Middle East
2:35 pm
Sat February 18, 2012

'On The Table:' Options For Ending The Iran Standoff

It was one of the more surreal photo ops this week: Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, live on Iranian TV, visiting a nuclear reactor. Ahmadinejad trumpeted his country's nuclear progress, but denied, once again, that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons.

In Washington, officials weren't buying it.

They rushed to repeat the official U.S. line — a line President Obama himself is fond of delivering.

"Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal," he said.

But just what are those options? Can any of them stop Iran from getting the bomb?

This week, the bombs that made headlines were attacks against Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, India and in the Republic of Georgia. The wife of an Israeli diplomat was injured in New Delhi; the bomb in Georgia was defused. Investigators believe they were probably the work of Iranian agents. In Thailand, Iranians were caught preparing bombs that Thai officials said were also meant for Israeli diplomats.

Crude Attacks, Poor Planning

The Iranians may be getting serious in their declared intention to retaliate for the assassination of some of their nuclear scientists. But Scott Stewart, a terrorism analyst with the intelligence firm Stratfor, says he was struck by the amateurish quality of this week's bomb operations. Even rudimentary car bomb attacks, he points out, require some expertise.

"Like any sort of terrorist attack like that, you really need to have good planning," he says. "You need to have excellent surveillance; you really have to know the routine of your target, of course, then you need to make a good device — something that's going to function as planned. And then you need to place it in a good spot where it's going to be effective."

The car bomb used against the Israeli diplomat's wife in New Delhi proved ineffective. She was injured, but not killed. One of the Iranians in the Thailand operation managed only to blow his own legs off.

"In this case, we're not seeing a lot of sophisticated tradecraft," Stewart says, "so it could indeed be a case of them rushing things."

If the Iranians are rushing retaliation, it could mean they are in disarray. It's also possible these attacks — should they prove to be directed from Tehran — were done without expert help from Hezbollah. If so, the attacks may reveal as much about Iran's weakness right now as its strength.

Letting Sanctions Play Out

Of all the options the U.S. says is on the table, Michigan Republican Mike Rogers says he believes sanctions are the best way to go. The impact they've already had on Iran, he says, proves they're working.

"What we have done about cutting off their ability to get to the financial market has been devastating to them," says Rogers, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee. "It has gotten their fangs out, clearly."

That the response from Tehran has been further defiance is true enough, he says. "But they did slip in that they would go back to the negotiating table."

Trouble on the streets of Iran may be pushing them there. People can't get cash from the banks, Rogers says. Inflation is outrageous, food prices have shot up and gas shortages are common. "So the reason the regime is kind of buckling in is because they're under that much pressure."

"If we let that wait, and you let them understand that you're serious, you will take out their nuclear enrichment capability if you have to, I think that can be a means to a peaceful end," Rogers says.

Iran's Strategy

Iran might be willing to step up to the table, but it's unclear whether it means to offer meaningful and binding nuclear compromises, says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"Iran and the U.S. have two different philosophies of negotiation," Sadjadpour says. "In the United States there is the famous book about negotiations called Getting to Yes. The Iranian equivalent of that book would be Staying on Maybe."

Iran's strategy may once have been playing for time, but now the tables have somewhat turned, he says.

For 23 years, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has sought to preserve the status quo by avoiding transformative decisions, Sadjadpour says. "Now, with these sanctions, Khamenei's back is increasingly up against the wall. And he has two ways of seeking relief: One is in the form of a nuclear compromise, and the other is in the form of a nuclear weapon."

What's Israel Up To?

Meanwhile, Israel may be planning its own pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

"Israel has made it very, very clear," Rogers says.

Israel has "red lines," he says, "meaning that if Iran gets so far in their nuclear weapons program that they can't stop it, then all bets are off."

That line isn't far away, Rogers says.

If it did decide to attack, Sadjadpour says, Israel is confident it could set back Iran's nuclear program one to three years, even without U.S. assistance. Yet, he warns, "if Israel starts it, they can't finish it — and it would require U.S. involvement."

"A unilateral Israeli strike is probably not in the best interests of the U.S.," Rogers says. There's a defense pact the U.S. has made with Israel that says the U.S. will defend Israel if attacked under any circumstances. If Iran retaliates, he says, the U.S. would be drawn in involuntarily.

How Much Time Do We Have?

Rogers believes Iran is close to getting the bomb. "That's why they are so eager to brag about their enrichment capability," he says.

If Iran were simply successful in one of its bomb attacks that might be enough to trigger forceful reactions.

"According to the law of averages, if Iran continues to aspire to commit these acts of terror, at some point they're going to be successful," Sadjadpour says. "They are going to hit their target, and if they hit either a major American target abroad or they strike on American soil, I think it's going to be difficult for President Obama, in an election year, not to respond."

Rogers, who was in Congress during the lead-up to the Iraq War, says the rising rhetoric between the countries makes military conflict all the more possible.

"If, God forbid, it gets to that point — and I hope it does not — you won't see big troops on the ground," he says. "It'll be a dismantling of their capability to continue down this dangerous path of a nuclear weapon."

NPR's Tom Gjelten contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly, in for Guy Raz.

It was one of the more surreal photo-ops this week: Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, captured live on Iranian TV, visiting a nuclear reactor.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken)

KELLY: Ahmadinejad trumpeted his country's nuclear progress but denied that Iran is, in fact, pursuing nuclear weapons. Here in Washington, officials weren't buying it. They rushed to repeat the official U.S. line, a line that President Obama himself is fond of delivering.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

KELLY: And that's our cover story today: What are the options on the table? And are any of them up to the task of stopping Iran from getting the bomb? We begin with one of the stranger twists in the Iran story this week: bomb attacks against Israeli nationals that investigators believe were probably the work of Iranian agents.

As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, those bombings may provide clues into what's happening inside Iran.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Israelis were the targets of car bombs in New Delhi, India, and in the Republic of Georgia. The wife of an Israeli diplomat was injured in New Delhi. The bomb in Georgia was diffused. In addition, Iranians in Thailand were caught preparing bombs that Thai officials said were meant for Israeli diplomats. Maybe the Iranians are getting serious in their declared intention to retaliate for the assassination by car bombs of some of their nuclear scientists.

But Scott Stewart, a terrorism analyst with the intelligence firm STRATFOR, says he was struck by the amateurish quality of this week's bomb operations. Even rudimentary car bomb attacks, he points out, require some expertise.

SCOTT STEWART: Like any sort of terrorist attack like that, you really need to have good planning. You need to have excellent surveillance. You really have to know the routine of your target, of course, then you need to make a good device, something that's going to function as planned. And then you need to place it in a good spot where it's going to be effective.

GJELTEN: The car bomb used against the Israeli diplomat's wife in New Delhi proved ineffective. She was injured but not killed. One of the Iranians in the Thailand operation managed only to blow his own legs off.

In the early '90s as a State Department agent, Stewart investigated the bombing of Israeli targets in Argentina. Those attacks, which left more than 100 dead, were traced to Iran and to its ally Hezbollah. In contrast to this week's attacks, those operations appear to Stewart to have been carefully planned.

STEWART: Hezbollah and the Iranians had done all their targeting homework ahead of time. And then when the decision was made to execute the attack, they essentially had to pull out that portfolio, update it and then conduct the attack. So they had a lot of their homework done ahead of time. In this case, we're not seeing a lot of sophisticated tradecraft, so it could, indeed, be a case of them rushing things.

GJELTEN: If the Iranians are now rushing their retaliation, it could mean they are in disarray. It's also possible these attacks - should they prove to be directed from Tehran - were done without expert help from Hezbollah. Conclusion, the attacks may reveal as much about Iran's weakness right now as about its strength.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

KELLY: Let's stick for a minute with these assassination attempts and the mixed signals Tehran is sending. Michigan Republican Mike Rogers is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Thank you for taking the time.

REPRESENTATIVE MIKE ROGERS: Thank you for having me on today.

KELLY: We've just been hearing about these assassination attempts. How convincing is the evidence linking Iran to these attempts?

ROGERS: Well, I can say with a very high degree of confidence that Iran was involved in some of its more known intelligence - both military and civilian intelligence services were engaged in these events.

KELLY: And is that based on something that you have heard from the Israelis? Is there concrete evidence of that?

ROGERS: Well, this is something, as a chairman of the Intelligence Committee, I would get classified sensitive information that allows me to come to that conclusion.

KELLY: Congressman, do any of the options that the U.S. says are on the table - diplomacy, economic sanctions, a possible military strike - do any of them have the ability to stop Iran, or would it just push things down the road, (unintelligible)?

ROGERS: I happen to have been a big believer in sanctions, and would like to think that the impact that they've had proves out that theory. What we have done about cutting off their ability to get to the financial market has been devastating to them. Now, it has gotten their fangs out, clearly.

KELLY: Well, I was going to say, I mean, you know, and the response to sanctions we see is further very defiant actions from Tehran.

ROGERS: Well, true enough. However, they did slip in that they would go back to the negotiating table. And I'll tell you what, they have elections coming up, not likely to be impacted, but they're having lots of problems on the Iranian street. I mean, people can't go down to the bank and get cash. Inflation is outrageous, so food has, you know, exponentially gone up. And all of those things are happening.

And so the reason the regime is kind of buckling in is because they're under that much pressure. I argue if we let that wait, and you let them understand that you're serious, you will take out their nuclear enrichment capability if you have to. I think that can be a means to a peaceful end to this.

KELLY: Well, I mean, as you're aware, there is more and more talk on Capitol Hill and in European capitals of a possible military action. What questions are you asking to try to explore whether that is a serious option, a viable option?

ROGERS: Well, we have a whole bunch of dynamics here, and that's what I think has gotten us to where we are. Israel is very, very unsure what the United States posture is. They're not sure that the United States is serious when they say all options are on the table. And Israel has made it very, very clear, A, they wouldn't tell the United States if they were going to strike Iran. And, B, that they do have - they call them a red line - meaning that if Iran gets so far in their nuclear weapons program that they can't stop it, then all bets are off. So they don't want them to cross that line. And that line is not that far away.

KELLY: Congressman Rogers, if Iran were to decide to attack, where does that leave the U.S.? Can Israel set Iran's nuclear program back enough on its own, or would U.S. capabilities be required?

ROGERS: I think a unilateral strike is probably not in the best interest of the United States moving forward. Now that said...

KELLY: You're talking about unilateral U.S. strike?

ROGERS: A unilateral Israeli strike.

KELLY: Israeli strike, OK.

ROGERS: Retaliation by Iran is something that the United States has a defense pact with Israel that we will defend them if attacked under any circumstances. So it brings us in in a place where we may have not made a decision. The relationship struggle between Israel and the United States, particularly in this administration, is troublesome, and we have been beating on the administration to, hey, you have got to fix this relationship, and you need to fix it soon so that we can come together on a strategy to make sure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon.

KELLY: As far as you understand it, what is the time line? How long before Iran, if it is determined to get a bomb, could have one?

ROGERS: I believe they're getting close. And that's why they are so eager to brag about their enrichment capability and move their enrichment capability to a place called Qom, which is very difficult to attack in any way.

KELLY: Congressman, I know you have to run. But one last question, which is you were around as the drumbeat was rising years ago before thinking about a possible attack on Iraq, do you see echoes of that? Do you worry as the rhetoric on both sides rises that perhaps we are going down a path that may lead to yet another very difficult conflict with very uncertain outcomes?

ROGERS: That is a very real possibility. It looks different in the sense that you won't see - if, God forbid, it gets to that point - and I hope it does not - you won't see big troops on the ground. You won't see that kind of a conflict. It'll be a dismantling of their capability to continue down this dangerous path of a nuclear weapon.

KELLY: That's Congressman Mike Rogers. He chairs the House Intelligence Committee, and we've reached him on the House floor on Capitol Hill. Congressman, thanks for speaking to us.

ROGERS: Great. Thank you so much.

KELLY: So, is the best way forward, as Congressman Rogers argued, there to give the so-called crippling sanctions now in place time to work? We put the question to Karim Sadjadpour. He's an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Iran and the U.S. have two different philosophies of negotiation. I will say that in the United States, the famous book about negotiations is called "Getting to Yes." And the Iranian equivalent of that book would be "Staying on Maybe."

KELLY: It sounds as though what you're saying is the Iranian strategy at this point is play for time.

SADJADPOUR: I think that was the Iranian strategy of trying to play for time. But I would argue that the tables have somewhat turned. It's interesting when you try to get inside the head of the Iranian supreme leader. For 23 years, Ayatollah Khamenei has sought to preserve the status quo by avoiding transformative decisions. And I think now with these sanctions, Khamenei's back is increasingly up against the wall. And he has two ways of seeking relief: One is in the form of a nuclear compromise, and the other is in the form of a nuclear weapon.

KELLY: Let me turn to Israel for a minute. There is mounting speculation, of course, that Israel may be preparing some sort of preemptive attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. Can Israel set back Iran's nuclear program without some sort of U.S. participation? Or when we talk about an Israeli strike, are you talking about the U.S. would need to be involved as well in some way?

SADJADPOUR: What Israeli officials are confident that they could set back Iran's nuclear clock - they say usually between one to three years if they were to take military action. They believe that if the U.S. were to do it, it would set Iran's clock back even further. But certainly if the Israelis decide to do it on their own and then Iran retaliates against both Israel but also U.S. interest in the Middle East, then it's going to be a war, which Israel started but a war which Israel can't necessarily finish, and it would require U.S. involvement.

KELLY: As you continue to track these events unfolding, are there specific moments, specific points you look to that may prove the turning point?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I think if Iran doesn't go beyond 20 percent enrichment...

KELLY: Meaning not enough to build a nuclear weapon.

SADJADPOUR: Not enough to build a nuclear weapon, there may not be a trigger, at least in the year 2012. If Iran continues to aspire to commit acts of terror, at some point, they're going to be successful and they are going to hit their target. And if they hit either a major American target abroad or they strike on American soil, I think it's going to be difficult for President Obama in an election year not to respond.

KELLY: That's Karim Sadjadpour. He tracks Iran at the Carnegie Endowment here in Washington. Thanks very much.

SADJADPOUR: Anytime. Thank you.

KELLY: One final note: On that point of a possible strike on U.S. soil, police in New York and L.A. said this week, they're worried their cities may be targets. A senior U.S. intelligence official reassured Congress it's unlikely Iran would go that far. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.