NEAL CONAN, host:
Almost everyone agrees that allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them is a very bad idea. Despite official denials, almost everyone agrees that Iran plans to get there as soon as possible and once it does that it would represent an existential threat to Israel.
Last Friday in the Wall Street Journal, John Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations posed the question, what if Israel attacks Iran? Israel's military option against Iran's nuclear program is unattractive, he argued, but failing to act is even worse.
John Bolton is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and joins us from a studio there.
And nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. JOHN BOLTON (American Enterprise Institute): Thank you. Glad to be here.
CONAN: As you point out in the past, Israel has attacked nuclear sites in Iraq and Syria. Iran, though, is both further away and more powerful, and it vows dire consequences if it is attacked.
Mr. BOLTON: Right. That's why I said I don't think this is a very attractive option. And it's too bad that we've wasted so much time on failed diplomatic efforts. I think we're doomed to failure from the outset because we have - as time has gone by, we have lost a range of options and that's why we're down now to the very unattractive consideration of use of force.
Although I will say that the turmoil that we're seeing in Iran today brings closer the possibility that we're in a real pre-revolutionary moment in Iran and that that in turn could lead to what I think is the -truly the most desirable circumstance, which is the overthrow of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
CONAN: We're not there by any stretch of the imagination, at least not yet. Going back to your scenarios, though, Iran has vowed that if it was attacked by Israel - well, first of all, wouldn't it assume that the United States had provided at least tacit permission for Israel to attack Iran? After all, Israeli aircraft would have to overfly Iraq or the Persian Gulf, both of which the air space is controlled by the United States.
Mr. BOLTON: Well, just to go back one second, that's why I called it a pre-revolutionary moment in Iran.
Mr. BOLTON: I just think that's important to say. We don't know enough to be able to draw a conclusion. But in fact, the Israelis do not need to fly over Iraq. And the airspace over the Persian Gulf, while we may have dominance there, remains the airspace of the literal countries of the Gulf itself.
And I think the Israelis have already been exercising and have conducted a raid, actually, fairly recently in Sudan against a convoy of weapons that they believe to be on the way to the Gaza Strip, which was a distance roughly what they would need to cover to destroy certain key aspects of Iran's nuclear weapons program. I do not minimize the difficulties of this military option.
And in fact, it's an option that's declining over time as Iran takes steps to further disperse and harden its nuclear program and to acquire additional air defense capabilities. And I'll just say it again: I wish we weren't at this point, but the choice that people have to look at is not between the world as it is today versus a world after an Israeli attack; the choice is between the world after an Israeli attack compared to a nuclear weapons-capable Iran, because that is the point we are very close to reaching.
CONAN: Why would deterrence not work? Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Mr. BOLTON: Well, anybody who wants to go back and live in a deterrence environment I think should revisit the history of the Cold War. Living under the threat of nuclear annihilation is not anybody's idea of a good time. And second, if you look at the history of the Cold War, this hardly functioned with the precision of a Swiss watch.
We came very close to an exchange of nuclear salvos with the Soviet Union on an uncomfortably large number of occasions, and that all assumes that we had a roughly comparable cost-benefit analysis with the leadership in the Kremlin on things like the value of human life and the potential consequences of a nuclear exchange. I'm not sure that the current rulers in Tehran are anywhere close to our cost-benefit analysis. Those who prefer the afterlife sooner rather than later are not prime candidates for deterrence.
CONAN: And do you believe that if - I think as you've estimate diplomacy fails in this regard and that we're maybe not in a pre-revolutionary moment that Israel would have no choice but to take a preemptive strike?
Mr. BOLTON: Well, let's be clear. Diplomacy has failed. And it's no good to say, well, but the Obama administration is here and deserves a chance. The fact is that the Europeans have been negotiating with Iran for over six years. Everybody has known since the outset of those negotiations in 2003 that they were negotiating on behalf of the United States. And Iran in particular has known that if they could reach agreement on the suspension of Iran's nuclear program that Iran would have a different relationship, not just with the Europeans, but with the United States itself.
And despite every effort by the Europeans to offer, in the language of diplomacy, carrots and sticks, incentives and disincentives, every creative European way that they could come up with to offer more carrots to Iran was rejected. So what we have now is that Iran has all of the scientific and technological knowledge that it needs to build a nuclear weapons program. It has domestic mastery over the nuclear fuel cycle and a decision of when and under what circumstances to weaponize is entirely Iran's at the moment.
CONAN: Let me ask you then about another situation that now the country that poses a challenge on the nuclear front, and that is North Korea. Today, the president of South Korea, as you know, is visiting Washington D.C. Today, President Obama said that a nuclear-armed in Pyongyang poses a grave threat to the world and should not be a nuclear power.
President BARACK OBAMA: Given their past behavior, given the belligerent manner in which they are constantly threatening their neighbors, I don't think there's any question that that would be a destabilizing situation that would be a profound threat to not only the United States' security but world security.
CONAN: President Obama at the White House today. He also promised not to allow North Korea to exploit another crisis for economic or political gain. And, Ambassador Bolton, what options does North Korea's stance leave the United States with at this point?
Mr. BOLTON: Well, I think, first, we ought to look at what the president himself said. He talked in the future as if North Korea's not already a nuclear power. It's exploded two nuclear devices. We know they've got that capability. What we don't know is how extensive the capability. But is it real today? Yes, it is.
He also said, you know, the North Koreans have been very successful in the past at using belligerent behavior and rhetoric to extract economic and political concessions from the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and we weren't going to allow that anymore. I am completely in agreement with that. The problem is the president then goes on to say he wants the North Koreans to return to the six-party talks, which I think they read in Pyongyang as saying that they're going to get a free pass to come back to the negotiating table, which is what the Obama administration devoutly wants, and get a chance to negotiate those economic and political benefits that the president says that he's not going to give them.
So I think his policy is inherently schizophrenic in that regard. And which direction it's going to go in, I think, you know, we'll just have to see.
CONAN: As unpalatable as the use of force might be with regard to Iran, it maybe even more so with regard to North Korea.
Mr. BOLTON: Well, I don't think we need to use force. I think there are a number of other things we could and should do, some things unfortunately that the Bush administration itself gave up. I think we need to take advantage of the fact that South Korea has now joined the Proliferation Security Initiative and used that very vigorously to interdict North Korean shipments of weapons and materials of mass destruction.
We need, once again, to cutoff North Korea's access to international financial markets. And we need to really work very hard on China to apply the pressure that it uniquely can apply in turn to North Korea. It supplies 80 to 90 percent of North Korea's energy, substantial amount of food and other humanitarian assistance. And if it were to cut that off, it would get people's attention in Pyongyang.
CONAN: As we understand it, both South Korea and China, which you talked about, are concerned not necessarily with propping up the North Korean regime, but their concerns with what would happen in the event of a collapse, the humanitarian and political and military crisis that would represent. Do you think that those are their motivations at this point?
Mr. BOLTON: Well, I think there are certainly concerns about what would happen if North Korea collapses. And we need to be planning for that contingency as the actuarial tables and years of drinking too much cognac work their effect on Kim Jong-Il. Because when he dies, despite all of the press speculation about his third son being the successor, that may last for 24 hours after he dies, but there's no guarantee it will last much longer than that. And I do think that would be a moment both of risk but also of opportunity to see that regime collapse.
Look, the threat of refugee flows and the possibility of humanitarian concerns are real. But let's be clear, you don't think China couldn't close its border with North Korea? And, in fact, it is the possibility of that kind of collapse that I think underlines the fragility of the North Korean regime and why additional pressure further squeezing of that regime could accomplish after all what's been our objective since 1945, which is the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.
CONAN: Let me ask you about something that seems to unite both these stories in terms of Iran and North Korea. And that is your judgment that they will - I think you wrote in your piece that Iran is not as menacingly irrational as North Korea, but that both of them, in effect, could be irrational actors. Why do you think that?
Mr. BOLTON: Because I think the calculus that Kim Jong-Il brings to decisions about North Korea resemble as closely as anything I can think of the mentality of Hitler in the bunker. And that's not a calculus that we find very attractive. And I think the religious fanaticism of many in the leadership in Tehran bring a different kind of uniqueness to their cost-benefit calculus. But again, it's not one that we understand in conventional Western terms.
So that highlights the risk to be sure of any policy with respect to these two countries. But to me underlines as emphatically as you can the importance of, as President Bush used to say, not letting the world's most dangerous weapons fall into the hands of the world's most dangerous people.
CONAN: Ambassador Bolton, thanks as always for your time.
Mr. BOLTON: Thank you very much.
CONAN: John Bolton served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. You can find a link to his Wall Street Journal op-ed "What If Israel Strikes Iran?" at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
What would happen if Israel struck Iran's nuclear facilities? John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, poses that question in an editorial. Though he knows an Israeli attack on Iran is an unattractive option, he sees the failure to act as even worse.
What would happen if Israel struck Iran's nuclear facilities?
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, poses that question in an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Though he knows an Israeli attack on Iran is an unattractive option, he sees the failure to act as even worse.