Congress expert Norman Ornstein on what the debate over the debt limit says about dysfunction in Congress, and his ideas for how to fix it.
Syrian troops stormed a Damascus suburb in an ongoing government effort to crackdown on protesters; the European Union approved an oil embargo on new contracts from Iran; and Navy SEALS parachuted into Somalia on Wednesday to rescue two kidnapped aid workers. Yochi Dreazen of National Journal, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News and Mark Mardell of BBC News join Diane for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Yochi Dreazen Senior national security correspondent, National Journal magazine.
- Indira Lakshmanan Senior reporter, Bloomberg News.
- Mark Mardell BBC North America editor.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. More deaths in Syria as the government crackdown escalates. The UN considers a new plan to halt the bloodshed, but Russia already says it's opposed. Iran seeks to preempt a European plan to ban Iranian oil imports and U.S. Navy SEALS rescued an American and a Danish hostage in Somalia.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me for the week's top international stories on the "Friday News Roundup," Yochi Dreazen of National Journal, Indira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg, and Mark Mardell of the BBC. We'll take your calls, your comments, emails, Facebook postings and tweets a little later in the program. I look forward to hearing from you. Good morning everybody.
MR. MARK MARDELLGood morning.
MR. YOCHI DREAZENGood morning.
MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANGood morning.
REHMGood to see you all. And, Yochi Dreazen, tell us about this new UN proposal to end violence in Syria?
DREAZENIt follows right behind a similar and also a potentially failed peace plan from the Arab League. Basically, what happened with this is the Arab League had its own peace plan, it had monitors in Syria. By all accounts that effort failed, many of the monitors quit and the Arab League in turn turned to the UN to basically say, you take this. The effort that they had tried to do in Syria was to get Assad's heavy, you know, armor, heavy tanks out of cities, to get political prisoners freed.
DREAZENEarly on, they said he was doing those things. They said he had freed 3,500 roughly prisoners, that some of his artillery pieces and tanks had withdrawn. But we see today at homes in other parts of Syria those pieces are battering the cities again. The death toll, depending on where you look, is 30, 50, 75. And so the effort to try to get him to hit back less hard or to make any effort towards giving up power.
REHMSo he's going to step down, Indira?
LAKSHMANANWell, clearly, he's shown all along, Bashar al Assad, that he has no intention of stepping down. But what's interesting now is that the new front for this is once again the United Nations Security Council and essentially what's happening is that the chief of the Arab League and the prime minister of Qatar are going to present an Arab League peace plan for Syria to the ambassadors at the UN Security Council, possibly as early as Monday. And what this is going to bring about is a new showdown with Russia over how far can a UN Security Council resolution go.
LAKSHMANANNow, let's not forget Russia has been a long time ally of Syria. They have major trade with Syria and they have really opposed a number of conditions that Western countries wanted in previous resolutions, such as sanctions, such as an embargo on arms sales to Syria. so what's happening right now behind closed doors is Britain, France, the United States and others are trying to work a compromise resolution that is strong enough that the Arab League and the Western countries will be satisfied and yet has some compromises in it so Russia won't veto.
REHMAnd Mark Mardell, does that mean that the Arab League observers are staying or leaving?
MARDELLWell, the Gulf ones have gone. They've said that they're certain that bloodshed would continue so they've pulled out. I think this plan, this is based on the Yemeni peace plan, the idea that Assad goes and turns over to the vice-president and then there are new elections. I don't think they really expect it to work, although the Tunisian prime minister said, we must not put walls around a tiger, four walls around a tiger, meaning that you've got to let him a way out.
MARDELLNow, I think what this is about according to Western diplomats is about Russia. Can they get Russia just a little bit on the side if they make compromises? I've got a copy of the resolution with lots of crossings out and adding's in. and they're trying to get Russia to cooperate to a certain degree and they feel that that, if Russia seems to be pulling away from Syria, pulling away from Assad, that will give some pressure on the regime. Not Assad himself, but others maybe.
REHMBut Russia is still sending in arms to Syria?
DREAZENThey're sending in arms and also they're sending in, as frankly are some Western countries, but equipment that Assad can use to eavesdrop electronically on phone calls to better monitor social media, to better monitor email. This was one of the interesting aftermaths of the Libya intervention. When that government fell and reporters and others were searching through the rubble of Gaddafi's various security forces they found all kinds of off the shelf Western, in some cases American software for monitoring Facebook, Twitter, hacking into Gmail chat rooms. That is happening in Syria as well. Some of those companies selling are Russians, some frankly, are Western.
LAKSHMANANSome of my investigative colleagues at Bloomberg have written about this, have uncovered a number of Western countries, Western companies, Italian companies but also some U.S. companies that were selling this kind of surveillance equipment to Syria, to Iran and to a number or repressive regimes. So it's something that's becoming even more of an issue in the crossover between business and government and there is pressure on these companies to stop doing that.
REHMWell, here you've got Iran facing isolation, further isolation, by the West trying to put a ban on EU imports of Iranian oil and Iran is fighting back, Indira.
LAKSHMANANYes, what has happened in the last three months with Iran sanctions has just been fascinating. You remember during the 2008 campaign how Hilary Clinton said that there needed to be crippling sanctions on Iran. Well, guess what, that's finally happening. The administration tried first to do the outreach, writing letters to the supreme leader. Apparently, nothing came of those efforts to have diplomatic engagement. The November 8th IAEA report came out raising questions about whether there were military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program and as a result what have you seen?
LAKSHMANANSince November 21, you've seen an incredible concerted campaign by the U.S. and its allies in the EU to impose financial sanctions, energy sanctions, shipping sanctions. I mean, the sanctions are to the point now with what was announced this week from Europe that basically tens of billions of dollars of otherwise completely legitimate trade, between the EU and Iran will now be virtually impossible.
MARDELLAnd this is not pain free for the European Union. 20 percent of their energy needs, oil comes from Iran. It's going to be particularly hard on Greece because Greece is a country which we all know is in a lot of financial trouble anyway, doesn't want to see its main source of energy of go and then the prices skyrocket. So it's got some minor concessions from within the European Union. But now it looks as though Iran is trying to say, right, well you've given a deadline of July for the current contracts. We're not going to have that, we're going to cut it off now. We're going to deal with now. So, I mean, they're being provocative and trying to the European Union back but I don't think that'll have any influence.
DREAZENI mean, it's basically the equivalent in some ways of, you can't fire me, I quit, on the part of Iran. They're saying forget you not want to buy it, we're not going to want to sell it. I just got back from the Emirates, from U.A.E, from Abu Dhabi in particular and there are two really fascinating things about Iran that were playing out there. One is, all the Gulf countries now are trying to figure out how much more can they sell. Not just as a money-making thing but to say to the EU, to say to Japan, which also gets a lot of its energy from Iran, don't worry about Iran being shut out, we can help you so that you're prices, domestically don't skyrocket.
DREAZENAnd you've seen there an Iranian countermove where Iran was openly threatening Saudi Arabia to say if you raise your capacity, rethink it. If you think that you want to sell more, rethink it. So you have this interesting inter-play between the U.S., Iran, EU, Iran, the Gulf States and Iran. The other thing that was really striking to me was every Emirati I spoke to without exception, military, civilian, business, didn't matter what strand of life, they all think there will be a bombing campaign this year and they were uniformly, some on the record, mostly off, uniformly supportive.
DREAZENAnd there wasn't daylight and I had heard that from other Emirati officials here, Saudi officials. In the wikileaks documents they're even more explicit, Saudi threats about Iran but something has changed. I don't know that this means their bomb's falling in six months, eight months, ten months, but something has changed in terms of the uniformity, at least in the Emirates and possibly in Saudi, towards bombing.
REHMAnd where are those bombs going to come from Yochi?
DREAZENThey assume Israel and they -- again, the support within the Emirates towards Israel, within Saudi Arabia towards Israel is very striking to me with the presumption that at some point the U.S. gets involved as well, if only because they'll blamed anyway so they might as well make sure it works.
LAKSHMANANIt's not surprising that Gulf-Arab states are really concerned about this. They live right next to Iran, they're fearful of Iran. This is not for them, this is not the beginning. This is a fear they've been living with for years and they are finally, let's say, getting more of a hearing in Washington and in the EU about their concerns about Iran and it's proliferation and the fear of it perhaps developing a nuclear weapon.
LAKSHMANANWhat I find interesting is we did a Bloomberg quarterly poll that just came out yesterday that I just wrote about, showing that actually a majority of worldwide investors and money managers and traders don't believe that there's going to be a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities this year.
LAKSHMANANBut what was interesting among that is if you look at the cross tabs and the divides of U.S. respondents versus overseas respondents, the U.S. respondents by, okay majority, by 57 percent, thought that if Iran were to get a nuclear weapon, it would necessitate action in a military strike to take it out, whereas many fewer people, a minority overseas felt that way. So it's interesting, the whole perception of what kind of military action, if any, is going to happen.
MARDELLBut the problem is, leaving aside the diplomatic issues of what would happen and the moral issues. Everybody I talked to suggests that it wouldn't actually work. A recent Israeli report said it wouldn't set back the nuclear program by a year even. It would be a couple of months and most of the military people I talked to here, I don't know if you got a different perception on it, but say that it's very difficult to do, it's very difficult to get at these underground facilities...
REHMEspecially if they move into protected territory?
DREAZENRight. So, I mean, so the conventional wisdom for a long time has been that argument that the best you could do is delay that hitting it is hard, which it is, especially for Israel because the length involved. What you're hearing though, especially among Gulf security officials but also among Israeli and to a degree, American, is that it took around 20 years to build these facilities. That was when they had money that was when they were largely unsanctioned. These facilities are not sort of buy off the shelf nuclear facilities. These are cobbled together Russian parts, French parts, German parts. Now, their money supply has been hit, the sanctions have made their ability to buy parts and import them very difficult. So if you destroy them it isn't a question of setting it back a year or two years, it could be five, 10 years because of the difficulty of replacing it.
REHMYochi Dreazen, he's senior National Security correspondent for National Journal magazine. We'll take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk more about hot spots around the world, including Somalia. Stay with us.
REHMAnd just before the break, we were talking about the possibility of Iran's gaining nuclear weapons. Indira, you just moderated a debate on this very issue.
LAKSHMANANYeah, just yesterday with three different experts talking about what are the possibilities of containing or preventing an Iranian nuclear capability. Or if it were to get one, what is the possibility of -- let's say of a preventive strike to take it out. And what's interesting is that even within the defense community in the United States there are divisions within U.S. defense and intelligence over how far you could set back the program.
LAKSHMANANNow Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, has recently said that at most it would set back the program three years -- Iran's nuclear program three years. On the other hand, remember there's a difference between what the military capacity is of Israel versus the military capacity of the United States in terms of a preventive strike. And the U.S. has certain weaponry that Israel does not including some serious bunker busters. Let's not forget that the facility underground in Qom is under 90 meters of rock. That's serious. And so there's a question of could an Israeli strike even address any advance centrifuges that were underground?
LAKSHMANANBut I think a whole other question that we haven't even touched is if there were a military strike to take out Iran's nuclear program, what about the huge repercussions internationally in terms of asymmetrical warfare? Iran could unleash Hamas, Hezbollah and all sorts of other, you know -- they could attack U.S. interests throughout the Middle East and the world. So that's a big concern.
REHMAnd the question we cannot answer is, how real is this threat right now, Yochi?
DREAZENRight. And that's exactly right. The debates about how close they are to having what's called breakout capability, which means when they have all the material, all the knowhow to build a bomb, but have not yet built a bomb. So one, we don't know how close they are to that point. Two, there is a debate about have they made the final decision to build the bomb.
DREAZENAnd Israel believes the answer unquestionably is yes. And within the U.S. there's a divide, the Pentagon slightly more (word?) on it, the CIA slightly less so. It's interesting though, a small tidbit. The bunker buster bombs that Indira just mentioned, Israel had asked George Bush to sell those to Israel right before he left office. He said no. Obama, for all this talk of tension between Israel and the U.S. said yes. So Israel does have an extensive number of bunker busters sold by the Obama Administration, not the Bush Administration.
MARDELLYou can't just say this is a technological question of setting back the program. A lot of this pressure must be political...
MARDELL...to either reverse if the decision has been made, or prevent that decision from being made. And of course the Iranian regime is fractured within. It is under an enormous amount of pressure.
REHMI was about to ask how the Ayatollahs feel as opposed to the President Ahmadinejad.
MARDELLAs I see it, and I'm no expert, Ahmadinejad is keener on this than the Ayatollahs. (unintelligible) if you'd go along with that, but I think that just because of the fractures within the regime and the arguments between them have got nothing to do with the nuclear program whatsoever, about the internal politics of Iran. I'm sure the State Department sees putting pressure there and trying to get regime change within Iran of its own volition if you like, is the way they would much prefer than dropping bombs.
LAKSHMANANAnd there are divisions in Iran in its internal political leadership right now, the likes of which people have -- say they have not seen since the beginning of the Islamic Republic. And so this is an uncertain time. I mean, let's not forget also that the opposition that we saw during the green movement a years ago is as well fractured, has been put down. So you can't really count a lot on that. But even internally within Iran, and we're coming up to parliamentary elections, there are a lot of divisions in the leadership. And so I think it's not at all clear what they've decided to do.
LAKSHMANANAnd that's part of the problem. You're gambling. Any decision-making you make, you don't really know what the thinking is.
REHMAll right. And the other night when the president walked in to deliver his State of the Union Address, he said a few words to Leon Panetta, which we learned later were words of congratulations, good job. And then the next day we learned why, Mark.
MARDELLYes, indeed. It was about the rescue of an American and Danish hostages in Somalia. The operation -- sort of operation that Obama talked about when bin Laden was killed, it was the same team. The Seal team that went in, dropped by helicopter from a neighboring base in a neighboring country and dealt with the -- killing I think eight of the hostage takers. I mean, this wasn't an antiterrorist action. It was almost like they're a criminal gang.
MARDELLBut it's the sort of operation -- I think the importance of this, I mean, it's something that Obama could celebrate. And I think domestically the importance is when a lot of people on the Republican side say he's weak, he's doing something that is actually pretty risky. But also I think it is the way that not just he, but the Pentagon want to go in the future. We've seen with the recent defense cuts. What they're talking -- they're talking of lily pad bases, bases that can be quickly established and then dismantled in hotspots around the world.
REHMWell, I haven't heard that phrase, lily pad bases.
DREAZENYeah, it's one that was -- it was in some of the media counts. It actually is not one that was either in the strategic items or that frankly is used widely. But the point that Mark was making is right, that the idea is to try to have places around the country -- around the world where you could have small special operations forces based there or rotating through there.
DREAZENI thought the other aspect of this beyond -- as was indicated, Obama's wanted to do things that are incredibly high risk. I mean, it's worth remembering the last time there was an effort to free a Western hostage, which was in Afghanistan. I happened to be there during the time and she was killed, actually by members of the team very much like this one. They threw a grenade thinking that it was going to kill one of the kidnappers. It actually killed her. So these missions are extraordinarily high risk.
DREAZENA previous mission by the British special operations forces a British -- one of their commandos was killed. So to pull this off without any casualties is remarkable. Also you get a sense of his poker face. I mean, before the bin Laden stuff came out, he was at the White House correspondents dinner. There's a joke about bin Laden. He was laughing. Bob Gates was laughing. They knew by that point that the raid was under way. This thing he had this -- the cameras picked up him saying, good job tonight. Good job. No one really knew what to make of it, but he knew. Obviously, Panetta knew. Not a word of it leaked. It's kind of incredible.
LAKSHMANANI was just going to say that it's also important, though, to remember that, you know, while people are celebrating raids like this -- and of course it's fantastic to get hostages out. It also does imperil the lives of other hostages who are still being held. And let's not forget that there's an American freelance journalist who was recently taken hostage in northern Somalia. And apparently after this raid pirates moved him at least three times within 24 hours and threatened his life and said, if any similar attempt is made to free him that they're all going to go down. That they're going to kill him and, you know, that he won't survive.
LAKSHMANANNow I was a correspondent in Bogotá, Colombia for a few years. And that's another country that has suffered with thousands and thousands of kidnappings and people being kept in captivity for many, many years. And what struck me about this raid was it reminded me of the Colombian government's efforts and successful raid to free Ingrid Betancourt who had been a presidential candidate who had been held for something like seven years, as well as some American contractors -- three American contractors and a number of others.
LAKSHMANANThe point is that all these raids are, you know, very high payoff if they work, but very high risk. And the risks remain for them hundreds, or in cases of countries like Colombia, thousands of other people who are still being held hostage.
MARDELLAnd they are police actions essentially. They do nothing to cope with the problem of a failed state and the piracy that goes on there. And the people are seeking -- looking for ways of dealing with that and it's not easy, of course.
REHMIndeed not easy, but as you said, Mark, indicative of the way this administration has decided to move forward with a reduced defense budget.
DREAZENAnd one of the only things about this raid that is still not yet known was whether these guys were asleep. Some of the pirates who were interviewed in and around Somalia basically said they were either stoned or sleeping or both, or whether there was any exchange of gunfire. Most of the things that we're hearing here was that there was no exchange of gunfire. There may have been a single shot fired and then they were all killed.
DREAZENThere's one particularly chilling -- honest, but sort of chilling comment that came out of the Pentagon. They said that the initial plan was for these Delta Force and SEAL team commandos to go in -- it was not only SEAL Team Six -- capture the kidnappers and leave with them. And that was the initial plan, was not to kill them. And then in the phrase of one of the Pentagon's spokespeople, that option did not present itself. All of these guys were killed. There may not have been a shot fired. So it is, in many ways, a police action, but this is also, as with previous raids, they're going to kill, not to take people out.
REHMAll right. Let's talk about Egypt. I know you've been there recently, Yochi, and the tens of thousands of people who turned out in Tahrir Square to mark the anniversary of that day. The question is the military stayed away, but what has the revolt accomplished?
DREAZENI think that's the $64 billion question. It's amazing having, you know, been on this show not long after this happened a year or so ago, the difference in feel and mood. When that happened, there was euphoria there, there was euphoria here. For the White House, this was a sign that you could have peaceful Democrat transition. It could be a sort of beacon to other Arab states.
DREAZENFlash forward a year, you had horrible violence in Libya, ongoing violence in Bahrain and in Syria. And now in Egypt, the things that have been feared are intuitively what's happening. The military shows no real desire to give up power. Or if it does, to keep as much of its existing power as it can. The Muslim Brotherhood is playing a very savvy game. On the one hand, they're still signaling support for the protestors. On the other hand, they don't take part in the protests.
DREAZENMeanwhile, they're amassing more and more power, won a huge number of seats in the election, have some sort of detente with the military. So the fear of the protestors then and the fear in the U.S. then is now what there are signs may be happening, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military each figuring they can divide power in some way. That may be what's happening now a year on.
LAKSHMANANI think it's really interesting to see what the military has done to fulfill promises of stepping back from leadership. Now the Egyptian military ruler, Field Marshal Tantawi just announced this week that he would lift Egypt's hated emergency law. Now, let's keep in mind that's not an emergency law that has just been in place for the past year. It was in place for many, many years under Mubarak and abused by the Mubarak Regime. And what was interesting was he lifted it, but with one important caveat, which is it was still going to remain in cases of thuggery. Thuggery, okay. Who defines...
REHMAnd who -- exactly.
LAKSHMANAN...who defines thuggery?
LAKSHMANANWhat's a thug? So what a lot of the young activists have said is this is ridiculous. It's basically leaving the law in place because the police can then say anyone's a thug, anyone who they want to round up. Use -- and all the same powers remain to be used against thugs. So of course, you could declare the democracy activists or young people are thugs. It just depends on the situation.
LAKSHMANANAnd as Yochi had talked about, the Muslim Brotherhood has played a very smart game. And what they have said is, oh we praise the lifting of this because we believe that parliament will be able to define what thuggery is. And so, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood has the greatest number of seats. Perhaps they could define it, but let's not forget this same rule was used against them. For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood was the biggest victim of the imposition of this rule. And how are they going to define it? I think that's a big question.
REHMAnd meanwhile, the trial of Mubarak continues as he lies almost in state.
MARDELLYes. And the people in Tahrir Square are asking for a demanding justice there. And I think that's going to be an important element of the way it goes forward. But just to go back to the point about the military. I was struck, my reading about a Gallup poll that suggests 63 percent think the military should move aside. Well, that's a large majority. But 89 percent have confidence in the army council. And I just wanted to -- you see these masses of people in the demonstration demanding democracy and the way -- I understand Tahrir Square is now split from sort of one speaker to lots of different speakers and lots of different views.
MARDELLDemocracy is messy, but part of democracy may be that some people actually do back the army, to agree with them.
REHMMark Mardell of the BBC and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What about military aid from the U.S. for Egypt, Indira?
LAKSHMANANYeah, that's fascinating because let's not forget that U.S. military aid to Egypt has basically been a condition of the Camp David Accord. So for decades the U.S. has been giving a certain amount of military aid to Egypt as well as to Israel. Currently it's $1.3 billion. And for the first time this week the Obama Administration openly threatened that aid because of this crackdown against a number of nongovernmental organizations, prodemocracy groups, including three U.S.-based groups.
LAKSHMANANAnd apparently what brought this to a head was the authorities in Egypt barring the departure from the airport of six U.S. employees of these nongovernment organizations including the son of Ray LaHood, the cabinet secretary for transportation. So that's fascinating because his son is the head of the International Republican Institute in Cairo.
LAKSHMANANAnd what the Egyptian government says is, well we have these laws on the books and NGOs have to comply with these laws. And until such laws are changed -- we had -- at Bloomberg we had the Egyptian Ambassador in for an interview this month. And he basically justified it by saying, look okay, these laws maybe need to be changed, but they're not changed yet. And until then the NGOs need to abide by these laws. And this is merely a judicial action, it's nothing political.
LAKSHMANANThe question is, if you're enforcing laws like this and raiding the offices of foreign NGOs then you do raise the question of whether you're meeting the standard for military aid of, you know, human rights and democracy. And that's specifically what the Obama Administration brought up this week, that they might not be meeting that standard this year.
DREAZENDiane, you made the comment before that was exactly right, that there's this weird kind of bizarre sort of grizzly image of Mubarak who does frankly look dead in these wraparound sunglasses being brought in by this burly guys and put behind a cage. To my mind this sort of grim irony of all this is the crackdown in Egypt is bloody, 800 or 1,000 people died. It could've been much bloodier. We saw how many people were killed in Libya, which is a far smaller country, how many people have been killed in Syria, a far smaller country.
DREAZENSo I find it sort of ironic in a very depressing way that the leader who gave up power most quickly with the least amount of bloodshed is also the only leader who frankly has survived, but who could have made this much more of a drawn out massacre than he did is the only one who of that crowd is now on trial.
REHMSo what are you suggesting?
DREAZENI just think that we often make quick conclusions about things that then prove wrong. I think that the quick conclusion about Mubarak early on -- if you remember like when the protests first broke out there was all this latent hatred of Mubarak that was expressed, not just there, but here, that sure he was an American ally, but he was a thug, he was trying to groom his son and on and on and on. But there were good things to his rule that were forgotten, just like there were bad things to the rule of Assad that had long been forgotten. And when you flash forward a year some of those things come into sharper relief.
DREAZENA very quick point on another of our American quasi success stories in the Middle East, with as many air quotes around this as I can. Lost in all the stuff from Syria, all the stuff from Egypt is that Iraq is now setting records daily, weekly and monthly for the number of prisoners executed. And Human Rights Watch and other organizations have put out reports that have gotten zero pick up in the U.S. because there's so much other stuff going on.
DREAZENBut I think it's also worth just highlighting, it isn't just Egypt where we've given a lot of money for unsure results. We've given tens of billions of dollars to the Iraqis. They're killing, in some cases, 35 people a day, 65 people a day. Never clear what the charges are, never clear where they're buried. So there too we should be a bit humble here about what we can do over there.
REHMIndira, you would agree?
LAKSHMANANYeah, I mean, I think that it's difficult because of U.S. is walking a fine line. I mean, remember a year ago we were all talking about whether, oh well, he's a dictator, but he's our dictator. And the realists were all talking about whether it made sense to support Mubarak. And Obama was even criticized by some people for having thrown him under the bus. And if you remember, Saudi Arabia's leaders were concerned that this was the kind of ally that the United States was, that it was willing to throw its longtime Middle Eastern allies under the bus.
LAKSHMANANIt is a question now -- I mean, I think he makes an excellent point and what are we looking at now? I mean, I think that the question is we're looking for a democratic transition. And it'll be interesting to watch which way it goes.
REHMIndira Lakshmanan of Bloomberg News.
REHMAnd just before we open the phones, I want to ask about Yemen's President Saleh. Do we know where he is right now, Yochi?
DREAZENWe don't. I mean, what I was told before we started the show was that he is in or around Oman en route to the U.S. with the presumption that when he gets here, like many Arab leaders before him, he'll go straight to the Mayo Clinic, which is also where King Hussein had been treated when he was dying of cancer.
DREAZENObviously, the interesting thing about all this is, does our welcoming him to the U.S. for medical treatment no matter how grudgingly, help or hurt how we are seen in the Arab world? When Jimmy Carter allowed the Shah in for treatment, that's obviously held up as the horrible example of what can go wrong. Theoretically, if this allows him to leave power more quickly, if it greases the skids a little bit towards the next election, it's certainly a worthwhile thing to do. But that's kind of the question always of medical care.
REHMAll right, to Columbia, Mo. Good morning, Steve.
STEVEGood morning, thank you for taking my call.
STEVEI'd like to comment on the lack of reporting in the U.S. media about the fact that Russia has deployed an aircraft carrier and a number of other military vessels to Syria and has also sold them 72 of its latest, most modern, supersonic anti-ship missiles. So taken in the context of a discussion about U.S. military intervention in Iran or NATO intervention in Syria, I think it's really important to consider the ramifications of where we're essentially paving the way for a direct military conflict with Russia.
STEVEAnd I think Russia has put these vessels there particularly with NATO in mind because, you know, they didn't like what happened in Libya and they're tired of what's going on with, they're more or less being left out of the ballistic missile defense discussion in Europe and in my mind they're drawing a line in the sand or the water wherever you like and saying no, you can't come in here and if you do there's going to be military consequences.
REHMWhat do you think Mark Mardell?
MARDELLI think that the Russians are concerned about the situation in Syria. I don't think they're preparing for any sort of military conflict. As I said earlier, that their attitude to Syria and whether they would withdraw their support is crucial. They don't want NATO involvement in Syria, but more importantly than that, neither does NATO. I don't think there's going to be any sort of Western military intervention in Syria.
MARDELLThat is almost beyond doubt unless something unimaginable happens because they know what a tinderbox it is. That is precisely why because you could get Russia drawn in perhaps, but you certainly might get Iran drawn in. You might get Israel drawn in and that is why they're not contemplating the sort of intervention that took place in Libya even though the change of regime in Syria is a much bigger prize for the West than what happened in Libya which in a sense was irrelevant.
REHMHere's an email question: "If a group of countries bombed the economic infrastructure of another country it would be an act of war. If the U.S. and European countries destroy Iran's ability to do business by blocking their ability to use the international banking system, isn't this an act of war? Wouldn't this justify Iran retaliating by blocking the Strait of Hormuz or other actions?" Indira?
LAKSHMANANWell it's certainly true that Iran, that certain Iranian officials, now this has not come as an official statement from the government, but certain Iranian officials have threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz through which let's not forget 20 percent of the world's globally-traded oil transits every day. So it's a key choke point and it's something that nobody wants to see blocked off.
LAKSHMANANThat said, I have been told that this is not really a serious threat from people who have good contacts with the Iranian government. I've heard that this is rhetoric, but it's not something that Iran probably is going to follow through on and again I don't think it's something that world leaders expect Iran to follow through. And let's remember that when those threats first came out the U.S. defense community was very strong in saying we have all the means to keep the Strait of Hormuz open.
LAKSHMANANThey were very clear about that and the U.S. pays for major patrols through the Strait of Hormuz to keep it open so that's not something that I would really worry about. But the other question, the larger question about whether economic sanctions are an act of war, probably a good question for a legal scholar, but it's certainly the way that Iran views it. I think Iran believes that there is an economic war going on waged by the United States and the West against them right now so I think the writer's question definitely gets at something.
REHMAll right, to Flagstaff, Ariz. Good morning, John.
JOHNGood morning, you have a great show Diane.
REHMThank you, John.
JOHNHere is my concern. There seems to be two sets of rules in the Middle East, one set of rules for Israel and one set of rules for Iran. Iran right now has zero nuclear warheads and the estimates range from 80 to 206 nuclear warheads in Israel. How do we understand this discrepancy and perhaps it would be better for Israel to disarm and make the whole area safer? I'll take your response off the air, thank you.
REHMThanks for calling. Yochi?
DREAZENIt's a fair point. That's a question that is raised constantly in the Arab world even among some of Israel's allies. You hear it in Turkey in particular and you also hear it in Europe. From the U.S. point of view the answer is a simple one. Iran has been at various points directly or indirectly hostile towards the U.S. funneling weaponry to Iraq, threatening its neighbors including threatening the existence of Israel. Israel has not. It's a close ally to democratic countries. It has never made any similar threat to eradicate a country in the way that Iran has towards Israel.
DREAZENThat said, that question is not going away. That's a question that is being asked more and more and more as a possibility of a military strike seems more and more probable.
MARDELLAnd I think it's an important question to ask in the West and think about the answer because of course you have different standards for your allies to your enemies, that's obvious. But as you just said, there is such a feeling in the region and among Muslims beyond that region that why do you treat us differently to Israel? Why have you got different standards for some countries? And I think that, you know, it would be better if America and the European Union had an answer to that.
REHMAll right. And let's go now to Charlotte, N.C. Frank, you have a question?
FRANKAh yes, I have a question and a comment. Okay I have a 1978 Americana Encyclopedia and when the Iranians were our friends according to a geologist's report the United States made, that they'd done, that Iran does not have a large quantity of uranium ore the same way that Iraq didn't. Okay so in order for them, it takes 50 tons to make one nuclear weapon, of uranium ore. That's what you have to have in order to produce enough uranium to make a bomb. Okay they don't have that. Where are they getting it from?
FRANKAnd wouldn't it be easier for our president to fly over there and put his hand out to the Supreme Leader the same way that Sadat did with Israel back in whenever it was '73 or whatever? And go there and make friends with (word?) instead of talking about killing people all the time.
REHMAll right. Thanks for your call. You know, it's interesting because the president said initially he would sit down with any foreign leader and talk and so our caller raises a good question, Indira?
LAKSHMANANWell, the White House has sent letters at the beginning...
LAKSHMANAN...of the Obama administration addressed to the Supreme Leader and they say that they never got any response from this so there were efforts made to reach out, not to the president because I think there's a perception in the administration that Ahmadinejad is not the real power in Iran, that the real power is the Ayatollah and so the effort was made.
LAKSHMANANNow diplomacy hasn't worked. The question is some people say that the United States needs to be more creative in its efforts at diplomacy and whether that means thinking of a new way to sit down with the Iranians, a new way to get back to negotiations. Now one topic that has come up recently is the question of if Iran does come back to nuclear negotiations as they have indicated that now they might be willing to do, what could the West possibly give them that would make them abandon any military aspects of their program that they may have?
LAKSHMANANAnd one thing, one argument I've heard is give them the chance to do uranium enrichment for energy and medical purposes. That's one concession that some have suggested. Others have said that's impossible because once you concede the uranium enrichment they could always, you know, go beyond 20 percent and enrich up to the 90 percent needed for a bomb. So that's a delicate question.
LAKSHMANANI've heard others say that the United States needs to break out of this box of the P5 plus one, the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and just do bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran and that those might be more effective.
MARDELLYou do want. I mean, does Iran really need nuclear energy with the amount of oil that it's got? I mean, would there be any point in that? That's one of the reasons people don't believe that they are.
LAKSHMANANWell there's also the question though, are they doing it to try to protect themselves? I mean, they look at what's happened to other leaders who didn't have nuclear weapons like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and they look at leaders who do have nuclear weapons like Kim Jong-il who survived until he died of natural causes and that may also be their catalyst that they see it as a defense.
REHMAll right, to Belleville, Ill. Good morning Paul.
PAULThank you, I wanted to ask about the cancellation or postponement of the U.S. joint military activities. There is at least four news items circulating about who asked for it to be delayed and whether it is any kind of gesture, an open-hand to Iran in any way. But I also have comments about Mubarak. Nobody is talking about this larcenist gas line, pipeline deal, where it was getting gas 40 percent below the world standard of cost and Gamal Mubarak was getting 5 percent off the top.
PAULI also have a comment. I'm sorry for going on, but Mr. Dreazen said that there was unanimity in the Gulf States. I think he talks to the elite. If you look at the polls that I've seen the street does not call for an attack on Iran, in fact many of them are actually for the Iran bomb as long as Israel has one.
REHMAll right, thanks for your call. Yochi?
DREAZENIf I could take the last question in reverse order, actually on this last trip I was most of the time not with the elites. I mean, there were meetings and interviews which were -- but these conversations were with hotel staff. These were with people who I met in restaurants. This was not simply the generals running the country. I don't dispute the point the caller made that there are certainly broad swaths of the average Emirati population, the average Saudi population which do not favor strike. On the other hand it's not the average Emirati who orders a strike. It's not the average Saudi who decides whether their land can be used for re-fueling Israel warplanes.
DREAZENYou know, that said, it's a real question. The question of blowback isn't simply one about will there be attacks on Israel? Will there be attacks on Jewish targets around the world. It will be what happens to U.S. standing in the region if Israel bombs, if the U.S. bombs? How do Sunni gulf states that have clamored for it now, how do they actually respond after the bombing?
REHMAll right. Oklahoma City, good morning, Eric.
ERICI am just wondering if since Iran really wants an energy source and they want to use nuclear energy can we not give them clean energy like solar or wind turbines, send it over to them and then basically, you don't need nuclear power anymore if we're supplementing with the clean energy.
MARDELLWell, as I was indicating earlier I don't think this is really about energy and I don't think many experts do. I mean, it's got enough carbon resources to last for years and years and I don't think Iran needs either nuclear or green energy particularly.
REHMMark Mardell of the BBC and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To West Palm Beach, Fla. good morning Giuseppe.
GIUSEPPEGood morning, Diane, and good morning everybody in the studio, it's an honor.
GIUSEPPEI am listening to the show and everybody, not just in the show, but also in this Republican debate on television, they are talking about bombing the installation, the nuclear installation in Iran. Now the problem is not about bombs, the problem is what about after bombing? What about the radiation and what about the repercussions of the radiation in this area and even out of this area?
REHMThat's what you were talking about earlier Indira, the ramifications of any kind of bombing?
LAKSHMANANRight, it sounds like the caller is making a specific point about nuclear radiation coming from the facilities themselves. There's certainly that concern and magnify that by the concern of what would the geo-political fallout and any reaction from Iran not to mention Iran's allies, not to mention proxies and terrorist groups, not to mention even friendly allies to the U.S. whereas we were indicating people on the street in the Arab or the Muslim world are not going to feel thrilled I think about an attack on another country.
LAKSHMANANAnd let's not forget a couple of Iranian-American experts were telling me that they believe that any kind of a strike on Iran would also cause Iranians, ordinary Iranian citizens to rally around the flag. It's not as if ordinary Iranians, even those who are opposed to the regime are going to like the idea of their country taking a military hit.
DREAZENI think, there too, though, that has been, it's been the conventional wisdom for a long time and again has validity to it, but there's another way of looking at that same coin. For the first time since this all began the sanctions are hitting the Iranian upper class, middle class and business class very, very hard. The Iranian currency is at record lows against the dollar, against the euro, against the yen. Iranians are trying to buy American dollars in enormous quantities as a hedge because they fear their currency is going to fall even more sharply.
DREAZENIf this bombing campaign were targeted, if casualties were minimum, those are both big ifs, it's not clear to me at all that you would see the sort of projected rally around the flag that everyone in that sort of argument presumes you would see.
MARDELLI think that we've been here before in a way that everything is focused on military action. Can that be won? Can it be successful in military terms? And then nobody thinks ahead about the consequences.
MARDELLI think the diplomatic fallout would be huge.
REHMAnd what about or what might we expect from Davos this year as the debate is on capitalism and its future, Mark?
MARDELLWell from that very snowy, pretty, little Swiss town the mood is apparently less optimistic than it was last year, but not quite as bad as the year before, but people are very nervous about what's going on. The IMF has come up with a rather gloomy report saying that global recovery is sort of stalled and that Europe will go into a mild recession. But the argument is still going to be about what happens to the euro-zone, that's the immediate...
MARDELLYes, and I was struck by the speech by the German leader, Angela Merkel, saying we need a big rethink and David Cameron, the British prime minister saying we need bold and decisive action. I thought well something is really moving here, really going on, but when you look in detail at those speeches, they're stuck in their little boxes. Cameron is sort of urging what British Conservatives always said about Europe, less red tape and he's also saying that you want to firewall around the euro, but Merkel is not giving that.
REHMMark Mardell of the BBC, Indira Lakshmanan on Bloomberg News and Yochi Dreazen of National Journal, thank you all so much.
REHMHave a great weekend, thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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