Nuclear Red Line (No. 3) Frank N. von Hippel: President Obama Reluctant to Start a New War

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Frank N. von Hippel
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Controversy over Iran’s nuclear program in the recent years has been one of the unchanging headlines of the world newspapers and TV stations that have fervently gave coverage to the confrontation between Iran and the Western powers over the allegations that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons. The United States and its European allies that have accused Iran of trying to produce atomic bombs under the guise of a civilian nuclear program have so far failed to substantiate their claims by putting forward reliable evidence, but using their enormous political influence and power, they have imposed hard-hitting, troubling economic sanctions against Iran to convince it to abandon its nuclear activities, including uranium enrichment, which is Iran’s legal right under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Israel, which is the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, has used the dispute between Iran and the West as a resort to quench its insatiable thirst of hostility with Iran and repeatedly called for a military strike against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities. On September 27, 2012 and during the general debate of the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bragged about the necessity of drawing a red line for Iran’s nuclear activities: “nothing could imperil the world more than the arming of Iran with nuclear weapons.” Likening a nuclear-armed Iran to a nuclear-armed Al-Qaeda, he ridiculously claimed that both were fired “by the same hatred, and driven by the same lust for violence.”

Bibi never mentioned Israel’s dangerous nuclear arsenals with 300 atomic warheads which await a push of button to be activated and fired against the intended target, but said that there’s only one way to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, and that was to place a red line on its nuclear program. “Red lines don’t lead to war, red lines prevent war,” the hawkish Prime Minister said.

Now, almost one year after that day, Iran Review is investigating the veracity and validity of Netanyahu’s claims and that whether he is ever courageous enough to launch a war against Iran and realize his plans for setting a red line for Iran’s nuclear activities.

Today, we have interviewed a prominent nuclear expert and a former White House official Prof. Frank N. von Hippel who is currently teaching at the Princeton University. Von Hippel is the co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The theoretical physicist has been the Assistant Director for National Security in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Frank N. von Hippel is a proponent of nuclear disarmament and believes that the world powers should refrain from exercising double standards on Iran’s nuclear program. What follows is the text of Iran Review’s exclusive interview with Prof. von Hippel.

Q: It was last year when the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed a controversial cartoon before the UN General Assembly during his speech and talked of a red line which Iran will imminently cross if it continues to pursue its nuclear program with the same pace. He demanded that the United States and its allies take action before it’s too late and Iran gets the “bomb.” However, we know that throughout the past decade, Israel has constantly threatened Iran over its nuclear program and continually issued war threats against Iran in contravention of the spirit of the UN Charter. Is this new red line a repetition of the old war rhetoric or a serious warning?

A: There is a concern in the U.S. and Europe as well as Israel that Iran has been steadily shortening the time that it would require to produce enough highly enriched uranium – uranium containing more than 20 percent U-235, to make a nuclear weapon. I think that Netanyahu -- although his diagram was rather silly -- was trying to define a red line. I think that it is broadly agreed among the concerned countries that Iran would be crossing a line if it produced enough 20% enriched uranium to use as feed to make a weapon equivalent of weapon-grade uranium, defined by the IAEA as highly enriched uranium containing more than 25 kilograms of U-235. By the time uranium is enriched to 20%, more than ninety percent of the work to take it to 90% “weapon-grade” enrichment has been done.  Iran has crossed this line but blurred it by converting some of its 20% enriched uranium hexafluoride into uranium oxide, the form that is used in reactor fuel, which it would have to reconvert to uranium hexafluoride to further enrich it. Iran also has been shortening the time that it would take to convert 20% uranium into weapon-usable uranium by increasing its enrichment capacity.

Q: It seems that Obama’s conflict with Netanyahu over Iran’s nuclear program has come to surface and the U.S. President has refused to bow down to the demands made by the Israeli politicians that he should consider using the military option against Iran. Obama has repeatedly said that Washington will not take any option off the table, but he doesn’t seem to be determined in mulling over the military option. What’s your viewpoint on that?

A: I think that President Obama is very reluctant to start another war. However, he is under great pressure and I think that the drift toward war will continue if, in the next few months, negotiations are not successful in creating at least more time for major agreements that would give the concerned countries more confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s program in exchange for more normal relations including a suspension of sanctions.

Q: So it seems that you believe a new war in the Middle East is not contingent in short-run. But there’s one question which the Iran experts have been thinking about for a long time: are the United States and Israel really afraid of a nuclear Iran? Don’t they know that Iran is ideologically and practically opposed to nuclear weapons? Is the nuclear program simply a pretext for confrontation with Iran?

A: Some of us take very seriously the Ayatollah [Khamenei]’s fatwa against nuclear weapons but most don’t know how seriously to take it. After all, the world has seen “peaceful” nuclear programs turn into weapons programs before in France, India and North Korea. There are some who want “regime change” in Tehran and are using the nuclear issue as an argument. And there are other issues between Iran and Israel and, by extension, the U.S., such as Iran’s support for Hezbollah. But I think that the nuclear issue is the most urgent and the only one that could lead to war and that it is the one that has united much of the world in supporting sanctions against Iran.

Q: My next question is about the NIE’s 2007 report that attested to the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. What’s the general approach of the Western politicians toward the reports published by the U.S. intelligence agencies including the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate report which underlined that Iran does not pursue a nuclear weapons program? Do the U.S. officials intentionally overlook these reports to ramp up pressure on Iran and force it into making new concessions?

A: I think that there is a general acceptance of the IAEA’s conclusion that Iran had a nuclear-weapon-design program before 2003, that the program was suspended but that some work continues that could lay the basis of a resumption, if Iran decided to do so. The idea that Iran does want to keep this option open is suggested by Iran’s refusal to allow the IAEA to investigate certain evidence that IAEA believes it has relating to the pre-2003 program.

Q: The U.S. administration and the Congress are unconditionally supporting the Israeli regime and blindly following in its footsteps. They have increased their pressure on Iran simply in order to appease Israel and demonstrate their commitment to Tel Aviv. Why do the U.S. political institutions, high-ranking politicians and government support Israel in such a subservient way?

A: The Israeli lobby has too much influence in Washington. But many other lobbies also have too much influence there: the banks, and the anti-gun-control lobby for example. Our democracy, like every other democracy, needs to strengthen its protections against special interests. I don’t think that the Obama Administration is “blindly following” Israel. But it needs a reasonable partner to negotiate with in Tehran. I hope that that President Rouhani’s election makes that possible.

Q: What do you think about the future of nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers? So far, the two sides have held several rounds of talks, but little progress has been made. What do you think about the prospect of the negotiations? Will the West move toward winning the trust of the Iranians and easing the tensions?

A: I think that the talks between Iran and the six could provide the venue for an ultimate agreement. But I think that parallel direct talks between Iran and the United States also are necessary so that the two countries can discuss and hopefully agree on the goal of having a less adversarial relationship in the future.

Q: So you think that Iran and the world powers need to hold further talks to reach a negotiated solution. But the point is that the Iranian politicians and people have always complained that the United States and its European allies exercise double standards while dealing with the country’s nuclear program. They say that Israel, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, unrestrictedly develops nuclear weapons in violation of the UNSC resolution. While not a single inspector has come to Israel to investigate its nuclear arsenal, several IAEA representatives travel to Iran frequently to monitor Iran’s nuclear program. Isn’t this behavior somewhat hypocritical?

A: The IAEA has no authority to investigate nuclear activities in Israel except at Israel’s agreement because Israel has not joined the NPT as a non-weapons state. Many countries hope for an agreement on a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East, which would mean the elimination of Israel’s nuclear weapons and authority for the IAEA to investigate nuclear activities in Israel. I am working on that effort myself.

I agree that we live in a world of double standards in which the nuclear weapon states -- especially those that are members of the Nonproliferation Treaty -- are not working seriously enough for nuclear disarmament. But we have made some progress since the end of the Cold War. At that time, there were more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. Today, there are about 10,000. France and the UK as well as the U.S. and Russia have made deep cuts. But 10,000 nuclear weapons still threatens the future of civilization. I hope that non-weapon states like Iran will continue to adhere to their non-weapon status while pressing the nuclear-weapon states to disarm. The alternative is to end hope for nuclear disarmament. 

Q: So far, the United States and its allies have refused to recognize Iran’s nuclear rights as stipulated by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty including the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes. This is while four UN member states, namely India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan have never signed the treaty and North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003. They’re all believed to possess nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. So, why should Iran pay such a heavy price for its obedience to the international law and being a signatory to the NPT?

A: If Iran left the NPT, that would be a great blow to the hope for a world free of nuclear weapons. The focus on Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear activities is due to the fact that Iran has been developing a nuclear weapons option that it could exploit very quickly if it decided to do so. The way to agreement will have to include arrangements for Iran to back away from that option by, for example, deciding that it has enough 20% enriched uranium to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor for many years and that it can suspend production. Iran will have a nuclear-weapon option as long as it has a national enrichment program. This is true for a few other non-weapon states as well: Brazil, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands. But Iran is the only one producing 20% enriched uranium today.

In the longer term, it will strengthen the nonproliferation regime if we eliminate national enrichment programs, including in the nuclear-weapon states, and all rely on multinationally-controlled enrichment programs. In parallel, I hope that all countries will agree to give up reprocessing (plutonium separation) programs as the U.S. did in the late 1970s in a largely successful effort to stop the spread of national reprocessing programs. There is no reason for reprocessing today. We should be getting rid of separated plutonium, not separating more.

Q: What’s your viewpoint on Israel’s “shadow war” against Iran which comprises the assassination of Iranian civilian scientists, sabotaging Iran’s nuclear facilities through releasing destructive computer viruses such as Stuxnet and funding and supporting the exiled terrorist group MKO? Is this silent war a prelude to an all-out military campaign against Iran?

A: I think that assassinations are immoral and I think that the development and use of Stuxnet was a very dangerous precedent. My impression is that both efforts were ineffective in significantly slowing Iran’s nuclear program. I don’t know enough about the activities of the MKO to comment usefully. I do think that these activities were attempted as alternatives to war, which would be worse.

Q: And finally, imagine that you were the coordinator of the six world powers in nuclear talks with Iran. What method would you suggest for the facilitation of the progress of the negotiations and the realization of a viable, sustainable and comprehensive agreement between the two sides which could lead to the settlement of the disputes and differences?

A: As I have indicated, I hope that there are direct talks between the Obama and Rouhani administrations and that they can convince each other that they are both determined to find a peaceful solution to this confrontation. Then they can hopefully can work together to convince the skeptics in Tehran, Tel Aviv and Washington that there is an alternative to a continued escalation of the confrontation.

Key Words: Obama, War, Iran, Israeli, Red Line, Benjamin Netanyahu, Nuclear Program, Bomb, Nuclear Talks, UNSC Resolution, von Hippel

*Nuclear Red Line (No. 2) Paul R. Pillar: Netanyahu’s Cartoon Bomb A Silly Prop

*Nuclear Red Line (No. 1) Stephen Zunes: A Nuclear Iran Deterrence against U.S.-Israeli Aggression

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم