NPR

A War With Iran: Rhetoric Or A Reality?

Bob Kunst (right) protests against a nuclear Iran in front of the White House on Monday. (Getty Images)

In recent weeks and days, the divisions over how to deal with Iran and its nuclear program have sharpened. The only undisputed fact is that Iran is developing a nuclear energy program, but after that things get murky.

Israel and some European countries believe Iran is moving toward a nuclear weapons program, but U.S. intelligence agencies disagree. Israel argues that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an existential threat, and there's much speculation in the media about a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

Are we heading toward a self-fulfilling prophecy or is some of it strategic bluster designed to spook Iran?

Several former and current leaders of Israel's military and intelligence establishment have come out to warn against an attack on Iran. Efraim Halevy led Israel's National Security Council and Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, from 1998 to 2002. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he doesn't believe there is an existential threat to Israel, but that there are threats the nation should not and cannot be expected to bare.

"If [the Iranians] achieve a nuclear military capability, they might be able to cause Israel most grievous harm," Halevy says. "This does not mean that Israel would cease to exist ... but this is not the kind of existence that we would like."

Halevy says he thinks sanctions are having the intended effect of making the Iranians feel they need to come to the table to avoid a confrontation.

In a recent op-ed piece for The Washington Post, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney argued that Iran is on course to acquire a nuclear weapon under President Obama, but that would not happen if Romney were elected president. Halevy says this kind of message could have a very bad — if not disastrous — effect on the situation.

"If I were an Iranian and I was hearing these statements ... my immediate reaction would be — we must go full speed ahead in order to achieve military capability before the U.S. presidential elections," he says. "This is something that should not be repeated."

Halevy says the president is taking a very tough line. Obama is clear in his intentions to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, he says.

"Can more be done? Yes. Would I like more to be done? Yes," he says. "But I think the fact that the Iranians are beginning to blink must be something that must be pursued."

Bomb Or No Bomb

One of the key questions is what Iran intends to do with their uranium enrichment program, and this is where the United Nations and the U.S. seem to disagree. U.S. intelligence says Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear weapon, but New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti says the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, believes something else.

"Their body language and some of their public statements seem to lean in the direction that they think Iran is certainly proceeding in the direction of building a bomb," Mazzetti tells Raz.

Though it appears everyone is working from the same set of facts and drawing slightly different conclusions, Mazzetti says, the certainty with which U.S. officials have stated that they do not believe Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon hints at some inside knowledge.

Some critics have attributed the caution to not wanting a repeat of the failure in Iraq in 2003, Mazzetti says.

The Media's Message

The media plays a big role in making a war with Iran seem inevitable. Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says the media coverage in general has been simplistic and in some ways rather disappointing.

"Given that we're talking about issues of war and peace here where you would want the media to take enormous efforts to be tough, skeptical, probing and accurate," Walt says. "Instead they have contributed to a certain war frenzy that in some ways came out of nowhere."

Walt doesn't dispute the existence of the tension with Iran and the possibility of a conflict. But he does say the media has a responsibility to probe the motives behind some of the discussions about Iran and look more carefully at the claims being made.

Though it is still unknown whether the Iranians plan to develop a nuclear weapon, Walt says the question that should be considered is just how significant it would be if they did.

"People who are opposing military action now would argue that even if Iran did get a nuclear weapon, it is not a very militarily powerful state," he says. "Israel has a sizeable nuclear arsenal and could retaliate if it were attacked."

Walt doesn't believe the drumbeat of war with Iran in the media will lead to any sort of "self-fulfilling prophecy" and says that ultimately the decision for war is a conscious choice.

"We are talking about a preventive war, an unprovoked war," he says. "That's not a decision you get driven to by articles and op-eds. Ultimately, leaders in question have to make that choice and that means they always have the option of deciding to pursue a different course."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

In recent weeks, and certainly days, the divisions over how to deal with Iran and its nuclear program have sharpened. Here's the only undisputed fact: Iran is developing a nuclear energy program. After that, things get a little murky.

Israel and some European countries believe Iran is moving towards a nuclear weapons program. U.S. intelligence agencies disagree. Now Israel argues that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an existential threat. And so, there's been much speculation in the media about a possible Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SEAN HANNITY: I think the war has already started. It's percolating. We see...

ERIN BURNETT: It appears that we're near some sort of a tipping point.

DAN GILLERMAN: The clock is ticking. Iran has to do the right thing and abolish its nuclear program. Otherwise, military action against Iran will be inevitable.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There is a strong likelihood that Israel may strike Iran's nuclear program sometime this spring.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Some commentators would have you believe that stopping Iran from getting the bomb is more dangerous than letting Iran have the bomb.

RAZ: So with all the rhetoric, are we heading towards a self-fulfilling prophecy, or is some of it strategic bluster designed to spook Iran? In a moment, we'll ask Harvard's Stephen Walt. And later, why U.S. intelligence conclusions are quite different from U.N. intelligence estimates.

But first to a debate raging in Israel. Several former and even current leaders of Israel's military and intelligence establishment have come out to warn against an attack on Iran. They include former chiefs of the army, Dan Halutz and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and the two former heads of the Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevy. We reached Efraim Halevy on the line to find out more.

EFRAIM HALEVY: There is no existential threat to Israel, but there are threats to Israel, which Israel should not and cannot be expected to bear. I think the Iranians at the moment, if they will achieve a nuclear military capability, might be able to cause Israel most grievous harm. This does not mean that Israel will cease to exist. It will mean to say that Israel has suffered a very, very painful, extensive and profound debacle as a result of what has happened. But this is not the kind of existence that we would like. And I think the international community would like.

RAZ: Do you think the way it's being dealt with now - tightening sanctions and the diplomatic sanctions - do you think that is an effective way to deal with a threat?

HALEVY: I believe the response of Ayatollah Khomeini through the recent press conferences and other conferences held by President Obama indicates that the way the president has been handling this has had the effect of bringing the Iranians to the point where they feel they need to come to the table and conduct very, very serious and very difficult discussions as to how the world can be saved from a possible confrontation.

RAZ: Let me ask you about the rhetoric here in the United States for a moment. As you know, this is campaign season in the U.S. and some presidential candidates have called on President Obama to take a tougher line. Mitt Romney, one of the leading GOP candidates, wrote an op-ed this past week arguing that if he's elected, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. If Obama is re-elected, they will. What do you make of that kind of talk?

HALEVY: This is the kind of message, which would have a very, very bad effect. I almost would say disastrous effects on the difficult issue, which is now at hand. If I were an Iranian and I were hearing these statements (unintelligible) for me, if and when there is a change of - at the presidency, my immediate reaction would be that we must go full speed ahead in order to obtain a military capability before the United States presidential elections. And this is something which I think should not be repeated.

RAZ: From your perspective as a former intelligence chief, would you say that President Obama's approach is - has been prudent, or would you like to see him take a tougher line with Iran?

HALEVY: I think that President Obama is taking a very tough line. I think he is clear in his intent to prevent the Iranians from obtaining the nuclear military threat. I think he has led the world in slapping sanctions on the Iranian economy, which are becoming ever more crippling. I think in the next few days, probably Iran is going to be removed from the SWIFT system, which is the main international system, kind of a clearing house, for money transfers between banks around the world of over 200 trading countries.

This is going to cause some very, very serious harm. So there's been a lot of things done. Can more be done? Yes. More can be done. Would I like more to be done? Yes, I would like more to be done. But I think the fact that the Iranians are beginning to blink must be something that must be pursued. I don't want to say they're responding to pressure. They're reacting seriously to pressure. And we have to see how far this will go.

RAZ: Efraim Halevy, thank you so much for your time.

HALEVY: Thank you.

RAZ: Efraim Halevy led Israel's National Security Council and the Mossad intelligence agency from 1998 to 2002. Now, one of the key questions is what Iran intends to do with its enriched uranium. And this is where the United Nations and the U.S. seem to disagree. U.S. intelligence agency say Iran has not made a decision to build a nuclear weapon. But New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti says the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency believes something quite different.

MARK MAZZETTI: Their body language and some of their public statements seem to lean in the direction that they think Iran is certainly proceeding in the direction of building a bomb. And it's sort of interesting that you have the French and the British who are also kind of taking a harder line on this than the CIA and American intelligence agencies, which is a little bit of a mirror image from what happened in Iraq in 2003.

RAZ: In 2003, right. So here's the question, I mean, is the U.N. and the U.S. intelligence agencies and the British and the French, are they all working from the same set of facts and just coming to different conclusions?

MAZZETTI: I think to some degree, they are. I mean, the U.S. relies on the IAEA to be at these sites to gather information. They have a lot of briefings. They have discussions with the IAEA. So they do share some of the facts. Now, American spy agencies and others as well try to develop their own secret sources to determine the intent.

Now, if you are to look at the public statements of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, David Petraeus, the CIA director, saying that they believe Iran has not yet made the decision to build a bomb, it seems like they are speaking from what they believe is some kind of inside knowledge.

RAZ: Mark, do you think there's something to the argument that U.S. intelligence agencies are being especially cautious this time around because of the failures in 2003 with respect to Iraq?

MAZZETTI: They're certainly being criticized for that by the Israelis, by the Europeans. They say, OK, you guys blew it on Iraq. And in order to make up for that, you guys are going too far in the other direction, by being too cautious about what Iran might be doing. What is not in dispute is that the intelligence community has re-engineered their analysis because Iraq was such a debacle.

Things that used to be buried in footnotes descend from certain intelligence agencies that turned out to be right about Iraq but were buried now get more prominent display inside their intelligence documents. The critics say, well, that just turns everything into a mush, on one hand or the other. But the CIA and others say, well, we're dealing with this weapons issue in a much more thorough way.

RAZ: That's New York Times national security correspondent Mark Mazzetti. He joined me here in the studio. Mark, thank you so much for coming in.

MAZZETTI: Thank you.

RAZ: Harvard professor Stephen Walt, a specialist on international relations, has been writing about what he fears is a sense of inevitability in some of the news coverage of a possible Israeli strike on Iran.

STEPHEN WALT: I think the media coverage in general has been pretty simplistic and in some ways rather disappointing, particularly given that we're talking about issues of war and peace here, where you would want the media to take enormous efforts to be sort of tough and skeptical and probing. And instead, I think, they have contributed to a certain war frenzy that in some ways sort of came out of nowhere.

RAZ: Let's play devil's advocate, Stephen. I mean, the media isn't fabricating the tension, certainly between Israel and Iran. I mean, Iran has refused - adamantly refused to halt its enrichment program despite the international sanctions. Is it inaccurate to say that a conflict is a realistic probability?

WALT: It's not certainly wrong for the media to report the fact that there's lots of talk about this now. And there are people in the United States and, you know, Prime Minister Netanyahu who have been harping on the danger and obviously reporting on that is important. But I do think media has a responsibility to probe very hard as to the different motives that might be driving those discussions and then look very carefully at the various claims that are being made.

RAZ: I guess part of the difficulty here in reporting on Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program - let's say it's nuclear program because we know that for certain - is what we don't know about it. And there's a lot that we don't know about it, obviously a lot that the U.N. and the U.S. intelligence agencies don't know about. So, in a sense, it comes down to who you are willing to believe.

WALT: Well, not entirely. There are certain things we don't know. We obviously don't know if they have made a decision to get nuclear weapons or not. And it's worth noting that, you know, the supreme leader of Iran, Ali Khomeini, has repeatedly said that he would consider this un-Islamic, that Iran is not going that route. There's also the question of how significant it would be if they did.

People who are opposing military action now would argue even if Iran did get a nuclear weapon, it's not a very militarily powerful state. Israel itself has a sizable nuclear arsenal and could retaliate if it were attacked. So there's really no existential threat to Israel. And that's an issue that ought to be discussed at the same time we're talking about the question of what Iran may or may not be up to.

RAZ: Do you think at a certain point it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that the more you hear about the likelihood of an attack and the dangers of waiting, the more likely it becomes that an attack will happen?

WALT: I don't think so. I mean, I worry a little bit about the sort of mainstreaming of discussion. It becomes an item that people assume will happen sooner or later. But ultimately, the decision for war is a conscious choice. And remember, we are talking, in this case, about a preventive war, an unprovoked war. That's not a decision that you get driven to by articles and op-eds. Ultimately, leaders in question have to make that choice, and that means they always have the option of deciding to pursue a different course.

RAZ: That's Stephen Walt. He is a professor of international affairs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He also writes a column for Foreign Policy magazine. Stephen Walt, thanks.

WALT: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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