Michael Makovsky is the Foreign Policy Director at the Bipartisan Policy Center and he formerly worked at the Pentagon under President George W. Bush. Aaron David Miller is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Prior to joining the Wilson Center, he served as an advisor on the Middle East under six secretaries of state.
Katherine Lanpher (KL): Iranian diplomats met in Istanbul with representatives from the five member countries of the United Nations Security Council and also with Germany. To an outside observer, it seems like all they did was agree to meet again. Why was this hailed as such a big move?
Aaron David Miller (ADM): In large part because nobody – neither the Iranians, the Americans nor the Israelis, are prepared right now to accept the alternative. If you don't have a process, and if sanctions won't undermine the mullahs determination to acquire capacity to produce a weapon, then you're left with a default position which is war. The Iranians certainly don't want to be the object of an American attack so we'll go with process for now.
KL: Did something happen there besides making a date?
Michael Makovsky (MM): I agree with Aaron that there's a preference among most of the parties for process over movement. As Aaron said, the alternative could be something more significant. I do think the Israelis are much more concerned about what happened in Istanbul.
KL: Prime Minister Netanyahu from Israel said that Iran got a “freebie.” What did he mean by that?
ADM: I think he has worked hard – the Israelis understandably worked hard – to build a set of pressures, including cyber attacks, sanctions and putting this issue at the top of Barack Obama's agenda. For the Israelis, the only thing that is worse than a negotiation is one that drags out interminably without end and acts as a screen to cover of the mullahs efforts to continue to enrich uranium. They're quite suspicious and understandably so.
KL: What adjustments, if any, is the Obama administration making in the wake of the talks in Istanbul?
ADM: The president has basically argued, “We're not containing Iran anymore. We're going to prevent them from acquiring a weapon.” That's a short-term deposit in an effort to forestall the Israelis, create more confidence and avoid war. In the end, it puts the president on the hook for acting on the basis of what he articulated publicly. [For now] no war and no deal in 2012 is what I would say. It's a 2013 problem.
KL: When it comes to the mindset of the leadership in Iran. What exactly is in it for them in pursuing a nuclear weapons program, especially when we look at the fact that the sanctions talk is tough and it's getting tougher?
MM: It believes that the regime would be strengthened from achieving nuclear weapons capability which is generally assumed to be a popular issue in Iran. Even those who oppose the regime support the country achieving a weapons capability. It would also gain greater control over the Persian Gulf and oil prices which is very important for the viability of the regime. It would also strengthen Iran’s influence in the region which has been the interest of Iranian governments going back for a couple millennia.
KL: Talk about the difference, both of you, between Iran wanting to have nuclear weapons and Iran wanting to have the capability to do so.
MM: There are basically three aspects of achieving nuclear weapons capability. There’s the enrichment of the material. There is the development of the actual weapon that triggers a nuclear reaction and then there is a delivery mechanism which could be like the missile. Of all those three components, the most difficult one to achieve is the enrichment, but it's also the easiest to determine. When a country has enough enrichment to develop a bomb, I think you have to assume that they have a bomb.
ADM: Mike is arguing – and I think quite rightly – that if in fact you can pass the first stage, the second and third could be grouped in a kind of time sensitive way, called the breakout phase. That is to say, once you have enough fissile material, the other two components become a matter of a hundred yard dash, whereas the development of the fissile material may have taken years to develop. The Obama administration has been distinguishing between the capacity to produce a weapon – that is to say, the one screwdriver turn away from weaponization – and the weapon itself. The Israelis argue that if the first phase is crossed, they will be well on their way to actually weaponizing.
MM: I think the president’s rhetoric is definitely strengthened lately. I think the challenge is for the president now to put some of that rhetoric into action. I think the way to do that is to make those words more credible. He has to do and say things – not just him but also congressional leaders and other parts of our government – to show that we mean that. For example, I think that we should have a public hearing on the military option. We also pre-position some more weapons and make it very visible that we’re doing that in the region. There is more that our government could do to put deeds behind that rhetoric.
KL: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington last month. He met with President Obama. What sort of timetable do you think was possibly hammered out then?
ADM: I think Israelis have this notion of a zone of immunity, that at some point Iran will have hardened their particular sites with so much redundancy and secrecy that those Iranian nuclear facilities will be on the point that they can be seriously retarded, let alone destroyed by Israeli military action. That means enter the United States. Barring some fundamental breakthrough in diplomacy – if the president is serious about this, and he seems to be – I think in 2013, if nothing changes, the odds of military action by the United States go up.
KL: What would you like to see the Obama administration do next?
MM: As I said earlier, I believe that preventing a nuclear weapons capable Iran is the proper objective. It is verifiable and is more easily preventable while weaponization is not. Secondly, I think they have to put some more action behind the rhetoric, that all options are on the table.
ADM: Keep sanctions on. Keep the threat of military force on the table. Test the possibility that a serious diplomatic initiative might be launched at a very senior and secret level. We cannot go into what I fear will be a looming military confrontation between the United States and Iran without thinking through all of the consequences – however difficult it may be to predict – conditioning the public to the risks and to the advantages. We need to think this one through very carefully.