Home inFocus The Rise of Nuclear Iran

The Rise of Nuclear Iran

An Interview with Ambassador Dore Gold

Dore Gold Winter 2009

On November 16, 2009, inFOCUS editor Jonathan Schanzer interviewed Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold. Ambassador Gold is currently the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He has served as an advisor to Israeli prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon, and from 1997-1999 he served as Israel's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. In 1998, Ambassador Gold was a member of the Israeli delegation at the Wye River negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and in 1991, he served as an advisor to the Israeli delegation to the Madrid Peace Conference. Ambassador Gold has written several books, including Hatred's Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (2003), Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos (2004) and, most recently, The Rise of Nuclear Iran (2009).

iF: Please talk a little bit about the premise of your new book.

DG: I wrote The Rise of Nuclear Iran because I think that if anyone considers engaging Iran diplomatically, they have to understand that previous governments in the West have been deeply involved in negotiating with Iran, and to understand the lessons that were learned from those experiences.

iF: What are those lessons?

DG: Well, you could focus on the period between 2003 and 2005, when the EU3 sought to halt the enrichment of uranium by the Iranians, or you could go back to all the negotiations since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

If you look at the first period, it was clear that the Iranians completely deceived the West. One of the most revealing comments made after the negotiations ended came from Hassan Rukhani, who had been the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator. He admitted that while the talks with the Europeans transpired, Iran moved ahead with its uranium conversion plan in Isfahan. In fact, he went into some detail on this. He said that when the negotiations with the Europeans began, there were no conversion facilities in Isfahan, but by the time the negotiations were over, the Iranians had succeeded in converting 37 tons of yellow cake into uranium hexaflouride gas, which was then used in the centrifuges in another facility in Natan.

For Rukhani, this was not something to be embarrassed about. It was something he was proud of. And this raises the question of how deception is used by Iranian diplomats when they engage with the West.

iF: What does this mean for the Barack Obama Administration’s policy of engagement with Iran?

DG: I’m quite pessimistic about engagement under the Obama Administration, simply because of the record of the Iranians in the past. We have no reason to believe that what didn’t work with the Europeans will work with Washington under the Obama Administration.

Moreover, one gets the sense that the Obama Administration and the Iranians speak in completely different languages. Take the example of the videotape made by President Obama at the time of the Iranian New Year holiday of Nowruz. That speech, on March 20, 2009, was a very forthcoming speech on the part of the American president. It was the first time that a U.S. president called on the Islamic Republic of Iran, thus named, to take its rightful place in the community of nations. He didn’t talk about Iran. He didn’t talk about the Iranian people. He specifically seemed to grant a degree of legitimacy on this regime that wasn’t usually found in U.S. presidential statements on Iran.

While this might seem magnanimous on the part of President Obama, it was viewed in Tehran as nothing less than weakness. Indeed, following that statement, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad basically said the following: We see you today in a position of weakness. Your hands are empty and you can’t force us to do anything.

So, what seemed to be an act of diplomatic generosity completely backfired. This kind of misunderstanding or misreading of Iran is something that continues throughout the relationship.

iF: Has the Administration made other gestures that Iran rejected?

DG: Another weakness in the U.S. approach was evident in how it handled the deadline that was given to Iran in July 2009 for a concrete proposal for Iran to fulfill its obligations under the United Nations Security Council Resolution to suspend uranium enrichment. A definitive Iranian response was supposed to come in the month of September before the meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh.

Iran initially sent a five-page document, which a State Department spokesman said was inadequate. Indeed, it only spoke of global changes and the decline of previous powers (i.e. the United States). Yet, the next day the State Department spokesman seemed to say that the document was sufficient. He was saying that the United States looked forward to continuing to engage with Iran.

So, what essentially happened was that the United States drew a line in the sand for the month of September, and the Iranians did not adequately respond to the American challenge. Yet, the Administration continued to seek to engage with Iran. And, of course, when the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh came, there was the revelation of the clandestine uranium enrichment facility near Qom.

That process of drawing a deadline and then ignoring the challenge only strengthened the Iranian threat.

iF: Assuming that diplomacy fails—as this seems increasingly likely—what do you make of the potential impact of financial sanctions?

DG: Well, the important thing about sanctions is that they must demonstrate political will. The Iranians have been adept at dividing their international opponents, especially by separating the Russians and the Chinese on the one hand, and the Europeans and the U.S. on the other. During negotiations over U.N. Security Council resolutions, the Russians oftentimes successfully defanged the resolution, and took out the most threatening elements, as a price they demanded for giving those resolutions their support. So, a lot of the past sanctions did not express the full political will of those who stood behind them.

If sanctions are used in a way that demonstrates stronger political will, regardless of whether the Iranians can get around them, they may be in the short-term an important instrument to get the Iranians to begin to adhere to some of their commitments. However, I’m not terribly optimistic about that.

iF: How much time do we have to give diplomacy or sanctions to work before the Iranians develop a crude nuclear weapon or a more advanced one?

DG: Speaking based on my own judgment, and not based on any Israeli internal analysis, it is known today by the International Atomic Energy Agency—the IAEA—that Iran certainly has sufficient, well-enriched uranium. If this uranium was to be re-injected into centrifuges to produce highly-enriched, weapons-grade material, it could provide the fuel for two atomic bombs.

On the issue of warheads, it is now known from a number of documents that have been hinted at by the IAEA that the Iranians have advanced on warhead designs. Whether they can actually produce an operational warhead remains somewhat of a question.

But, given the amount of fissile material they have, and the fact that the West does not know how many secret facilities exist or have been built in Iran over the years, the Iranians are certainly getting closer to being able to produce a crude nuclear device.

iF: What does an Iranian nuclear program mean for the rest of the world?

DG: The growth of the Iranian ballistic missile program has gone beyond the Middle East. With the ranges of their missiles, they can today strike European territory. It is also possible to extrapolate from the Iranian space-lift program that they could have inter-continental ballistic missiles sometime in the next decade.

The most realistic problem though, is that this Iranian nuclear program will provide a nuclear umbrella for terrorist organizations—both Shiite groups like Hezbollah, which is a branch of Iranian intelligence, and the Sunni terrorist organizations that have at different times received support or sanctuary from Iran, including al-Qaeda.

When the U.S. was struck by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001, the terrorist group enjoyed sanctuary in Afghanistan under the Taliban. The Taliban did not have long-range missiles, and they did not have a nuclear weapon. It was understandable that President George W. Bush wanted to send an allied force into Afghanistan, take down the Taliban regime, and send a message to the world that if you sponsor terrorist organizations with global reach, your regime will be removed. True, the Taliban survived in the mountains of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, but an important message was sent worldwide.

If you fast forward to 2012 or 2013, and Iran has operational nuclear weapons capability, could the U.S. authorize an operation against Iran, if Iranians supported terrorists that struck U.S. territory? It would seem to be much more difficult under those new strategic circumstances to repeat what the United States did in 2001. The result of that changing balance of power would involve a “new world” emerging in which terrorist organizations have a far greater freedom to maneuver vis-à-vis Western powers than they ever did previously.

iF: What are the implications of an Arab nuclear arms race, as Iran gets closer to achieving nuclear capabilities.

DG: The U.S. has put out feelers, offering the Sunni Arab states a defense umbrella, which Egypt has completely rejected. It is a mistake to apply Western models of extended deterrence to the Arab states that might have been relevant for Western European countries during the Cold War. The Arabs made clear that they are not interested in defense treaties to protect themselves from Iranian nuclear weapons.

The likely reaction to a nuclear Iran will be rapid nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. That will create a multi-polar Middle East, which would be extremely dangerous and unstable because, with small nuclear arsenals, there will be a great temptation for these countries to develop first-strike capability.

iF: Can missile defense systems shield Israel from the dangers of Iranian or Arab nuclear? Or would the short-range rocket capabilities of Hamas and Hezbollah negate the efficacy of those systems?

DG: The critical question is whether Iranian missiles are reliable at this stage, or whether they still need a few more years of development before they could be considered to be an effective weapons system.

The calculus of the Iranians is reminiscent of the Russians in 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time, the Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles were not yet reliable weapons systems. But medium- and short-range systems had already been deployed in Europe, and they had the potential to be effective if they were placed in Cuba.

So, I believe that the short-range systems are connected to the overall Iranian posture. Until Iran feels that it has a sufficient number of missiles with full operational capability, those short-range missiles will be very important in its calculus.

In the meantime, Israel is developing missile and rocket defenses that are capable of defending against both kinds of weapons. It has the Arrow system, whose development has been advancing over a number of years, and also a new rocket defense system intended to deal with the shorter-range problem.

iF: What are some of the conclusions you make in your book?

DG: First, a nuclear Iran is not just a threat to Israel. It’s a threat to a large number of countries in the Middle East, largely because it will enhance the Iranian ability to use subversion from Pakistan down to Yemen, out to Egypt, the Gaza Strip, and Lebanon.

Second, Iran is a country that fundamentally sees itself as a regional hegemonic power, recreating the area of influence that existed under the Safavid Empire in the 16th century. For Iran, nuclear weapons are an instrument for achieving those hegemonic goals. Dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue as an arms control issue, separate from Iran’s larger ambitions, simply won’t work.

Third, Iran is getting closer to crossing the nuclear threshold. When that happens, Israel and the Sunni Arab states will not be the only states impacted. It will also impact the key industrial powers around the world

iF: Thank you for your time, Mr. Ambassador.

DG: Thank you.