Doctor Gary G. Sick Security Council Under Ford, Carter and Reagan

The Price of War with Iran Would be Enormous

19 January 2012, 12:25

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Interview with Dr. Gary G. Sick, the senior research scholar and the adjunct professor of the International Affairs at Columbia University. Mr. Sick has also served on the U.S. National Security Council under presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan and is one of the world’s imminent Iranian specialists.

I’d like you ask you some questions regarding the Iranian situation as things seem to be escalating more and more each day. Can you give us some insight into what the current situation is down there?

The situation is, I would say, extremely complicated right now. The U.S. Congress has passed new sanctions, Iran has indicated that it regards these sanctions, especially if they interfere with Iran’s ability to sell its oil, they would regard that as an act of war. And they have carried out exercises in the Strait of Hormuz and then if their oil is interfered with, they will take action to see that other people pay for it as well.

In reality how ready is the U.S. right now to begin a military campaign in the region against Iran?

Probably the very last thing that president Obama wants to have at this point is a war with Iran. He has had two wars that he is winding down, he has some rather severe budgetary problems on his hands, he’s got an economy that’s in trouble, he is cutting back on the military and he is running for office. And the combination of all those things makes it very unlikely that he wants to start a war at this point. So, I personally think that president Obama is going to do whatever he can to avoid getting into a situation, which is actually counter-productive for everybody. It would not just be bad for Iran or for the United States. It would be bad for everybody in the region and the price would be simply enormous. I think he wants to avoid that.

What would your advice be to the president right now?

I think his path is actually pretty clear. The president has 6 months until those intense sanctions go into effect, that would interfere with the oil sales in Iran, and I think 6 months should be used for negotiations of some form to try to get a start on a resolution to the nuclear problem.

Now they are enriching uranium up to 20%. How big of a threat do you see that, towards nuclear proliferation?

In December, when Secretary of Defense Panetta, who also was the head of the CIA until fairly recently, he was asked, on I think "Face the Nation", a point blank question: “Is Iran building a nuclear weapon?” His answer was very clear – “No”.

He said "no"?

He said no. He went on to say that Iran was developing a capability, where it could produce a nuclear weapon, but it was not actually doing it now. And I think that it is something that tends to get overlooked in almost everybody’s take on this thing. Now the 20% issue: Iran. Ah, we proposed a swap of uranium, which Iran would send out 1,200 kilograms of the low-enriched uranium, and we would provide fuel plates, which are enriched to 20% for their research reactor in Tehran, which produces medical isotopes. That was something that Iran, tentatively greed with that, but at that point the United States said “no”.


Basically the United States was deeply involved in getting a new round of sanctions adopted, they had put a lot of effort into it and they were afraid that actually getting an agreement would interfere with the sanctions. And I am sorry to say that sanctions became more important than getting an agreement.

Can you tell us anything you might know about the threat made to Khomeini?

I think that was during those conversations in Turkey in Istanbul. The United States apparently delivered a message to the Iranian government, which I fully expect was in fact a warning that if they close to the Strait of Hormuz, the United States would regard that as a redline. That’s very clear. On the other hand, I am sure what the Iranian said was, “Look, first of all, we are prepared to talk to you, and we are prepared to defuse this crisis and, secondly, we are not going to interfere with the Strait of Hormuz unless our oil is cut off. If you cut off our oil, you can’t expect everybody else to be able to go ahead with their oil as if nothing has happened”.

What about the dead Iranian scientist? Can you fill us in, is there anything you could tell us about that?

There are a lot of theories being kicked around, but as far as I’m concerned, as far as I can tell from the evidence, there really is no great doubt that it was the Israelis who carried it out, it was their standard operating procedure, they’ve done this on occasions in the past. This is the, what, 5th or 6th attempt at least in Tehran to get a nuclear scientist. I think that represents (that basically is Israel’ s take on this situation) that the United States was in contact with Turkey and in contact with Iran about restoring the negotiations, and just as they were meeting somebody assassinated a scientist in Iran. That was not helpful for the process, and I think the fact that the U.S. Secretary of State denounced it in very unequivocal terms was a clear signal that the U.S. was quite annoyed by the timing of this operation. But I think that represents Israel’s position, it clearly is unhelpful again in terms of getting to any kind of negotiation.

I see. There were some people saying that this might have been an internal Iranian operation.

That's just propaganda.

You don’t think that’s true?

I don’t think there is any truth to that whatsoever. This guy was the deputy director of their Natanz centrifuge site. They did not have to kill him. They could have fired him. The people who would like to deflect attention from Israel especially when the United States is condemning the action very strongly, that’s when this rumour suddenly appeared “Oh, maybe it was the Iranians who did it?”

So, this is a real unequivocal condemnation by the U.S. government towards Israel, this would be one of the first. This is not just a wink of the eye and a; “You shouldn’t have done it”.

It’s not. The fact is that we have done that on any of the 5 previous attempts. This is a significant change in U.S. position.

Thank you sir.

Thank you.

Tehran and Washington at Impasse Over Uranium Enrichment

Download audio file 2 September 2011, 14:07

Tehran has recently announced they can enrich uranium to up to 20% and that their production exceeds the country’s demand. Iran’s atomic chief also stated Iran will no longer negotiate a nuclear fuel swap with some of the world powers. Gary G. Sick, Senior Research Scholar and Adjunct Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, who also served on the US National Security Council under presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, believes that Iran wants to have the capacity to build nuclear weapon – that is they want to be able within a certain amount of time to actually produce nuclear weapon if they need too and Iran has already done a number of table-top experiments in this field that would permit them to do that. The West, in particular the US, has insisted that Iran return to a position of zero enrichment. However, the reality is that, after 10 years of enriching uranium and paying a very high political price for it, Iran is not prepared to go back to zero, which makes it a hopeless cause. Thus, Iran’s secrecy about their nuclear program on one side and the West’s insisting on zero enrichment on the other has postponed any chance of a realistic outcome.

I’d like to ask you a few questions about the situation in Iran. My first question is what condition Iran’s nuclear program is currently in, in your opinion, and how realistic do you think is the possibility that they are developing nuclear weapons?

I think there is no absolute answer. I think you have to start with the fact that every senior Iranian, from the supreme leader down to the lowest level official, says that Iran has no intention or even desire to build nuclear weapons. For a theocratic government to say that it’s contrary to Islam to build nuclear weapons is actually putting a huge obstacle in their own path for no particular reason. It doesn’t serve any useful purpose for them. Let me just give you my own, personal estimation of what I think Iran is doing. My own view is Tehran wants to have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. Back when the shah was in power he made it clear that that was his policy. As far as I’m concerned, Iran has done a certain amount of research that would permit them to build a nuclear weapon, even if they don’t intend to do it now.

Iran has recently announced their production exceeds their demand and that they will no longer discuss any nuclear fuel swap deals. What does this tell you about the current situation there on the ground?

I think both sides share a lot of blame. I think Iran has been unduly secretive. The US in particular and the West in general has insisted that Iran return to a position of zero enrichment. Iran is entitled to enrich uranium, if it wants to.

You said they have been overly secretive. Why are they doing that? It seems like it’s damaging any chance they have of coming to a peaceful resolution.

They have made, I think, very serious mistakes. And a lot of the problems that they have are their own doing. Let’s assume that I’m correct and that Iran really intends to develop a capacity to build a nuclear weapon, let’s say, six months, that it would aim to have the ability to build a nuclear weapon that quickly. The chances are they are not going to want to publicize that. To me the big question is: are they actually building a weapon? Everything that we’ve seen in the last 30 years actually has said no, they are not. If you look at it, the country like Pakistan, which has almost no industrial capability, created a bomb in about 12 years. Iran has had a nuclear program since at least 1985 and they still don’t have a bomb. Is it because Iran is stupid? No. It’s because they are not trying to produce a nuclear weapon as fast as possible.

You’ve said everything you’ve seen in the last 30 years says they are not producing a nuclear bomb.

If they really were determined to have a nuclear device, they would have one by now.

Where do you see Iranian-Russian relations headed?

I don’t think that Iran ever really trusted Russia very much. It’s very pragmatic. It needs certain things and I think Russia has been able to provide those things. That included some defense equipment. It certainly included building the nuclear plant at Bushehr and so on. I don’t think they are going to turn around and walk away from Russia. But I think, whatever want there was in that relationship, it’s really gone, at least for the moment. And that’s just a fact of life.

How does China fit into all this?

China is also a very pragmatic power. They need a lot of oil: energy demands are going up dramatically. And Iran is one possible source of that oil. They are looking wherever they can. I don’t think that means they will do everything Iran wants them to do. I think it’s going to be again a relationship in which each side has to give something to get something. It depends a lot on Iran and whether they are really willing to cooperate with China over the long term. The US is going to be bringing pressure all the time on China to be hard on Iran and I think the Chinese are in a very difficult spot. And I think Iran is going to have to be willing to give China something in order to keep China on its side. This is a revolutionary society and it’s quite dogmatic, and whether they will in fact cooperate with China in a way that will work to their benefit – I don’t know.

Do you see a win-win solution for Iran? They seem to be shooting themselves in the foot.

I can outline a program that would put Iran into a really strong position. It would take me about two minutes to come up with a solution. Bu the reality is that Iran won’t do that. They are extremely proud. They have a strong internal dispute about where their policy should go, they can’t agree on anything, any gesture that they make towards the international community is viewed as a gesture of weakness and whoever did it is going to be punished for it. It’s very, very hard. And, to talk about shooting themselves in the foot, there is no question that, on the sanctions for instance, there were many oil companies that were prepared to break the sanctions, western oil companies – Shell, BP and others – and Iran was unwilling to even go halfway with these companies to make sure that if they are going to break the sanctions you should at least, if you are an Iranian, offer them a profit. And the Iranians, instead, tried to bargain them down to the point where there was no profit. It just wasn’t worth it to them. So, if you want to look at who is responsible for making these sanctions work, you have to start out by saying that Iran played a role. That’s a pretty good indicator of the fact that Iran has a very, very difficult time making policies that have anything to do with the western world, because it’s all seen as a weakness and contrary to their own revolution. And that dominates their thinking to a degree that I think is self-defeating


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