NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Now tensions with Iran on the Opinion Page. Last Week, Iran angrily blamed the U.S. and Israel for the assassination of a nuclear scientist in Tehran, and that followed Iranian military exercises in the Strait of Hormuz. After Iranian threats to close that economic lifeline, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the United States would not tolerate such a move.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate blocking of the Straits of Hormuz. That's another red line for us, and that we will respond to that.
CONAN: You heard Secretary Panetta say another red line. He also said the United States would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. In a Washington Post op-ed, veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering argued diplomacy can still help avoid war. As tensions continue to mount with Iran, what concerns you the most? 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thomas Pickering served as United States ambassador to several countries. He's now a trustee at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. With William Luers he wrote "Military Action Isn't the Only Solution to Iran." That ran on the Washington Post December 30th. And he joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And we're speaking in a climate where Secretary Panetta seems to be coming off as one of the moderates, saying it's pretty clear that we still have some time to wait on Iran's nuclear weapons. We're hearing, for example, Republican candidates for president - with one notable exception - saying it is time to take action against Iran.
PICKERING: That's precisely the reason why we wrote the editorial. We thought there is time and we thought that war is not the answer. War has not proven to be an answer, that there are opportunities, in our view, for opening the door to diplomacy. We're keeping sanctions on and ratcheting them up. It's time for us also to open the door to where we would like to see the Iranians go.
CONAN: It takes two to tango. The administration would say we took the politically risky step as we came in to office of reaching out to Tehran and got a slap in the face in return.
PICKERING: They did, a while ago. On the other hand, there are still opportunities. And if you evaluate the risks involved in the alternatives, at least to exhausting diplomacy, you can see where we have been in Iraq may be child's play compared to what we might be looking ahead at.
CONAN: Yet, are - there is no smoking gun yet that Iran is indeed...
PICKERING: That's right.
CONAN: ...seeking nuclear weapons. It is widely believed that they are seeking nuclear weapons and is certainly taking steps towards - that would lead them to that possibility if they were so interested.
PICKERING: It's widely believed and I believe not necessarily wrongly so, but the findings of our intelligence community haven't put them back into the category of working toward nuclear weapons in the same way that they had been before 2003. That remains fairly clear. There are opportunities over time. Secretary Panetta, I think, is right, that there is more time. What we are lacking, obviously, is a proposal on the table that can come close to bridging the gap. Our approach has been that we would like to see all enrichment stop. It's an approach we sponsored in the Security Council. I don't think there is anybody out there who watches this closely who believes there is a real possibility we can get enrichment to stop.
But many of us believe there are firewalls that can be erected around enrichment limited to civil activities, to low levels of enrichment, that in effect can provide that kind of protection. But even more importantly, coupled with that kind of proposal could be a real opportunity to increase and strengthen the U.N. inspection system, which is now operating in Iran but which certainly needs to be strengthened if we are going to be able to detect things that the Iranians may be doing clandestinely, which is something I worry about.
CONAN: So just to clarify, enrichment of uranium to about 30 percent is useful for a nuclear energy system, nuclear electricity...
PICKERING: Let's say the differences...
CONAN: ...eighty percent.
PICKERING: The differences are more stark. Roughly 80 percent has been considered a level around which nuclear weapons may be possible. Certainly above that is fairly clear. Three and a half to five percent is normally the enrichment amount that's required for running civil power reactors. It is not necessarily harder to go up the scale. To some extent, the amount of work that it takes to get to three-and-a-half to 5 percent is not necessarily equal in a linear sense to get to 20, and then above 20 to 80 percent. So it's easier to go up the scale. But nevertheless, the idea is that we ought to have a situation in which the Iranians would be limited to what's required for civil purposes.
CONAN: And so your proposal would then be to say, OK, we will allow Iran to enrich its own nuclear fuel if Iran will allow intrusive inspection by international inspectors by the United Nations? And...
PICKERING: Yes. Essentially that's it.
CONAN: And what leads you to believe Iran would accept that?
PICKERING: Because there have been indications in the past from Iranians - whether they can be believe or not, we can only tell by testing - that they would be interested in that kind of a proposal.
CONAN: And you would not be concerned that, for example, it turned out that Iran was hiding a complete facility near Qom that nobody was supposed to know about.
PICKERING: That's right. That is concerning, and that's why the inspection piece of what I have just told you about is so important.
CONAN: So the inspection piece - U.N. inspectors would have found that out, how?
PICKERING: Quite possibly because it was found out through, in fact, knowledge of intelligence agencies, who, in the past, have informed the U.N. inspectors. So there are ways, obviously, of multiplying the strength of U.N. inspectors. One of those is, obviously, to couple them with the intelligence, to couple them with what we hear is going on, but also to give them the right which, up until now, Iran accepted and then rejected to go essentially anywhere, any time they feel it's justified to do so to see what's going on.
CONAN: We're talking with Ambassador Thomas Pickering here in Studio 3A about an op-ed that says it is not too late for diplomacy to stave off war with Iran. 800-989-8255. What are you most concerned about? Email us: email@example.com. We'll start with Claudine, Claudine with us from Boulder, Colorado.
CLAUDINE SCHNEIDER: Hi. This is Claudine Schneider, Ambassador Pickering. And I just want to commend you for your years of dedication. And thank you, Neal, for holding this discussion. Let me say as a former member of the United States Congress and a Republican, and given the last segment of this radio show, I am very concerned about the messages coming from the Republican House on budget cutting, because we saw in the last administration how the Republicans were very inclined to cut the budgets of the State Department. Could you please address, Mr. Ambassador, the correlation between policy and also budget?
PICKERING: Thank you, Claudine, very much, and thank you for the question. Obviously, in a serious situation like Iran, good diplomacy requires extremely good diplomats. Good diplomats require years of training. They require, obviously, a great deal of experience in the field. All of that costs some money. If we compare, however, the budget of the State Department with the budget of the Defense Department, we're dealing in a ratio of maybe 800 to 50, or even less in billions of dollars.
And so, in some sense, that diplomacy can help avoid conflicts - which is certainly one of the ideas that we had in seeking to have diplomacy take a much more robust role in dealing with Iran - is very important. So it is cost-effective in many ways to do this, and it is, in my view, something that should be looked at very, very carefully before it's cut out radically.
CONAN: Claudine, thanks very much for the call.
SCHNEIDER: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Mario, Mario with us from Lakewood in Colorado.
MARIO: Yes. Good afternoon.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.
MARIO: I would like to commend the ambassador for his efforts towards diplomacy, and I would just like to see the rhetoric tone down. I don't believe our nation should be so loose with our willingness to go and use the military option.
CONAN: Rhetoric in which sense? I mean, the - would it be acceptable for you to, say, OK, it's all right if Iran develops a nuclear weapon?
MARIO: No. I think we should use diplomatic means rather than unilaterally stamping up the bellicose language back and forth. And if - instead of asserting U.S. hegemony over the last 20 years, move towards a more multilateral approach - vis-a-vis the U.S.
PICKERING: Well, let me support Mario a little bit here, Neal. I think he's right. I think that there is a time in crisis when it helps to shut up on both sides. And I say that for both sides, because while I can't speak for the Iranians, they, too, have been engaging - indulging, if I could put it this way - in serious negative rhetoric. At the same time, interestingly enough, they've been trying to open the door through the Turks to a conversation about this particular issue now.
And they made a proposal that's on the table that we haven't yet picked up, but I hope we will, which was to stop enriching to 20 percent if the rest of the world would help them acquire the necessary fuel rods, the fuel elements to operate the reactor in Tehran - which, incidentally, we provided years ago, which makes medical isotopes, which, in a sense, they claim they're enriching to 20 percent in order to provide, in the absence of being able to get that on the world market.
So I think there's deal there, and I think a deal like that could begin the process of conversation. We won't know until we try. I think it's important that we do. I think, initially, President Obama was totally right. I think perhaps he didn't get prizes for persistence when he got rebuffed, and unfortunately, the Iranians are masters of that. And we won't know, I think, seriously, what the Iranians want until we've had an opportunity to use the time we've made available now to do the diplomacy that will give us an indication, in fact, as to whether we have some possibility of a deal - we've had them in the past - or we don't.
CONAN: There is considerable disagreement about how long Iran is away from the possibility of developing a usable nuclear weapon. Some say as little as a year or two. Some say five or six years. Some say Iran, whatever the case, has, in the past, used diplomacy to spin out talks endlessly to give itself more time to develop its nuclear weapon.
PICKERING: You know, I think there are claims of that. First, on the uncertainties about how much time, a year is plenty of time to use diplomacy, to get it started, in any event. The question of spinning out talks is different. A few years ago, Iran, in effect, froze its enrichment for a couple of years and claims - with, I think, some justification - that nothing ever happened. They never got any further result in those conversations. And so each side, in a sense, is mirror-imaging a great deal of the concerns and the pain and the anguish of the other side in this process. It's unfortunate, but I think there's a checkered and difficult record here to the diplomacy.
CONAN: We're talking with former Ambassador Thomas Pickering on the Opinion Page this week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And let's go next to Chris, Chris with us from Traverse City in Michigan.
CHRIS: Hi. I had a question. We seem to be talking a lot about Iran and going after them because of nuclear weapons. Well, I have a question. What about North Korea and the fact that they have labor camps in Russia? Russia's their ally. They've openly pursued nuclear weapons, but they don't have oil. How come we're just focusing on Iran?
PICKERING: I think, Chris, we're not. We're also focusing very much on North Korea. As you know, North Korea has just been through a change in leadership. Just before then, there were very clear indications North Korea was ready to come back on terms that we had sat down to the talks that had taken place earlier with North Korea on ending its nuclear program and doing away with it. I don't think that's going to be easy. I think that's going to be very hard. But we are now in this period where the new leader is taking over.
I think we're sitting a little bit quietly now until he gets settled in. But the hope and expectation is that there will be also more conversations with North Korea. And it's interesting. Those take place in a forum where there is China and South Korea and Japan and the United States and Russia, as well as North Korea.
CONAN: The six-party talks.
PICKERING: The six-party talks. And in many cases, they're - that's the 5-1 forum. Occasionally, the Chinese have slowed down, I would put it, the action. But the even the Chinese are very concerned about North Korea's nuclear weapon and - right on their border, and the uncertainties that that has raised, and indeed, all of the uncertainties that are intrinsic to North Korea. So North Korea is no less difficult and no less of a problem for us.
CHRIS: Would the U.S., condemn an attack inside Korea to stop their nuclear ambitions, say, like, kind of what happened with the nuclear scientist in Iran? Would the U.S. come out openly and say that was wrong?
PICKERING: I don't know. The U.S. said that they were not, I guess, responsible for the assassination in Iran of the nuclear scientist last week. The United States have been very careful about using military force - in part, at least, because it's reputed that North Korea has very large numbers of artillery in place in mountains within range of Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and therefore, military action could be responded to by North Korea - and essentially with some overwhelming conventional capability - and would lead to a situation in which the use of force might be more destructive for us and for our allies and friends than the other way around. So that's hanging out there, too, as one of the questions that helps to determine or shape where we go in North Korea.
CONAN: And just to follow up on Chris' point, some suggest that the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, the kind of sabotage that the United States has allegedly been involved in - not assassination, but sabotage - and the Stuxnet worm, that efforts to slow down Iran's nuclear program, in effect, give more time for things that might include diplomacy.
PICKERING: They do. And I think that - my argument would be regardless of the reasons why Iran is slowing down or slowed down or is being slowed down, we ought to take advantage of the time that is being bought in order to see, in fact, whether diplomacy can work. I'm not certain it's 100 percent certain diplomacy will work. I just think we need to go through those alternatives because the other alternative of military attack and war has so many negative and distinctly unacceptable, from my perspective, possibilities.
CONAN: A final email, this from Louis in Anchorage: What I fear regarding Iran is that Israel will make some kind of aggressive move, either on their own or as an American surrogate. The ramifications of a war between two nuclear states in the Middle East are beyond chilling. Israel, presumably, would do that to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, but most people say it would delay them, at most.
PICKERING: I think that's right, Neal. My sense of it is - and again, I haven't been in government for 10 years. I did spend almost four years in Israel as ambassador some years ago. My sense is that a military action by the United States or Israel against Iran - short of what we would have to call boots on the ground - is not likely to buy a great deal of time, but it is likely to buy a great deal of trouble. And your questioner, I think, at least, takes that to the extreme in a sense that there might be a nuclear exchange. I hope and pray that there would not be under any circumstances.
CONAN: Thomas Pickering, former United States Ambassador, trustee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. You can find his op-ed on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ambassador, thanks very much for joining us.
PICKERING: Thank you, Neal, very much.
CONAN: Tomorrow, another look at Iran's nuclear program and the U.S. and Israeli effort to derail it. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.