Editor’s Note: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently released a report suggesting that Iran is still seeking to develop nuclear weapons. In an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Robert Kagan discusses options for addressing the country’s nuclear ambitions, and examines what Iran having nuclear weapons would mean for politics in the region.
NEAL CONAN (NPR): Well, we want to focus on what’s the least best option for dealing with Iran. […] We begin with Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Foreign Policy Program, also an advisor to the campaign of GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney, though he speaks for himself here. And Robert Kagan, nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.
ROBERT KAGAN: Thanks for having me.
CONAN: What’s the least bad option?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAGAN: You know, all the options are bad. I think we have to think about what it means for Iran to get a nuclear weapon and work backwards from there. I think there’s a couple of things we know for sure, especially after all the turmoil of the Arab spring.
I think the odds are very high that Saudi Arabia would turn to getting itself a nuclear weapon and perhaps other countries in the region, as well. So we really are talking about not just Iran getting nuclear weapons but the nuclear weapons proliferating throughout the region.
At a time when America’s sort of commitment to allies in the region is under question, not necessarily deservedly so because a lot of this has to do with what’s happened in the Arab spring, the further step of Iran sort of winning in this battle to get a nuclear weapon could have a very unsettling effect on the region.
And then of course, as you say, as you mentioned, there is what is Israel going to do. So when you add all that up, I think the least bad option, obviously, is to convince the Iranians not to do it, if you can, through tougher sanctions and international isolation. that’s going to be difficult. But the least bad option may in fact, at the end of the day, be some kind of military action undertaken, I would say preferably by the United States, not by Israel.
CONAN: We’re talking airstrikes. Nobody’s talking invasion.
KAGAN: Well, I think you have to think about that going in. Obviously, things don’t end necessarily the way you want them to. I wonder whether the military’s views may be changing a little bit for a couple of reasons. One is – ironically, the impending withdrawal from Iraq. One of the reasons the military’s been very wary of getting into a conflict with Iran is worry about what they might do to U.S. troops in Iraq.
Well, as it happens, starting in January of next year, there won’t be any American troops in Iraq. That’s one thing. The other thing is the military’s gotten very upset with Iran, to say the least, because of activities by Iranian-backed elements, if not Iranian elements themselves, killing American troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
I think, obviously, no one wants to send in 500,000 troops to Iran, but the possibility of an airstrike, especially with the capabilities the United States has, I agree with you, you have to think about the next step that might have to be taken. I wonder whether the calculations might be shifting a little bit.
CONAN: One of the effects you could guarantee is an immense spike in the price of oil.
KAGAN: Which apparently is deterring the administration at the moment, even from moving ahead with another round of unilateral sanctions against the central bank. There is this concern, at a time of economic difficulty in the world, precisely about a spike in oil prices.
[The U.S. seeks] to portray Iran as a criminal enterprise, not just as another bad country but as a rogue state that is engaged in horrible crimes across the region.... We are moving from a position of accommodation to one of confrontation across multiple fronts.
[T]here is a wider consensus about the undesirability of Iran’s missile activities than there is about how to respond.