The Growing Conflict Over Iran's Nuclear Program

Feb 15, 2012
Originally published on February 19, 2012 7:46 am
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There is no way to be certain, but an attack on an Israeli diplomat in India and an attempted attack in Georgia appeared to be linked to Iran. And Israel also blames Tehran for what looks like a bungled operation in Bangkok that ended with a series of explosions and the arrest of two Iranian men. Iran denies responsibility, but perhaps the most damning evidence is that the incidents in New Delhi and Tbilisi mirror attacks on Iranian nuclear scientists that are widely blamed on Israel.

Jackson Diehl joins us now from the studios at The Washington Post, where he's deputy editorial page editor and writes a biweekly foreign affairs column. And nice to have you back on the program.

JACKSON DIEHL: Oh, my pleasure.

CONAN: And in one of your columns, you wrote: If these attacks indeed are Iranian in origin, it's a sign that the leadership in Tehran is panicking.

DIEHL: Yeah, that's right, because you look at the places where they tried to carry out these attacks. Not only were they bungled, but they chose to do one of them in New Delhi, and India is one of Iran's last relative friends in the world. They are now the largest purchaser of Iranian oil now that the Chinese have cut back and Europe is suspending purchases of oil from Iran. So they - and India has been resisting pressure from the United States and other Western countries to further sanction Iran to cut back on oil deliveries. And so that they would choose to carry out an operation in the capital of India is a very, very reckless act. And then on top of that, that they bungled it makes you think that they are panicked.

CONAN: And some critics have said, wait a minute. This is not the hallmark of Hezbollah, which is timed - has worked as an Iranian proxy. Nor is it the hallmark of the Quds Force, which is the Iranian force that does carry out such attacks. They're highly professional. They wouldn't be such amateurs.

DIEHL: And they said the same thing back in last year, when the Justice Department accused the Quds Force of planning the bombing in Washington to kill the Saudi ambassador here. People said surely the Iranians are more professional than that. They know how to carry out good operations. And yet when the evidence came out, there was really quite substantial evidence that the Iranians had, in fact, tried to use an Iranian national in Texas to contract with what they thought was a Mexican drug gang to carry out a bombing in Washington. They are - they seem to be grasping at straws.

CONAN: And that attack in Washington, had it come off, was going to be a bomb explosion in a restaurant less than half a mile from the White House. The attack in India, just a few hundred yards from the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

DIEHL: Exactly. The same prime minister who has been stoutly resisting pressure from Washington to apply sanctions to Iran. And the interesting thing about this is the Iranians - the Indians, that is, take terrorism very seriously. They have been the subject of several major terrorist attacks on the last 10 years. They are very good at investigating them. They've already gotten a very big jump on investigating this one. They've arrested five people today, according to the Indian media. They've been tracing phone calls back to Lebanon. If they pin this on the Iranians, it's not likely that they will react mildly.

CONAN: And so this recklessness of which you speak, is that a flailing at straws? I mean, you can understand the Iranians going tit for tat with the Israelis. That's what everybody thinks that the Iranian nuclear scientists were murdered by Mossad or its agents in Tehran. And they were murdered by men driving by in motorcycles and slapping magnetic bombs on cars that then detonated - exactly the same MO that was used in New Delhi and tried to use in Georgia.

DIEHL: That's right. The Iranians, I think, feel besieged. They feel they are - and they've - rightly so, that they are the subject of a covert war being waged against them by Israel and, to some extent, with the help of the United States when it comes to things such as software viruses. In the meantime, their economy is tanking because of the sanctions. The Iranian currency is plunging on the local market, and so they feel, I think, a very strong need to sort of push back somehow and show that they - especially show to Israel that they - there will be a cost for the actions Israel is taking. And yet they're only making it worse for themselves, it seems, because not only - their actions are bungled, and they're offending some of their last allies.

CONAN: So as you look down the road, what kind of - yes, their economy is in serious trouble, but at least on the face of it, their leaders say, we are not intimidated. We're not going to be changed or deterred from a nuclear program by sanctions. Or they mentioned they'd pin these attacks on scientists in Iran on Israel, and most of the world agrees with them. They say that's not going to stop us. And given the developments today, they're installing domestically produced fuel rods in their reactors for the first time.

DIEHL: Yeah. I think, you know, certainly the analyst I talked to think that the supreme leader of Iran, Khamenei, is determined to go forward with this regardless of the cost. They point to the fact that during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran suffered severe hardship and refused to give up. So I think it's likely that they will keep going in spite of all the troubles that they're having. That's what it looks like now anyway. As with the - I should say that the measures today, however, look a little bit like a propaganda exercise there.

They made a big show of installing fuel rods in a reactor, but the most Western experts seem to think that they actually aren't really capable of fabricating those fuel rods so that may be sort of a Potemkin exhibit.

CONAN: There was also - just yesterday, I believe, a U.S. carrier moved back from the Arabian Sea through the Straits of Hormuz and into the Persian Gulf, this after - with great fanfare. Just a few weeks earlier, the revolutionary guards, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, had bid farewell to a U.S. aircraft carrier and saying, don't come back.

DIEHL: Right. Their bluff was called, and, of course, they weren't able to do anything about it. Probably the single dumbest thing the Iranians could do would be to try to close that strait or attack a U.S. aircraft carrier because it would give, certainly, the West an opportunity to take the kind of action that, right now, we've been refraining from taking on their nuclear program.

CONAN: Let's see if we could get some callers in on this conversation. We're speaking with Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post about the most recent incidents in the shadow war between Iran and Israel. And we'll go to Mary Ann(ph). Mary Ann on - with us from Pittsburgh.

MARY ANN: Hey, Neal. Hey, you've been so - you were so careful, you know, in Iraq, to the invasion of Iraq and really tried to educate the public. So I hope you have Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett on about the situation with Iran. But - and I encourage people to go to their website, Race for Iran. But I want to ask your guest. You know, Richard Engel wrote an article, you know, MSNBC's foreign correspondent, wrote an article the other day - six days ago - about U.S. officials talking to him and the other reporter and verifying that Israel and Israeli intelligence agencies have armed, trained and financed the MEK. Now, the MEK is on the U.S. terrorist list as you well know.

CONAN: This is a group that is based in Iraq and - long based in Iraq, yes, indeed.

ANN: Yeah. And so could you, I mean, NPR's barely touched this story, yet we're hearing a lot about Netanyahu's claims about Iran attempting, you know, to assassinate Israeli diplomats. So could your guest talk about Israel, you know, this story about U.S. officials verifying that Israeli intelligence agencies are arming, training and financing the MEK? And the MEK allegedly killed the Iranian scientists. So can you talk about that, please?

CONAN: Jackson Diehl?

DIEHL: Sure. Those are the reports that are out there. Richard Engel reported that. I believe it was also reported in The New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago by an Israeli journalist. The MEK is an Iranian dissident organization that operated inside Iran, a secular leftist organization, immediately after the revolution and then was sort of driven out of the country. It's been in Iraq for the last couple of decades.

And the allegation is that the Israelis are using members of the MEK to carry out these clandestine operations inside Iran, including the killing of the scientist and other operations. There was a huge explosion at an Iranian military base late last year that killed a senior general and wiped out several buildings in an area that was being used to develop Iranian missiles. No one knows exactly what happened there, but some people suspect that also could have been an Israeli operation.

CONAN: By the way, Mary Ann, we did have that Israeli journalist who was just referred to on our program, I think, a couple of weeks ago. We also spoke recently with Daniel Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He said - he was quoted in that piece by Engel, saying that if the accounts of the Israeli MEK assassinations are accurate, the operations border on terrorism. But thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

ANN: I hope you have Flynt and Hillary on. Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Bye. And so we're looking at this tit-for-tat operation. I mean, nobody seems to be - Israel is, as usual, opaque on these matters in its formal official statements. But nobody seems to be seriously doubting the fact that Israel is carrying out operations inside of Iran, and maybe even that giant explosion you refer to.

DIEHL: Yeah. And I think it's a matter of difference between Israel and the United States. It's a very complicated thing that's going on because I think the United States does support some sabotage operations against Iran, and it's widely suspected that the U.S. might have had - along with Israel, had something to do with the computer virus that was induced...

CONAN: The Stuxnet virus, yes.

DIEHL: The Stuxnet virus that wiped out a couple of thousand of Iranian centrifuges two years ago. But the U.S. clearly, I think, does oppose actions against scientists. Hillary Clinton has denounced them publicly. There's some speculation that Obama raised the issue in a phone call of Netanyahu. I think the Obama administration sees those kinds of operations as being counterproductive.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Mojie(ph). Mojie with us from Tucson.

MOJIE: Hi. Yeah, thank you for taking my call. I am a Green Movement Iranian, so I am no friend of the clerical dictatorship. However, I'm thinking maybe that these attacks are Israeli false flag operations in order to make it appear that Iran is doing this so that Israel can then add fuel to its campaign.

CONAN: And, Mojie, I can verify your stance. You've called us before. We know you as an opponent of the regime. That, however, is exactly what Tehran has been saying, Jackson Diehl.

DIEHL: Yeah. And I've heard that theory. Here is why I don't believe it, because in the operation in New Delhi, you had an Israeli woman, the wife of the military attache there, severely injured. And, you know, I really doubt the Israelis would gauge on an operation that would result in the injury or death of one of their own citizens. This is a country that recently exchanged 1,000 prisoners just to get back one soldier that was being held by the Hamas group. It's not their MO to kill their own citizen.

MOJIE: I respectfully disagree. Israel right now is desperately trying to find an excuse to attack Iran, so killing a few of his own people would be the first of its desperate measures.

CONAN: Well, Mojie, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. We're speaking with Jackson Diehl, a deputy editorial page editor for the Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Jackson Diehl, the prime minister of Israel is expected shortly in Washington, where he is expected to speak with the president among other things. Some people were saying about the timetable for an attack on Iran.

DIEHL: Yeah. Well, it's interesting. Some people are worried that Israel may act soon. The secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, had a private conversation with one of our columnists, David Ignatius, earlier this month. And Ignatius subsequently wrote in a column saying that Panetta believe that Israel was going to attack during the months of April, May or June. Now, Panetta was in front of the Senate yesterday. He didn't deny saying that, but he did say that he now thinks Israel hasn't made a decision. But it's clear that they are at a very crucial moment.

And the reason this is that Iran is about to open this new uranium enrichment facility that's underneath a mountain. In fact, that's one of the things they were talking about today in Tehran. And I think the assessment is in Israel that once that a facility gets going, it will be impossible for them to really have an effective military strike. And so if they're going to act, they feel like they need to do it very soon.

CONAN: The not effective military strike because it is too deep underground to be destroyed. Yes, you can block the entrance, but entrances can be dug out in fairly rapid order. And at that point, it's kind of - it's delaying the program just a couple of months.

DIEHL: That's right. And the interesting thing is that I think it's also Israel's assessment or certainly has been reported that the United States will retain a capacity to strike Iran's program well beyond the next few months. It has - it simply has greater military capacity than Israel. So then this decision Israel has to make, and this could be the subject of conversation between Netanyahu and Obama, is can Israel rely on the United States to take out Iran's nuclear program, if that really becomes necessary, past the date when Israel is able to act on its own. If Israel feels that the United - it can rely on the United States to defend it at the moment of truth, then it will be less willing to act now.

CONAN: And we should remember, President Obama has repeatedly said that Iran will not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon from where we are now, and that is some distance. And there are disagreements about how far away Iran is from acquiring a weapon. Of course, Iran denies it is trying to acquire a weapon. There is no smoking gun proof that Iran is trying to acquire a weapon. The most recent statement by the IAEA, damning, but not a smoking gun. And a lot of people say, Jackson Diehl, haven't we been here before? Haven't we been here with Israeli and American intelligence agreeing that there is a great danger from weapons of mass destruction in a Middle Eastern country beginning with the word I, with the letter I?

DIEHL: Well, yeah, that's true, and I think that's certainly one reason for caution now. Of course, in this case, unlike in the case of Iraq, you do have the IAEA in there making inspections. And they have reported quite extensive evidence of Iranian bomb preparations, and they issued an extensive report last year spelling out exactly what they were. Now, having said that, I think one thing that Israeli intelligence and U.S. intelligence do agree on at this moment is the Iranians have not yet made the decision to go for the bomb, to actually build one.

What they're doing now is trying to develop a capacity to do one so that they could, if they decided, move forward. But I think the two intelligence services seem to agree that they have not yet made that decision to move forward.

CONAN: And you would think that there are any number of indicators that, yes, assembling the amount of plutonium or highly enriched uranium necessary for an explosive, that would be one indicator, the ability to miniaturize a weapon to make it small enough to fit on a warhead on a missile, test firing a missile with the warhead that weighs as much as all those things. Yet, as you mentioned, Israel is concerned with the point at which Iran's nuclear program becomes invulnerable to attack.

DIEHL: They call it the zone of immunity. The place where Iran gets to a point where they have a capacity where if they made a decision, they could go for a bomb, and Israel would not be able to stop them at that point. So then their dilemma becomes: Do we try and attack them before they acquire that capacity, even if they haven't yet made the decision to go forward with the bomb, or do we not do it and we rely on the United States to take the decision to intervene if the Iranians ever make that move to go forward?

CONAN: Many questions about this we will be exploring as we go down the road. Jackson Diehl, thanks very much for your time today.

DIEHL: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor at The Washington Post where he writes a biweekly foreign affairs column. His op-ed "Iran's Measure of Desperation" appeared on the PostPartisan blog at thewashingtonpost.com on Monday. There's a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from a studio there at the newspaper. Tomorrow, Michael Moore joins us to talk about the new rules for Oscar-nominated feature documentaries, rules he helped to write out. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.