, if that's the path that Israel ultimately chose to go, that they could bring about regime change. And in fact, I think one of the most interesting features of the debate underway between Washington and Jerusalem, right now, is that the Obama administration has taken the position that if regime change is really Israel's goal in Iran, then the bombing of the facilities would probably be the single most counterproductive step that they could take?
SANGER: And the reason for that is simple, that any attack on Iran would probably have the effect of unifying what is, right now, a very divided country. It would bring up a nationalistic surge. It could force opposition politicians to side with the mullahs. It could make a battle with Israel or the United States the issue in the streets of Tehran, rather than seeing those protestors out, as they were in 2009, protesting against their own government, its own corruption, its own divisions.
So the most interesting debate, I think, that's underway right now is the one about whether or not an attack on the Iranian facilities would, in fact, set back what appears to be Israel's long-term goal and what might be the Obama administration's long-term wish, even if it's not its explicit goal.
GROSS: What does the Israeli government need the U.S. to do if Israel does, in fact, bomb the nuclear facility in Qom in Iran? Because this facility is deep underground, and I think they need, like, the super bunker-buster, this, like, 30,000 pound bunker-buster bomb called the MOP, the massive ordinance penetrator. So do they have that bomb, or would they need us to supply that bomb?
SANGER: Well, Terry, Israel does not have the MOP bomb, and moreover, it doesn't have an airplane that's big enough to carry the MOP bomb. It requires a B-2 bomber, which only the United States has right now. And so far, the United States has not, to my knowledge, either given or offered any of that equipment to Israel.
So that raises the question: could Israel do the job? Could it, if it chose to do a military attack, could it get down deep enough into the Qom facility, which is built under a mountain and under about 250 feet of granite? And would an Israeli attack go far beyond Qom? And I think the answer to that is probably, it would.
Because it's so deep, the Israelis acknowledge that they could not get down that far, and there's some question about whether or not even the most powerful bunker-busters the United States has could get down that far, and I've heard division of opinion on that, between military and intelligence officials at a pretty senior level.
GROSS: I guess what I'm wondering is: Could Israel do an effective strike on Iran's nuclear facility without the United States, without the United States' bunker-buster, you know, MOP bomb and without the B-2 to carry the bomb?
SANGER: Terry, it's all a question of how you define effective. The Israeli position, at least the one that they've taken in public, is that a bombing raid against Iran's facilities would be within their capacity but that if the United States joined them, it would be much more effective.
They also argue that they could set the program back by two or three years, maybe more, if they did it, even alone. Now the American position has been: What does that buy you? You get two or three years' delay. You unify the country against Israel, and many in Iran would probably believe the United States was a participant in the event, whether it was or wasn't. You end up giving Iranians an excuse to throw inspectors, international inspectors, out of the country, and so far those inspections, which have been taking place every few weeks, are the best window that the West has into some of the nuclear progress Iran has been making.
So to the American view, it's simply not worth the kind of relatively short-term delay, and the Americans believe that over the long term, you'd simply have to go back and do it again. The Israelis have said they would go back and do it again.
And then they point out that in the case of the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, they got a much longer delay than most people expected out of that and that when they bombed the Syrian reactor that was built with North Korean help in 2007, that pretty much ended the program. Now, both of those facilities were aboveground.
GROSS: So President Obama has called for negotiations while these sanctions are in effect. So there would be real pressure on Iran. Israel, the Israeli government thinks that negotiations with Iran are kind of pointless. Does Iran have a history of productive negotiations? And what might a negotiated settlement look like?
SANGER: Well, the history of negotiations with Iran since the revolution in 1979 is not terrific, but there is some history to suggest that Iran refuses and refuses and refuses to bend to pressure until one day that it wakes up and bends to pressure. I mean, there was a negotiated settlement in the end to the Iran-Iraq war. There was an agreement by Iran to suspend its production of enriched uranium.
Early in the Bush administration, it ended that suspension in 2006, but it did it under some pressure. So I think that the Obama administration probably believes that if they can really ratchet this pressure up, significantly, if the sanctions really begin to bite, then they begin to attack the least popular element of the Iranian government, which is its current leadership, which is divided and authoritarian.
And the hope that the Obama administration has is that the people of Iran would begin to make a case that the nuclear program simply is not worth the huge cost in the sanctions and that that could lead to a negotiated settlement.
What might it look like? Well, you could imagine a situation in which the United States and the West would say to the Iranians that they are free to go ahead and enrich uranium to a very low level, 3.5 to five percent purity that you use in traditional nuclear reactors, and that they had to allow extraordinarily intrusive inspections throughout the country.
Right now, those inspections have been very limited to just a few facilities that Iran has declared. I'm not certain that right now, the Iranian leadership is ready to make that set of concessions, but maybe if the sanctions get even tougher between now and the summer, as is promised, then they may come to a different conclusion.
GROSS: Do you think the Obama administration is pursuing a covert strategy that the American public doesn't know about?
SANGER: Oh, there is certainly a covert effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear program, and it dates back a long time. It really goes back to the Clinton administration. There has been, over the years, efforts to get bad parts into the Iranian nuclear program, to send in power supplies that feed those centrifuges that blow up. Forty or 50 of them did blow up a number of years ago.
There have been (technical difficulties) to make sure that bad designs are sent to the Iranians. And then of course there was Stuxnet, which was widely believed to have been an Israeli and American operation to bring in a computer virus. Now, there's some debate about how effective it was in the end, but certainly there was a broad covert program.
And then of course you've seen a number of scientists being assassinated. The American government has insisted that no action against those scientists has been led by the United States, but that leads one to think that that could be part of an Israeli program.
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, we're talking about Iran's nuclear program and the debate over whether or not to bomb the nuclear facility. My guest is David Sanger, he's the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times and author of the forthcoming book "An Age of Reckoning," which is about surprising aspects of President Obama's national security policy. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Sanger, he's the New York Times' chief Washington correspondent, and he's author of the book "An Age of Reckoning," which is about President Obama's national security policy. We're looking at the Iranian nuclear program and the debate over whether or not to bomb the facility or facilities.
There's a lot of pressure on President Obama now because this is an election year. So it's a time when the people who are attacking his policies are also attacking his policies on Iran. So let's just look at where the Republican leading - the leading Republican candidates stand on Iran now.
Newt Gingrich, I think, has said he's not for bombing the nuclear facility, but he is for regime change in Iran, and I'm not sure exactly what shape that would take in his mind. What about Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney?
SANGER: Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have both been pretty hard-line on Iran, and Mitt Romney in particular has said that if he is elected president, Iran will not get a bomb and that if Obama is re-elected, they will get a bomb.
But when you listen to the specifics of what Mr. Romney says he would do to pressure the Iranians - a mix of the threat that ultimately the U.S. could use military force, extraordinary sanctions and so forth - it sounds to me a lot like what President Obama is currently doing.
And certainly President Obama's sanctions regime against Iran is far, far tougher than anything that we saw during the Bush years. Now partly, the president argues that that is because he first made an offer to negotiate with the Iranians and to negotiate unconditionally, and the Iranians rejected that. But he maintains that the fact that he made that offer then made it a lot easier to bring a lot of the Europeans on board for heavy-duty sanctions.
His problem, consistently, has been China, which is a big purchaser of Iranian oil, and Russia, which is a big supplier of nuclear technology to Iran. And in both cases, they have opposed significantly tougher sanctions and certainly any U.N. threat of military action. And so right now, there is no resolution in the U.N. that would authorize any kind of use of military force against the Iranian nuclear program.
There are several resolutions that declare that they are in violation of U.N. Security Council mandates.
GROSS: And what about Rick Santorum?
SANGER: Rick Santorum has taken a very tough line against the Iranian program, but he hasn't been very specific about what he would do. He has been - he has said that he would fully support Israel, and I guess you could read those comments to be that he would support Israel in conducting an attack by itself, but I'm not sure if that's an over-reading of his statements.
In what I've heard, I've not heard him be extremely specific about how his approach to Iran would differ from the president's.
GROSS: So, who in America is calling on the Obama administration to bomb Iran and to support Israel in its desire to bomb Iran?
SANGER: I have heard many conservative Republicans, some of the former neo-cons - we've heard Liz Chaney, the daughter of the former vice president, and of course she was an official in the Bush State Department, call for providing Israel with everything that it might need to conduct a full military strike.
But I've not hear them actually call for the strike itself. And, you know, Terry, that raises the question: How much of this on Israel's part and on the part of its supporters here in the United States, may be about bluff? Is it possible that Prime Minister Netanyahu, for all of his tough talk and for all of the tough talk of the defense minister in Israel, Ehud Barak, how - is it possible that at this point, they are simply trying to drive up the pressure so that the West and the United States really ramps up the sanctions, really ramps up the covert action because of the fear of an attack that could cause a huge Iranian reaction?
And there is a possibility that, in fact, Israel is a long way from considering a real attack but believes that they need to keep the rhetoric going to keep the pressure on.
GROSS: I always wondered in the lead-up to the war in Iraq if it was, in part, a lot of, like, threat and bluster to convince Iraq that they had to give up whatever weapons program that they had, but it wasn't.
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SANGER: That's right, Terry, but, you know, that gets at the fascinating differences between the run-up to the war in Iraq and what we're seeing now, which may or may not be a run-up to a bigger conflict. First of all, in the Iraq days, in 2002 and 2003, the pressure, the threats of possible military action were coming from the White House. In this case, they are not coming from the White House. If anything, the White House has been doing everything it could to tamp down that pressure.
Second, in the run-up to Iraq, the International Atomic Energy Agency was a great skeptic that Iraq had an ongoing nuclear program. In this case, it's that same group of inspectors who have been raising questions about what they call possible military dimensions of an Iranian program and pressing the Iranians to let them into facilities that for years now they've been blocked from seeing.
The other difference you see is in the American intelligence community. Famously in the case of Iraq, the intelligence community declared with very few doubts, and those doubts were condemned to footnotes, that Iraq was steaming forward with a nuclear program, and they did that by looking at where the program had been in 1998 when inspectors left the country and making assumptions about how much progress Saddam Hussein must have made in the interim, and of course we now know all those assumptions were wrong.
In this case, the American intelligence community, perhaps remembering its most recent errors, has taken the position that Iran likely suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that if it started up since, it's only started up sporadically.
Now, when I've gone off and interviewed members of the intelligence community, members of the current administration, former administration members, and I've asked them about this 2007 national intelligence estimate, which came to that conclusion and which was confirmed in a more recent intelligence estimate, what they all describe is an Iranian program that in the words of one looked a lot like the Manhattan Project prior to 2003.
It was very organized. It was run by a man named Mohsen Fakrizadeh, who is still believed to be at the center of the Iranian military program for nuclear weapons. But post-2003, after the American invasion of Iraq, after the Iranians were concerned that elements of their program could be discovered, the program appears to have been not abandoned but certainly dissipated.
And so you see little bits of pieces of evidence that may add up to individual experiments that could help with weaponizing a nuclear weapon, but they don't come together to be a big, broad project. And that's part of the doubt right now about whether or not the Iranians are getting very closer.
GROSS: David Sanger is chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He'll be back in the second half of the show. His book, "An Age of Reckoning," about President Obama's foreign policy strategy, will be published in June. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. We're talking about Iran's nuclear weapons program and the differences between the Israeli government and the Obama administration's strategy to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
So the Israeli government says it wants to prevent Iran from getting nuclear capability, whereas President Obama is saying he wants to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. What's the difference between what they're each saying?
SANGER: You know, Terry, it's a huge difference, and it gets to the question of how much time the Israelis and the Americans think there is to stop the Iranian program, whatever the ultimate intent of that program is.
The Israeli position is that you need to stop Iran from assembling all of the necessary components of a nuclear weapon - which is to say, the fuel and the weaponization of that, the creation of a - and the delivery system, which would be a missile or some other way of delivering the system. And that you could never get to a point where the Iranians are just a few screwdriver turns away from being able to produce a weapon, because you probably wouldn't know when the Iranians decided to go over that line.
The American position, Terry, is quite different. And that is that they believe that there would be plenty of warning between the time that Iran move from a nuclear weapons capability to actually producing a weapon, and that the Iranians are not near that point yet, and so there would be plenty of time to intervene. And it is this fundamental difference in view that I think has really animated a lot of the dispute between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu and his defense minister, as well.
GROSS: The bottom line for Israel is that a lot of Israelis feel about Iran getting a weapon would be an existential threat to Israel, that Iran would actually possibly use that bomb against Israel. I know you can't read the mind of Ahmadinejad or anyone else in power in Iran, but do you think that they'd be capable of doing that, of actually using the bomb against Israel?
SANGER: Well, we can't read their minds, but we do know that they're interested in regime survival. And so do I think that there's a significant chance that the regime would build a weapon, put it on a missile and launch it directly at Israel? I think that's a pretty remote chance, because the Iranians are interested in survival and know what the response would be and know that Israel has 100 or so nuclear weapons of its own. So I don't think that the Iranians would necessarily think about a national suicide mission.
But if Iran had a weapon, or even if there was significant belief that they could build a weapon very quickly, they might use that for some political advantage within the Middle East, some negotiating advantage. They may use it to enable them to conduct lower-level attacks with the thought that nobody would want to escalate a confrontation with Iran if it had a nuclear weapon.
And in this particular case, Terry, I think the Iranians are looking very closely at what happened to Moammar Gadhafi, the leader of Libya. Gadhafi, of course, gave up his nuclear weapons program in 2003, the same year that the American intelligence agencies believe that Iran suspended some of its weaponization work.
And what happened? The Libyans gave that equipment to the IEA and to the United States, and then, in the Iranian view, the Americans, as soon as they had an opportunity, helped participate in the overthrow of Gadhafi's government. And I think many in Iran - and probably many in North Korea - believe that had Gadhafi held onto his nuclear weapons, the United States and the NATO allies would have been far more hesitant to go in and help overthrow the government. And that alone might create a disincentive for the Iranians to give up at least a nuclear weapons capability, or to give up the option that, at some point, they might race for a bomb.
GROSS: That's a really interesting point. So who's really in charge in Iran now? Is it Ahmadinejad? Is he losing power?
SANGER: All of the evidence suggests that Ahmadinejad is losing considerable power. He has been involved in a multi-year battle with the supreme leader of Iran, Khamenei. And in these recent elections that just took place in the past few days, more of Ahmadinejad's supporters lost their seats. And so more and more, there is a sense that it's the supreme leader who is running the show. But more importantly, power seems to be concentrating in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most elite part of Iran's military, and that group has also been somewhat at odds with Ahmadinejad.
It's actually gotten to the point where it's - the United States' view is that Ahmadinejad has been much more open to a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue than the supreme leader has.
GROSS: Earlier, we were talking about people who are beating the drum for bombing Iran, people in the United States. And I'm thinking back to the lead-up to the Iraq war, when it seemed that a lot of the advocates for going to war saw intervention in Iraq as part of a larger plan in the Middle East. You know, you intervene in Iraq, regime change, create democracy, democracy spreads across the Middle East, somehow there's regime change in Iran as a result of this. Israel becomes less threatened as a result. So the whole picture in the Middle East has changed so much since then. Iraq is still pretty far away from being a functioning democracy. You've had the Arab Spring. Egypt, which was Israel's closest ally, is not as close an ally right now.
So do you still get a sense that for people who do advocate intervention in Iran, that they see that as part of a larger plan for the Middle East?
SANGER: No I don't, Terry. And the reason for that is, as you suggested, the Arab Spring. We learned two things from the Arab Spring. The first is that the best kind of regime change has got to come from within. And you can't impose it from the outside. And so you saw things happen in the streets. And in some places - Tunisia and Egypt, in particular - there is some hope of a more liberal democracy emerging. But I'd say, having just come back from Cairo a few weeks ago, that that's a very iffy proposition right now, that regime change does not necessarily lead to the kind of vision that I think the neocons and many around President Bush had in 2002 when they were saying that change in the Middle East begins in Baghdad and spreads out.
But Iran's a particularly special case, because in Iran's case, if Iran got a nuclear weapon, you could imagine that there was - that there could be a direct security threat to the United States, and certainly to many of its allies. So to some degree, the debate over the Iranian nuclear program has really been separated from the question of whether or not it could spur broader change in the region.
And let's also not forget that, you know, Iran does not have much in common with many of the Arab nations. It's a Shia force in a Sunni neighborhood, that the biggest opponents to the Iranian nuclear program right now are the biggest Sunni countries.
When you went into WikiLeaks - a subject we've discussed in the past - what you discovered was that it was the King of Saudi Arabia who was urging the United States to cut off the head of the snake, in reference to Iran. It was the king of Bahrain - who now has some bigger problems on his hands - who was urging the United States to attack the Iranian facilities. So it's the Arab states that have, in many ways, the biggest concerns about a nuclear Iran and what it would mean for their future. But I don't think anybody is living in the illusion that an attack on Iran by Israel, by the United States, would have some kind of repeater effect for democracy in the region. Far from it.
GROSS: In Syria now, government forces are massacring civilians, and their - you know, opposition groups are trying to overthrow the government. How is the fighting in Syria affecting Iran and affecting, do you think, the Obama administration's understanding of what it could actually accomplish in Iran?
SANGER: Well, certainly, Terry, the uprising in Syria and the assessment that the Syrian regime is not long for this world and that President Assad will fall sooner or later was a big element in the argument that President Obama appears to have made to Prime Minister Netanyahu. His argument went something like this: that Syria is Iran's only real friend in the Arab world. It's been the place where the Iranians have managed to transit a lot of their money, a lot of their arms, a lot of their missiles to help supply Hamas and Hezbollah, and that it would be a huge setback for the Iranians if Assad fell, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu should give this some time to play out, just as he should give the sanctions time to play out.
So the administration's argument is the world is moving against Iran and in Israel's direction and the United States' direction, here. Just let the events play out.
Now, to the prime minister, it's a question of clocks, whether the nuclear clock in Iran is ticking faster than the revolution clock in Syria, or faster than the sanctions could actually have a significant effect. And so they're just two different perceptions by two different national leaders about how quickly one needs to move. But certainly, if President Assad fell, and if they were serious defections from the Syrian government, and if the Alawite minority that has ruled Syria falls with Assad, then you could certainly see the Iranians be in a much more difficult position.
GROSS: Well, David Sanger, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
SANGER: Thank you, Terry. It's always a pleasure to be back on the show.
GROSS: David Sanger is chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. His book, "An Age of Reckoning," about President Obama's foreign policy strategy, will be published in June.
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