Encounter with the New Iranian President: An Interview with Dr. Matthew Kroenig

KroenigGeorgetown professor Matthew Kroenig sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss his attendance at a recent meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York.

GJIA: Could you tell us a little bit more about your meeting with President Rouhani? What was the pretense under which it was arranged, and what did you talk about?

MK: I have been writing a lot on Iran over the past couple of years, so as President Rouhani was on his way to New York for the General Assembly, I got an email from Iran’s mission to the UN in New York, inviting me to a meeting with him. I was under the impression it was going to be a small group. It turned out to be maybe a hundred and fifty or so academics and journalists in the United States who write on Iran. Looking around, it was a lot of usual suspects, a lot of other people in D.C. who have worked on Iran policy or write often on Iran. I think the intent was clearly to make sure that the thought leaders on this issue in the United States got exposure to him and obviously they were hoping we would have a positive take on the meeting and would report and disseminate that back to the rest of the country. Since it was a relatively large group, it was a standard format: he was introduced, gave some opening remarks, answered questions from a moderator, and then left the room.

GJIA: Were you able to ask any of your own questions? 

MK: We had to submit them beforehand and the moderator asked some of them. My major question was the question that I think Americans really care about on Iran, which is: are you willing to put hard curbs on your enrichment program as part of the deal? And the moderator asked a version of that question, and I was disappointed with the answer. In general, his overall message was of wanting a détente or rapprochement, so he used phrases like “ease tensions,” “improve relations,” “work together to foster peace and stability in the Middle East,” each of those phrases probably a half dozen times, and he expressed confidence that we would resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. At the broadest level, he was saying the right things, but when it got to specifics, he started to be much less committal. On that specific question, the moderator asked, “Are you willing to negotiate limits on the number of centrifuges, sophistication of centrifuges, stockpiles of low-enriched uranium?” He said, “Well, a question of that depth and detail needs to be left to the diplomats.”

I guess it is a ‘glass half full, glass half’ empty situation. I actually went into the meeting somewhat optimistic that we would get a deal, more optimistic than I had been over the past few years, not because I think Rouhani’s a nice guy—we have reason to believe that he’s not, based on his behavior as a leader in Iran over the past couple of decades—but I thought that maybe the sanctions really were starting to bite hard enough that they were willing to engage in serious negotiations for the first time. So I came in somewhat optimistic that they were really willing to bargain, and that the outlines of any deal would be that we would provide some kind of sanctions relief in exchange for them putting hard curbs on the program, but he never said anything about their willingness to limit what they are doing with the program. He talked about transparency, about how inspectors are on the ground, about how they have no intention of building nuclear weapons, but not once did he say that they would be  willing to limit their program, and when we asked specifically, he artfully avoided the question. I left somewhat more pessimistic than when I went in.

GJIA: Did anything about the discussion surprise you?

MK: He spent a large portion of the talk talking about how Iran has always been a responsible state and doesn’t have an aggressive or threatening foreign policy, and that the reason Iran has a bad reputation in the West and in the United States is because of interest groups. As he went on talking, it was clear he was talking about Israel and the pro-Israel lobby.  He said, for example, “these interest groups want to distract from the problem of occupation in Palestine" and other similar things. I thought that he maybe didn’t take into account the sophistication of his audience. I mean, everyone in the room knows about Iran’s support to terrorism. Everyone in the room understood that Iran’s nuclear program is a problem for the United States irrespective of Israel’s concerns. So I thought that was kind of a ham-handed approach, of trying to say, “We’re actually good guys, it’s Israel’s fault that we have a bad reputation.” I didn’t know why he thought that that would fly.

GJIA: The status of Iran’s nuclear capabilities has been a consistent source of both worry and debate. In your opinion, is Iran on track to become a nuclear power, and if so, which benchmarks does it still need to overcome? On what timeline might they attain a nuclear weapon?

MK: I have a book coming out in June, called The Iranian Nuclear Threat: Choices and Consequences, where I go into this in much more detail. There are two competing hypotheses out there: either Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons or Iran wants a peaceful nuclear program. And we cannot know for certain, but if stack up all the evidence, it is much more consistent with the idea that they are trying to build nuclear weapons than they want a peaceful nuclear energy program. In short, I think it’s clear that they would like to have nuclear weapons. I don’t think that they are dead set and willing to pay any costs to do it, but I think, all else being equal, they would prefer to have nuclear weapons.

In terms of their timeline, there are three things they would have to do. First, they would have to enrich sufficient quantities of weapons-grade uranium. Second, they would have to be able to fashion it into a nuclear device. Third, they would have to be able to deliver it to an opponent using ballistic missiles or aircraft or something else. On enrichment, it depends a little bit on how they proceed. If the supreme leader decided today to enrich to ninety percent, which is what they would need to build weapons, most estimates are that it would take them about six to eight weeks to get there, so the minimum time we have is six to eight weeks. If they don’t do that, though, the window is still closing, because they’re bringing online more advanced centrifuges. There are more centrifuges and their stockpiles of enriched uranium are increasing, so that is shrinking the dash time to a bomb. The best estimates are that by next summer, they will get to a point where they could dash to the first bomb’s worth of material without the United States and the international community having time to respond.

So for that first step, which for a variety of reason is really all that matters because once they have the material, the game is essentially over. Right now we can strike facilities to prevent them from producing material. Once they have the material, the game’s over. At that point, we would either have to pray that they don’t build nuclear weapons or we would need to invade the country, overthrow the government, search the entire country for the hidden material.  Neither of these is a good option. So the second and third stages don’t really matter. What matters is when they get enough material for a weapon and righnow we have somewhere between six weeks and twelve months to solve that problem.

GJIA: You’ve written in the past about how you believe that it might make sense to have some sort of controlled and targeted strike on Iran. Does the recent charm offensive signify a victory for the current sanctions regime? Do further measures need to be taken, or should we be relaxing pressure as a sign of good faith to Iran?

MK: All along, my position has been that we should pursue negotiations as long as possible, pursue the current courses as long as possible. The best outcome would be for Iran to decide to give up its enrichment facilities peacefully. But at some point, we might get to this point where we must choose between acquiescing to a nuclear-armed Iran and a limited strike on their nuclear facilities. My argument was that if we get to that point, a strike is better than deterring and containing a nuclear-armed Iran, which, when I first made it, I think was quite provocative. Most experts were arguing that we can deter a nuclear-armed Iran just like we deterred the Soviet Union. When I first made the argument I think it made a lot of waves. I think now it is much less controversial, in part because the President also takes the point of view that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and that we will do whatever it takes, including use force, to stop them. Nothing I heard in the meeting changes my point of view.

I absolutely agree that we should test this new kind of opening, test this new opportunity, engage in negotiations in two weeks in Geneva, and see what they are willing to do. If they are willing to put hard limits on their nuclear program in a way that’s verifiable – that would prevent them from building nuclear weapons – that would be the best possible outcome. I am still skeptical at this point that they are really willing to do that, and nothing I have seen in this charm offensive so far suggests that they are willing to do that. It is clear that they want sanctions relief, but it is not clear that they are willing to do what would be required to get that sanctions relief.

GJIA: As you see it, what are the real red lines that would jolt the U.S., Israel, or other groups, including the UN, to further degrees of action?

MK: If you mean red lines for military action, I think it is quite different for the United States and for Israel, because their capabilities are very different. There are four facilities that you would need to destroy in any strike on Iran. Two of them are above ground, so those are easy targets for both Israel and the United States. Two of them are below ground. Those are still relatively easy targets for the U.S., but they are much harder for Israel. The red lines for Israel have essentially come and gone. Israel does not really have a good military option right now, and they know it.

So the question in the short to medium term is: what are the red lines for the United States? I think there are three things that would probably force us to make this choice of either taking action or acquiescing. First, if the Supreme Leader decided today he was going to enrich to ninety percent, if the IAEA reported that Iran’s now enriching to ninety percent, I think that would be one red line, because that would mean we have six to eight weeks to solve the problem.

Second, if Iran kicked out international inspectors, I think that would suggest that they are up to no good. We would have to assume the worst: we would have to assume they are enriching to ninety percent. I think those would be fairly easy to get international support for: it would be pretty clear that Iran is dashing toward a weapon.

The third is more complicated but just as important. It will arrive next summer when they get to the undetectable breakout point. If they get to that undetectable breakout point and we don’t take action, we would essentially be acquiescing. I think it is much harder to make the case there. It is much harder to imagine a U.S. president saying, “We need to take action now because, well, they have this many centrifuges and this much enriched uranium, and if we don’t do it now, we can’t do it later.” It would be harder to pin the blame on Iran for that one, but I think it would be a red line and it would force us to make a call one way or the other. That is the short- to medium-term situation for the U.S.

The final point I would make is on Israel. They know they don’t have a good option, but I think if the United States came to one of those red lines and didn’t take action, Israel might at that point go ahead and take action, knowing that it doesn’t have a good option, knowing that it is only going get two or maybe three facilities, but thinking, “We might as well go ahead and do whatever we can, because the United States isn’t going take care of it for us.” But as long as they think the United States might take care of it for them, I think they will stay on the sidelines.

GJIA: Did Syria come up in the conversation with President Rouhani?

MK: Syria did come up. He condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria and said that it is an issue with a lot of emotional resonance in Iran, given that they were the victims of a chemical weapon attack from Saddam Hussein. Talking with some of the other participants afterwards, some of them thought that was kind of a disingenuous comment, given that the Iranians are big supporters of Assad and are helping him with military hardware and other things.

Taking a step back and comparing the situations in Iran and Syria, it is important to remember thatIran potentially poses a direct threat to the security of the United States. The Pentagon estimates that Iran could have ballistic missiles capable of reaching the east coast of the United States by 2015. Within two years, we could potentially be living under the threat of nuclear war with Iran. On the other hand, what’s going on in Syria is an awful, terrible humanitarian tragedy, but nothing happening there can pose as direct or severe a threat to U.S. national security. While I think the way we got there wasn’t terribly elegant, I am glad that we are not taking direct military action in Syria, because my fear was always that we would get involved in Syria so deeply that it would be difficult then to take action in Iran if necessary. Whenever we face a tradeoff between accomplishing our goals in Syria or in Iran, therefore, the focus should be on Iran, simply because the threat there is greater.

Dr. Matthew Kroenig is an Associate Professor and International Relations Field Chair in the Department of Government at Georgetown University. From 2010 to 2011, Dr. Kroenig was a special adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship, where he worked on defense policy and strategy for Iran.

Dr. Kroenig was interviewed by William Handel, Henry Shepherd, and Ian Philbrick on 7 October 2013 in Washington, D.C.