MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In this segment of the program, how likely is a war with Iran, and why? This week, three speeches at the United Nations General Assembly addressed the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The Iranians say their interest is in peaceful nuclear energy. The U.S., Israel and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council doubt that and say Iran has failed to dispel their doubts. President Obama told the U.N. a nuclear-armed Iran is a challenge that cannot be contained. It must be prevented.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So let me be clear. America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited.
SIEGEL: Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told the U.N. yesterday that the limit is likely sometime next spring or summer. That's when he said Iran could enrich uranium to 90 percent - that's weapons grade. They've already got 20 percent, which is below weapons grade. Netanyahu said the world should draw a red line, and he brought the drawing of a bomb and a marker to demonstrate.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: A red line should be drawn right here before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb.
SIEGEL: In his speech, Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, heard here speaking through an interpreter, dismissed U.S. and Israeli appeals as warmongering.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Through translator) Continued threats by the uncivilized Zionists to resort to military action against our great nation is a clear example of this bitter reality. A state of mistrust has cast its shadow on the international relations whilst there is no trusted or just authority to help resolve world conflicts.
SIEGEL: Coming up, we'll hear from our correspondent who's covered the Iran nuclear controversy, from a reporter in Tehran and from an Iranian expatriate scholar. First, Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He coordinated Iran policy in the first years of the Obama administration. Did this week's speeches alter the situation at all?
DENNIS ROSS: I think, at this point, these speeches did not move us towards a solution, but I think that they are, at least, crystallizing more clearly what the objective remains. And that's important because it could yet well affect the Iranians.
SIEGEL: The strategy so far has been to apply very tough sanctions against Iran. There are reports - both from the U.S. and also from Israel - that those sanctions are having an impact on Iran. Is there any indication, though, that the impact is great enough to lead the Iranian government to change its mind about its nuclear program?
ROSS: Not at this point, although I don't think that we should ever have anticipated that as soon as you impose these kinds of crippling sanctions, that that was going to lead to a change in Iranian behavior. Any effort at course of diplomacy has to have two other features in it: The prospect of the use of force has to be seen as being quite real, and the other aspect has to be that there's a way out that is offered.
I think we've had diplomacy, but it's been a step-by-step diplomacy. I think we probably still need to move towards what I would call an endgame kind of proposal in the diplomacy. I think the fact that the president reinforced the idea of prevention as opposed to containment as an objective will have a way of concentrating the Iranian mind further that after the election, the danger of diplomacy failing is that force could well be used. And I do think that could move us in obviously a direction that is both more hopeful, but also could be - could also lead to the use of force.
SIEGEL: Let's say that all this were to fail and either military force were not used or were used unsuccessfully and Iran did develop a nuclear arsenal. How much - given the fact that Israel has a significant nuclear arsenal - how much would that alter the politics of the region?
ROSS: I think it would transform the reality there quite fundamentally. This is not going to be a case where it's the Cold War and it's the U.S. and it's the Soviet Union. This is a case where you're going to have a nuclear-armed Middle East, because if the Iranians get nuclear weapons, you can count on the fact that Saudi Arabia will do so as well. And that will mean others in the region, over time, will seek to have it as well.
SIEGEL: You're not inferring that from Saudi policy. This isn't theoretical. This...
ROSS: Not theoretical. The king of Saudi Arabia was very clear with me. I met him in May of 2009 when I was still within the administration. I was there at that time to explain to him our approach to the Iranians and the whole question of their nuclear program. And he was very clear with me in terms of saying if they get it, we get it. And obviously, I wasn't the only person he said that to.
So I think what we're dealing with here is if Iran becomes a nuclear weapon state, we are talking about the Middle East becoming a nuclear-armed region. This is a region where conflict is the norm, not the exception; where instability unfortunately is also a norm, not the exception. And to think that somehow the rules of the Cold War would apply in this region, I think, would be to stretch our imaginations quite far.
SIEGEL: For those people who think that this entire Iran crisis is not one of essential U.S. interests but Israeli interests and that the U.S. has been dragged in by the Israelis to back them up, what do you say?
ROSS: Well, they're wrong. I mean, the fact of the matter is this is the world against Iran. It's not simply the Iranians against the Israelis or vice versa. I mean, the president was very clear in his speech at the U.N. that if Iran would have nuclear weapons, it's not just that it threatens Israel's existence. It threatens the Gulf states. It would threaten the global economy. And in addition to that, it guarantees that you'd have a nuclear-armed Middle East, which increases the risk of a nuclear war in the Middle East. But it would also mean probably the end of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the watchdog agency of the U.N., has passed 12 resolutions calling on the Iranians to suspend their nuclear program, to suspend enrichment. The Security Council of the United Nations has adopted six resolutions saying the same thing. And after all these efforts by these international bodies, Iran defies the world, which is what it's doing right now, and it proceeds to have nuclear weapons, the message is going to be it doesn't matter what the world thinks on something like this. The nuclear non-proliferation regime, which has actually been one of the more stable international pillars, would have been emasculated to the point where it may have no meaning.
SIEGEL: That's former U.S. policymaker Dennis Ross, and that's a fair summary of where the U.S. stands on Iran. There's no red line like the one Israel's Netanyahu described, but an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable to Washington. How does this pay in Iran? Well, New York Times Tehran correspondent Thomas Erdbrink says Iranians increasingly feel that war is on the horizon.
THOMAS ERDBRINK: This is not a new feeling for Iranians. They feel that their government and they themselves have been under the trail of attack for a long time. And you see this when you talk to people in supermarkets or in (unintelligible) at family gatherings, people are very worried about the future. And one of the things they fear will happen could be an attack by Israel or the United States.
SIEGEL: Already, Iran is under a very tough regime of sanctions. There also is a kind of a covert war being waged against Iran at the same time. Do Iranians feel that sort of thing? Do they feel the pinch of sanctions, for example?
ERDBRINK: Well, definitely. I think one only needs to look here at the slides of the national currency, the rial. Let's say you want to buy a can of Coca-Cola, which actually is still available here in Iran. You will be paying the equivalent of $1 for that can of Coke six months ago. Now, you'd be paying it $3. Well, it's the same for chicken meat, cars, airline tickets. Anything you can imagine has gotten a lot more expensive here. And this makes people very anxious about the future.
SIEGEL: Can you imagine some kind of agreement that would avert an attack next year?
ERDBRINK: I think it will be very hard, Robert, because for Iran's leaders, this has become a matter of ideology, of independence. They say that yes, they are willing to talk with the West. Yes, they are willing to reach a compromise, but it should be Iran's compromise. Iran should have the right to enrich its uranium without any foreign interference. And this is something the leaders are absolutely not willing to give in. At the same time, Western countries are saying that this right should be acknowledged but are not acting upon it in their meeting with the Iranians. So I don't see any solution in this matter. I don't see any chance for a compromise.
SIEGEL: Thomas Erdbink of the New York Times in Tehran. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council. His new book is "Single Roll of the Dice." It's about President Obama's diplomacy with Iran. Do you see some area of potential common agreement between Tehran and Washington that could avoid a war sometime next year?
TRITA PARSI: I certainly believe that it's possible to find a solution, and I think there is the contours of a solution that I think most people recognize could work. Which essentially would mean that Iran would have some limited enrichment on its soil, but it would have to accept very, very strict inspections and essentially make it impossible for it to build a weapon. The problem is not the technical aspect of this issue. The problem is to find the political will necessary on both sides at the same time to move towards a solution.
SIEGEL: But the absence of confidence isn't a matter of the past couple of years, it's a matter of decades.
PARSI: Absolutely. Precisely because of the lack of confidence and the tremendous mistrust that exists, it is unrealistic to expect that a couple of meetings is going to yield a result. For diplomacy to be exhausted, it needs to be given the time necessary for it to succeed.
SIEGEL: But on the issue of say, enriching uranium toward weapons-grade potential, is there some give, some potential give in Iran on that point?
PARSI: There is indications, they have already indicated on numerous occasions that they would stop 20 percent enrichment in return for alleviation of some of the sanctions. I think the end result is going to be, if we find a peaceful solution, that the Iranians will not enrich above five percent. That they will be able to only produce uranium at the level that is needed for production of energy for civilian purposes, but nothing beyond that.
SIEGEL: That's Trita Parsi, of the National Iranian American Council. Between now and next summer, we'll often turn to NPR's Mike Shuster for news of this conflict. Mike's been covering Iran and its nuclear program for some time. Mike, what happens next?
MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Well, I think essentially we're waiting for the U.S. presidential campaign to decide who will be the next president. I think that President Obama does not want to make any concessions to Iran, even if Iran makes an offer that is attractive in some way until election day or after election day. After that, depending upon who becomes the next president, we'll probably see initiatives either from Governor Romney or from President Obama.
SIEGEL: Initiatives that, as Dennis Ross was alluding to, might be broader and might offer both the threat and the off-ramp if Iran were to comply?
SHUSTER: There certainly could be, especially if these very tough sanctions continue to bite and have an impact - concrete impact in Iran itself. So far it's true, the Iranian leadership has not changed its attitude toward its nuclear program even though sanctions are quite strong. But that could change.
SIEGEL: Iran's nuclear program seems to be something that Iranians of all stripes support. You've reported on this. By that do they mean civilian nuclear energy or do they mean having a bomb?
SHUSTER: They do not mean having a bomb. I think there's deep divisions within the body politic in Iran over that question. But as for the right, they assert their right to peaceful nuclear energy, and that's where I don't think Iran or Iranians broadly speaking will make a concession. But they are capable of making a concession to limit their enrichment activities to that as long as somewhere along the line the United States and Europe are willing to lift sanctions.
SIEGEL: Mike, thanks for talking with us once again.
SHUSTER: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Mike Schuster concluding this segment on the conflict over Iran's nuclear program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.