Matter of Debate: How Do We Catalyze Diplomacy in Iran with the Clock Ticking?
Underwritten by Booz Allen Hamilton
Matter of Debate: How Do We Catalyze Diplomacy in Iran with the Clock Ticking?
Aspen Ideas Festival transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for the Aspen Institute, and the accuracy may vary. This text may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Aspen Institute programming is the video or audio.
THE ASPEN INSTITUTE
ASPEN IDEAS FESTIVAL 2013
1000 N, Third Street
Saturday, June 29, 2013
LIST OF PARTICIPANTS
Execute Vice President, Booz Allen Hamilton
Retired American diplomat
Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and
Former Israeli Air Force General
Head of IDF Military Intelligence Directorate
* * * * *HOW DO WE CATALYZE DIPLOMACY IN IRAN WITH THE CLOCK
MR. THOET: Good morning, and welcome to the first of five
events that we're calling "A Matter of Debate." I'm Bill Thoet, execute vice
president at Booz Allen Hamilton. We're very proud to put on this series
of debates. We've been involved with the Aspen Institute for over 40
years, and are involved with the Aspen Ideas Fest for the last 9.
We're proud to sponsor this series which features a thoughtful
exchange of ideas, points, and counterpoints to current issues. But as a
former moderator it's always exciting when a debate spontaneously
happens, so we thought we'd kind of cut just right to the chase and
encourage debate from the outset.
We thought these series would guarantee the kind of
excitement, if you remember the old Jean Curtin and Dan Aykroyd in
Saturday Night Live, so we'll see whether we get there.
Today's discussion will focus on "How do we Catalyze
Diplomacy in Iran with the Clock Ticking." Moderating this discussion is
Jeffrey Goldberg, who is a national correspondent for the Atlantic, and a
recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is also the
author of the critically acclaimed book, "Prisoners, A story of Friendship
and Terror." Prior to the Atlantic, Mr. Goldberg worked at the New
Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Magazine.
Please join me in welcoming Jeff Goldberg.
MR. GOLDBERG: Thanks, thank you. Thanks.
That was very nice of you Nick, thank you for applauding.
MR. GOLDBERG: So my definition of masochism is going to a
panel at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, so I
appreciate all of you masochists for coming out.We -- can you hear me? Everybody hear me?
MR. BURNS: Loudly.
MR. GOLDBERG: I'm going to jump right in, but let me just
briefly introduce our two esteemed panelists. I think everyone here is
familiar with Nick Burns. He is one of America's most esteemed and
experienced diplomats, former undersecretary of State for policy and --- for
MR. BURNS: Political affairs.
MR. GOLDBERG: And political affairs also. Former
ambassador to NATO, former ambassador to Greece, and a long time
ago, spokesman for the State Department, now at the Kennedy School,
and a close friend obviously of the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Aspen
Seated next to Nick is General Amos Yadlin, former head of
Israeli military intelligence, now the head of the Israeli Institute for National
Security Studies which is Israel's premier national security and foreign
policy think tank. General Yadlin is a veteran of the Israeli air force, and
not only that, he was one of the eight pilots, this is as a young captain I
think -- captain, eight pilots who bombed the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor
in 1981, actually it's declassified now.
MR. GOLDBERG: Mazel tov on your achievement.
MR. GOLDBERG: And actually it's really -- it's fairly recently
declassified. He was actually the first pilot to release his two 2,000
pound bombs directly on to the rector and he made it home, as did the
other seven pilots. And so he brings a certain level of street credibility to
this discussion.I want to ask both men, to start, a very simple question. And
that is, why is an Iran with nuclear weapons a danger to your country?
Let me start with Nick and talk about it from the American perspective.
Why is this, from the perspective of President Obama, and President Bush
before, why is this untenable?
MR. BURNS: Thank you. Good morning everyone. I just
wanted to thank Jeff for moderating. One never knows where the
discussion is going to go when Jeff is moderator, so our seatbelts are
fastened. But I just want to say a word about Amos.
I have a lot of respect for Amos. We were involved in a
Harvard University INSS think tank dialog. We met last October at
Harvard; Amos was bringing a group of Israelis back. So we've been
talking about these issues for some time. And I'm looking forward to hear
what you have to say.
I'd say from an American perspective, Iran is certainly the most
dangerous state in the Middle East to us, and along with North Korea and
Pakistan, the three most dangerous states in the world. And what does
President Obama worry about? He worries about a couple of things.
First, Iran is the leading supporter and funder of terrorist groups that are
shooting at us, shooting at the moderate Arab states, and representing a
threat to our way of life, both in our own country and the Middle East.
If you think about Iranian funding for the Shia militants in Iraq,
which was a real problem for us and our soldiers in the Iraq War,
Palestinian Islamic jihad, Hezbollah, and Hamas. That's number one.
Number two, Iran is a rival of the United States for power in the
Middle East. We should want to continue to be, as all Americans have
wanted us to be since Harry Truman, the most significant power in the
Middle East because of our vast interests there.
Iran seeks a nuclear weapon; in part it wants protection, in part
because it wants to build its own powerbase in the Middle East. And if
you think about our interests, hopefully avoiding a second revolution in
Egypt, which could be destructive to the Egyptian people. If you think about our interests in Syria, think about our friendship and support, and
security guarantees for Israel we have profound interests there. Iran
represents a threat to those interests.
And third, and most importantly I think for this conversation Iran
is heading, in my judgment, straight for a nuclear weapon. Not just for a
nuclear capability, the ability to build a weapon should it desire, but a
weapon. And should Iran achieve a nuclear weapon it will change the
balance of power against American, Israeli, and Arab interests in the
And so for those three reasons this is a vital concern. And in
the parlance of diplomacy and intelligence "vital" means it hits at your most
basic interests, and you're willing to do what you have to do to get your
way on a vital interest. And those are the stakes for President Obama as
he looks at this really difficult question.
MR. GOLDBERG: Is it an existential interest for the United
MR. BURNS: I don't think it's -- I certainly appreciate that for
many Israelis Iran represents an existential threat. I don't think an American
can say that given the vast disparities in power globally between the
United States and Iran. China, in some ways, the Russian Federation in
other ways in the worst case represent an existential threat, in the worst
case, given their nuclear capacity. Iran doesn't have that yet, but it
represents a threat to our vital interests. And that's a very important
distinction to make.
MR. GOLDBERG: Amos, why, in a couple of minutes -- why is
Iran with a nuclear weapon an existential threat to the state of Israel?
MR. YADLIN: Yeah, we are living in a bad neighborhood;
200 million Arabs don't want to see us on the shores of the
Mediterranean. A billion Muslims will join them easily to destroy us.
Thanks God, and what some Israelis built for the last 60 years they can
dream about destroying Israel but they cannot do it.What is now developing in Iran will give them, in the first time,
the capability to destroy Israel that they don't have now. So Iran is a very
radical region like other region, but very radical, call to wipe Israel -- to
wipe Israel off the map, to erase Israel. But now this very radical regime is
going to marry a very radical weapon. This is a development that Israel
will do everything that will not happen.
Iran is also very dangerous to the state of affairs in the Middle
East, even if they will not launch the nuclear bomb, the next morning after
they will have it. I served under three prime ministers as chief of
intelligence and each one of them ask me, "General Yadlin, what will
happen the day after the Iranians will have the bomb?" And I am never in
panic, and I told them the chances that Iran will launch it are very low.
They say what is very low? Five percent.
So two prime minister were able to live with it. The third, and
you may guess who is it, the 5 percent nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv, not in
my watch. But nuclear Iran is the end of the NPT because the next
morning the Saudis are going to Pakistan and bringing a bomb. They
already paid for it. Next Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, every country that see itself as
a regional superpower. And then it's a nightmare, it's a nuclear nightmare
not only for Israel, for the United States.
Those who flew to the towers on September 11 were not
Iranians. You remember, some of them were Saudis, some of them were
Egyptians. So nuclear weapon all over the place, proliferating to terrorists
may be existential threat to the United States, no doubt existential threat for
MR. GOLDBERG: Amos, I have to push back on one thing that
you've painted. I realize that you're not a person who panics but you've
painted a fairly apocalyptic picture for Israel, the marriage of a radical
regime that wants to wipe Israel off the map with a radical weapon. And
you talk about a prime minister who says, not on his watch but it is on his
watch, and for years he has been threatening and making noises about
taking out the Iranian nuclear program before it reaches a threshold
capacity, a breakout capacity and he hasn't done it. So, is he just
bluffing?MR. YADLIN: The prime minister is not bluffing on Iran.
Spending a lot of hours with him, he see it in the most extreme perspective.
For him, the Iranians are the Nazis of the 21st century, they are in the
open call for destruction of Israel. The international community like in the
'30s and the '40s don't pay so much attention. Say it's only propaganda,
it's only for domestic use. There are 6 million Jews in Israel, so history
sometimes repeats and the prime minister see himself and he is not bluffing,
To tell you the truth, I am not accepting this perception. Israel is
so strong and Israel is not helpless as it was during the Holocaust. So I
am not buying the holocaust, but I understand where the prime minister is
standing and I think the world should take it very seriously.
MR. GOLDBERG: But Nick, I will come to you in a second,
but I have to keep asking the same question. If the Iranians are Nazis and
you are looking at a second Auschwitz and he's known about the
problem for years, please explain why he hasn't done it?
MR. YADLIN: To do for a small state like Israel, to go and
attack Iran which are employing a very sophisticated run for the bomb. By
the way it's not running to the bomb, it's going very, very slow to the
bomb. One have to understand the Iranian strategy, the Iranian strategy is
not to go to the bomb as fast as possible. The Iranian strategy is to go to
the bomb as safe as possible and they are doing it very well. We will
come to the diplomacy later.
So the prime minister for launching an attack need four
ingredients, four ingredients. First, an internal discussion, what is more
dangerous to Israel, a nuclear Iran or the consequences of attacking Iran?
Both of them not a happy alternative. So, he all the time look for maybe
there is a third alternative, diplomacy, sanctions, regime change, some
shadow war, so the question whether he is still is yet in the fog to chose
between bombing Iran or nuclear Iran, maybe is not there yet. So this is
Second, you need to have the capability to do it and I am not talking this tonight. I say one thing this morning.
MR. GOLDBERG: Don't talk about it tonight either.
MR. YADLIN: In Israel it is tonight.
MR. GOLDBERG: It is tonight.
MR. YADLIN: But I will say, it is doable, okay. So, he decided
that the bomb is more than just the bombing and it is doable. Now, he
need another two ingredients, one, legitimacy. Look, if there is a new
president in Iran, which some people think is a reformist, I have a surprise
for you. The reformists are in jail. But assuming that there are some
discussions, it's not a good time to attack assuming there is election in the
state, and he got a very important message from the United States, it's not
a good timing. So, there were a couple of discussions that it wasn't the
right timing from legitimacy point of view.
Last but not least, Israel should do it when the President of the
United States understand that all the other options exhausted and not -- is
never asked by the way for a green light, never. Israel never ask America
to fight for her, Israel know what to do, when vital national security
interests in stake. However, Israel don't want to go to war when America
say, it is not the right timing, almost a red light. So, maybe we be waiting
for yellow flashing light.
MR. GOLDBERG: We are going to come to Obama in a
second because he is the key player I think in this drama. But Nick, I want
to come to you. You and I both know from firsthand experience that Prime
Minister Netanyahu does not actually believe that diplomacy will work.
He is willing for tactical reasons to give it time and has given it time. Do
you believe that diplomacy could work?
MR. BURNS: It depends, it depends on a --
MR. GOLDBERG: It's a very diplomatic answer.MR. BURNS: It depends on Iranian actions. So, I would frame
it this way. The United States and Israel have nearly identical interests, but
not identical interests in total. Two American presidents, George Bush and
Barack Obama have both taken the same approach to Iran. Both have
said, we will deny Iran a nuclear weapon. Both have said, we are
willing to use any means available, i.e., the use of force to accomplish
that. Both have said, we prefer a diplomatic solution, so I was the Iran
negotiator in President Bush's second term, for three years, '05-'08
working for Condi Rice.
President Bush and President Obama have had a nearly
identical strategy. We want to talk to Iran. Failing productive discussions
-- and they have been all unproductive since 2006 and '07 -- we are
going to sanction Iran. So we put the most onerous sanctions on Iran
possible. There are state to state sanctions that the UN Security Council
has taken four times, four Chapter 7 Security Council resolutions; I
negotiated for the US, the first three. More importantly, the Treasury
Department has put really crippling financial sanctions on the Iranians.
Has it resolved the problem? No. Has it made life more difficult for the
Iranians? Yes, because the rial, as you know, has depreciated,
depending on your estimate, by 30 to 40 percent over the last year. Iran
now is exporting about one-third of the oil that it was exporting two years
ago because of these sanctions. There is buy-in from nearly all the world
to the sanctions.
So, we have been able to form, particularly under President
Obama's leadership, an international coalition that includes all of Europe,
and we have the British Ambassador of the United States, Peter
Westmacott, who is with us today, and his nation has been a leader in
this. All of Europe with us. EU financial sanctions, EU oil embargo on
Iran. We have most of the Asian countries, particularly the Japanese and
South Koreans now coming onboard, the Indians coming onboard, so
Iran is isolated. And that's an effective thing to do when you are trying to
negotiate because you are trying to build up leverage on your side of the
table. We have built up some leverage.
So you have got sanctions in place, you have the threat of force, the third instrument that both President Bush and Obama have
undertaken is, can we negotiate with these guys. And until now, the real
tragedy in this relationship is that we have not had a sustained substantive
conversation with the Iranians in 34 years. Our hostages were taken on
November 4, 1979, 52 American diplomats, they were held for 444
days, until President Reagan's inauguration in January of '81. We have
not had a sustained conversation with the Iranians since then. We broke
diplomatic relations, we don't have embassies in either capital, we don't
have American journalists really being able to travel much to Iran, very few
American business people there.
We have a much greater familiarity with North Korea and
Cuba and Venezuela than we do with Iran. If you are trying to negotiate
with them and if the question is, can we convince them not to produce a
nuclear weapon, but to agree to some kind of negotiated solution short of
that, you got to have a sense of who they are. You got to have a sense of
what their bottom line is, what their capability is, what they want to
achieve. The only way you can do that is sit down with them.
So, what's going to happen now? After very desultory
negotiations in the spring of this year, there is a new Iranian president, I
suspect that Amos and I will agree on who he is and what he stands for.
But I think President Obama's intention is test this guy. Sit down with him
perhaps to get into a negotiation, where on one side of the table will be
the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, we are in
one group, Iran is on the other side of the table and that group will bring
a lot of leverage, some intimidation, a lot of pushing of the Iranians
towards some kind of negotiated settlement where they are not able to
produce a nuclear weapon, they will subject themselves to intensive
international safeguards and we ought to test the proposition whether that
Now, Jeff, the key question is, if it cannot succeed and if we
think Iran is heading towards the nuclear redlines that Israel and the US
have established, then you've got the big question for President Obama,
Do we use force or not? Does Israel use force or not? But we're not there
yet. I think the next 5 or 6 months, you'll see negotiations at the center of
this. MR. GOLDBERG: Amos, do you believe that diplomacy will
MR. YADLIN: Yeah. It seems like déjà vu again and again.
You know, for the last 10 years we're basically hearing the same
prediction every time with another excuse. You know, there were election
in -- when I started being chief of intelligence, there was the election of
2005. Everybody hoped that Rafsanjani wins. Unfortunately, we got
Ahmadinejad. So every time we wait for election, whether in Iran or in
Israel or in the United States, they spend like thousands of negotiations,
P5+1 and -- I remember it was Solana when I started. Now it's Lady
But again and again, what you are seeing the Iranians come
for -- for negotiation to buy more time, they come with absurd positions,
nothing happen, they get -- and as they go back to Tehran for another 6
months, in these 6 months you get 1000, 2000 more centrifuges and
more fissile material. When Rouhani, the new president negotiated in
2005, they hardly spin two centrifuges. They have no enriched uranium.
Now, after 10 years of negotiation -- and I'm not accepting that because
the US and Iran haven't spoke, this is the issue. We are in the words of
diplomacy, you can arrange meeting everywhere, even in some American
good sources, it was written that Obama wrote a lot of letters to the
supreme leader. By the way, those of you who don't know, the president
is not that important in Iran. It's the supreme leader who is doing the
decisions. The supreme leader haven't come forward to any negotiation.
So what makes a negotiation -- what's give negotiation some
chance for success? Only if you accompany them with other methods like
sanctions, like very credible military attack. Unfortunately, until 2012, all
the sanctions against Iran were pale and didn't impress the Iranians at all.
And I don't blame Nick because he did a excellent job. But the Russians
and the Chinese should be on board as well.
MR. GOLDBERG: Let me ask Nick --
MR. YADLIN: In 2012, the sanctions were, for the first time, painful, and maybe this led to the election of Rouhani, which give us some
hope. If sanctions were not eased, on the contrary will be kept until a
diplomatic solution can be reached.
MR. GOLDBERG: But I have to say that what Amos is saying is
true in the sense that, you know, if you go back into the old newspaper
stories, 5, 8, 10 years ago, it's -- give the Iranians 6 months, we'll figure
this out, there's a new election, there's a -- how -- at what point does Nick
Burns who is predisposed to diplomacy, say, you know what, after 20
cycles of hope and then failed negotiations and then despair and then
hope, at what point do you say, "You know what, the Iranians are going
for a nuclear weapon no matter what, and we have to stop them by
MR. BURNS: We're clearly not there yet. And I think there's
not a single world leader who believes we're there yet, with the possible
exception of the Israeli prime minister.
MR. GOLDBERG: What about the Saudis and the UAE and
all the rest of the Arabs who so fear an Iran with nuclear weapons?
MR. BURNS: And they won't say that publicly.
MR. GOLDBERG: They will say it privately though.
MR. BURNS: So let me go back to what Amos just --
MR. GOLDBERG: On occasion they've said it publicly here, at
the Aspen Ideas Festival --
MR. BURNS: Okay. Let me go back to what Amos was
saying. I would disagree with Amos, we haven't tried negotiations
seriously, we haven't had diplomacy seriously, because we haven’t been
at the table with the Iranians. I'll give an illustration of that. I was the Iran
negotiator for the United States. In the three years in that position as
undersecretary of state I never met an Iranian, because it was the policy of
the Bush administration that we would not meet them. We offered
negotiations, the Iranians turned them down. The Europeans have met them, we have not.
The idea in a democracy, particularly this democracy at this
time, in the wake of two big land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that we
would launch a war against a far stronger country, Iran, without having
tried serious diplomacy, seriously tried to ascertain whether or not there's a
deal out there, short of war, it's not sustainable with the American public,
it's not sustainable with the Congress, and it wouldn't be the right thing to
do. So you have a new Iranian president, I'm skeptical of him, but he says
he's open to negotiations. He says the sanctions have had an impact,
Rouhani, on the Iranian people. If we've got the leverage to negotiate
from a position of strength, we should take it, we should do that over the
next five or six months and see what we can get.
I told Jeff at breakfast let's take a play on President Reagan's
famous words, "Engage Iran, don't trust yet, right and verify." So we go
into this with our eyes wide open. We're a lot stronger than Iran, we have
international opinion on our side. And before we use military force, and
certainly before Israel thinks about the use of military force, President
Obama should be given a chance to negotiate; that's what he clearly
wants to do, and we should take that opportunity.
MR. GOLDBERG: I want to come back to President Obama in
a second. But Amos I want to flip this question on you. You
acknowledged that Israel is a very strong country. This is not 1938, the
Jews are not helpless. Israel has the strongest air force in the world, it has
200 nuclear weapons, not that you could admit that --
MR. YADLIN: The strongest air force is the Americans.
MR. GOLDBERG: The strongest air force in the Middle East.
MR. YADLIN: It's the best air force.
MR. GOLDBERG: Excuse me, the best air force. I think there
are people in this room who would debate you on that. But we're not
having that one.MR. BURNS: Exactly.
MR. GOLDBERG: Including Nick Burns.
MR. BURNS: Yes.
MR. GOLDBERG: The -- why -- you understand that the
consequences of either an Israeli or American attack on Iran could be
profound, you acknowledge that. Why couldn't Israel live with a
containment scenario in which the United States is surrounding Iran
essentially with allies -- no, I want Amos to go to this -- because before the
Israelis launch, they have to explain to the world why there's no possible
way that an aggressive containment strategy couldn't work.
MR. BURNS: But we got to say this, President Obama is
saying publicly, he's not for containment, and he will deny them a weapon
by force if necessary.
MR. GOLDBERG: I know.
MR. BURNS: So this is a hypothetical.
MR. GOLDBERG: It is a hypothetical.
MR. BURNS: It doesn't exist in reality.
MR. GOLDBERG: Right. It will exist in reality.
MR. YADLIN: It may exist.
MR. GOLDBERG: It will exist in reality, I believe it will exist in
reality. Go ahead, Amos.
MR. YADLIN: Yeah. I spoke before about the fact that the
Iranians in high probability will not launch the missile the day they will
have the bomb. However, a missile can be launched later on, not so
much from having the whole cabinet deciding on it, but from kind of
miscalculation, escalation which was unintended escalation, and mistakes. And when it's come from Iran, it will be going only to Israel.
And we don't have any mechanism to deescalate such a crisis that build
up to be a nuclear event.
Fifty years ago, fifty-one years ago, you have been almost in a
world war, nuclear world war with the Soviet Union, the Cuban missile
crisis, which was that close to launching nuclear weapons to New York,
Washington, Moscow, Leningrad, whatever. How did you deescalate it?
By communication. I think the attorney general was Bobby Kennedy. He
went down to the Soviet embassy, to Mr. Dobrynin, and they create such
a deal. Later on you created a red line, a phone red line between the
White House and the Kremlin, which helped to diffuse.
I worked with three prime ministers, three defense ministers, and
I looked at all the leaders around us. Believe me, Jeffrey, they know how
to make mistakes and bad judgment and bad decisions. You remember
1967, nobody planned this war, not in the headquarters in Cairo and not
in the general staff in Tel Aviv. Nasser have done a mistake. His troops
came back from Yemen, he puts them into Sinai, against some agreement
with Israel. The secretary general of the UN, U Thant, pulled the UN force
because they keep the peace only when there is peace.
MR. YADLIN: So another mistake. Then Nasser so happy that
suddenly the road is open, closed the Strait of Hormuz, then -- another
mistake -- then President Johnson forgot that an American presidential
assurance to Israel that it will not happen that came from Eisenhower. In
'57, he didn't find the document, okay? Israel was mobilized, cannot stay
mobilized because the economy in Israel is collapsing. When everybody
go to Israel, and we come to war that nobody want. Since many were
not '67, let's speak about 2006. Remember Nasrallah? This guy was --
MR. GOLDBERG: I know Nasrallah.
MR. YADLIN: -- defender of Lebanon, now he's helping Bashar
butchering his people. This guy have said, "If I knew how Olmert will
react, I will never kidnap the two soldiers." So another mistake. And I think if Olmert know how the war will ended, he will
never react so -- maybe he will stop it after 4 days. So the mistake is a --
the weapon -- the nuclear weapon can fly to Tel Aviv and we have -- we
cannot live with it.
MR. GOLDBERG: Nick, by the way and I want to have your
response to this. Thank you. But one of the reasons I talked about
containment as a possibility is because of something that a very senior
Israeli official said last year, a former defense minister, which I took to
heart, which he said that yes, we understand that America doesn’t want
Iran to have a nuclear weapon, but on this question, America is 0 for 2.
America didn’t want North Korea to have nukes, it didn't want Pakistan to
have nukes, they have nukes. "Israel," he said, in that very Israeli way,
"were 2 for 2." We didn't want Iraq to have nukes, they didn't get nukes;
and we didn't want Syria to get nukes, and they didn't have nukes. So
that's why I bring it up as an issue.
But let me come to you on the question of Obama. Last year,
in an interview President Obama said that he's not bluffing, superpowers
don't bluff, that he has Israel's back, containment --
MR. BURNS: Interview with who?
MR. GOLDBERG: An interview with me. I'm trying to be falsely
MR. BURNS: And I still remember that.
MR. GOLDBERG: An interview with the Atlantic. Let's just call
it an interview with the Atlantic. And he made these statements. He's
reiterated them in public and private since then. He said there is a -- he
basically was describing a red line. Last year he also described another
red line, a red line in Syria. He said that the Syrians should not -- not only
not use chemical weapons, they shouldn't even move them to locations
where they could be used. Syria has moved them, Syria has used them.
He drew a very bright red line. His response to that red -- his response to
that obvious provocation is to decide to send some small arms to the Syrian rebels.
If you were the Israelis looking at Obama's behavior on Syria,
would you still believe his assurance that he has their back on another red
MR. BURNS: And I think the President has made it very clear,
as I understood him, that Iran is a vital interest for the United States and
Syria is not. The President is very clearly saying to us he is not going into
Syria. He very reluctantly is going to give a modest amount of arms to the
Syrian rebels. He's not said that about Iran. He said Iran is a vital interest.
Let me just go back on two points. In the March 2012 speech
the President gave to the AIPAC conference, and in his very good
interview with Jeff Goldberg, the President took a very clear position on
Iran, as far as I can see, if you look at his rhetoric, and that is, "We will
use force if negotiations fail, and if the Iranians move towards the red line
that the United States has established." The US and Israeli red lines are
different. The US red line says acquisition of a nuclear weapon constitutes
the trigger for the United States to use force. The Israeli red line is well
short of that about nuclear capability. So the President has taken a very
tough strong position and he's tried to communicate to the Israeli
leadership that he is credible on this.
The big question will be, if negotiations fail, do we go ahead
and use force or do we adopt a containment strategy, i.e., we don't use
force but we overwhelm the Iranians, surround them with American
conventional and nuclear force so they won't use their weapons. I think
we're going to have a big debate in the United States over that question.
But one more point here. Amos will know more about this than
me, certainly, given Amos' background. I'm not aware of any military
expert, at least in the United States, who believes that the use of American
or Israeli military force will resolve this question, to the satisfaction of both
of us. The use of American military force, air power to strike at Iran's
enrichment facilities and other nuclear facilities will clearly delay their
program. It would delay the time that they have -- it would delay the time
that the Iran gets to an American red line but no one on the American side, no commentator has ever said it takes away Iran's nuclear program.
And the reason for that it's a scientific process. The enrichment
of uranium takes place in small labs. It can take place at hundreds of
locations throughout Iran. It's an intellectual process; you can't do away
with that from bombing. So the best case here is that you use force simply
to buy yourself more time, really probably for diplomacy. You could see a
scenario where the United States might use military force designed to set
the Iranians back, intimidate them, shock them back to the negotiating
table; but there is no panacea here.
MR. GOLDBERG: Amos, let me add one thing to that.
MR. YADLIN: No, no, no, he says that I agree with him and I
don't agree with him. It's better that --
MR. BURNS: You can have your take.
MR. GOLDBERG: Let me add --
MR. YADLIN: There is no military option -- or operation that
can solve the problem forever. Theoretically and generically, the maximum
time you can gain is 5 years. Because if a country has a lot of money, a
lot of determination and know-how, take a country like Sweden, Norway,
Argentina, Brazil, if they are in zero, which is happening after a good
bombing, then it will take 5 years. So theoretically, you never solve the
problem, you postpone it, you buy time, here I agree with you, and it's
very important what you are doing in the time that you are buying it.
Let me tell you a story about 1981. In the Israeli air force
culture, a young lieutenant can raise his hand and say, "General, this is a
stupid operation." And basically some something like that happened in the
briefing room before we went to Iraq. And the air force commander
asked why. Because what we can do? We can only delay the program
if we destroy the nuclear reactor for a year or 2. So the air force
commander asked, why a year or 2. He said because the Iranian has a -- the Iraqis has a lot of money, the French will sell nuclear reactor to
anybody who pays them billion dollar and within a year or two we'll see
another nuclear reactor. So the air force commander was about to
answer it, and then there was one man in the room with higher rank, the
chief of staff, General Rafael. General Rafael was a very smart man even
though I suspect he never graduate high school. But he gave a speech
that will go with me all the way to my grave. "Explain us the eight pilots
that four of us should not come back from this mission, why it will not delay
year or 2, 3 to 5?
Because not so much Saddam Hussein will decide immediately
to buy the billion dollar even for Iraq. They will have to collect it, and the
French may hesitate to do it again. So it will be 3 to 5 years. I think now
we are (inaudible). And even if Bashar Assad tomorrow start to build his
nuclear reactor, will come -- will cost a decade. So the idea is to delay
the Iranians, to take the capabilities off them, to break out which they can
If Ahmadinejad, which is still the president, or the supreme
leader will call his scientists tonight and tell them go to the bomb, they
have all the ingredients ready, all the ingredients. It will be 6 months at
the maximum. We want to take it back that if he will call them, it will be
2, 3, 4, 5 years.
MR. GOLDBERG: Nick, do you take any comfort in that story
that Iraq wound up not developing a nuclear weapon? Is there some
lesson there or can you not apply that to the Iranian situation?
MR. BURNS: I don't think you can apply it. I think Iran and
Iraq are completely different countries. The nuclear program in Iran is a
national project. You've seen the public opinion polls, even a proAmerican population, and that's what the Iranian population is, believes in
the nuclear program. This vaunted moderate who's just elected president,
Hassan Rouhani, is a believer in the nuclear program. But most
importantly, Jeff, the supreme leader, who holds almost all the power is an
obsessive, reclusive anti-American who believes, as he reads recent
Middle East history, if you don't have the bomb, you end up like Gaddafi.
The Americans --MR. YADLIN: So how come you believe that he will -- we'll
have some diplomacy with him?
MR. BURNS: He believes that they'll use military force, that he
will use military force against them to rout them. The only way diplomacy
has a chance -- and by the way, I think the probability of success for
diplomacy is not 50 percent. I think it's a lot less than that but I think it's
worth trying, because it builds up international support for what you might
have to do later, and it builds up support in our own country. The
President has to be able to say to the American people, "I've exhausted all
options." And he has to be able to say that to the NATO allies. But,
Ahmed -- excuse me, Khamenei is bound to build that program unless we
can present him with an alternative.
What would an alternative be? The only deal that I think might
work -- but again, not a majority probability of success. We would say to
the Iranians you can have limited enrichment of uranium, you can have a
civil nuclear program, you'll have a nuclear program but only for electricity
production and you will have to live under very intrusive IAA safeguards.
It's a rational deal, it's one that I think the Bush administration could've
lived with, and this administration can as well. It probably won't work but
going through the process of diplomacy allows us to be in a stronger
place should military force be necessary. Rather than bombing now,
Amos, it doesn't make sense.
MR. YADLIN: No, no, I'm not for bombing at all. I am for
stopping the Iranians from having the capability to decide and go to the
bomb in a very short time and I'm concerned because every diplomacy
round gives them a shorter time for break out. You know what the
meaning of break out? They have all the ingredients and send the
command and they enrich to 90 percent and weaponize it. This is the
break out. The break-out time now is into the minimum of intelligence to
find about it, decision making to be done. The president is not going to
war in one day. He has to bring on board the American people, the
Congress, the media, it's not so easy, and then execute it. And the
Iranians are playing it much better than you play, much better. They gain
times as they want, they get better and better proposal in every round. What I'm saying, I'm for diplomacy. I want diplomacy for succeed, but as
long as you are not willing to have tougher sanctions and to put a
credible military attack, not going to another war, by the way, this very
good, strongest air force in the world can do it in two or three nights,
You have a very good example under Democrat President how
not to go to a decade-long stupid wars, how to do something with military
power surgically, the way you have done it in Kosovo in 1999, after 70
days, Milosevic said enough is enough; and how you have done it even
MR. GOLDBERG: Amos, I mean, before we go to questions,
and we'll go to questions in a minute, let me ask you this key question.
Your analysis of President Obama's willingness to use force if all else fails,
you've had one of America's greatest diplomats and most skilled diplomat
just say that the chances of diplomacy working are not that high. So it's
very likely or somewhat likely to very likely that President Obama in 6
months, a year, 18 months, is going to have to face that red-line decision.
Do you believe that President Obama will pull the trigger?
MR. YADLIN: I think it's a dynamic question. If you -- it
depends on the consequences; depends on the consequences. I -- before
the elections, I belonged to a very small camp in Israel, that answer your
question in a yes, high percentage, yes. The development of --
MR. GOLDBERG: Are most of the generals more doubtful of
MR. YADLIN: Generals are not important in the decisionmaking system. We have government that have to decide, we are
professionals. And now since I am in the think-tank community, I can also
look at the decision making.
MR. GOLDBERG: But Amos, you know very well that the
generals were lobbying (inaudible) not to do the strike. You know that
very well.MR. YADLIN: So?
MR. GOLDBERG: That's such an Israeli answer, by the way.
MR. YADLIN: No, unlike the White House, or the places that
you get your sources from, we are keeping our knowledge from secret
meetings to ourselves.
MR. GOLDBERG: Okay.
MR. BURNS: That's a low blow.
MR. BURNS: That's a low blow.
MR. GOLDBERG: I just want to note for the record that that's
not true, but we'll go on. We'll just go on from there and go back to
Obama. Before the election you thought there was a high chance that he
MR. YADLIN: I believe Obama will not let Iran be nuclear, not
because of Israel, assuming Israel, God forbid, was not there. I think
America vital interest will tell Obama to do what he have to do after all
the other options will exhausted if this is what will stop Iran. I think the
President who already got a Nobel Peace Prize for care about peace
and non-proliferation of nuclear weapon, if I read his ideology, this is one
of the pillars besides health care, some other things.
So he don't -- he doesn't like to be the legacy of Obama in
history that under his watch Iran become nuclear and, as I described
before, Saudi Arabia the rest of the Middle East, and who know? NPT
collapse. So I think it's a strong argument that the President, maybe unlike
some other politicians, will stand behind his words. He promised it before
the election. So the only strategy, exit strategy, for the President, if he don't
want to attack, is to join the Iranian in buying time and pass it in 2016 to Hillary, whoever would be the next President.
MR. GOLDBERG: This is not a Hillary rally. You don't have to
MR. GOLDBERG: I want Nick to respond to that and then
we're going to go to questions.
MR. BURNS: Okay. So President Obama is just about to go
into negotiations with very tough, cynical, brutal people, that's who the
Iranians are. In a negotiation like that --
MR. YADLIN: Sophisticated and smart.
MR. BURNS: Very sophisticated and very smart. I agree with
you there. In a negotiation like that, you need to be as tough as they are.
That's why this threat of force needs to be credible. And the only way
diplomacy could possibly succeed with the Iranians, if they fear the
alternative that they're going to be hit by the strongest country in the world.
So the President needs to make that threat credible. The answer to your
question is, I think the President is credible. As a former diplomat, looking
at his language at the AIPAC conference and the interview with you, he's
left himself very little wiggle room here; by design he thought about what
he wanted to say. Look at his track record, he has prosecuted a merciless
war, and that's a good thing, against Al-Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistan
border. The President has been much more aggressive than President Bush
was against the Al-Qaeda. And look what happened with Osama Bin
Laden; this is the President who has backed up his threat. So I find the
threat credible -- let me just finish. I find the threat credible, and that is the
only way, along with sanctions, that diplomacy has a chance. And that's
what we have to hope for in the next couple of months.
MR. YADLIN: We have an agreement that the President is
credible; the question is what the Iranians are thinking when they see
what's going on in Syria.MR. BURNS: You're right.
MR. GOLDBERG: We're going to go to questions now. The
gentleman in the orange shirt. And just raise your hand, and I think there
are a couple of mikes. Good. And if you just signal me, I'll try to get you.
And please make these in the form of a question. Please.
SPEAKER: Does the Ambassador agree with the General's
assessment that 200 million Arabs want to wipe Israel off the map, and I
hope I got this right, to be easily joined by another billion Muslims? If so,
how could we possibly have gotten into this situation and what could we
possibly do about it? If not, I'd like to ask the General to defend that
MR. BURNS: I do not agree, very respectfully, with Amos. I
believe there are a significant number of Jihadi groups and Arab terrorist
groups who do want to destroy the state of Israel, unfortunately. But to
assert that several hundred million Arabs, or 400 million Arabs or a billion
Muslims who want to wipe Israel off the map of the world, it doesn't hold
water with me -- the largest Muslim country, Indonesia, there's no
significant movement in Indonesia to wipe Israel off the map. And I think
that, you know, actually with the Arab revolutions of the last two-and-a-half
years, the spot light is no longer on Israel, because a lot of those Arab
dictatorships fell in the last two-and-a-half years, and suddenly Arab
leaders are accountable to their own people.
The real drama in Egypt, the most important neighbor of Israel,
the most important partner, is what's happening in Egypt itself with these
demonstrations planned for tomorrow and perhaps the second revolution
coming against the Morsi government. So I don't agree that the threat is
that severe. Now, does Israel have enemies? It certainly does. Is it in the
United States interest to protect Israel? Yes, it is. But I don't think the threat
is as great as Amos has said today.
MR. GOLDBERG: Amos, can you briefly defend your
MR. YADLIN: Yeah. First of all, Israel protects itself, not need America to protect us. Okay?
MR. BURNS: But you're happy to have us as an ally.
MR. YADLIN: Right.
MR. GOLDBERG: It's not the worst thing in the world.
MR. YADLIN: No. We never asked you to fight for us, not
American -- one American soldier joined us in the war. And, of course,
being a friend of America is a good idea. And I think Israel being a friend
of America is also good idea.
MR. BURNS: We agree on that.
MR. YADLIN: Yesterday in Egypt there was a lot of
demonstrations. The Muslim Brotherhood people against the so-called
liberal, secular young, which I really sympathize with; they have done
wonderful revolution. However, it was hijacked by the Muslim
Brotherhood. Both fight each other in the street. But you know what was
the only common issue? Both of them bearing Israeli flags and accuse
Israel for things that never happened. There is a lot of hatred, not in the
dictatorship level, in the street level, in the mosques, in their universities.
If they could win the war against Israel and destroy it and find
ourselves in the Mediterranean, yes, most of them want it. Some of them
are smarter and they sense they cannot do it, so they reach to some kind of
agreement with Israel. But the hatred to Israel I invite you to go to the
streets of Cairo of Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, everywhere. You know there
are two extreme terrorist organizations fighting in Syria. Al-Nusra from one
hand and Hezbollah from the other hand. By the way, I wish success for
both of them.
MR. YADLIN: But the only thing that they can agree on, not on
Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslim, whether Azad is good or Azad is bad, what
the future of the Arab world, both of them will be very happy to destroy Israel. So what can we do? It's a tough neighborhood.
MR. GOLDBERG: Right here. Jane Harman?
MS. HARMAN: Thank you. Two things have not been
mentioned. One is North Korea and Iranian collusion. When North
Korea did some of its recent tests, there were Iranians on the ground in
North Korea. And what difference will that make in terms of escalating the
timeline or having Iran, for example, which has —- it's been publicly
reported, knows something about miniaturizing warheads help North
Korea develop more capacity on top of a three-stage vessel, that's one.
Two, is John Kerry who is, by my lights, being heroic in his efforts to
jumpstart the peace process and do something more in Syria. Will John
Kerry's efforts in the region make a significant difference in any way?
MR. YADLIN: About Iran or as that is a different question?
MS. HARMAN: About Iran, about --
MR. YADLIN: Okay.
MR. GOLDBERG: Go ahead, Nick.
MR. BURNS: I'll just say a few -- maybe we can both answer
this, Jane. If you read the public reports of the International Atomic Energy
Agency, and just go to their website and read them, they're really
troubling. The Iranians are now experimenting with second-generation
centrifuges, much more powerful than the first generation. And I agree
with Amos, one of the difficult factors here is that the Iranians are going to
race ahead and get closer to a breakout capacity. So if you're the
American negotiator for President Obama, if you're President Obama, you
can't negotiate too long. There has to be a window. Maybe it's three or
four or five months, it can't be three years. If we negotiate for three years,
Amos's prediction is going to come true. We'll be at the table as they
approach the red line.
The other way towards a nuclear bomb, as you well know, is
through plutonium. And they're experimenting with heavy-water reactor, they won't give the IAEA access to it. They are stiffing the international
community right now. So there's a lot of reasons to be worried about the
Iranians. And Joe Lieberman and Jim Steinberg and Steve Hadley wrote a
joint op-ed for the Washington Post, two weeks ago, saying the
opportunity for diplomacies to succeed is narrowing, the window might be
closing; because of these technological developments on the Iranian side,
I suspect there's widespread Israeli and American agreement on this. So
diplomacy is going to be short-lived, but I still think we should take that
On North Korea, you know, look at the same press reports and
IAEA reports, it's long been suspected that the North Koreans and the
Pakistanis have been involved in this whole business on the black markets,
another complicating factor here.
MR. GOLDBERG: Amos, very quickly.
MR. YADLIN: Yeah.
MR. GOLDBERG: I want to do a couple of more questions, so
MR. YADLIN: North Korea is involved in nuclear program, in
missile program in the Middle East. The Syrian 2007 destroyed reactor
was a North Korean reactor. The North Koreans are very good in
keeping their secrets, very good. They have some methods how to deal
with leakers, which are different than ours. So nobody leak anything. It's
very tough to reveal the relations between North Korea and Iran. We
know that they helped them a lot build the missiles. However, the student
is now better than the professor. The Iranians are better than North
Korean on missiles. When the Iranians have to break out, as I said before,
there is the enrichment, they're already mastering the enrichment, they don't
have to go to North Korea for that. There is the weaponization. If a
nuclear test is done in North Korea, and it was done, this is where the
Iranians can learn a lot and shrink the time that they need in breakout to
weaponization of the bomb.
MR. GOLDBERG: I will just go here, and then there's one over there. Can I go here first, and then we'll go there quickly? Very quick
MR. DAHLAN: Malik Dahlan (phonetic) from Mecca, Saudi
Arabia. I'm not one of the 200 million that wish to wipe out Israel. In
MR. YADLIN: That's the best news of the morning.
MR. DAHLAN: I can tell you that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
is not a democracy, so you don't have to worry about elections. In that
spirit, I have to agree or put in perspective that the Saudi priority right now
is Iran; in essence it said in public, "What do you think of the preposition
of, it's better to ask for forgiveness; than to ask for permission, with Iran,
MR. BURNS: The preposition is better to ask --
MR. GOLDBERG: For Israel to do it or for the --
MR. BURNS: It's better to ask for forgiveness rather than
permission, i.e., should Israel go ahead --
MR. GOLDBERG: In other words, from whom?
MR. BURNS: From us.
MR. GOLDBERG: In other words, not asking President Obama
for permission to do it, do it and then go to him and ask for forgiveness.
MR. BURNS: Is that what your question is?
MR. YADLIN: Unlike the conventional wisdom in the Arab
world, Israel is not an American puppet, and Israel will do what the vital
interest of Israel. As I explained before, it is better that if we do something
that we have some understanding with the American administration and
the President. I give you an example, due to the (inaudible) of President
Bush, Vice President Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Secretary of State Condi Rice, in 2007, a nuclear reactor was found in the Syrian desert and
consultation between two allies have started. And to my surprise the Prime
Minister Olmert asked the American to destroy it. It was after the war with
Lebanon, he wasn't sure whether the Israeli air force is really the best air
force. So he asked the Americans to do it. And there was a national
security meeting according to these (inaudible), and nobody support it but
So President Bush phoned Prime Minister Olmert and said we
are not going to do it, we're going to the Security Council. So Olmert
jumped, "Are you out of your mind? The Syrians will play as the Iranians;
they will come for 10 years of negotiation, at the end we will have a
bomb. The only advantage Israel has, that the Syrians have no idea that
the Israeli intelligence have found it." So Bush say, "Okay, I'll give you
some time." It is -- they didn't give him a green light or red light or
anything. They think about it. And then one day, the prime minister told
Bush who was in a trip to Australia, said, "Remember the problem we've
discussed? It's gone."
MR. YADLIN: So never asked for permission, but they have
some understanding. I do hope that this kind of understanding can be
between the President, the prime minister in the coming year.
MR. GOLDBERG: We have to wrap up, but I wanted to get
one last question and then Nick is going to respond to Amos and respond
to this question, I hope. Please make it a short question.
SPEAKER: If I understand correctly, the Israelis have one red
line, the US has another. My question is, when the Iranians get to the
Israeli red line, will the Israelis attack or will they in the end wait for the
Obama red line, because they don't want to do it without the US support?
MR. BURNS: I think these last two questions tie together nicely.
And what I'm about to say is going to start a big disagreement between
us. Just to end this on a friendly -- we'll continue this at Harvard in
October. Obviously, every American wants to see Israel security safeguarded; whether you want us to be involved or not, we are. We're
involved in the project of making sure that Israel is secure. You provide
your own security but we're your friend. I think it's the clear view, as I read
the Obama administration, that Israel not take the lead on this, that the
United States take the lead.
We're in a very delicate period now where the President needs
to enter into negotiations; he needs time and space, and he should be
given that time and space. If the worst case happens, and if diplomacy
fails, and if force has to be used, far better if the United States, stronger
country than Israel. We have much more credibility internationally
because we have allies in different parts of the world who've been with us
in the sanctions effort; far better for the United States to use force than
And I would hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu would give
President Obama the time and space in this very intricate series of
developments, diplomacy, perhaps transitioning, to threats of force and
use of force in the future. That's critical, and that's where the AmericanIsraeli disagreements have been historically over the last 3 or 4 years.
MR. GOLDBERG: Amos, very quickly.
MR. YADLIN: Yeah. We will ask on red lines. My
recommendation is never use red lines. It's a bad instrument of running
your national security issues, because red lines have a couple of merits that
play at the end of the day against you. They give the enemy the initiative
when to cross them or not, people expect you to operate immediately after
it was crossed, anything that is not defined in the red lines is allowed. If
you speak about Iran and the red line, it's some number of kilograms of
enriched uranium. What about the plutonium track? Is it in the red line or
not, red line in chemical weapons that basically have killed 150 people?
What about 100,000 people that were killed with conventional
weapon? Bombs, guns, rockets, that's not a red line. So I better use the
red lines in internal discussion and not put them in the open because
usually it's counter-productive.
MR. GOLDBERG: I guess I'm a big masochist because I enjoy this very much, and I can sit in here all day and listen to them. Thank you
very much to both of you.
* * * * *
Watch and Listen: Diplomacy
In the nearly 18 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has made an array of foreign policy changes. It began with... See more
The last year has seen a clear trend toward a more authoritarian China at home and a more aggressive China overseas. As... See more
Why do some leap ahead while others fall behind in today’s chaotic, connected world? Two visionary thinkers take you on... See more