Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006 11:00 AM
Washington Post staff writer Dafna Linzer was online Thursday, Sept. 21, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the speeches made at the U.N. by President Bush and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week and the possibility of negotiations to address its nuclear program.
The transcript follows.
Dafna Linzer: Hi everyone, thanks for joining me today. Lots of good questions so let's get started.
Port Chester, N.Y.: I have been unable to find a copy of the speech by the president of Iran. Could I have a link so that I can read it before the discussion tomorrow? Thanks.
Dafna Linzer: Hi there, I was going to direct you to the UN Web site but it's so lousy and hard to navigate that I just decided to look it up myself. I think if you go to this link below, and click on Tuesday's speeches, you should be able to find it. Good luck!
Mooresville, N.C.: What is the current status of operations in Iraq? How does this status effect how we deal with Iran? Does Bush have a weak hand to play here?
Dafna Linzer: Hi, good question. Iran is enormously influential in Iraq - it has close ties to Shia religious leaders, Shia parties, it is deeply involved in the Iraqi interior ministry, it has spies and agents crawling all over the country. The more the United States seems unable to restore peace in Iraq, the more interested Shia Iraqis become in looking to Iran for help.
The Bush administration recognizes this and has Secretary of State Rice has tried to dispatch the U.S. ambassador to Iraq to meet with Iranian officials to discuss Iraq but the Iranians balked. Their influence in Iraq, in Afghanistan and Lebanon has complicated efforts to pressure Iran on the nuclear issue - and that has led the Iranians (and some in the US government) to believe that Iran has so many more leavers than the US does at the moment.
Katy, Tex.: Can you give some details on the discussion Ahmadinejad had with critics? What were the main topics discussed and were there anything new revealed.
Dafna Linzer: Hi there, hopefully the web folks will link to the Post article today on the Iranian president's meeting last night in New York with members of the Council on Foreign Relations.
It doesn't sound like he said anything new, and reiterated anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments he is becoming famous for. I wasn't at the meeting and so I'm not sure how hard the Council members, which included Republican former administration members, pushed back or what question they asked. It does sound like Ahmadinejad did a skillful job though of deflecting many of their questions.
washingtonpost.com: Iranian Leader Defends Controversial Stands (Post, Sept. 21, 2006)
More coverage: Early October New Deadline for Iran (Post, Sept. 21, 2006)
Princeton, N.J.: There seems to be a disagreement between the Republicans as led by Pete Hoesktra and the IAEA. Are there inspectors in Iran now? Are there TV cameras in the atomic installations sending back to the IAEA? Is there any evidence at all that Iran is trying to enrich Uranium to 90%+ required for weapons?
Dafna Linzer: Hi there, thanks for bringing this up and again, I'd be grateful if the webfolks could post my piece on this dispute.
U.N. nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency are in Iran all the time, there are cameras that monitor, 24/7, the centrifuge cascades that are spinning, including the one that is capable of making low levels of enriched uranium. Inspectors told me it is the most heavily monitored facility in the world.
But to answer your astute question - No. There is no evidence that Iran is making highly enriched uranium and no evidence that they could now, even if they wanted to.
washingtonpost.com: U.N. Inspectors Dispute Iran Report By House Panel (Post, Sept. 14, 2006)
Monroe, Mich.: What is the status of the al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden's son, being held by the IRGC-Quds Division? Will they be used as bargaining chips by the Iranians? Why hasn't Bush mentioned these men?
Dafna Linzer: Great question from another astute observer, this time in Michigan.
Several senior al-Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden's son, fled into Iran in December 2001, at the same time that others, including bin Laden himself, are believed to have fled into Pakistan.
My intelligence sources say the small group in Iran are in serious custody. The Iranians offered in 2003 to turn them over to US custody in a swap in which the US would hand over Iranian exiles in Iraq who were trying to overthrow the Iranian leadership. A lot of senior people in the US government supported the swap, including some in the CIA, the state department and the White House. But it was opposed by the Pentagon and the Vice President's office - in the end President Bush decided against it.
Iran hasn't released the group though and is still hoping a swap may be possible some time down the road.
Knoxville, Tenn.: Considering U.S./ CIA roles in meddling with internal politics of other sovereign nations, e.g. : 1953 Iranian coup, and Iraq war-2, should Iran be wary of U.S. and prepare for a "war"..and that includes the capabilities of nuclear weapon? If Bush can interpret Geneva conventions to suit him, can't Iran Interpret the NPT to their advantage?
Dafna Linzer: Interesting questions. I guarantee you that Iran, just like the United States, is doing contingency planning for all scenarios, including war. Iran is on the record, repeatedly, as saying that nuclear weapons are not part of its plan. It has said over and over again that the nuclear program is peaceful, and for the production of energy only. UN inspectors can't verify that though. They haven't found proof of a weapon, but they haven't been able to confirm the "Peaceful" part either.
But yes, I guarantee the Iranians are mindful of previous US interference, such as the CIA-led coup in 1953 that removed a democratically elected Iranian leader. And yes, Iran feels just as free to interpret treaties to its own advantage.
Falls Church, Va.: What were the anti-Semitic comments Ahmadinejad made at the recent New York meeting? I didn't hear news about anything.
Dafna Linzer: HI, take a look at our piece on it today. He repeatedly cast doubt on the Holocaust, said there wasn't proof etc. He has made these remarks before. At home, he sponsored an anti-Semitic cartoon contest.
washingtonpost.com: Iranian Leader Defends Controversial Stands (Post, Sept. 21, 2006)
Washington, D.C.: What are the chances Israel, in part to compensate for its less than stellar bout with Hezbollah, may decide to attack Iran's nuclear facilities before Iran gets the bomb?
Dafna Linzer: Good question. Last year, Vice President Cheney was suggesting an Israeli strike was a real possibility. That rhetoric seems to have dropped off, in part, I think, because it irked the Israelis.
I think the war with Hezbollah was devastating for Israel and I don't know if they'll want to prove themselves with a strike against Iran. I honestly think it would be militarily difficult and terribly risky - it would almost certainly mean another fight with Hezbollah, counterattacks against US and British troops in Iraq and terrorism against Israeli and Jewish targets around the globe. It was Hezbollah, not al-Qaeda, that blew up a Jewish center in Argentina in 1984.
Alexandria, Va.: What do you think the Iranian reaction is to a military strike against nuclear facilities by Israel or the U.S.?
Dafna Linzer: See above
Topeka, Kan.: Dafna, thanks for your excellent coverage of Iran! I am confused though, it seems like there is conflicting information out there on the estimate of when Iran could develop a nuclear bomb. Sometimes I read one to two years, sometimes three to five, sometimes five to ten. Do you have any idea which it is?
Dafna Linzer: Hi and thanks.
Last August, I broke the story about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran which estimated that Iran is as much as a decade away from being able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for the core of a deliverable nuclear weapon. A couple weeks ago, John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence, publicly confirmed that, saying Iran is five to 10 years away. That estimate, by the way, is "worst case scenario", meaning that if everything goes right for the Iranians technically, and they decide to go full speed ahead with efforts to build a bomb, they are five to 10 years away.
We already know, from UN inspectors, that the Iranians are in fact having lots of problems technically and are moving at a slower pace than even they expected just in making low enriched uranium for nuclear power.
The caveat of course is that there is the possibility that Iran is hiding other aspects of the program that neither US intelligence, nor inspectors, have discovered. Thus the "five" part in the assessment.
London, Ontario: If there is any lesson in the runup to the Iraq war, it is that the prospect of proving a negative (i.e.: that a nation is categorically incapable of producing a bomb) is a fool's errand. There will always be people that insist that inspectors have not searched hard enough. Is this insistence on "stronger inspections" simply a pretext for widening the neocon agenda?
Dafna Linzer: HI, I don't know about the pretext part but I do know that US intelligence, and the inspectors are coming under enormous pressure and criticism from some Republican quarters for not finding definitive proof of a weapons program the Bush administration insists exists. The IAEA has pushed back, the intelligence community has been publicly silent.
Munich, Germany: Other than the issue of self defense, one of the motivators for Iran to obtain the bomb is status within the Middle-East and the Arab world.
Have there been any noticeable changes in the Sunni-Shiite balance of things after the Lebanon War?
Perhaps Iran has won a bit of respect amongst its Arab peers that might make the bomb seem not as essential as it once was.
Dafna Linzer: Interesting comment. I would only add that Iran says it isn't trying for a bomb.
Arlington, Va.: "I think the war with Hezbollah was devastating for Israel and I don't know if they'll want to prove themselves with a strike against Iran. I honestly think it would be militarily difficult and terribly risky - it would almost certainly mean another fight with Hezbollah, counterattacks against U.S. and British troops in Iraq and terrorism against Israeli and Jewish targets around the globe."
If Israel is not going to attack Iran, then what are we to make of recent articles in which Israel calls Iran its "greatest threat"? Are such public statements actually calls for U.S. involvement?
Dafna Linzer: HI, I think for Israel, Iran really does pose an existential threat. President Bush has also called Iran a "grave threat." I think that should make clear how seriously both countries worry about Iran, but that doesn't mean they are determined to bomb it. I'm not sure what the trigger for military action would be but no one will rule it out either - Bush has said "all options are on the table."
Indonesia: What should Iran do to build trust? They have suspended enrichment in the past, they have been watched from years before, they are in the NPT, they haven't invaded any country in their history, they want to negotiate, but everybody puts condition on. What should they do?
Dafna Linzer: For the west - and by this I mean the Europeans and the US -I think Iran would need to cooperate fully with the IAEA, answer outstanding questions, drop the rhetoric and enter into serious negotiations about its energy needs - and not about its rights.
Centreville, Va.: I appreciate your taking the time to speak on this subject.
The conventional wisdom in the U.S. seems to be that Ahmadinejad is crazy, though his presentation to the U.N. appeared to be rational and reasonable. He pointed out the irony that the one country most opposed to Iran nuclear aspirations, was the only country that had ever used them against a civilian population. Does Iran as a sovereign country have the "right" to pursue nukes for protection, especially considering that it is surrounded by half of the world's nuclear powers (China, Pakistan, India, Russia, and Israel)?
Dafna Linzer: Hi, another question premised on the assumption that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran has signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and that means it is legally obligated not to develop nuclear weapons. It can always withdraw from the treaty, but that would widely be seen as an announced intention to build the bomb.
Rockville, Md.: Iran is a capable country. What if we make a deal where they are a local leader and hope that their leadership will evolve? Or is that the deal they made with Germany in the 1930s?
I think it depends on knowing if Iran wants war or peace. Or do they think we have no realistic ability to go to war?
Dafna Linzer: Hi, a lot of the concern about Iran has to do with intentions, rather than evidence of a bomb program. The Iranians say they want a "grand bargain" with the United States that recognizes its leadership role in the region and accepts it for what it is. The Bush administration has rejected that idea, but is willing to sit down for talks with the Iranians, Europeans, Russians and Chinese to talk about the nuclear issue. If Iran suspends its uranium enrichment program, the talks, with the US, will go forward. If it doesn't, the US will pursue economic sanctions but it's unclear whether or not other countries like Russia and China would go along with that.
Clarksburg, Md.: Iran is suspected of developing a nuclear reactor for the purposes of developing nuclear weapons, because it is said that they have no need for nuclear energy because they are an oil-rich nation. But what is unsaid is that, if they develop nuclear energy capabilities, the oil that is saved can be sold on the open market and the additional revenues could possibly be used to build hospitals or schools or roads. While I believe Iran's goal is to develop weapons, I'm curious as to why this possibility has never been mentioned. Do you believe this is remotely possible and have you heard this possibility suggested by anyone?
Dafna Linzer: Hi, I guess my question for you is, if you believe that Iran is trying to get nuclear weapons, then why does it matter if the energy argument makes sense? That's where the Bush administration is on this issue. But there has been articles about this and I do think that people take Iran's arguments seriously. As I wrote above, it's all a question of intent.
Dafna Linzer: Hey everyone, thanks again for an enlightening exchange. Let's do it again soon, Dafna
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