SPIEGEL Interview with Iran Expert Kenneth Pollack It's Time to Get Serious with Iran

Negotiations with Iran have been dragging on for months. But the country continues to insist on its right to a nuclear program -- one that the West fears is aimed at nuclear weapons. Iran expert Pollack says its time for Europe to pull out the sticks -- and for the United States to offer up some carrots.

Earlier this week, it looked as though the European Union might push through with a demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency report Iran to the United Nations Security Council for violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Europe and the United States believe that Tehran is secretly developing technology that could later be used to develop a nuclear bomb. But on Thursday, European diplomats said they were forced to drop the petition, which could have led to the imposition of sanctions by the Security Council, because they were unable to win the support of veto-wielding Russia and China.

Instead, any pivotal moment in this emerging crisis has been put on the backburner. Diplomatic efforts, it seems, will continue -- tortoise speed ahead! The so-called EU three, comprising of Germany, Britain and France, has been negotiating with the mullahs for months trying to get them to stop their nuclear program. So far, Tehran has been unwilling to budge and the issue is becoming a major test for frayed, post-Iraq war trans-Atlantic relations. Though the EU and Washington are currently in lockstep on the issue and both share the determination to keep Iran from acquiring the bomb, President George W. Bush's sabre-rattling and threats of military action make many in Europe nervous. That nervousness, of course, translates into a weary response in the US, where many fear Europe is not going to give Washington the backbone it needs to stop the mullahs.

Recently, Kenneth Pollack, director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Washington's Brookings Institution, discussed the latest developments in the diplomatic crisis with Iran. In his interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, conducted during his visit to the American Academy in Berlin, Pollack discussed the role he believes Europe should play and the implications troublesome Tehran could have for trans-Atlantic relations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How compelling is the evidence that Iranians are developing a nuclear weapons program?

KENNETH POLLACK: Obviously, the evidence is circumstantial, but it is quite strong. The Iranians have admitted to trying to acquire the entire fuel cycle (control over manufacturing reactor fuel). The only debate remaining is whether there is some non-military justification for Iran having the entire fuel cycle. You don't need to be able to enrich uranium for energy production. You can use low grade uranium and light water reactors. So there's particular need to have highly enriched uranium in reactors -- most countries don't even build them. In fact, the European Union trio (Germany, France, Britain) has offered them light water reactors and the Iranians have made clear they don't want them.

There are also other clues. The Iranian nuclear program was revived at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, at a time when the Iran was putting everything into the military and nothing into the economy, for example. Beyond that, the EU trio, in its discussions with Tehran, has found a lack of any tie between nuclear activity and economic consideration. Iranians try to argue that nuclear energy is more cost-effective but, as the EU trio has pointed out, natural gas is more cost effective than nuclear energy -- and the Iranians sit on the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. European governments have concluded that this program is almost certainly for weapons and not for economics.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What would it mean for the geo-political stability in the region if Iran were to build a nuclear bomb?

POLLACK: Many countries and people make all sorts of extreme claims about Iran. One of the claims you often hear is that the Iranians would give a bomb to a terrorist group like the Hezbollah. I see nothing in the evidence to suggest that that's the case. Iran is the leading state supporter of terrorism, having supported terrorist groups for 26 years. They've also had weapons of mass destruction, chemical and biological agents, for 16 years. But they've never sought to mix the two. They use terrorism to advance very specific elements of their foreign policy. They very wisely recognize that giving weapons of mass destruction to terrorists can only hurt those interests. Plus, what possible value could they get from giving a weapon to Hezbollah if Tehran gets nuked in return?

Another risk that people cite is this idea that Iranians will get a nuclear weapon and, because they're crazy, they'll use it. They'll blow up Tel Aviv, they'll blow up the Saudi oil fields, they'll blow up Berlin, Istanbul, pick your place. Again, I see no evidence of this. The Iranians have been murderous in the past, and they oppose Western interests wherever they can across the board. But that doesn't mean they're crazy. In fact, one of the principle incentives for getting the weapon is that they feel the need to deter, in particular, American power.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Indeed, Iran is surrounded on virtually every border with countries with an American military presence.

POLLACK: They are not paranoid -- they are surrounded. If you look at a map and you count up all the countries at Iran's border I think there's only one that doesn't have an American military presence of some kind in it. Throw in the fifth fleet sitting in the Gulf you can see that sitting in Tehran you really would feel surrounded. And what's more, the US from time to time says very belligerent things about Iran. The Axis of Evil speech was not terribly warm and friendly. And I think if you were an Iranian, you could justify this by saying, 'Look, we have Americans who say we ought to bomb, we ought to invade.' I think those things are very worrying, to be honest.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How realistic is military action against Iran right now? More realistic would be a strike and not an invasion, right?

POLLACK: A military strike right now is not a very good option. It comes down to a cost benefit analysis. We would have to expect that if we started a war with Iran, they would fight back and hard -- and they can do some damage. We have to remember that Iran is a very important element of whatever "success" we've had in Iraq. We've had a great deal of tacit cooperation in Iraq, and I think we'd have to expect that cooperation would end if we went to war with Iran. The US doesn't need any more trouble in Iraq and Iran could make a tremendous amount of trouble. Currently, there is a network of 6,000 agents operating on Iran's behalf in Iraq -- they could be activated at any time to defend Tehran's interests.

The benefits are not all that clear at this point in time. We don't even have the intelligence to really know what the Iranian nuclear program looks like or how much damage we could do to it. But I would never ever say that we should simply take the military option off the table.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: During his election campaign in August, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder plead for the military option to be "left aside."

POLLACK: It was a mistake to have said something like that. A clever politician could have handled it very differently. It's important for Iranians to understand that if they don't go down the negotiation track, the US and other governments might be driven to the military option.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How weak is the intelligence that's been gathered in Iran by the Americans and Europeans?

POLLACK: It's not great: There are a number of sites that we know about, but we have a very bad track record. The Iranians hid Natanz and Arak, which are huge facilities, for years and until 2002, we had no idea what was going on there. All of this gives intelligence analysts a great deal of pause; they know that there are activities that Iranians are concealing. And because we don't know how many facilities are out there, even if we blew up every site that we know is associated with the nuclear program or suspect might be associated with the Iranian nuclear program, it's impossible to know how much we'd set back the program.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the 1980s, the Israelis successfully took out Iraq's reactor at Ossirak. Was the intelligence then any better then than now?

POLLACK: Much better. What's more, the problem with Iran is that it has learned all the lessons of Ossirak. Namely, don't put your nuclear program in a single, vulnerable, known, undefended, or lightly defended target. What the Iranians have done, is develop multiple redundant facilities.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Imagine for a seconded that the United States or Israel did carry out a targeted strike. Would you expect an immediate retaliation?

POLLACK: Iranian officials have said that publicly. They've said that if Americans attack, we'll retaliate where we're strongest and they're weakest, namely Afghanistan and Iraq. But, I wouldn't rule out attacks on American embassies or even perhaps some facilities in the United States.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Europe has had little success in getting the mullahs to cooperate. DER SPIEGEL recently described the European diplomatic efforts so far as a "failure." Where do we go from here?

POLLACK: It's worth remembering a little history. In the 90's the trans-Atlantic alliance had an enormous problem with Iran and that problem stemmed from two perspectives on what foreign policy with Tehran should be. All the US was interested in doing was hitting them with sticks, sticks and more sticks. The Europeans took the polar opposite track. No matter what the Iranians did, no matter how good or bad, the European response was to stuff them full of carrots in the hopes that one day they'll be so fat and happy and will do what we want them to do anyway. Both policies failed and they failed because Iran managed to play Europe against the Unites States.

Now, finally, the US and Europe are reading from the same sheet music. And for this new relationship to work, Europe has to be willing to wield sticks and US has to be willing to give out the carrots.

The carrots and sticks need to be very big. Iranians recognize that their nuclear program, their support of terrorism, their economic prospects and their relationship to the West are all bound together. One school basically says: keep nukes, keep terrorism, screw the West, and we'll find a way to deal with the economy in some other way -- we'll get it from Chinese or Russians, or the people will just tighten their belts. The other school says: No, the economy is dreadful; it's our biggest threat because it could lead to popular unrest. We have to deal with the economy and the only way to do so is to open up to investment from the West. We ought to be willing to give up the nuclear program and terrorism to get the investment that our economy so desperately needs.

The unanimity of the EU three and the US is driving the Iranians to make that decision. Which conversely means the West, and particularly the US, has got to be willing to lay out a path for Iran that will basically solve all of their economic problems, or at least promise the possibility of solving their economic problems. The US also has to be willing to provide security structures and to guarantee security in the Persian Gulf in a way that would address the Iranians' concerns. Beyond that, the US could provide Iran with loan guarantees, incentives for investors and we could offer them their own light water nuclear reactor.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what are the sticks?

POLLACK: We need Europe to be ready to go along with a whole panoply of sanctions. We could start gradually -- every good step that's taken should be rewarded, every bad step needs to be punished, but you need to hold out the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and you have to hold back the really big sticks until you know for sure that Iran isn't taking this seriously. Start with a censure, then a travel ban. Then move into targeted sanctions. But push as hard as you can so that they know that eventually the really heavy stick is coming. But we should go slowly rather than moving into a full-fledged economic war with Iran right away.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You said in a recent speech that you feared German, London and Paris weren't entirely on the same page over this issue.

POLLACK: I'm here in Germany because I feared the country didn't have complete resolve on this issue. But I'm leaving Berlin feeling much more comfortable -- there seems to be a real commitment here. I've had discussions with a number of German officials and I have heard a determination to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and a willingness to say, if it requires this, we are willing to go the full distance. And the French are terrific. Jacques Chirac is actually more bellicose on Iran than Bush. I think it's clear that the British will go along with whatever the French and the Germans decide.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You've stated that Iran's nuclear program will be a greater test for trans-Atlantic relations than Iraq.

POLLACK: Absolutely. There were big differences over Iraq and people may not have liked the differences, but we understood them. In the case of Iran, if differences emerge this time, people aren't going to understand. The fact of the matter is that the European governments have declared their positions, very forcefully, and they've invested a lot of time and effort. They've said it is intolerable that Iran to have nuclear capability. If Europe is too weak on this, that would very much reinforce the arguments of right-wingers in the United States. There is a great debate among US intellectual circles over the utility of trans-Atlantic relations in the post Cold War era. The argument of hardliners is that Europe is feckless, that Europe does not care about security and that it only cares about making money. It would put Washington in a situation where they would have to say, this is what we're going to do ... if Europe wants to support us, fine, if not, that's fine, too. That would be a huge blow to trans-Atlantic relations.

Interview conducted by Daryl Lindsey and Yassin Musharbash

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