A concurrent resolution in the US Senate and House calls for a blockade against Iran to prevent the exports of refined petroleum going into Iran. Many in the anti-war movement have called this the “Iran War Resolution”, while analysts on the right believe these sanctions to be the only option, short of war, for stopping Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. Ilan Berman from American Foreign Policy Council, a conservative think tank, argues that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate misrepresented the timetable for Iran’s production of a nuclear weapon, and that time is running out for the administration to address the threat of Iran.
“You do the embargo or someone is going to have to go to war with Iran” Berman says. He argues that the choice is between a blockade and war.
MATTHEW PALEVSKY, JOURNALIST, TRNN: In terms of this resolution, you’re a member of the committee on the present danger. And they were one of the lead supporters. Their honorary co-chairs Kyl and Lieberman wrote an amendment calling the Iranian National Guard a terrorist organization. And this was kind of—it’s in a way a precursor to this. It was about pressuring Iran. But a number of people said, including Senator Webb, that it was tantamount to calling for war against Iran.
JIM WEBB, US SENATOR (D-VA): By categorizing this organization as a terrorist organization, this isn’t our present policy of keeping the military option on the table; it is for all practical purposes mandating the military option—mandating it. It could be read as tantamount to a declaration of war.
And a lot of people think that this resolution now is, you know, if you start a blockade, it’s only a matter of time before they react and it starts another war. Is this kind of leading to inevitable conflict with Iran?
ILAN BERMAN, VP, AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY COUNCIL: There’s really two schools of thought here. One is that sanctions are a prelude to war, and the other is that robust sanctions can be an alternative to it. I certainly believe, and I think Senator Kyl and Senator Lieberman believe, that it’s the latter that’s actually the case. Iran is the poster child for something like a gasoline embargo. Iran has a very robust energy infrastructure that is directed towards strategic influence, essentially using oil as a tool of leverage over their contacts with Europe, with Central Asia, with the Asian states. They don’t really use it for the betterment of their own people, which is why they import 40 percent of refined petroleum. And we know how much they spend on it. The last Iranian calendar year, they spent $3.25 billion. We know where they get it from: they get it from sixteen countries, including Singapore, Turkey. The question really becomes: if these countries and the West are serious about preventing Iran from acquiring more than just a civilian nuclear energy program, which is what it appears that they’re doing, wouldn’t it be prudent to squeeze them on this particular issue, where at least for this period of time they’re remarkably vulnerable, as an alternative to having to go to war with them to prevent them from having a nuclear weapon? And that’s really, I think, the—.
PALEVSKY: Why is that the two choices? I mean, and there’s two criticisms here. One is that this embargo would not lead to war, and a lot of people point to historical factors, where embargoes either led to war or got dangerously close. Isn’t this a dangerous choice?
ADM. MIKE MULLEN, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: —from the United States perspective, the United States military perspective in particular, that opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us.
What is it about them having a nuclear enrichment program that’s forcing us into this position, forcing us to choose between war and almost war?
BERMAN: Well, to answer the last question first, it doesn’t have to do with nuclear technology. Nuclear technology’s not inherently good or inherently bad. We wouldn’t really worry if Belgium acquired a nuclear capability. We’re worried about the character of this regime. This is a regime that, according to the State Department, is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and, according to the Treasury Department, is the leading banker of it. So we’re worried about these guys getting this capability in this fashion at this time, not of Iran acquiring a nuclear ability per se.
PALEVSKY: But between the US and Iran, I mean, is it in the US’ interest? When you say state-sponsored terrorism, you’re talking mostly about Hezbollah, Hamas. Also, we’ve labeled their own military a terrorist organization. So just funding their defense is terrorist—.
BERMAN: That, by the way, is not an unprecedented act. In fact, during World War II, the SS, the German SS, were labeled a terrorist organization as well as a combative force. The idea here—.
PALEVSKY: During World War II. I mean—.
BERMAN: During World War II. Correct.
PALEVSKY: But the question is: what about their enrichment program leads to the US feeling that it’s somehow threatening their national security?
BERMAN: First of all, what’s really useful to remember is that we’re not actually talking about a nuclear Iran; we’re talking about many nuclear Irans. If you look at what’s going on in the Gulf, the countries of the Persian Gulf, countries of North Africa, other countries like Jordan and Turkey are watching what’s going on with the Iranian nuclear program, and they’re getting nervous. And if in the end of 2002, before the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there’s one declared nuclear aspirant in the Gulf, and it wasn’t Iraq—it was Iran. Today there are 13 in the Gulf and North Africa and the eastern Med. And this tells you something. It tells you that people are watching what Iran’s doing, and they don’t trust Iranian intentions. And that’s why I said that what the goal—the problem really is here is not nuclear technology. I wouldn’t lose sleep at night if Switzerland went nuclear. I lose sleep at night because I worry about a regime that has manifested that they’re probably not going to be a mature nuclear possessor, that they have supported all manner of groups that frankly we’re at war with.
PALEVSKY: And what about the Committee on the Present Danger? They had called for regime change in Iran.
PALEVSKY: Do you agree with that statement?
BERMAN: I do. I mean, I think if you’re looking at the demographic breakdown of Iran, Iran is 70 million people. Two-thirds of them are 35 and younger. In 10 years, no matter what we do on the nuclear program, Iran’s going to look very different.
PALEVSKY: So you agree that regime change should be the direction that the US goes, and yet you’re saying there’s this middle ground, but really what the middle ground leads to is regime change.
BERMAN: I think that the old saying that politics is the art of the possible is true. Do I think that a new regime that is shorn of corruption, that’s more transparent, more engaging with the West in Iran is better for the world? Absolutely. Do I think we are in a position to effect that? No, I don’t, at least not for the moment. And so what—.
PALEVSKY: But then calling for regime change would be a rhetorical device. It means nothing unless you think—.
BERMAN: Well, remember that the Committee on the Present Danger called for regime change when they issued its Iran policy paper in 2003 and 2005, and the circumstances were substantially different then. Iraq in the first instance was just getting underway. In the second instance, Iraq was still fresh and there wasn’t that much public animosity towards Iraq. So I think it’s a product of its times. I think what you’re looking at now is an administration that’s in its waning days. The law of diminishing returns is kicking in. And the best that we can do, frankly, is to hold the line against a rising Iran. And the way you hold the line is you explain to them that there are real costs associated with their behavior. And the way you do that is through economic devices. And the reason I like the economic route so much is it’s an alternative to having to use military action. We may end up at the same place. We may use economic leverage on Iran and realize that they care more about their nuclear program than they do about sanctions on their people. It may happen. It happened in Iraq, right?
PALEVSKY: It could strengthen their hand.
BERMAN: It could strengthen their hand. And we may end up at the default, which is the military option, anyway, but we would have at least tried. What’s happening right now, unfortunately—.
PALEVSKY: Do you think trying sitting down with Iran—.
BERMAN: No, I’m actually a very big proponent of dialog with the Iranians. It just depends on who in Iran you talk to. As I said, you know, Iran is in midst of a pretty dramatic demographic transition. We are supposed to be engaged in a battle for hearts and minds. Fifty million Iranians are 35 and younger. They hate their regime. They are at least open to the idea of having a more transparent society, a more western-looking society. I’m worried that if it’s done improperly, dialog with the Iranians, with the Iranian regime, this sclerotic regime that’s in its last legs, would disenfranchise those people. They would at least look at us in retrospect and say, “You know what? You Americans, you were so worried about the Iranian nuclear program that you sold us down the river.” And I think that the cardinal rule of US diplomacy in general should be “do no harm.” So if you’re not sure whether or not this dialog, this sitting down for negotiation, this grand bargain, would have adverse effects over the long-term, you should really think carefully about whether or not you want to do it.
PALEVSKY: But if you’re not sure that this embargo would have an adverse effect such as war, it seems the same argument could play there as well.
BERMAN: Well, I think the dichotomy—you’re creating a false dichotomy here. I think it’s not you do the embargo or you do nothing; it’s I think you do the embargo or we’re going to have to or somebody’s going to have to go to war with Iran. And I think that’s beginning to be sensed in Iran and in the international community. So I guess the question that I would pose is: the choice is not between doing nothing and the embargo; the choice is between doing the embargo or doing something using our military forces. And I would choose the former.
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