Adam Garfinkle: Even as we speak today in Washington, the P5+1 and the Iranians are meeting in Vienna. It’s the fourth session designed to get past the interim agreement of this past fall all the way to a final agreement, so-called, perhaps before the interim accord expires in July. Before we get into the specifics of this, tell us about your relevant government experience in this policy portfolio, which is quite extensive in both the technical and the political-diplomatic aspects.
Gary Samore: I first started working for the U.S. government during the Reagan Administration, and one of my first accounts was Iran. So off and on for the past thirty years I’ve worked on U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. After the revolution the Reagan Administration tried to impose a nuclear embargo on Iran. I think we were very successful in persuading other countries around the world not to provide Iran with nuclear assistance. We developed campaigns with the Indians, the Chinese, Argentina, Russia, and for the most part we were successful. The big failure, of course, was the secret assistance Pakistan provided to Iran, which we didn’t know about at the time and didn’t learn about until twenty years after the fact. That’s the basis of Iran’s nuclear weapons program now: the technology it got from Pakistan in the mid-1980s.
AG: And a lot of the missile stuff came from North Korea.
GS: All the missile stuff came from North Korea.
AG: ….which came earlier through China.
Now, during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Clinton Administrations, we never conducted any nuclear negotiations with Iran. Our policy was based entirely on technology denial. I think we were quite successful, with that one fatal flaw—we didn’t stop the Pakistani connection.
AG: We all know the quip that getting close only matters in hand grenades and horseshoes. Now we have a third example, I guess.
GS: So it has only been in the past two Administrations—George W. Bush and Obama—that we’ve had real negotiations, with, obviously, mixed success.
AG: George W. Bush never seemed to make up his mind about what he wanted to do with the Iranians; he couldn’t seem to decide among the options, all of them with tradeoffs. So we treaded water, temporized a lot, for a long time. That’s regrettable in hindsight, seems to me. There were circumstances, especially after the invasion of Iraq but before the insurgency broke out there, when the Iranians were pretty afraid of us. We might have gotten some kind of deal, but instead we did the “axis of evil” stuff. As time has passed, they’ve made a lot more technical progress the result being that we have fewer options and a less generous timetable, and all the risks are higher if the negotiations do not succeed. It strikes me as an unfortunate lost opportunity.
GS: I agree; I think we should have tried, but, of course, the Europeans stepped into the breach. As you know, they actually negotiated an agreement with Iran in 2003 to freeze parts of the program. That held for two years, and then the Iranians calculated, I think, in 2005 that we were bogged down in Iraq, bogged down in Afghanistan, and that it was safe for them to walk away from the deal.
AG: I wonder if they were petulant about it, too. Over Afghanistan we did have some initial communication and cooperation, but then we spurned their interest in that. Of course, they may have been giving refuge to al-Qaeda types, so it was by no means a simple calculation. Whatever the reasons, the Iranian elite may have concluded that there was no possibility of cooperating with the United States, so why not go another way.
GS: So it seemed. The prospect of serious talks getting started before 9/11 struck me as scant. Even at the time I left the Obama Administration to go back to Cambridge, we all expected that Saeed Jalili would win the presidential elections, and having dealt with him for four years we knew what that meant for the nuclear negotiations: nothing serious would happen. It was a huge surprise that Rouhani won and opened the door to what is now a real negotiation. Had I looked into my crystal ball and seen that coming, I might have stayed. It would have been tempting, because the first four years were utter frustration. We and the P5+1 made many sincere efforts to try to get a negotiation started, and the Iranians were completely unresponsive—especially after the collapse of the Tehran research reactor deal in 2009. The main credit President Obama deserves is his ability to capitalize on Iran’s refusal to enter negotiations and build the sanctions regime to a truly effective level, which nobody thought he could do.
AG: He certainly did build it better than it had ever been built before, with, we should acknowledge, the help of the Congress. I traveled with Condoleezza Rice when she first became Secretary of State, on that first trip was Europe, with the first stop ion London. One of the main pieces of business on the trip was to try to strengthen the sanctions regime. We didn’t get too far, and one of the reasons was that the Europeans kept saying that only if we took the threat of force off the table and stopped (supposedly) terrifying the Iranians, would they throw in with stronger sanctions. In other words, the message was, in effect, we’re not going to make economic sacrifices on behalf of an effort that won’t work because of what you Americans are doing. Of course, that argument didn’t appeal to any American Administration, certainly not to President Bush.
GS: I remember being out of government during those days, and a lot of Europeans blamed the United States as much as Iran for the failure to make diplomatic progress. That perception damaged our ability to mobilize European support.
AG: Of course, there was the war in Iraq; that didn’t help.
GS: Yes, that definitely hurt us, even in Bush’s second term, when the Administration was more genuinely interested in some kind of diplomatic process.
AG: Tell us a bit about the organization you preside over, United Against a Nuclear Iran, or UANI.
GS: It existed before I became its president. The reason I was attracted to it is that they do an excellent job of supplementing government efforts to impose sanctions. And I think that without sanctions we’re never going to get a nuclear deal.
AG: Who set the organization up, and about when?
GS: It started during the first Obama Administration, and was set up for the purpose of trying to enforce sanctions through new means. Mark Wallace is the chief operating officer, and he was one of Bush’s Ambassadors to the United Nations. This is one of the ways President Obama managed to overcome our differences with the allies to build a better sanctions regime, and do it, of course, without ever taking the military option off the table.
AG: Before we get to the negotiations going on right now in Vienna, let’s talk about the interim accord. What has gone well with it, and from both a U.S. national security point of view and a broader counter-proliferation point of view, what hasn’t gone so well?
GS: I would say that on balance, it has been successful in achieving its intended purpose, which was to freeze, cap, or slow down Iran’s nuclear program in critical areas in exchange for limited sanctions relief. The big concern I had at the time, along with many sanctions experts, was that once we started to ease sanctions, the entire edifice might collapse. In fact, that hasn’t happen. The U.S and European governments have been very proactive in warning their companies, saying they could go to Iran and discuss possibilities for when sanctions are lifted, but if they signed any new deals that contravened sanctions they would suffer themselves.
In many ways, the status quo we’ve come to now serves us better than it serves the Iranians. We’ve essentially gotten a freeze on their program in exchange for very limited sanctions relief. It’s easier for us to extend that status quo than it is for the Iranians, which puts us in a very strong bargaining position. And if we ever do have to go back to the sanctions track, I think we’re in a strong position to impose even greater sanctions on Iran, especially on their oil exports, given the international oil market and the political influence we have with Iran’s biggest remaining customers—Japan, Korea, and India. They’re exporting about 1.2 million barrels per day of crude now, and I think we can reduce that by half if we decide we need to.
AG: Do you think the Iranians realize this?
GS: They do.
AG. There have been criticisms, though, of the interim agreement. As you know, some have argued that because we didn’t stop the centrifuges, the Iranians are gaining critical experience working on them, learning how to speed them up a bit. When I first read the thing, my first concern, aside from the learning process it allowed, was that it was an agreement over very short duration, just six months. So I worried that to buy an extension, we’d have to pay in the currency of even more sanctions relief—essentially buying the same horse again for an accumulating price. I therefore thought that the way the deal was timed and detailed, it would put the Iranians in the stronger position considering how eager the Obama Administration seems to avoid a confrontation.
I also wondered about another aspect. There’s the technical side we all know about: the centrifuges, the plutonium program, the verification/IAEA access issues, and all that. But there’s another side, the softer side—the body language aspect, what we can read about Iranian intentions and about their internal dialogue in the more opaque parts of their government. What you’re saying is that the agreement has been pretty successful from the technical side. But has it helped us understand the Iranians better from the softer side? Do we understand their internal deliberations better than we did before?
GS: Well, there’s some benefit to having more direct access to talks with them. During the Jalili years, the Iranians refused even to meet with us bilaterally. On a number of occasions, I was under instructions to approach my Iranian counterpart and propose that we have a side meeting to talk about things. The poor guy was obviously in fear for his life, and he’d come back the next day and say he wasn’t permitted to speak with me. So yes, there’s some value in having that direct conversation.
I feel that we have a somewhat better understanding now, but it isn’t very encouraging in the sense that it reveals deep divisions within the Iranian political elite. For them, the nuclear issue is about far more than whether Iran should build nuclear weapons. That’s a controversial question, but more broadly it’s about the future of their country. All the moderates hope that Rouhani scores a big victory and saves the economy by having sanctions lifted, so that he can pursue a much bigger campaign.
AG: You mean that they’re hoping that a successful negotiation over the nuclear portfolio will work as a wedge for the decompression of the ultra-mullah regime.
GS: I think that’s exactly right, and the hardliners know that. They’re hoping Rouhani fails, so they can undermine any effort he makes to moderate the system as a whole. To them, this whole nuclear issue is freighted with such heavy political symbolism that it’s much more difficult for them to engage in a normal negotiation. If you really think about it, the smart thing for them to do is accept our demands for significant restraints on their enrichment program. That will get all the sanctions lifted; their economy will flourish, and a couple years from now—
AG: Maybe: The problem with their economy isn’t just sanctions.
GS: True, but it would make a big difference. They could sell more oil and gain access to hard currency. And then, if they decide in a couple of years that they want to go back to what they were doing before, they can cheat and renege on the deal.
AG: It has always seemed to me that in order to get a deal with the Iranians that will stick and be worth all the effort, what matters most is not what happens within the four corners of a document; it’s what it will trigger a broad, even if slow and uneven, normalization of our relations with Iran. That depends in turn on the normalization of their internal political circumstances.
GS: I totally agree with you.
AG: So unless you can see that possibility at least down the road, then, again, what gets jotted down within the four corners of a treaty document becomes less important.
GS: My view, for what it’s worth, is that as long as supreme leader Khamenei is in charge, they’ll never accept a détente with the United States, nor will they give up the objective of acquiring nuclear weapons.
AG: So he’s only letting Rouhani run his routes because of the pain of sanctions?
GS: Yes, it’s purely tactical, for the time being. It’s where all this could lead, in broader political terms, that’s the interesting part.
AG: What you’re saying is that there’s a strong linkage between strategy and domestic politics within Iranian political culture today. I use the word “linkage” here advisedly because there has been a lot of criticism that the Obama Administration has focused entirely on the arms control dimension of what the Iranians are doing, and has been ignoring Iranian regional policy—in Syria, with regard to the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, meddling in Bahrain and Iraq and arguably even among the Shi’a population in Saudi Arabia, and so on. Our Arab allies (Israel is a separate case) are not happy about this. As far as they’re concerned, the nuclear program is just a symptom of a much broader threat, namely Iranian hegemonism. The Saudis and others may be over-interpreting the threat, but they think we’re basically saying to the Iranians, “Get off the nukes. Don’t do it on our watch, and we’ll basically turn a blind eye to everything else you’re doing.” Maybe they’re reading too much precision and confidence into U.S. policy, but that’s what they think.
GS: That’s certainly what their fear is. You’re right, it’s very different from Israel, which absolutely sees the nuclear issue as an existential threat. As one of my Israeli friends told me, if there was a good nuclear deal, Iran wouldn’t be an existential enemy, just a normal enemy—and Israel has lots of normal enemies. If we did do a deal, I think the Israelis would welcome it. For the Saudis, any deal is bad news.
AG: Yes, the Saudis want us to “cut off the head of the snake.” They don’t want us to “talk” with the snake, to go to dinner with the snake, pal around in lavishly appointed Viennese conference rooms with the snake. It’s very different. If you think about this historically and culturally, Jewish relations with Persian culture go back thousands of years. There’s no basis for any sort of existential animosity. That’s just not as clear between Wahhabis and the Shi‘a.
GS: And Shi‘a Persians as opposed to Sunni Arabs on top of that.
AG: As for the Israelis, it’s a hard posture they’re trying to pull off. They have to sound very afraid, and so act almost like a Nixonian “brinksman” or else forfeit diplomatic leverage over us and others. But really and truly, they would like this problem to go away, and they want us to make it go away if at all possible.
GS: And I totally understand Saudi discomfort. They can’t defend themselves; they depend on the United States for that; and they just can’t understand this big, reckless power that keeps doing things they don’t like, whether it’s invading Iraq, or throwing Mubarak under the bus, or not intervening in Syria. I’d explain it to them by saying, in effect, “Look, at the end of the day the United States cannot allow Iran to dominate the Persian Gulf. A good deal of our standing in the world depends upon us being the country that guarantees freedom of transit through the Straits of Hormuz. And even if we become independent of oil and gas from the Persian Gulf, our European and Asian allies won’t be. So downshift your anxiety.” And it’s easy for us to maintain military supremacy in the Persian Gulf. There is no contest whatsoever, and the Saudis know that. They’re not concerned about capacity, only about the level of our understanding and our will.
AG: Absolutely right. I’ve argued for a while now that we suffer from a hangover of legacy thinking about interdiction problems. There really isn’t a serious interdiction problem at the moment regarding the Gulf. We could send the Iranian navy down to the chips in 48 hours, and everybody knows it, and no other antagonist is even remotely in sight. Our main policy problem with oil concerns the price, not the flow, and the price problem would remain whether we become energy-independent or not because the price is a global price within a vertically integrated market. That raises a whole host of issues—like why we persist in basing the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.
But let’s talk about the Russians instead. Their role in getting the interim accord done was mixed, but on balance they were reasonably helpful. Now, though, as we move to try to create a longer-term solution, I’m not sure we can count on their help—and that’s partly on account of the new reality defined by the Ukraine crisis, but there nay be other considerations as well. So I’m a bit disturbed by the optimistic way Secretary Kerry has been talking about this recently. What’s your sense of what we can expect from the Russians as we go further into these Vienna sessions?
GS: My sense is that the Ukraine crisis hasn’t affected Russia’s position, and that Russia will continue to support a very hardline demand from the P5+1 for Iran to drastically roll back its enrichment capability. But I share your concern that if the Ukraine crisis escalates and we’re forced to impose more significant sanctions against Russia, and it becomes a more serious confrontation, I think it will inevitably affect the Iran negotiations. Even if the Russians don’t act differently, the Iranians will think, why should we make painful nuclear concessions when the P5+1 are at each others’ throats? That will make it much less likely that a deal will be made.
AG: We’re already having some trouble with the Germans over Ukraine, for a variety of other reasons; but if the Russians go off the reservation, it’ll be very tough to do this.
GS: In extremis, if the Russians wanted to, they really could blow up the negotiations. We know they’ve been negotiating with Iran on a barter agreement to sell 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day. Of course, none of that will happen right now unless there’s a nuclear deal. But if the Russians decide to go ahead in retaliation for our sanctions against them, that really would blow up the deal.
AG: The Russians are doing other troublesome things, too, like proposing to build pipelines through North Korea to South Korea to sell gas, trying to get the South Koreans as hooked on their gas as many European countries are. They’re trying to develop a future energy diplomacy soaked in strategic implications, most of them unhelpful to us. But, of course, why wouldn’t they? That’s their comparative advantage at building leverage.
GS: Well, I don’t know how long-lasting it will turn out to be. At least the Europeans are indicating that they get it: They must develop alternative sources because Russia is a problem. And I think they’ll do that no matter what happens in Ukraine.
AG: Let’s get to the Vienna talks now, and their prospects. What’s the maximum the United States can reasonably expect, assuming a deal is done by July, and what’s the minimum you think the Administration is willing to swallow?
GS: I think there’s a certain threshold, not a technical but a political threshold. The objective is to physically limit Iran’s capacity to produce fissile material, whether it’s plutonium or highly enriched uranium. It seems as though the plutonium route has been agreed upon at least in principle, to convert this heavy water research reactor to a type that produces much less plutonium. So it appears that issue has been settled in principle, but of course the details remain to be negotiated. That’s the easier issue, because the Iranians were always further away from producing nuclear weapons with plutonium.
AG: True, but why would they build that plant in the first place if they didn’t intend to persist in that path, pretty much as the North Koreans have tried to do?
GS: Well, all countries that pursue nuclear weapons pursue both paths. But that path was lagging far behind enrichment. It’s much harder, and they didn’t have quite the same level of assistance. So I think the key to a successful negotiation from a U.S. standpoint is to roll back Iran’s breakout time, and breakout time means how quickly they can produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb at their enrichment facilities. It’s kind of an arbitrary and somewhat artificial way to measure a deal, but nonetheless the politics of Washington says that’s how it will be measured.
Right now, breakout time is about two months. If the talks can push it back to about a year, which would have to mean a significant reduction in the number of centrifuges Iran operates, and keep it there for a decade or more, I think this deal is sellable. The Israelis will grumble but they’ll accept it. So I think there’s a pretty clear threshold between a deal that is easy to defend and one that becomes more difficult to defend. If the Administration come back with an agreement that is less than a year breakout time and less than a decade’s worth of constraint, it becomes more difficult to sell. Not to say that it can’t still be sold; but it becomes harder.
AG: What do you think the Administration’s threshold is in terms of being willing to sign on the dotted line? I ask because not only is there a military-technical calculation to be made, but also a more broadly political one.
GS: I have no idea. Right now, according to what’s in the press, they’re going after a very significant reduction in Iran’s enrichment capacity that would be in place for a long time. But that’s our opening position. The Iranian opening position is not to accept any reductions whatsoever. The Iranians are willing to accept a cap on their current number of operating centrifuges—9,000. And then, in a few years, they want to raise that ceiling so they can build that up to 50,000 machines, which they say they need to produce fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power reactor in case the Russians don’t provide fresh fuel. Whether they’re prepared to compromise on that, I can’t say, but clearly a figure like 50,000 or anything anywhere near it is unacceptable to us.
AG: Unacceptable, yes, let’s hope. But it’s also a lame argument because there are lots of ways to get fuel for the Bushehr nuclear reactor.
GS: Everyone thinks it’s a lame argument, but I’ve heard Rouhani make it, publicly and privately. I’ve heard him say this. So if that’s their real position, and we can’t possibly accept that, then I don’t see how a comprehensive deal could emerge. I think it’s likely that we won’t reach a comprehensive deal by July.
AG: In that case, the politics of extending the interim deal change because we’ve tried and failed to go for the brass ring. Don’t the politics become more difficult?
GS: I don’t think so, because the negotiators would be able to say they hadn’t solved the most difficult problem, but had made great progress in other areas, like the heavy water research reactor, monitoring arrangements, and so on. And I think they can put forward a good case for a six-month extension, which is built into the joint plan of action.
Furthermore, and this is the key part of it, the Iranians have actually complied with all of their obligations to halt or freeze activities. So we benefit. Frankly, we could extend this negotiation for a long time, and if we did the program would be essentially stopped. We’ll have to negotiate terms of extension. The Iranians may say they need more sanctions relief, but our answer would be that we’d need more nuclear constraints, which I don’t think the Iranians would go for.
AG: So it’s just another way of continuing the negotiation infighting anyway.
GS: Exactly. Maybe that’s where things will end up, but the other option is to simply extend the current agreement. We would continue to pay the Iranians out of their own money, by allowing them to get access to another $4.3 billion for another six months, and all the trade sanctions that had been relaxed would be in place. The Iranians aren’t benefitting from those, because no companies are willing to sign contracts, given the uncertainty.
AG: The uncertainty is actually useful in lots of ways.
GS: I think that’s likely to happen. The Iranians are warning us that Rouhani is under so much domestic pressure that if an acceptable deal doesn’t emerge in July, they’ll have to walk away entirely. I don’t believe that. It would be so self-destructive.
AG: Well, that warning is a way they can increase leverage, just by making that argument.
GS: Yes, but eventually it could become true. If we do six-month extensions year in and year out, they might eventually walk away.
AG: A lot of bad things could happen in the meantime to make serial extension of the interim agreement unlikely. The Administration was able to dissuade Congress from adding on new conditional sanctions, and I guess I see their view, because of how it was seen in Iran. But if it’s conditional and they only kick in after the Iranians do something not nice, then I don’t see the harm in it. In a way, it provides us a classic “good cop, bad cop” negotiating anvil. But I understand the sensitivities of how it looks in Teheran.
GS: I also think that by July, during the summer break and with midterm elections coming up, there will be some unhappiness in Congress. But I don’t think there will be strong opposition. In any event, Senator Reid controls the Senate, and he won’t allow new sanctions legislation to come to a vote this time anymore than he did the last time. So I think the politics of getting an extension is much easier in Washington than in Teheran.
AG: And as we’ve said before, the real aim here, if you’re thinking strategically about it, isn’t just to get a deal; it’s to empower Rouhani or those associated with him to change the political temperature in Tehran. We don’t know whether he can, but we do know that a lot of other people either don’t want to or can’t.
GS: That’s right. What the Iranians close to Rouhani say is, “Please don’t humiliate Rouhani. Don’t force him to give up all the centrifuges, because then the hardliners will get him. Please be lenient, give him a generous agreement, and trust us. ”
AG: That’s a lot to trust, because it could all be a ruse, a set-up.
GS: In any event, Obama cannot sell such a deal. He can’t sell a deal based on secret promises from closet reformers, and he shouldn’t and I think wouldn’t.
AG: Speaking of which, let me ask you a very speculative question—I mean a question even more speculative than the speculative questions we’ve been discussing. Many, perhaps most, in the region believe we’ve become feckless and irresolute. The Syrian “red line” business has persuaded most people that the “all options are on the table” line isn’t true. However, that assumption bleeds into a second assumption: Not only do “we” locals not believe this; the Iranians don’t either. I’m not sure that’s justified.
I can imagine a scenario in which everyone in the region believes we’re bluffing, except for the mullahs. That depends on what Jeffrey Feldman told them, and how he told them, in private. He’s perfectly capable of delivering a very serious, no-nonsense message, and of persuading his interlocutors that the President who sent him to Tehran means every word he has said about not letting Iran development a nuclear-military capability. Might there not be a remarkable irony here? That the only people in the Middle East who believe the President will use force is the leadership core of the Iranian regime?
GS: As you say, it’s very speculative, because we can’t read the supreme leader’s mind. But I’ve always believed that he’s very cautious about doing anything that runs the risk of a war with the United States, because he knows he would get clobbered. Whenever they made noises in the past about interfering with traffic through the Straits of Hormuz and we pushed back very strongly, they retreated immediately. I think the same thing is at work over the nuclear issue. Khameini is operating based on a calculation of what he can get away with. If you look at the Iranian program over the past decade, they’re creeping forward. They could have gone much faster in terms of stockpiling material, going to higher enrichment levels, and so on. So somewhere in his mind, there are pink or red lines that he’s trying to avoid crossing.
AG: I think the President really cares about two conjoined issues. One is the possibility of another 9/11, and the other is the linkage of terrorist intentions to weapons of mass destruction. Hence the drones, hence the talk but not the walk about NSA surveillance, and much else. So I think the Iranian leadership has good reason to worry.
GS: I’ve always said that if Iran took an unmistakable move toward building nuclear weapons, President Obama would use military force.
AG: Well, there is something to do in between, as you well know. Between sanctions and war there’s the possibility of economic warfare. There are a lot of things we could do on that score that we haven’t even started to think seriously about.
GS: Yes, a naval blockade, for instance, would be very effective—though it might lead to a general conflict. The Iranians might challenge, and then we’d have to sink their navy and shoot down their air force.
AG: Let’s talk about the Israelis again for a moment. Lots of people think that if we don’t do anything about the Iranian threat in an effective way, whether by diplomacy or by force, ultimately the Israelis will take the matter into their own hands and basically go to war. I don’t believe it, personally. For political reasons having to do with their alliance with the United States, and for operational reasons, the Israelis are probably bluffing. They puff out the chest because it’s useful. But I honestly don’t think that this Prime Minister or any Israeli Chief of Staff would want to start a war with Iran. What do you think?
GS: I’m not as convinced as you are that they’re bluffing. There was a time when they were genuinely looking for at least U.S. acquiescence to carry out a strike. They knew an attack wouldn’t solve the problem but would significantly delay Iran and jumble the cards to create different political circumstances inside Iran and inside the region. They got a very strong pushback for suggesting that, not only from Americans but from everyone else. The change of the coalition and the departure of the Defense Minister has made it that much harder for Netanyahu to marshal a consensus within his cabinet to attack. He’s obviously not going to do it during the negotiations.
I think Netanyahu will continue to hold to his official public line: the three zeros. But I think Israelis understand that if a deal emerges it won’t be the three zeros. My sense from talking to knowledgeable Israelis is that if the United States gets a significant rollback on Iran’s existing enrichment capacity and locks it in place for a long time, they will grumble but they’ll acquiesce. And then the focus will turn to monitoring, because most people think any deal with Iran won’t last for its entire duration given their record of cheating and duplicity.
AG: If all our diplomatic efforts fail and we do end up having to use force, some people think that a war with Iran could be quite limited in scope and short in time. Jeffrey White did a piece for us a couple years ago saying, in essence, “Don’t count on it, buddy.” I agree with him. Is your sense too that we really couldn’t readily limit a war with Iran?
GS: You couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t get out of hand. But we have such a military advantage over Iran that we’d have what the Cold Warriors called “escalation dominance.” If we attacked and destroyed their nuclear facilities, which I think we can do, they might look for ways to retaliate, but all their options are dangerous. If they send their navy out to interfere with our fleet in the Persian Gulf, or interfere with tanker traffic, they lose their navy. If they fire some missiles at Saudi Arabia they lose their missiles and perhaps a lot more. I think there’s a pretty good chance that a war could be contained, but you can never be sure.
AG: There are lots of asymmetrical things they could do, terrorism-related things.
GS: Yes, it’s much more likely that they would attack asymmetrically, using Hizballah, as they do, to get at us indirectly and in a deniable way. I think they’re pretty cautious about going at the U.S. military directly. But you can’t guarantee it, so one of the big constraints for both George W. Bush and Obama in using military force has been uncertainty about the consequences.
AG: Yes, there are always unanticipated consequences when you start a war, as we’ve learned, hopefully.
One last, somewhat related question: This whole question about Iran’s nuclear capability and its prospective strategic implications has been going on a long time. Yet every time there’s a new inflection point in the process, people come out of the woodwork saying, as though the matter had never before been raised and analyzed and debated, that the prospect of an Iranian bomb is not such a problem because, if Iran has nuclear weapons, we’ll just deter them like we deterred the Soviets during the Cold War. This drives me crazy because what they’re doing is mindlessly superimposing Cold War conditions onto a very different situation. You don’t have to have more than half a brain to see all the asymmetries and differences that makes such a superimposition wrong. Why does this keep happening? I cannot explain why otherwise intelligent people keep saying such irresponsible and really quite ridiculous things.
GS: I think it’s such a distinctly idiosyncratic and minority view that it doesn’t really influence U.S. government policy. Everyone in government knows it would be a catastrophe if Iran got nuclear weapons. No one thinks they’d use them in a suicidal way, but still, as you say, the conditions for stable deterrence don’t exist in the Middle East—particularly between Israel and Iran. You could easily imagine a crisis of instability, with actual use of weapons in anger because of misperception and miscalculation, and preemptive strikes. Frankly, even during the Cold War we came pretty close to using nuclear weapons.
On top of that is the pressure for other countries in the region to proliferate. The Middle East is messy, ugly, and violent enough without countries having nuclear weapons.
AG: Well, I’m glad to hear you say people in positions of responsibility know this, because it’s unnerving to keep hearing this nonsense over and over again. It’s good to end on a hopeful note. Thanks very much for talking with us, Gary
GS: It has been a real pleasure.