To attack or not to attack?

By Yossi Melman


Shvat 6, 5767

An American in Iran? Sounds wild. A former senior U.S. administration official? Can't be. So what would you say about the fact that Iran, an evil country according to Bush, hosted such an individual at the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan, at one of the cornerstones of the Iranian nuclear program? In March 2006, at the height of the nuclear crisis and a month after the matter was referred to the United Nations Security Council, Dr. Gary Samore had the opportunity to tour the facility, in which the first stage of the uranium enrichment process takes place.

"I wasn't particularly impressed by their capabilities. The Iranians don't have a reliable manufacturing capability," he says during a break in the Herzliya Conference at the Daniel Hotel, where he participated in a panel on "Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran: Options for Prevention and Deterrence."

Samore is a vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and his name has been mentioned recently as a candidate for a senior position in the next Democratic administration, if it comes to be. Samore was a member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, and the president's special envoy on proliferation issues.

In that capacity, he launched a vigorous campaign against North Korea (which was unsuccessful) to prevent Pyongyang from spreading missiles and missile technology to the Middle East and particularly Iran. He also launched a campaign against Russia (which was partially successful) to prevent Russia from assisting the Iranian nuclear program. Samore visited Moscow numerous times during that period, met with members of the Atomic Energy Organizations of Russia, with senior officials of the Federal Security Service there, provided them with intelligence on Russian companies and research institutions that collaborated with Iran - he, in return, received a promise that the matter would be dealt with. Sometimes the work really did pay off, and the Russian authorities opened an investigation; but sometimes they preferred to turn a blind eye.

Samore was also responsible for the efforts to persuade China not to transfer nuclear technology to Iran. The visit less than a year ago to Isfahan was, as far as he was concerned, a kind of closing of the circle: The plans to build a uranium conversion facility (in which natural uranium undergoes chemical treatment and becomes gaseous uranium) in Isfahan were sold to Iran by China. That was in 1991. China also signed a contract for around half a billion dollars to build the plant, but "we exerted heavy pressure on China and they cancelled it in 1997-98," stresses Samore.

Why did China cave in to the pressure?

"The Chinese reached the conclusion that Iran was trying to obtain nuclear weapons and didn't want to help them to do so; a nuclear armed Iran is contrary to China's interests. They also realized that the connection with Iran would affect their relationship with the United States. Moreover we promised them that, in return, we would supply them with our advanced nuclear power reactor." But despite the cancellation of the contract (which caused financial loss to China, which had to return the advance payment to Iran), the Iranians managed to build the plant in Isfahan on their own by using the Chinese blueprints. "From what I saw in Isfahan, I have the impression that most of the construction is home-grown, although here and there, there is also European-made equipment," says Samore.

'There won't be a bomb'

But the visit to Isfahan was not the only surprise awaiting the American expert. He was also briefed by representatives of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran and met with former senior officials involved in the nuclear program, including Hassan Ruhani, who was the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council during the term of the previous president, Mohammed Khatami. He heard half-hearted affirmation that Iran was not settling only for a civilian nuclear program with peaceful aims. If what he heard is correct, it stands in sharp contrast to Iran's public declarations. "They told me, listen, we live in a dangerous neighborhood. We are surrounded by neighbors with nuclear arms: Pakistan, India, Israel; we are threatened. And therefore we need to have a nuclear option; believe us, we will not produce a bomb."

Samore is not naive. He does not really believe the Iranians. It is clear to him that they are striving to obtain nuclear arms. The question is only do they have the capability? This question is particularly essential because it would determine the decision of whether to attack Iran to disrupt its nuclear program and when.

Regarding capability, based on what he saw, heard and on his knowledge, he estimates that Iran has encountered quite a few difficulties in its efforts to master uranium enrichment technologies. Yet, he is not willing to take the risk of estimating when Iran would have nuclear weapons, if at all. The biggest mystery is whether Iran has a secret program parallel to its official nuclear program. Samore believes that, pending any dramatic surprises, Iran will not have nuclear weapons in the coming years. His assessment contradicts Israeli intelligence estimates, which talks about a "technological threshold" that Iran will probably cross this year and of Iran being able to produce its first bomb in two to three years.

Do you think Israel's leaders and officials are alarmists?

"Yes, and I can also understand them. The U.S. is far away, Europe is complacent and Russia may oppose the idea of nuclear weapons in Iran, but doesn't see it as the end of the world. Clearly Israel is the most worried. Both because of President Ahmadinejad's declarations and because of the Holocaust. One has to take into account that nuclear weapons in Iran will affect Israel's nuclear monopoly."

Dr. Robert Einhorn, also has difficulty estimating when Iran will be able to produce nuclear weapons. Einhorn, like Samore, dealt with proliferation issues in the Clinton administration and early in the Bush administration. Samore was in the White House and Einhorn in the State Department, where he reached served as assistant to the secretary of state. Today he is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He, too, is mentioned as a candidate for a senior post in the next administration if the Democrats win the presidential election in 2008.

Like Samore, he does not rule out the military option, but rather feels that it has to be the last resort. Before then, all the other options of international pressure along with sanctions against Iran need to be exhausted.

"The military option should be discussed without emotions," he said in an interview during the Herzliya Conference. "We need to consider a military strike in terms of cost and benefits. It has to be considered whether it is possible to strike all the targets, whether Iran has alternative sites, how long will it take Iran to repair the damage and regenerate the program. If the answer is 10 years, then it would be foolish of the president, any president, Republican or Democratic, not to initiate an attack. But if a military strike will delay the Iranian program for only 10 months, then I'm not sure it's worthwhile."

Rational consideration

Perhaps it is a matter of ideology, or perhaps it is a matter of nature, but contrary to his two colleagues, Richard Perle, another participant in the Herzliya discussion, has no doubt that tough steps must be taken against Iran. "I have no doubt," he stresses, "that if it becomes apparent to President Bush that during his term Iran will achieve nuclear weapons, he will not hesitate to order a strike." Perle, was an assistant to then-secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger in the Reagan administration, a consultant in then-president George H. Bush's administration, and is an old friend of Vice President Dick Cheney and a pillar of the neo-conservatives. "Don't get me wrong," he hurriedly adds, "what I'm saying about President Bush and Iran does not stem from any knowledge, I didn't discuss this with him; it is just an assessment based on my acquaintance with him." (Samore feels that Bush will not be asked to decide, because Iran will not acquire such capabilities during his term.)

If Bush orders a strike, will he do so out of religious conviction?

"No way. It will have no connection to religious belief; it will be solely the result of rational consideration. In my opinion, there is a widespread misconception regarding this issue. People think that after Iraq, President Bush, and basically any president, would have a hard time acting against Iran. But in my assessment, there is broad support among the American public for a tough policy against Iran. Nuclear weapons in Iran's hands is a source of danger and a threat not only to Israel, but also to all of us. The Iranians will provide more support for terror organizations, dare more to challenge the U.S., become a hegemonic power in the region and perhaps even share the nuclear knowledge with terrorist organizations."

And if the U.S. doesn't strike, will Israel have to do it?

"The Israeli consideration is very similar to the American consideration. In principle, Israel has to take its own independent decision, but the truth is that it will not be an independent decision. The U.S. cannot afford for Israel to fail, if Israel decides to strike. The U.S. supports an Israeli military operation and would even embark on a similar parallel action."

And what about Israel's military capabilities?

"Clearly the U.S. has better [military] capabilities. We have B-2 bombers and stealth planes that can take off from the U.S., attack one hundred targets simultaneously and destroy them, and then return to the U.S. without the Iranians even knowing that they had passed through their air space, without being detected on Iranian radar screens. Israel does not have this capability."