The upcoming US and Israeli elections have ignited speculation about possible military action against Iran. A newly-released report claims that such a strike would only motivate Iran to build nuclear weapons.
RT met with the co-author of this report, Dr. Austin Long , associate professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, to talk about the Iranian nuclear threat and any potential military action.
RT: The Bipartisan group of national security action are the authors and signatories of this extensive report. According to your findings is Iran’s nuclear program currently a threat to the US?
Austin Long: At present it is not a threat to the United States. Iran’s nuclear program is under International Atomic Agency Inspections. According to the US national security committee, weapons have been suspended. So at present Iran’s nuclear program is not a major threat to United States. The concern is that it could very rapidly become one.
RT: How rapidly?
AL: In less than a year according to some estimates, other estimates more than a year. Depends on what you are talking about, the production of fissile material, the highly enriched uranium for a bomb, or an actual deliverable weapon. A deliverable weapon would take longer, production of fissile material could within a few months produce enough for a bomb.
RT: Within a few weeks America will be heading to the polls to vote for a president. Many believe that Israel has seen this time as a window of opportunity to strike Iran dragging the US into a war. Is there still a threat that it would do so in remaining weeks?
AL: The concern about a possible Israeli strike was higher a few weeks ago. Israelis are now dissolving their parliament and calling for new elections on January 22. This changes a lot of previous calculation. People that thought the Israeli government might act before the US election, now tend to believe they will wait until at least after the US elections if not actually after the new Israeli elections.
RT: Opinions vary but do you believe that Iran has an intention to acquire nuclear arms?
AL: It’s a big question I don’t think anyone can give a highly confident answer to. Does Iran want what some people refer to as a threshold capability, in other words this ability to produce nuclear weapons quite quickly, or do they want an actual deployed weapon? According to the US intelligence community and most of the observers Iran just has not made this decision yet. In part because they don’t need to. They want to get to that threshold capability before they make any decisions about whether to go further than that threshold because there is no point to make this decision early. In fact it might be detected by Western intelligence and you can tip your hand before you get to that threshold. So I think that decision has not been made.
RT: You don’t seem to be putting the threat level of Iran’s nuclear program as high as some US officials. The Republican candidates for example have been in past weeks essentially saying that Iran is a very grave threat. Are they exaggerating that with all this rhetoric?
AL: I don’t think there is a tremendous amount of exaggeration that Iran is a threat generally. The United States and Iran have had pretty hostile relationship for more than three decades now. They had problematic relations in the Gulf. They’ve had conflict via proxies in Iraq. So I think it is not wrong to say Iran is a threat, the question is if Iran’s nuclear program is a real threat to the United States at the present, and it isn’t at the present. But the concern is that it can very quickly become a threat.
RT: According to the findings of your report, an extended US military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities whether alone or in cooperation with Israel could set back Iran’s nuclear program four years, but it still would not guarantee that Iran wouldn’t eventually acquire a nuclear bomb. Why is that?
AL: It is because of the technology Iran already has. Some pieces and parts they need to acquire from overseas, but unless you can guarantee that you can kill off everyone in Iran, who has knowledge of these programs and their ability to produce these basic components, you can`t guarantee that the program can never be restarted. So you can destroy what they already have now but their ability to rebuild that even if it can take a very long time to rebuild that`s what can`t be destroyed.
RT: What kind of long term military commitment would the US have to make to ensure that Iran would never be able to build a nuclear bomb?
AL: It would be similar to what happened in Iraq. The only way to ensure a country does not acquire nuclear weapon is to forcibly change the regime and go on the ground, occupy it. That’s the only way to 100 per cent be sure that the current Iranian regime never acquires nuclear weapon.
RT: So we are talking about a ten year war. Lots of casualties?
AL: Potentially it could be. Iran is a larger country than both Iraq and Afghanistan combined, so you are talking about a war that would certainly be on that scale whether it’d be ten times harder, not quite as hard, who knows. But it would be a very substantial military commitment.
RT: Should the US be concerned about Iran’s unconventional war capabilities?
AL: The United States should definitely be concerned about Iran’s unconventional war capabilities. By its nature it is harder to define what their unconventional war capabilities are. You can count airplanes, you can count missiles. Unconventional is a little harder to judge, but Iran has a robust capability for unconventional war. They have special operations forces, they have clandestine services. They have a variety of capabilities to conduct attacks not in a typical military way.
RT: Is this really just a problem for Israel – Iran`s possible determination of acquiring nuclear weapons? Or is it a problem for the US as well?
AL: This is a problem for the entire world. Certainly, the entire world has asked Iran to clarify its intensions and has taken steps. But it is much bigger problem for Israel, than the United States, for no other reason than proximity and size. Israel in terms of populations is about the size of New York. Geographically it is quite small, it is quite close. So I think, it is a much bigger problem for Israel than it is for the United States. But it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for the United States and the rest of the world.
RT: How much would war with Iran cost the US economy?
AL: It’s very difficult to tell but our estimates are that even a modest war would hurt the US economy in part because it would drive up the oil prices. Even modest in terms of duration spike in oil prices would certainly damage the US economy. If it were a longer, extended commitment and big disruption in oil it would be much more. And then there is an actual dollar figure to conduct the operations: flying planes, dropping bombs. These things are not incredibly expensive but neither are they cheap. There would be a substantial cost.
RT: Here is the question politicians always refuse to answer. Does Israel have nuclear weapons capacity?
AL: It is something the Israelis have been opaque on. Most outside observers would say that Israel has nuclear weapons capacity, even if it’s one that has never been deployed or tested.
RT: How much do you think the upcoming Israeli elections will play into the conflict with Iran?
AL: The upcoming Israeli elections will hinge heavily on what to do about Iran. The Netanyahu government will have some decisions to make. They could be very bold and take action as a care taker government, most observers don’t think they will and in fact a lot of the campaign will be about what to do about the Iranian nuclear program. It’ll be a huge issue in determining the future of the Israeli-Iranian relations.
RT: If Israel has a stockpile of nuclear weapons, as many have reported, and Iran has none, or even if Iran were to build one, wouldn’t there be some deterrence policy in place? Why would Israel consider still striking Iran?
AL: If both sides have nuclear weapons no side would be foolish to use them knowing that there is retaliation by the other side – the idea of mutually assured distraction. Israeli are deeply uncomfortable with it because it doesn’t take hundreds of nuclear weapons to functionally destroy Israel. A handful of nuclear weapons maybe even only one nuclear weapon could do the same damage hundreds of nuclear weapons would do to a much larger country. The concern is, why take any risk that there can be any kind of miscalculation and confrontation. An Israeli-Iranian equivalent of a Cuban crisis, say, over Hezbollah or Syria. And instead of resolving peacefully as a Cuban missile crisis this one actually results in the exchange of nuclear weapons. The Israeli attitude is – we have maintained all along we would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region, we don’t want anyone else to do so either.
RT: When President Obama was addressing the UN he said that the time for negotiations is not “unlimited.” What do you make of that?
AL: I don’t think there is an exact date, but I do think the patience for negotiations is wearing thin, especially after the last round over the summer. Iranians put forward the proposal allegedly. The proposal would have called for the lifting of most sanctions in exchange for suspension of many of the more worrisome activities of the Iranian nuclear program. And the president said, look, this isn’t serious we are not going to remove everything that gives us leverage in exchange for this minor concession. It’s not like there is a specific date. But if it looks like all that Iranians are doing is using negotiations as a way to buy time, that’s when the president will say, look, we’ve given diplomacy all the time in the world, this hasn’t worked.
RT: Your report indicated that US military strike would motivate Iran to build a bomb, if this is the case, doesn’t the threatening coming from US and Israeli officials also cause damage?
AL: The idea is to calibrate the threat and maybe the United States has not always done the best job, but the idea is that you apply all the levers of persuasion: sanctions, the threat of military action, to say that it is not a good path to go down let’s find another path. But you are absolutely right, if you are trying to convince someone to do something or else they are going to carry out a threat you don’t want them to believe you are going to carry out a threat anyway, because why would you ever agree to anything if you think you are going to be attacked anyway. It could be tricky to calibrate that rhetoric.