GUY RAZ, HOST:
From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.
Wednesday morning, rush hour, North Tehran, 32-year-old nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan is on his way to work.
DAVID IGNATIUS: And along in traffic pulls a motorcycle with two young men on the motorcycle and the one sitting in the back attaches a magnetic bomb to the side of his car, speeds off, the bomb explodes. The young man and, I believe, his driver and bodyguard are both killed. This MO, this method of operations, we think has been used at least three other times in the last two years.
RAZ: That's The Washington Post's foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius. In one of his spy novels, "The Increment," an Iranian nuclear scientist gets tangled up with foreign intelligence agencies. Now, assassins have targeted five Iranian nuclear scientists for death in the past two years. In four of those attacks, they succeeded.
IGNATIUS: Who could conduct an operation like that? What would you need to be able to have people like that who not only could get in and attach the bomb but get away?
RAZ: Iran blames foreign intelligence agencies, including Israel's Mossad and the CIA for the attacks. The U.S. has categorically denied any responsibility. Either way, it's part of a series of events that have led to growing tensions between Iran and the West. That's our cover story today: Iran and the gathering storm.
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RAZ: Later this month, a new round of talks between U.N. Security Council members and Iran resume. These are referred to by diplomats as the 5+1 talks. And some U.S. diplomats believe Iran is now posturing ahead of those talks.
About a fifth of the world's oil supply comes through the Strait of Hormuz. That's a narrow channel that connects the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. And some officials in Iran have threatened to block it if the United States manages to convince other countries to stop buying Iranian oil.
Late this week, the Obama administration sent Iran a clear message, a blockade of the strait would be a red line. What does that mean? Here's Ambassador Dennis Ross, who until recently was the administration's top adviser on Iran.
DENNIS ROSS: When you talk about red lines, you're talking about lines that you will not allow to be crossed. It means that if someone transgresses that red line, you're going to react. And traditionally, that means a military response.
RAZ: Let me ask you about what is happening right now, because a series of events seemed to be leading to some kind of confrontation, whether it's diplomatic or military. Why are we at this point right now?
ROSS: Well, I think what's happened is that the Iranians have continued with their nuclear program, notwithstanding the weight of international pressure on them. You would now have multiple Security Council sanctions that have been adopted. And now, the talk of the Europeans being prepared to boycott buying of their oil is putting the Iranians under a real squeeze. You know, oil basically accounts for close to 90 percent of the government's revenue.
When you're looking at that from their standpoint, and you're under greater isolation than you've ever been before, it's not surprising that there is a strong rhetorical response by them. One can't dismiss and assume that the rhetoric is only going to be all they do, but I think by the same token, we should also put what they're saying in some perspective.
RAZ: You were, of course, a senior adviser on Iran. Describe what the lines of communication are between the administration and Iran at this point.
ROSS: It's a very good question. One of the reasons that this administration sought an engagement policy from the outset was precisely because we did not have direct lines of communication. If you look over at the history of the relationship or non-relationships and see Islamic Republic came into being in 1979, you really have seen us have to communicate through others, which means...
RAZ: Switzerland, for example.
ROSS: Yes, which means that, in effect, you always have somebody else interpreting us to them and them to us. We haven't succeeded very well in terms of being able to produce this kind of engagement, not because the administration didn't want it, but because the Iranians have been reluctant to embrace it.
RAZ: Is a regime of sanctions the best option that the administration has? I mean, as you know, Secretary Geithner has been in Asia trying to convince the Chinese, the South Koreans, the Japanese to boycott Iranian oil. Those three countries are the, by far, the biggest purchasers. What ultimately will these sanctions do?
ROSS: The sanctions represent one element of the policy. The policy has been designed to always give the Iranians a way out. Meaning, there's always been a readiness to talk to the Iranians from the first - from the beginning of the administration. The Iranians have not been responsive to the readiness to talk. The logic of the policy is to build pressure on the Iranians. So the Iranians understand that there's a consequence for what they're doing, and it's a consequence that matters to them.
What is clear, something has been created. You know, a year ago, the Iranian president said we sneeze at sanctions. Now, he says this is the most severe - represent the most severe economic onslaught that any country has ever experienced. So they're feeling very different pressure now than they were feeling before. And that does create a different context, and I think it does create a greater potential for diplomacy to succeed.
RAZ: That's Ambassador Dennis Ross. He was a special assistant to President Obama and the top adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Iran. Ambassador Ross, thanks for coming in.
ROSS: My pleasure, thank you.
RAZ: Now, there may be a reason why the tension between the U.S. and Iran is increasing right now. Here's Trita Parsi. He's an Iran scholar who heads the National Iranian American Alliance.
TRITA PARSI: The two sides have escaladed things right before upcoming negotiations in order to maximize their bargaining position in those talks.
RAZ: Those negotiations scheduled for?
PARSI: January 28th in Turkey.
RAZ: This is the 5+1.
PARSI: The 5+1 with Iran. A more pessimistic assessment is that even though this is just shocking for negotiation, strength, things may actually be getting out of control.
RAZ: Let me ask you about the Israel factor here. The Israelis have, for at least three years, talked about their red lines when it comes to Iran's nuclear program. They have never been explicit about what that means. What do you think it means?
PARSI: Whatever the red lines that the Israelis have been put forward on the nuclear issue at least, the Iranians have walked through these red lines and there's not been any consequences for them. Initially, the Israelis were saying that if the Iranians were to put gas into the centrifuge, that would be a red line and the Israelis would be forced to act. The Iranians did this, nothing happened.
Then the Israelis said when if they actually start spinning the centrifuge, starting the enrichment program again, that's the point of no return, is they will have no choice but to act. The Iranians did that in 2005, nothing happened. Then the argument was that what if the Iranians amass 3,000 centrifuge that gives them an opportunity to build a lot of low-enriched uranium, then Israel has to act, then it has to take it out militarily. That happened.
In fact, the one sitting that I had in Israel - I was sitting with a very senior Israeli official and we had a lengthy conversation about this. And at the end of the conversation when I was pressing him what Israel actually would do if the Iranians crossed the red line, he admitted, well, in that case, we'll just have to adopt a new red line.
RAZ: So essentially, you can understand why the Iranians may not entirely take Israeli threats seriously.
PARSI: I don't think they take them too seriously. I think that in and of itself is a little bit of a danger. I think they view the Israeli threats primarily being aimed at putting pressure on the United States to, on the one hand, adopt a more hawkish position and certainly not to agree with Iran on some sort of a compromise.
RAZ: Trita Parsi, let me ask you about the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist, several have been assassinated in recent years. I wonder if this is viewed in Iran as a failure of their intelligence capabilities. I mean, there are clearly people who have infiltrated the country and then they're killing scientists and top military officials who are involved in the nuclear program.
PARSI: It is very difficult to view this as anything else but a failure. Four assassinations, 18 suspicious explosions in 2011, major sanctions being imposed on them, the Stuxnet virus...
RAZ: The virus that setback the program, right.
PARSI: A lot of hits in the Iranian nuclear program. The interesting question with all of this is, why haven't the Iranians essentially acted out? One possible explanation as to why they haven't is because they view this potentially as a trap, that there is an effort by some state in the region, perhaps Israel, wanting the Iranians to retaliate, escalate. And by that, give a pretext for a larger war. And as a result, the Iranians are, in an odd way, perhaps showing a lot of restraint, because this is a lot of hits to take.
RAZ: Let me ask you about 2012. It's an election year in the United States. Are there elements in Iran that will seek to exploit that fact?
PARSI: I think what the Iranians are using - doing right now, they know very well that Obama is very, very vulnerable on the economy. He needs to create more jobs. So that's part of the reason, I think, we've seen a lot of threats about closing off the Strait of Hormuz, because what that does, the mere threat - they don't actually have to do it - it pushes oil prices up. When oil prices are pushed up, gas prices in the U.S. go up. When gas prices in the U.S. go up, job creation becomes much more difficult, and not only have a negative effect on the U.S., but you could actually put the global economic recovery in jeopardy. And it could reduce other country's inclination to collaborate with the U.S. in the sanctions efforts.
RAZ: Dennis Ross says Iran feels extremely isolated and vulnerable right now. Do you agree with that? Do you think Iran feels like it's back against the wall or that it has, you know, some cards up its sleeve?
PARSI: I think both of that is true. I think the Iranians are feeling a lot of pressure. I think the Iranians are also sensing that the level of sanctions that the U.S. is pursuing is becoming at a level in which there's a very blurry line between sanctions and war right now. I think the Iranians do have some cards, which they haven't fully played out yet, and I think that's something we should be aware of before we pat ourselves on the back too much about how much sanctions and pressure we've been able to put on them. We haven't seen much of the cause of that yet because they haven't really played those cards.
RAZ: That's Trita Parsi. He's the author of the new book "A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran." He's also the president of the National Iranian American Council. Trita Parsi, thank you so much.
PARSI: Thank you so much for having me.
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