On Iran Today: 'After The Crackdown' To 'The Point Of No Return' : The Two-Way NPR's Robert Siegel convenes a conversation with Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer for 'The New Yorker' magazine, and Jeffrey Goldberg, of 'The Atlantic.'
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On Iran Today: 'After The Crackdown' To 'The Point Of No Return'

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On Iran Today: 'After The Crackdown' To 'The Point Of No Return'

On Iran Today: 'After The Crackdown' To 'The Point Of No Return'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Robert Siegel.

And in this part of the program, two authors of recent magazine articles about Iran, its nuclear ambitions, its pugnacious president and Israel.

In the current issue of "The Atlantic," Jeffrey Goldberg reports on what he's heard from dozens of policymakers in Israel and Washington over several months. And he comes to this conclusion: It is nearly certain that Israel will attack Iranian nuclear installations if Tehran's program continues, and the U.S. government assumes as much.

John Lee Anderson writes in "The New Yorker," about his recent interview in Tehran with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and on his conversations with Iranian officials, as well as with members of a now-suppressed and, it sounds, dispirited opposition.

John Lee Anderson joins us today from London and Jeffrey Goldberg is on Martha's Vineyard. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. JOHN LEE ANDERSON (Journalist, "The New Yorker"): Thank you.

Mr. JEFFREY GOLDBERG (Journalist, "The New Yorker"): Great to be here, thanks.

SIEGEL: And first, Jeffrey Goldberg, in your article, "A Point of No Return," you catalog the risks Israel would take in launching airstrikes at Iran's nuclear facilities, that includes possible full-scale regional war, claiming possibly thousands of Iranian and Israeli lives; a crisis for the U.S. that could dwarf Afghanistan; and conceivably not actually destroy Iran's nuclear program in the process.

What is the Israeli calculus that says all those risks are worth it?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, they haven't actually worked through all of these problems yet. They're aware of the potential catastrophic downsides. The reason that they're thinking about this at all is that they think that living with a nuclear Iran is near impossible for Israel. They believe that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. And that even if Iran didnt use the nuclear weapons against Tel Aviv, or transfer a nuclear weapon to one of its terrorist proxies, the mere fact that these terrorist proxies could operate under the safety and protection of the Iranian nuclear umbrella means that Israel would be in danger of becoming an unlivable place.

SIEGEL: Is it your understanding that President Obama or his national security advisor, given advance warning of an Israeli airstrike, would likely say to Israel - dont do it? Or would likely say, it's your choice, go ahead?

Mr. GOLDBERG: I dont think theyve worked this out fully yet. They have made various noises in the past about the notion that Israel is a sovereign state and Israel will do what Israel does. On the other hand, the Israelis are in fact very cognizant of American interests and desires in this area. And if the president of the United States gave an absolute red light to Israel - said do not do this, this is going to be disastrous for us - the Israelis would think twice and maybe even three times.

SIEGEL: To what extent are Israelis talking-up the likelihood of an airstrike to get Washington's attention and to get Washington to maintain a very tough line, or not get a tougher line on Iran sanctions?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, you know, the really interesting thing to me is, yes, of course, the Israelis want to telegraph the idea that they are very serious about this. I think after having a lot of exposure to the prime minister and others, that they are in addition to trying to bluff their way to a non-military solution, if you will, they're also serious about contemplating a military solution.

The really interesting thing is the Americans, the American government, uses the threat of an Israeli attack as a tool in its toolbox to try to get the world to pay attention to this issue. American officials have gone to China repeatedly and said to China, look, you know, we can't necessarily stop Israel from doing this; and if Israel does this, your economy is going to be affected because the flow of oil from the Gulf is going to be interrupted. And these warnings have actually brought the Chinese a little bit more on board the sanctions program.

SIEGEL: Jeffrey Goldberg in Martha's Vineyard, stick with us while we turn to John Lee Anderson of "The New Yorker," who's in London.

In your article, John Lee Anderson, "After the Crackdown," you asked President Ahmadinejad and other members of the Iranian regime about all of this. Do they think they're on a collision course with Israel?

Mr. ANDERSON: Yes, although President Ahmadinejad and one his senior advisors both pooh-poohed the notion that the United States was still capable of launching an effective military strike against Iran. Ahmadinejad actually derisively pointed to both the military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as examples of the American failure in the region. And said not only the United States or Israel, but nobody can touch Iran. We are Iran, he said, and repeated it twice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDERSON: He seemed to have a great deal of self-faith, and a sense that they were now on a push to steer the West, steer Obama towards a dialogue in which they could extract some sort of compromise.

SIEGEL: Did you come away from your interview with Ahmadinejad, or for that matter, with other Iranian officials, with the sense that they at least think they have a fix on whats going on in the United States or are they wildly off in what they make of this discussion here?

ANDERSON: I came away feeling quite depressed, actually, from this trip to Iran. I felt that they are under the misapprehension, based upon Ahmadinejad's really telescopic, or I should say periscopic, notion of what the West is and of U.S. thinking, based upon these annual trips he makes to the U.N. General Assembly, where he holds kind of roundtable but, you know, rather stilted roundtable discussions with handpicked academics and a few members of the media, and these one-on-ones we've become familiar seeing with various American anchors. And in which he feels he has taken America's measure.

And I do feel that they have lived so long in this bubble that theyve passed the moment at which Iran actually is at threat from the United States and Israel. I came away very worried that because of that, that we were more likely to go towards confrontation than come away from it. I hope Im wrong. But thats the feeling I was given, through my interviews with Ahmadinejad and his officials when I left Iran.

SIEGEL: I want to turn back to Jeffrey Goldberg and ask you, Jeffrey, about a criticism that I've read thats lodged against you, which is that your article, "Point of No Return" in the The Atlantic, this is Iraq: Take Two. This is the season of beating the war drums to magnify, let's say, a very nasty regional player into a country that poses a strategic threat to the United States. How do you answer that?

Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, A: Im opposed to a military action against Iran -certainly for the moment. So I dont think reporting on what other people feel about this is magnifying or increasing the chances of war. Actually, I think that if people focused on this now we might be able to avoid war in the future.

SIEGEL: I'd like to hear from both of you about what youve been able to glean either in Israel or in Iran, for that matter, about how leaders foresee a war, what they think a war would be.

Jeffrey Goldberg, you have a fairly vivid description of what kind of airstrike there might be and what sort of regional assistance the Israelis would count on to pull off such airstrikes.

Mr. GOLDBERG: We always forget when we talk about this: This is not a binary; this is not Iran and Israel. Iran is opposed in the Middle East by most Arab states. With the exception of Syria, every other Arab state opposes Iran's reach for hegemony. And most of them oppose Iran's reach for nuclear weapons.

So it's been speculated - and again, this is - we're entering the wilderness of mirrors here, where you dont really know what the intelligence is. But there's a chance that Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries, would provide covert assistance to Israel if Israel were going to try this.

Going back to one point that John Lee raised - this delusion on the part of Ahmadinejad that the U.S. is powerless to stop the Iranian nuclear program; it's beyond delusional. The U.S. has the technical capabilities, of course, to destroy whatever it wants to destroy on the ground in Iran. This is a political issue in the United States. I dont think it's a technical issue.

SIEGEL: Well, John Lee, what did you hear about the prospect of being bombed in Iran? And do they figure they would retaliate via Hezbollah at Israel, or fire missiles at Israel? What would they do?

ANDERSON: Ahmadinejad shied away from such specifics, although I brought them up. And he and the people around him said that whatever the U.S. did, Israel would be attacked. This was a matter of policy. And I pointed out that Israel had nuclear arms. And they said Israel may have nuclear arms, but its entire territory will come under the barrage of our missiles.

So there was a very - kind of very robust, bellicose response, which of course as with everything with the Iranians - as Jeffrey put - the kind of the hall of mirrors, one has to sift bluster from real intent. But we're certainly in a kind of scary end-game now.

SIEGEL: Neither of you has come back with a terribly encouraging picture of what lies in store for us in dealing with Iran over the coming year. Im just wondering, if I were to insist on a hopeful sign that you could find in your reporting about some non-military resolution of the conflict from Iran, what is that and how small is that sign? First, John Lee Anderson.

Mr. ANDERSON: Well...

Mr. GOLDBERG: Good luck, John Lee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANDERSON: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I guess it would involve this approximation thats taking placing now, is the Obama administration has I think very pragmatically and consistently laid out a series of steps by which Iran could begin to come into the fold, via these talks over its enrichment program.

And so in the course of these talks, there has to be the moment at which an all-encompassing solution is offered. Now, will it be, you know, like the JFK-Fidel deal after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the United States offered essentially a non-aggression pact in return for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba?

I don't know that the Obama administration could go there, but I think there is at least the possibility now that Ahmadinejad could possibly sign to some kind of deal in which Iran is vouched safe, a peaceful nuclear energy program in return for giving up its possible quest for nuclear weapons. I say possible because, of course, we haven't proven it, but we suspect it.

However, this is what everybody's guessing at this moment. And the negotiations, or the talks have yet to begin, followed by negotiations. So I would say that there is still promise because we're not at that point yet, and we won't know until the relevant parties are actually sitting down and rolling up their shirtsleeves.

SIEGEL: And Jeffrey Goldberg, your time for some compulsory optimism.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Compulsory Optimism 101. Look, pessimism is always your friend when you write about the Middle East, as Jon Lee knows, and the hard truth of the matter is that the Islamic Republic of Iran is built on pillars of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism. These are core values of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

On the other hand, I have personally been very impressed with the Obama administration's program on this to date. I think that they are trying to build off-ramps, dignified off-ramps for the Iranians to take.

I think that Obama's maybe his greatest foreign policy success so far has been building an international coalition that is imposing very, very harsh sanctions on the regime in Iran. And it may be that the sanctions program concentrates the attention of the Iranians in a way that their attention has not been concentrated to date and that they actually decide to seek an alternative path.

Again, it's hard for me not to see a crisis developing over the next year, but I think the Obama administration is seized by this problem, and they're dealing with it in a very serious and deliberate way. So I may be investing too much hope, but nevertheless, I do have some hope that we can get out of this without seeing a military confrontation.

SIEGEL: That's Jeffrey Goldberg. His article in the Atlantic is called "Point of No Return." Jon Lee Anderson's article in the New Yorker is called "After the Crackdown." Thanks to both of you.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Thank you.

Mr. ANDERSON: Thanks very much.

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