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Should The World Brace For An Iran-Israel War?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, violence erupted at the University of Mississippi 50 years ago when an African-American student tried to enroll. We'll look back on that day in just a few minutes.

But, first, to the United Nations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday, the only way to prevent Iran from attaining a nuclear bomb is to draw a clear red line.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: But to be credible, a red line must be drawn, first and foremost, in one vital part of their program on Iran's efforts to enrich uranium.

HEADLEE: Netanyahu went on to mark a red line quite literally on a drawing of a cartoon-like fuse bomb and he then said Iran will reach that line by next spring or next summer.

So we wanted to know more about what happened at the UN General Assembly and what that might mean for tensions between Iran and Israel. And we've called on Karim Sadjadpour. He's an Iran analyst for the think tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He joins us from New York. And also Avi Issacharoff. He's the Palestinian and Arab affairs correspondent for the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, and he joins us by phone from Israel.

Welcome to both of you.


HEADLEE: Avi, let me...

AVI ISSACHAROFF: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: ...begin with you. We just heard Netanyahu speaking about that clear red line, which he drew on that drawing. How do you interpret that clear red line that he's talking about and his choice of timing, that Iran might reach it by next spring?

ISSACHAROFF: Well, first of all, Celeste, thank you very much for the question. I must say that it got me confused, at least. Well, the clear red line is not that clear. If you follow up that drawing that our Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made, I guess it got some people here confused in Israel because there's no real red line. It's not concerning the way that the Iranians are enriching the uranium, but I guess that he refers to the amount of uranium that the Iranians manage to enrich and will enrich the next couple of months.

But it's not really clear whether he refers to the 20 percent enriched uranium or the amount of the enriched uranium. And I guess it made all of us pretty confused here in Israel. What is pretty much clear today is that Benjamin Netanyahu is forcing himself, or forcing the state of Israel, into a state of war next summer because, if Iranians will continue to enrich uranium, the message to the Israeli public - not only to the White House or not only to the Iranians, but also for the Israeli public - is that I am planning to go to a war.

HEADLEE: Karim, would you agree with that? Do you think that what Benjamin Netanyahu was saying was warning the Iranian government that, next spring or next summer, there could be war?

SADJADPOUR: Avi makes a very good point that, when you publicly draw these red lines - in this case, literally draw a red line in a very, very public forum - you put yourself on the spot and if you don't adhere to the red lines which you yourself have drawn, then you risk losing face.

I think it's important to point out that the Iranian regime is not driving 100 miles per hour in the direction of a nuclear bomb. I think there's a - requires a little more nuance. I would say that they're driving their car 30, 40 miles an hour in the direction of a nuclear weapons capability and, in reality, in these circumstances, there often aren't clear red lines, because I'd say, you know, even according to U.S. best estimates, it's not clear whether Iran has made a strategic decision whether to actually obtain a nuclear weapon or merely the capability.

HEADLEE: Well, Karim, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke to the UN General Assembly just a couple days ago. He barely referenced the nuclear program. What are we to take from that?

SADJADPOUR: Well, Ahmadinejad - this was his last speech before the United Nations after eight visits. His term is going to expire in June of 2013 and he did respond to a lot of queries earlier in the week about Iran's nuclear program. But you know, what's important to point is that the person who's steering Iran's nuclear ship is not President Ahmadinejad. It's the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

I doubt, actually, that Ahmadinejad is even in the room when these major nuclear decisions are taken. And one of the challenges in dealing with Iran is the fact that the person in charge of the nuclear program who ultimately has the final say on nuclear matters, the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, hasn't left Iran since the year 1989 and he's largely inaccessible to Western leaders, to Western officials.

So I think everyone would like to resolve this issue diplomatically, but it's tough to do that when the person who's really calling the shots in Tehran is largely inaccessible to, as I said, the P5+1.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about rising tensions between Iran and Israel. Our guests today are Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour and Israeli reporter Avi Issacharoff.

So let's go back to that red line that seems to be sticking with everybody in Iran's nuclear program. President Obama spoke at the UN General Assembly, of course, and he reiterated where he thinks that red line is. He says, if Iran gets a weapon, it would threaten Israel's existence. Take a listen.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region and the unraveling of the Nonproliferation Treaty. That's why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable, and that's why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

HEADLEE: So, Avi, if Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be pressuring the president and the United States into moving towards a military option with Iran, how do regular Israelis see the Americans taking a role in this?

ISSACHAROFF: Well, I must say that my impression is that most of the Israelis are in a feeling or do fear that the U.S. president is not doing enough in order to prevent a nuclear bomb from Iran, but there is a debate here whether who knows the truth, whether it's Netanyahu or President Obama. And I guess that many people here in Israel do understand that, when President Obama is promising that U.S. won't agree Iran to have a nuclear bomb, this is quite a clear understanding of what the U.S. will do and capable of doing in a case of the Iranians will continue with their efforts.

With Netanyahu, we have here another problem. I mean, most of the Israelis do fear from war. Just this morning, you know, there is a poll that was published in Ha'Aretz newspaper that is saying that Benjamin Netanyahu's getting stronger politically, but I'm not that sure that that will be the case in a case of war, of course. If Israel will attack Iran, we know that their retaliation will be heavy. We know that the price will be dramatic, but also for Benjamin Netanyahu himself. And I'm not that sure that this is for the interests of Netanyahu as a politician.

HEADLEE: Well, Karim, it seems as though, by moving this sort of deadline to next spring or next summer, that Benjamin Netanyahu is taking a little bit of pressure off the president. That would be well after the U.S. election season is over. What do you think?

SADJADPOUR: I think that Netanyahu has concluded that Obama pretty much has his reelection wrapped up. I'm sure that, you know, he has a personal rapport with Mitt Romney. He had hoped that Republican Administration in the U.S. would be sympathetic to his - to Prime Minister Netanyahu's desire to have far more stringent red lines, vis-a-vis, Iran. But I think, you know, he's concluded that he's going to have to deal with an Obama Administration for the duration of his time - Netanyahu's time - in office.

And it doesn't make sense to keep setting red lines, which Iran then transgresses. And, you know, I think what he tried to do yesterday was draw a red line which he hopes that ultimately the Obama Administration will end up respecting because I think Avi would agree here that, for Netanyahu, he would far - you know, for any Israeli prime minister, but particularly Netanyahu. It would be far preferable, if military action has to happen to prevent Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, they would much prefer that the United States do it rather than Israel do it.

HEADLEE: I bet they would. Avi, let me put the question directly to you. You say Israelis are afraid of nuclear war, but will military options have to be deployed in order to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear - should we be preparing for war?

ISSACHAROFF: Well, I guess the debate today - the discussion here in Israel - is whether we are heading to the point of no return in the nuclear project - Iranian nuclear project. And I guess that so many security and military officials in Israel do claim that we're not there yet, meaning that, just like we mentioned, the Iranians are not heading just - if I can quote you, Karim, 100 miles per hour, but much slower than that.

So we still have time and I guess that's what Netanyahu is trying to do is not only to force the U.S. to do something more dramatically, but in a way, to prepare the Israeli public for something that I'm not that sure that we're ready yet. I'm not that sure that all the military officials - that the army intelligence, the Israeli Mossad - do agree to the approach that the Iranians are almost out there in the point of getting a nuclear bomb.

I feel that we - I think that we still have time and this is why Netanyahu has some difficulties in getting the support, the political support for going to a war.

HEADLEE: And so, Karim, in the minute left, solve this for us. Is it sanctions? Is it more diplomacy? What prevents that war from coming?

SADJADPOUR: Sanctions certainly aren't a silver bullet. Diplomacy is always necessary when we're dealing with matters of war and peace, as Winston Churchill once said. You know, it's much better to do ja-ja rather than war-war.

But, you know, ultimately, I don't see this conflict or a conflict with Iran over its nuclear program - I don't see it as a conflict which is likely to be resolved. I see it as a conflict which has to be managed. It has to be contained. You know, ideally, we prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear device. Until there's, you know, forces of change within Iran which bring about a kind of a more representative system of governance.

HEADLEE: Right. Karim Sadjadpour is an Iran analyst for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He joined us from our studios in New York. And Avi Issacharoff is the Palestinian and Arab affairs correspondent for the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz. He joined us by phone from Israel. Thanks to both of you.

SADJADPOUR: Thank you.

ISSACHAROFF: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.