WASHINGTON -- The use of military force will ultimately be necessary if diplomacy fails to prevent Iran from being able to make a nuclear weapon, according a former key Obama White House official (see GSN, March 22).
Dennis Ross pointed to increasing hopes for a peaceful solution in the long-running atomic standoff in recent weeks, emphasizing that Iran is feeling pressure from toughened sanctions. However, “if diplomacy fails and the alternative is that they’re going to have nuclear weapons capability, use of force would be necessary,” he told Global Security Newswire.
An Iran with atomic weapons could bring a nuclear arms race to a Middle East, according to Ross. Leaders in Tehran say their nuclear program has no military intent, but have refused to curb uranium enrichment activities that could be used to produce weapons fuel. Meanwhile, top U.S. intelligence officials have said in recent weeks they do not believe the Iranian government has made a formal decision to produce a bomb.
Until the end of 2011, Ross was White House National Security Council director for the Central Region, advising President Obama and U.S. officials on Iran and other regional issues. He has served in U.S. administrations since Jimmy Carter was president.
Ross is now a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Formerly a longtime figure in Middle East peace talks, he met with Israeli officials during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington earlier this month. Ross participated in a series of interviews with GSN before and after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting.
In extensive interviews, Ross addressed a host of pressing issues, from the potential timing of an attack on Iran to Pakistan’s aggressive nuclear buildup.
The veteran diplomat cast doubt on any potential breakthrough at a major conference on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East that is planned for this year. “This is not one of those issues where one would have high expectations that you can make dramatic early progress anytime soon,” he declared.
Another worrisome area, Ross noted, is Syria’s large stock of chemical weapons at a time of political violence inside the Mideast power. Asked about the possibility of terrorist use of those weapons, he warned that Syria has “been prepared to transfer a lot of their own capabilities to Hezbollah over time, so I think that this is a concern. And it bears watching very closely.”
Q: Did the recent meeting between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu change any of the dynamics in dealing with the Iranian nuclear situation? (see GSN, March 6)
Ross: There’s a much greater sense of agreement between the president and the prime minister.
What you see more clearly is a common objective which is the prevention of an Iran having nuclear weapons. There is a lot of commonality in seeing the value of negotiations get under way with the Iranians.
…The Israelis are clearly worried about a point in which diplomacy could drag on too long without any results. In their eyes, to lose a military option is an objective reality at some point.
I think they’re prepared to give some time to diplomacy. The use of force is not inevitable.
Q: World powers are preparing for additional talks with Iran. Given that all earlier rounds of talks failed to deter Iran, what specifically would you need to see out of a new round of negotiations?
Ross: Obviously suspension of enrichment would be a very clear sign. That’s the sort of step that would be significant. Another step would be stopping their enrichment to 20 percent; shipping out low-enriched uranium. ... Those are examples of steps they could take that would demonstrate serious purpose.
Q: War is in the air. Is this an attempt by the Israelis to heighten international pressure? Or is an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel or even the U.S. or both nations a real possibility?
Ross: It is a real possibility, but I don't think it's necessarily imminent. The Israelis have always emphasized that they thought that it should No. 1 be the world against Iran, not Israel against Iran, and No. 2 that crippling sanctions, crippling pressure actually could change Iranian behavior.
What it reflects is an Israeli judgment that the Iranians do make their decisions on a cost-benefit calculus. And if you build the pressure high enough they would look for a way out.
Diplomacy has a shot now. I don't think there's any guarantees, but I think if there was ever going to be a chance, it had to create a context where the Iranians were feeling real pressure. Absent that, they were never going to halt what they were doing.
Q: So, is it possible the Israelis are doing this in order to ratchet up international pressure?
Ross: I do believe that their first preference is to have the diplomatic approach work. And the other is also to [condition] the environment so if at some point they actually act, no one internationally would be surprised that they have done this.
Q: How can we stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon when the international effort failed to prevent North Korea’s nuclear capability? (see GSN, March 22)
Ross: It wasn't as mobilized as this one. But your point is a fair point. In some ways, it's almost precisely because North Korea crossed that threshold, it's even a greater imperative that Iran does not.
... Iran would be playing with fire if they think they could just [string] negotiations along and just play for time. It just makes the use of force against them much more likely.
Q: Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said that an Israeli attack could happen in the spring …
Ross: I don't believe that it's as soon as that. The Israeli defense minister [in January] said any such action is far off. Those were his words. I don't think the spring would fit the criteria of being far off.
No. 2, the fact that you now have what the Israelis have always sought, which was crippling sanctions in fact being adopted for the first time. The Israelis themselves want to see whether or not these can actually work. So, I think the time frame is different.
Q: Do you think it's the summer?
Ross: Well, the short answer is, I don't know. But I think that the Israeli prime minister has used the time frame that's more like nine to 12 months.
It's also not something that's necessarily static. Because let's say you get negotiations under way. They might not resolve the issue, but maybe you can affect the clock because you're able to affect what the Iranians are doing. Maybe the Iranians for their own reasons decide they're going to slow down the development of the infrastructure or they're going to put certain things on hold.
Q: Why do you say sanctions against Iran are crippling?
Ross: Look, when you start to go after the central bank-- above and beyond the other sanctions that have been applied, then you're dealing with the basic mechanism they use to have countries pay them for their oil. You're also affecting the stability of their currency. We've seen that their currency's been devalued by half. That creates an enormous impact.
Q: Are there any other sanctions that could make a difference? For example, the European Union just ordered the SWIFT financial clearinghouse to cut off Iranian banks on their blacklist.
Ross: The Iranians already have a very hard time getting lines of credit. This would just further complicate their ability to do any business at all. So the point here is that the Iranians, if they want to be able to operate and function, have to come back into compliance. And if they don't, the price they pay is going to keep going up.
What I've tried to suggest in some of the things that I've said and written is that a context has been created with pressure that creates the possibility for diplomacy to work. Because the truth is, the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons has been of such value to them that there isn't anything that you could offer them that would be as valuable to them as having the nuclear weapon.
So, you're not going to induce them into giving up the quest for a weapon. But you could put them into a position where they see the costs are simply too high.
Q: Is there any doubt in your mind that Iran wishes to pursue nuclear weapons?
Ross: I personally don’t doubt that they are pursuing nuclear weapons. Do I think that they’ve already decided … to immediately accelerate the process or try to get there? No. But the fact is they're putting themselves in the position where they have the capability to do so. I think the aim is clear. The actual timing is not clear.
They might decide that they have no interest in creating what they understand could be a certain kind of provocation that could trigger more action against them -- including military action.
So, it's possible that they might want to accumulate a very large amount of material that could be then converted into weapons by trying to create a scenario where they confront the world with a fait accompli later on, not in the near term.
Q: Is that why you think an attack against Iran needs to be on the table?
Ross: In my view, the option has to be there because they have to realize we are deadly serious about the fact that them having nuclear weapons is something that is really not acceptable.
Q: Iran has boasted about having enriched nuclear material to the 20 percent level, which would make a breakout capacity a lot easier. Is that a real concern, with Iran showing off what they said were more sophisticated centrifuges?
Ross: The concern that they are enriching at 20 percent, even though it's a relatively small amount of what they're doing, I don't think we should be dismissive of that. But I also think that they always overstate their capabilities because they're trying to imply it's already too late.
They've been saying for years they were introducing the next generation of centrifuges. And they haven't been able to do it because they haven't been able to overcome their material problems and their technological problems. They lack some of the materials that they need because it's hard for them to get them.
They don't have the precision tools they need to produce this next generation of centrifuges and have them actually operate -- and not blow themselves up.
Q: You've worked on really tough issues before, particularly Middle East peace, for years. Personally, what's it like dealing with an issue like Iran's nuclear intransigence? Is it similarly frustrating?
Ross: The most important thing that comes to mind is that Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons remains a profound threat from many different angles. It's a profound threat to the region. If Iran goes nuclear, the prospect that you're going to face a nuclear-armed Middle East goes up dramatically.
If Iran goes nuclear after three American administrations have said, “you can't do this,” after six U.N. Security Council resolutions said “you can't do this,” after 11 Board of Governors [resolutions] of the IAEA said “you can't do this,” it pretty much signals the undermining of the nonproliferation regime.
You know the stakes are high. It's a very significant national security challenge and when you're dealing with an issue of this sort, you're focusing on the consequences.
Q: You’ve talked to President Obama on Iran and other related nonproliferation and arms control issues. Does he attach a sense of urgency to it? (see GSN, March 20)
Ross: The fact is, he's been very clear consistently since he [became] president that this was a national security priority. It was the centerpiece of the discussions that he had with [President Dmitry] Medvedev of Russia, with President Hu [Jintao] of China. He was very focused on this from the outset of the administration, with this being an issue that I think he's spent as much time as any issue on national security. Certainly, from my vantage point.
Q: The secretary of Defense has indicated that a military attack is possible after Iran crosses certain red lines including actually developing or working toward a nuclear weapon. The president said America's determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and he'll take no options off the table. Do you think he'd actually start a war or attack Iran?
Ross: There's no doubt that the president prefers, as any president would, to resolve this issue through diplomatic means. When he says that he takes no options off the table, when he says he's determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, he's very serious. I think it would be a mistake for anybody to doubt his word.
Q: Your position at the White House covered South Asia. Pakistan and India are two nuclear-armed nations that have been hostile with each other before, and have fought a war. What do you feel about the aggressive buildup of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal in relation to India? (see GSN, March 8)
Ross: I don't think anybody can be comfortable about the continuing advance of that nuclear arsenal. What you want to see are ways for India and Pakistan to be finding ways to build confidence with each other across the board. That's especially true given the fact that both are nuclear armed.
Q: Pakistan is a nuclear weapons nation that has had a lot of political turbulence. Are you worried about the security of its substantial nuclear arsenal?
Ross: They devote a lot of attention and effort to securing that capability -- and that's completely understandable. I think we all have a very strong interest in a stable Pakistan and in them strengthening their internal political stability.
Q: Do you think that the Middle East WMD-free zone meeting is likely to occur as planned this year? (see GSN, Nov. 30, 2011)
Ross: I don't know. There are an awful lot of other challenges and uncertainties in the region right now. I think it's certainly worth seeing if there's a way to move in a direction that makes this possible over time.
If you could begin at least a process where certain kinds of confidence-building measures could be taken, that could yield something over time. But I don't think one should have high expectations that this is an area that is ripe for a breakthrough.
Q: What factors are involved that cause it to be difficult to make progress? What would you see as the possible confidence-building measures?
Ross: It's very hard to make progress on an issue in the absence of peace.
When we began trying to deal with this question in the 1990s, we actually had working groups on arms control and regional security. And there was an understanding that we would try to work in all the areas of WMD. There was also an understanding that it was not a simple process to make progress in the absence of peace. And the kind of confidence-building measures you would do or pursue could be related to creating different forms of communication.
There were efforts to think about how you could draw on some of the lessons that had been applied from other arms-control negotiations. So, the idea was to start slow and see if you could even begin to have discussions where you could create common points of reference.
I think it's a challenge because the regional context very much affects whether you can even create discussions on this question.
Q: Should Israel -- widely assumed to hold the region’s only nuclear arsenal -- attend the WMD-free zone Middle East conference, if it winds up being held? U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said they should.
Ross: I think a lot depends on whether there's an effort to actually want to try to adopt constructive postures or are countries simply trying to put Israel in a corner? Is it a spirit in which there's a readiness to try to begin to define some points of common ground? Or is it a spirit in which some countries want to come and turn this into a kind of place where you try to score points?
Q: An area in the Mideast where there are weapons of mass destruction is Syria. In fact, there was a recent report that the U.S. is conducting more surveillance of the chemical weapons in Syria, given the instability in the region and in the Assad regime. Were you worried about that threat at the White House? (see GSN, March 14)
Ross: I'll just say in general terms, the Syrians have chemical weapons and there is a concern about that. There should be a concern about that. First of all, this is a regime that seems to show very few limits or respect very few rules.
Secondly… they’ve been prepared to transfer a lot of their own capabilities to Hezbollah over time, so I think that this is a concern. And it bears watching very closely. …You just have to prepare for possibilities.
Q: Could Iranian nuclear weapons spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East? Couldn't Saudi Arabia or other nations have a nuclear weapons capability as well? (see GSN, Dec. 5, 2011).
Ross: Well, Saudi Arabia doesn't have the capability to do it, but Saudi Arabia certainly has the money that they could buy it. And the fact is that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, I think the dynamic will be quite strong in terms of creating pressures on others to feel that they have to have it, too.
Q: So, it could spark a whole new arms race.
Ross: One of the reasons I think the idea of trying try to live with an Iran with nuclear weapons is a mistake is because I think there will be a nuclear arms race. You will see a nuclear-armed Middle East.
And you're talking about a region where countries will not feel they can afford to strike second. You're talking about countries that don't have necessarily good communication with each other, where the intelligence is likely to be quite imperfect. Where there are lots of local triggers for conflict.
That’s why it's not acceptable. Those who think you can simply live with an Iran with nuclear weapons, you can simply deter it--the problem is that the notion of containment or deterrence doesn't address the fact that you're going to end up in time with a nuclear-armed Middle East. Everyone there is going to operate on a hair trigger.
What I'm saying is that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, then the risk of a nuclear war being fought in the Middle East becomes quite high. And that's why it really can't be permitted.