Friday, Sept. 1, 11 a.m. ET

Iran and "the Consequences"

Dafna Linzer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 1, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Dafna Linzer , who covers national security, was online Friday, Sept. 1, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss Iran's nuclear program, the latest report from international inspectors and efforts by the Bush administration to impose economic sanctions on the Tehran government.

Iran Defies Deadline On Nuclear Program ( Post, Sept. 1 )

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Dafna Linzer: Hi everyone, Thanks for joining me today for a chat on Iran. Lots of good questions already so let's get started....

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Bethesda, Md.: It seems as if Tehran has to some extent calculated that they can push things further following the plunge in American credibility from all our false bluster on Iraqi WMD. Do you think they have overestimated the effect of the Iraq debacle, in terms of our international clout?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, I don't think anyone can overestimate the damage caused to U.S. credibility from the pre-war intelligence on Iraq. There's just no question that it makes every American initiative on the Iran front more difficult and it is weighing heavily on the minds of Security Council members who are now being asked to impose sanctions against Iran.

That said, I think the Iranians are feeling more comforted by the chaos in Iraq now, rather than by the previous, flawed intelligence estimates. They certainly appear to be gambling that the United States has more to loose than gain at the moment by attacking Iran's nuclear facilities because Iran could easily retaliate against so many US and British troops inside Iraq.

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washingtonpost.com: U.S. Urges Financial Sanctions On Iran ( Post, May 29 )

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Harrisburg, Pa.: I know Bush will never debate a foreign leader, yet I wonder what would happen if they would just sit down and talk. Is that ever a possibility? If Bush is an evangelical Christian, isn't there a benefit to learning to understand your enemy and seeing if there is a way to resolve your problems peacefully rather than aggravating them to the point where war is the only option?

Dafna Linzer: Hi there, you're right, there's no chance Bush would engage in a debate with Mahmoud Ahmadinajad but it sure would be fascinating if he did.

There were a series of secret discussions between Bush administration officials and the Iranians between the fall of 2001 and the spring of 2003. The collapsed over a few issues: A bombing in May in Saudi Arabia, and a proposed swap - some al-Qaida guys in Iranian custody for some Iranian militants operating in Iraq under US authority.

After things went south in the talks, the rhetoric on both sides started heating up again, spurred by the IAEA investigation of Iran's nuclear program.

That said, Secretary Rice said a few months ago that the administration would be willing, again, to sit down with the Iranians if they suspend the nuclear program. The Iranians have indicated they might do that, but not as a precondition for talks - so we have a bit of stand-off on timing and wills at the moment.

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Dafna Linzer: Hey everyone, just a quick note before I answer the next question. The good people at Washingtonpost.com have just posted a link to a May scoop of mine on the sanctions US officials are proposing so feel free to take a look.

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New Hampshire: Hi Dafna and thanks for your reporting on this and other issues!

With Iran looming in the sights of the administration, why is it that major media continue to beat and repeat the lie that the President of Iran said that he wanted Israel "wiped off the map"? Professor Juan Cole as well as countless other scholars and people who actually speak the language have consistently said that this is not what Ahmadinejad said.

From Juan Cole's web column on Sunday, August 27, 2006:

"The schlock Western pundits, journalists and politicians who keep maintaining that Ahmadinejad threatened "to wipe Israel off the map" when he never said those words will never, ever manage to choke out the words Ahmadinejad spoke on Saturday, much less repeat them as a tag line forever after."

Informed Comment

To me, this seems a dangerous thing to perpetuate especially in view of our recent history with this administration and their belief in the all powerful commander in chief.

Dafna Linzer: Hi, you're not the first to ask this today and there's another reader out there whom I owe a longer note to by email.

There are other pieces out there on this subject as well - I'm thinking of a piece by New York Times editor Ethan Bronner which is terrific and worth looking up for those interested in this subject.

I would just say that the president's comments on Israel, and more importantly, his claims that the Holocaust never happened, his sponsorship of an anti-semitic cartoon contest, have all hurt Iran's case internationally. European diplomats who were willing to push Iran's position and negotiate with it recoiled at those comments and became far less interested in being seen as willing to talk to a president who makes those kinds of comments.

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Springfield, Mass.: I'm afraid Bush is going to "roll the dice" and attack Iran. He is a lame duck and he has no formidable opposition in what he has done so far, aside from the fact that he thinks of himself as doing God's will and that he is always right in "fighting terrorism". What's to stop him?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, there was more "attack" chatter around Washington a couple months ago but that seems to have subsided a little -I'm not sure if that's because it's summer or because things are so bad in Iraq that the military just believes the idea of another conflict is not possible right now.

Maybe the dot.com guys can post a link to a piece I co-authored with the great Peter Baker and the fabulous Tom Ricks awhile back about planning and discussions regarding a military strike on Iran.

A lot of analysts believe it would do little to stop Iran's nuclear progress and much to inflame the Middle East. An attack on nuclear facilities would also be an act of war and Iran would be a formidable for - see above answer on prospects of Iranian retaliation in Iraq and lets not forget its ties to Hezbollah.

Still, others believe the blow back would be worth it if it prevents "the mullahs" from getting the bomb.

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Austin, Tex.: Dafna,

Thanks for the reporting and the chats -- we love them both. Now that we know there hasn't really been that much progress made in nuclear development by Iran, how willing will Russia and China be to impose serious sanctions? We seem to have really shot ourselves in the foot with the situation in Iraq.

Dafna Linzer: Hi Austin! That's the million-dollar question at the moment - what will Russia and China do?

Last weekend, the Russian defense minister said sanctions were premature and that he couldn't recall a case when they were effective. That says a lot.

As a Texan, I'm sure you can appreciate the oil factor here as well - Iran is a major exporter and has huge business contracts with not only those two, but with Italy, Japan, India, France etc.

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Springfield, Va.: Although there won't be a Bush/Ahmedinejad debate, former Iranian president Khatami is visiting the U.S. Is this a sign of some last-minute backroom diplomacy?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, excellent point.

Khatami arrived in New York last night and is off to Chicago today before heading to Washington. Everyone's trying to figure out if this is a backchannel but I think it's something else. For the Bush administration, letting him in was nothing but an upside public-relations wise. He tours the US, engages in free and open debate with its citizens, he gives speeches and participates in discussions about inter-faith dialogue, and all these images are beamed back home, and around the world as a serious contrast to Ahmadinajad - whose not-so-friendly statements we discussed above.

And for the former president, it's a win too. He'll be a good ambassador for Iran, show a side that is different to what people see from Ahmadinajad and help explain the softer side of Iran's case on the nuclear front. He also has a legacy to think about beyond the fact that his reformist movement failed in Iran. But don't forget - he was the president when Iran's nuclear program was exposed and he was in charge during the first two years of negotiations on the program with the Europeans.

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Winnipeg, Canada: What makes me nervous about the posturing about Iran is that escalating threats are based on President Bush's assertion that Iran might have plans to create a nuclear weapon. I remember the mess the world inherited when it believed his assertions about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction."

I see two possible problems:

Number one, Bush is wrong again, and yet another war starts on a false pretense, this one with the high probablity of being an even bigger mess than Iraq.

Number two, Bush is right this time, but the world takes the common-sense approach of being sceptical. Iran develops and deploys a nuclear weapon. Result: an even bigger mess than Iraq.

Is there a safe middle ground I am missing?

Dafna Linzer: Great White North!

Good points. These are both bad positions and middle ground has been hard to find. Negotiations haven't produced much beyond frustration, sanctions are going to be a tough climb and the military options don't look good.

This is why Iran is feeling so emboldened and why there is deep frustration, and even depression, among US policymakers working this issue.

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Ottawa, Canada: What would Iran do with a nuclear bomb? Is it strongly believed that they would use it against Israel? Or,is it more likely that they, like Pakistan and other countries, would only use it for defence? What do you think they would do?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, more Canada.

That's so hard to answer, especially since Iran's position is that they aren't seeking a nuclear weapon. If they had one, it would totally alter the balance of regional power and groups like Hezbollah would feel invincible - not because Iran would spend several decades building a nuclear device only to give it away, but because Hezbollah would have an untouchable protector.

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Vienna, Va.: The Iranians are clearly not "evil" people from an axis or alliance among "evil-doers." Tehran is a large, modern city and home to approximately 30 colleges and universities. The President of Iran has a Ph.D. in civil engineering.

As a nation, they are surrounded by threats. They have successfully fought Iraqi fundamentalists and Russian militant idealists. If you visit any hospital in the United States, odds are you will be seen by specialist who was born in Iran.

Is the media doing enough to counter the distortions and lies from our politicians of both political parties?

Dafna Linzer: Hi Vienna,

Very interesting comments and truthfully, my sense is that some - not all - but some senior US policymakers are well versed in Iranian history and its society and are trying hard to keep that in mind when predicting Iran's responses and the wishes of the general population.

But I would add that with 27 years of enmity between Iran and the US, the sad fact is that the two countries don't really know eachother anymore and I don't think the portrait of Iran that you share is the one that comes to the minds of most Americans. They think: 1979, hostages and the Ayatollah.

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Columbia, Md.: Over the past few years none of the reports by the IAEA have said that Iran had or is trying to develop or acquire materials needed for a nuclear weapon. Before the downfall of the shah in Iran they we were one of the sponsors that were helping Iran build it's civil nuclear program. I understand we don't agree with their government and that they "sponsor" terrorism but what gives us the right to say they are trying to build nuclear weapons, etc.? They are next to countries such as Pakistan, India and Russia, not including Israel, all of which have the bomb. Even if they were trying to make it I would not blame them. Why are we not trying to get the Russians to get their act together and make their nuclear facilities more secure etc.

Dafna Linzer: Hi, again Iran says it isn't building a bomb so I'm not sure that it makes sense to justify them doing so by suggesting they're just "keeping up with the Jones."

As I wrote today, Bush makes the assertion that they are building bombs but offers no proof. Wondering why? It's another direct result of the Iraq intelligence fiasco - the administration just won't put out intelligence now that could come back to haunt them. It's also because they lack proof - lots of circumstantial evidence but not proof. And that's because Iran's energy program uses the same technology that can be used for weapons making so the issue isn't just about whether intelligence agencies or the IAEA can find a nuclear warhead, it's about whether they can prove Iran's intentions. So far, they haven't.

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Chicago, Ill.: I read somewhere that many of Iran's top generals were trained by the U.S. military when the Shah was still in power. Do you think this familiarity with the United States and its military is a factor (amongst others) that might dissuade the U.S. from using military force against Iran?

Dafna Linzer: HI, that's true and it's a factor. I wrote a story I think in 04, about the US flying drones over Iran to test the country's defense systems and to monitor the nuclear sites. Iran downed a couple of them and protested to the US government but it didn't care that much and didn't turn on its radar system in panic. That's because it turned out that one of the most senior Iranian Air Force generals had been trained in Texas and was well aware of the drones tactic.

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washingtonpost.com: Iran Defies Deadline On Nuclear Program ( Post, Sept. 1 )

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Boston, Mass.: Dafna, Have your ever visited Iran? A lot of reporters writing about Iran have never visited the country and have no feeling about the complexity of the life in Iran. I know if you talk to Robin Wright, Barbara Slavin and few other reporters who have visited Iran, they will tell you the TV image of Iran and its leaders in this country is so false and off base and very far from the truth. Please go visit the country, talk to people and then come and opine, hopefully, in these pages.

Thank you

Dafna Linzer: Hi, I would love to go and the Post is lucky to have so many reporters who have visted and continue to visit. I have to boast of the wonderful Post coverage of Iran by Karl Vick whose pieces I urge you to read. The Iranians don't make it easy to get visas however and even seasoned Iran experts can wait years to back into the country. Iran also will not let most US news outlets open bureaus in Iran (and the US won't let Iranian news agencies open bureaus here either) and that limits coverage as well.

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Arlington, Va.: How can intelligence analysts be objective on Iran since such an issue is getting more political and might affect the coming elections?

Dafna Linzer: Boy, you're smart - great observation. I think they can be objective - the question is, can policymakers be objective about it? And is the fear of politicization - as everyone calls it - making intelligence analysts nervous?

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Rockville, Md.: Since Iran continues to say they do not want weapons, why don't we take advantage of it and ask for them to allow inspectors to return. All of the public statements seem to make a deal possible? What is preventing one? Their ambitions? Or our inability to see the difference between fuel and bomb material. I know everyone is not a student of physics, but there is a difference.

Dafna Linzer: Hi, Iran hasn't kicked out inspectors. As I wrote today, they have curbed voluntary cooperation but are still cooperating and complying with basic inspections. Not only that, UN inspectors at the IAEA have tons of cameras installed all over Iran's facilities. Someone told me that Natanz, where uranium enrichment is taking place, is the most watched hall in the world.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: Do you think Iran is factoring in the chance that the Democrats will win in November or the presidency in 2008 -- and basically appease Iran -- thus face no real threat to their nuclear ambitions?

Dafna Linzer: Hi, I find that very hard to believe. And I don't think American politics is viewed that way in Iran. Besides, some Democrats have been a lot tougher than some Republicans and have even accused Bush of being too soft, and letting the Iran problem get out of hand. I think the only ones worried about the Democrats are the Republicans.

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Dafna Linzer: Hey everyone, thanks so much for the great questions. Let's do this again soon.

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