Transcript

IAEA Considers Iran's Nuclear Development

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Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006; 2:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Dafna Linzer was online Friday, April 28, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss recent developments in Iran's nuclear program and the response of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the international community.

The transcript follows.

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Dafna Linzer: Hi everyone, I'm here. Lots of questions to get to and we've got the new Iran report to focus on as well so let's get started.

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Reston, Va.: Does international law specify which nations can have nuclear weapons and which nations cannot have nuclear weapons?

Dafna Linzer: Great opener from Virginia and the answer is...sort of.

The Nonproliferation Treaty came into force when five countries - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China were already declared nuclear states. The rest of the world was invited to join the treaty by promising to forgo nuclear weapons in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology. The group of five agreed to work toward disarmament.

Every country in the world, except for India, Pakistan and Israel, signed on. That means that Iran, which joined, agreed not to build nuclear weapons. Iran maintains that it is abiding by the treaty and that it's program is for peaceful energy purposes only.

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Falls Church, Va.: Hello,

I've done quite a bit of research regarding Iran's nuclear activities and from what I understand is that Iran is a good 5-10 years from developing a single nuclear weapon. (If indeed that is their ambition), which we don't know for sure. So why is the government and the media raising alarm bells at this time. Isn't 5-10 years enough time to try diplomacy to resolve this issue?

Dafna Linzer: Another goodie from Virginia. I reported last August that the most recent and comprehensive National Intelligence Estimate determined that Iran is as much as a decade away from having enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte included that estimate in Congressional testimony in February.

Many argue that that timeline leaves years for diplomacy and that the rush to military options is premature. Others believe the time to act is now, before the Iranians advance, especially in light of the fact that the time estimates are based on what the CIA knows. Because Iran has not been totally forthcoming with U.N. inspectors, it may be that it's program is more advanced than the intelligence community believes. It could also be less advanced.

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Fairfax, Va.: I visited with my sister in Minnesota last week and she was very concerned that Bush was going to drop a nuclear bomb on Iran. Trust for Bush seems to be deteriorating. After invading Iraq with suspect intelligence, do you think this will happen?

Dafna Linzer: I think your sister's thoughts are very reflective of the skepticism in general - in Congress, in the public, in the intelligence community itself - following the deeply flawed WMD case on Iraq.

The Iraq experience has eroded confidence in the use of intelligence on WMD and has also hampered the diplomatic track the White House is on inside the Security Council. The Bush administration is trying now to win a resolution that effectively leaves open the option of using force against Iran. Many countries believe they need to increase pressure on the Iranians but they fear the White House sees that option as a stepping-stone toward military action.

We reported a few weeks back that Pentagon planners are indeed updating and reviewing military scenarios for Iran.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi and thanks for the discussion. Question on the U.N. Security Council...I always hear about the potential Chinese and Russian vetoes on the council. Suppose they each choose to abstain on a vote for sanctions - would that be enough to let any potential resolution pass? Also, what about the rest of the U.N. Is there any sort of run-up discussion beforehand if a sanctions resolution were to come into being, or does such a thing go straight to a vote to the big guys (countries) in the council? I ask this because I'm wondering where the surrounding Mideast countries stand on this issue. I haven't really heard much at least publicly on their stance on this....

Dafna Linzer: Hi back. First, please take a look at the piece from today which should be linked on the chat because it discusses some of this.

All 15 members of the council would vote on any resolution. The five nuclear countries I mentioned above all have veto power. Russia and China could abstain and may well decide to do so. As long as there are enough 'yes' votes, their absentions won't block the resolution from passing. I think the Bush administration is counting on abstentions in this case, betting that neither Moscow nor Beijing will want to use a veto so quickly after a negative report card from the inspectors on Iranian cooperation.

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Bethesda, Md.: Besides, U.S.'s demand for Iran to freeze its enrichment activities, what are, specifically, areas in which IAEA claims Iran has not been responsive to its inquiries? Also could you shed some light on Iranian overtures, through third parties, to have direct dialogue with the U.S. and U.S.'s motives for not being responsive to those proposals?

Dafna Linzer: Obviously, you're a savvy reader of the Iran coverage. The IAEA has specified several areas of concerns they still want answers on:

_the history of Iran's work on advanced P-2 centrifuges.

_the history of Iran's dealing with the blackmarket that was run out of Pakistan and documents related to that.

_the history of work at, and equipment from, a specific facility known as Lavizan where inspectors believe nuclear-related work was done.

_They want access to a few sites and interviews with key players who were involved in the late 1980s and 1990s with the program.

On the diplomatic front:

I'll stick with contacts during the Bush administration. There was a secret, diplomatic track that began after Sept. 11, 2001, mostly dealing with Afghanistan, that was quite successful. In that case, US and Iranians interests were closely allied on the formation of a new Afghan government and the end of Taliban rule. There were contacts on al-Qaeda fighters who had fled Afghanistan and into Iran and were then turned over to their own governments. Those talks later extended to discussions about Iraq and there was common ground there too. The Iranians promised to stay out of the fight during the invasion and the US was of course overthrowing a longtime Iranian foe. But the talks fell apart in May 2003 over senior al-Qaeda officials in Iranian custody and Iranian exiles who were operating freely in Iraq. That's when the nuclear issue began to take center stage.

Since then, there have been what diplomats call "track II" talks between Americans and Iranians but they have yielded few results.

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Valley Forge, Pa.: Based on your reply to Fairfax , Va. - why isn't the media/press jumping all over the "nuke" option? There have been one or two articles in the NYT and The Post. I think the country is more afraid of Bush than the Iranians. Big carrots and big sticks - but never a nuclear stick. How can we get this nuke option off the table?

Dafna Linzer: I'm assuming your referring to an article I co-authored in the Post about the possibility of using nuclear bunker-busters in a strike against Iran. The New Yorker magazine had a similar article. We're trying to learn more about the different options on the table.

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Sydney, Australia: I've heard mentioned that some sanctions against Iran are still in effect from the time of the Khomeini revolution. Is this the case? What sanctions exactly? And which countries does it concern?

Dafna Linzer: The United States has had heavy sanctions against Iran for years but other countries do not. As a result, the sanctions have had little impact beyond the fact that Iran can't buy airplane parts for their crippling airline industry and American can't really do business with Iran. In order to have more impact, the Bush administration is trying to convince the Security Council and allies to join in imposing sanctions.

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Somewhere in Middle America: Not since I was a kid during the Cold War have I been so terrified of a global nuclear war meltdown taking place. Are world leaders so insane as to take us to that brink (and beyond) again? I'm so worried about the fact that tactical nuclear strikes are on the table as an option and that at least our country seems nonchalant about waltzing into other countries and starting wars. It was one thing with Iraq -- they had a nonexistent military. But the Iranians are a whole different story. What are your thoughts?

Dafna Linzer: I would say that you are right about Iran being very different from Iraq. It is a much larger country and a stronger country. It is not internationally isolated like Iraq was, it doesn't have a single leader that can be removed, and an attack could certainly be seen inside the country as an unprovoked act of war.

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Washington, D.C.: Let me summarize what I took from Seymour Hersh's New Yorker article and ask for your take on it:

The U.S. wants to bomb Iran to make sure it doesn't develop nuclear weapons; Iran sees that the only way to defend itself against the US, which wants to bomb it, is to develop nuclear weapons.

Seems like a do-loop (for those of us old enough to remember Fortran programming language); a situation with no obvious exit?

Dafna Linzer: I'll address your conclusion. I think there is a lot of frustration in Washington and elsewhere about what the options are for curbing Iran's nuclear program, fostering democracy and weakening the country's powerful position in Iraq right now. Iran is feeling emboldened on the one hand with its adversaries in Iraq and Afghanistan removed, US troops bogged down in the region and oil prices sky high. A very smart government analyst told me recently that the situation had become a real stalemate with both sides in equal positions to cause the other harm.

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Cary, N.C.: Why does not the media makes very clear to us that the Iranians are allowed to do what they are doing. So the mere suspicion message is published in such a way that the public tends to think the Iranians are building a nuclear bomb. Should not the media (and The Post) make it bold faced that the Iranians are allowed to enrich uranium for energy related use? Thank you.

Dafna Linzer: We haven't reported that the Iranians are building a bomb - we've reported that the administration says the Iranians are building a bomb. U.N. inspectors have no proof of that, but they also aren't getting full cooperation. We also report that Iran says it has no interest in building a bomb. A urge readers to take careful looks at the stories and the language that all players are using on this issue.

In response to the report today, for example, John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said:

"I think if anything the IAEA report shows that Iran has accelerated its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," but he then added: "although the report doesn't make any conclusion in that regard."

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Dulles, Va.: Interesting point you raise about the original signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty. When Iran signed this agreement who was running the country? Was it prior to the Shah (the democratic regime we overthrew), during his reign or afterwards? Why can't Iran just withdraw from the treaty?

Dafna Linzer: I can't remember what year the Iranians signed the treaty but it came into force during the Shah's reign. I wrote a story a while back about the Shah's negotiations with the Ford administration for nuclear power plants and reprocessing - equipment the current White House wants to prevent Iran from getting - and I believe one of the Shah's argument for the equipment then was that Iran was entitled to it under the treaty.

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New York, N.Y.: Why isn't a big problem for Israel to have nuclear weapons in the Mid-east but it is a big problem for Iran?

Dafna Linzer: Many Arab and Muslim states make that argument. But as I wrote above, Israel didn't sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, as Iran did, and so it didn't promise to forgo building nuclear weapons.

I guess my problem with your argument is that it assumes Iran is building a nuclear weapon when Iran says it isn't. If Iran was building a weapon, and said it was motivated by a threat from Israel, or wanted to balance out the military capabilities of the other regional players, I could see the relevance. But I don't here. Also, Israel isn't the only nuclear country in the neighborhood - Iran is just as close to Pakistan and India and Russia and China - all with nukes.

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Durham, N.C.: The president of Iran said they will retaliate if attacked. What is your take on that? Do you think Iran can do some harm which will be felt in the heartland of U.S.? Thank you.

Dafna Linzer: Well, it would only be natural for Iran to retaliate if attacked and it certainly has the capabilities to do so. Iran was backing Hezbollah's international terrorism operations way before anyone heard of al-Qaeda. It was carrying out bombings in Argentina in 1984 and the intelligence community believes Iran has many agents and operatives around the world who could cause trouble anywhere, including inside the United States or against US troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

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Wheaton, Md.: Why do so many say air strikes are not an option? Our allies in Israel proved air strikes to be 100% effective against Iraq in 1981.

Dafna Linzer: I haven't heard people saying they are not an option. It just depends on what your goal is. If you want to stop the nuclear program altogether, most analysts inside the Pentagon and the CIA and other government agencies, would agree that they aren't very effective at all. Air strikes could slow the program by a year or two but the Iranians would likely respond by accelerating their program and pushing it deeper underground as the Iraqis did when the Israelis attacked in 1981.

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Moore, Okla.: Dear Dafna:

So what is next on Iran's nuclear issue? Do you think in long term Russia and China will join other countries to impose sanctions against Iran? Is the U.S. ready to attack Iran if the diplomacy do not work?

Dafna Linzer: Two more great questions. I think there is a lot in play on the diplomacy side right now. Russia and China may be willing to go along with some limited sanctions as long they won't effect their Iranian oil supplies or business dealings. But I don't see them doing that anytime soon.

As for the second question, none of my reporting suggests that the president has taken any kind of decision on military action, but he has said repeatedly that "all options are on the table."

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Dafna Linzer: Before a sign off and thank you all, a couple things. A reader asked me by email today whether the Security Council can obligate Iran to do something it is legally allowed to do. The answer is that if the council passes the kind of enforceable resolution the White House is pushing for, Iran could be legally-obligated to halt work on its nuclear program. Like any point of law, it can be argued and I'm sure the Iranians will argue that its rights, under the nuclear treaty, cannot be taken away by the council.

Also, can the person from New Haven who sent me a note please send it in email instead to linzerd@washpost.com

Thanks everyone. We barely discussed the new Iran report but you'll read all about it in tomorrow's paper for when we catch up again soon.

Best, Dafna

Best, Dafna

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