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Assessing the Iranian Threat to Israel; John Kerry Interviewed

Aired April 25, 2012 - 15:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. For months and even years now, we've heard Israeli officials repeat these words like a drumbeat, that Iran is an existential threat to Israel.

A military strike, they say, must be an option to stop nuclear annihilation. So in my brief tonight, is it really?

Certainly, Israel and the world have serious concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and there are hopes that diplomatic talks underway with Iran right now will resolve these concerns peacefully. Certainly, the relentless drumbeat has worked. Listen to this.

A new CNN poll says that 81 percent of Americans consider Iran to be a serious threat.

In a similar poll that CNN poll conducted back in 1985, 76 percent said that they considered the Soviet Union to be a serious threat, and that was at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and the United States had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other, just the push of a button away from mutually assured destruction.

At this point, though, neither the United States nor Israel believes that Iran has a single nuclear weapon. As Americans grow more frightened of Iran, so does Israel. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu said this recently, that you don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. But a different view is rising in what is becoming a war of words and a war of ideas within Israel.

Just today, the country's army chief, Lt. Genl. Benny Ganz, said that Iran's top leadership are, quote, "very rational people." And in recent works, that the same thing that we've heard from Israel's former spy chief and the top military official here in the United States.

So in tonight's program, I'll explore this question at this critical moment with Senator John Kerry, the powerful chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee with first-hand knowledge of most of the players and who some say could be the next secretary of state.

And later in the program, I'll ask Ambassador Hossein Mousavian, when we get a rare insider's look at Iran's leadership. He's a former nuclear negotiator and a member of Iran's national security council. But, first, Senator John Kerry. I spoke with him a short time ago.


AMANPOUR: Senator, thank you so much for joining me.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASS.: I'm glad to be with you. Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: Let me start by asking you about Iran. There is new word from Israel, the chief of the IBS has said that he believes the Iranian government to be "rational actors" -- those are his words -- and that they will not go for a nuclear bomb.

This also follows what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, has said to CNN and also what the former Mossad chief in Israel has said.

Do you believe that to be the case, that they're rational actors and won't go for the bomb?

KERRY: Well, I think that most indications are that there are key rational actors in high positions of responsibility, but there are also some people who are tugging in a different direction. I don't think any of us have the luxury of simply putting our trust into something.

I think we have to have a process put in place where we are certain as to what actions are being taken, and that means you have to have transparency, verifiability, accountability in the nuclear process. As long as that is there, then we can all have an assurance as to what is happening going forward.

But I think fundamentally, I believe the Supreme Leader, I believe some of the key players around him will choose to act rationally on this process. But you know, you can't keep pushing the limits here.

AMANPOUR: So what do you expect to come out of the next round of talks, all sides, including United States, including Iran and Europe, sound like there may be some possibility of resolving this diplomatically?

KERRY: Well, I believe there is. I have confidence that there is a way forward, and I've always believed that the diplomatic route is the route that we ought to put our first best effort into.

Obviously, the alternatives are dramatically negative in many, many ways, and one hopes you don't wind up there, even though it's not off the table.

AMANPOUR: So let me ask you, you say the alternative could be very negative. In your judgment, what will be the result if Israel wakes up one morning and decides that they're going to go the military route and strike the nuclear facilities there? Do you think there will be an uptick in terrorism, an uptick in attacks on U.S. targets, naval targets, targets in Iraq or Afghanistan, around the world?

KERRY: Well, I think -- I think, Christiane, that really depends on what the circumstances are, if and when that were to happen.

If there is a perception that all other avenues have been exhausted, then I think you could have one set of reactions.

If, on the other hand, there is not a sense of the exhaustion of the diplomatic possibilities, if there is a feeling that there's a rush to judgment, I think the negative implications would be just gigantic. I think you could see major blowback against our troops in Afghanistan. You could have serious problems in Iraq. You could have problems with respect to the price of oil.

There are many other independent types of actions that could and might probably would be taken in various parts of the world against American interests. I mean, it's just an endless asymmetrical set of possibilities of what can happen.

Now, you may get there, that you have to take on that potential negative. But we're certainly not there yet and I think the indications are that we can avoid that.

I mean, a lot of people forget that as recently as 2001, Iran helped the United States with respect to our efforts in Afghanistan. We have common interests. They don't particularly appreciate the Taliban. They don't appreciate the drug trafficking that takes place out of Afghanistan. There are a lot of other things where I think we could find commonality.

AMANPOUR: I hear you loud and clear on that.

Let me turn to Syria. You mentioned regional issues. I want to play you a little bit of tape; hopefully, you'll be able to hear it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Today is the first day since two months, halt (ph) (inaudible), halt (ph) (inaudible), halt of fire (ph), OK? It's very important for us, at least in the (inaudible), because of that (inaudible) we want you to stay. Please stay. This must be (inaudible). And this is our interest. Will you stay? Will you can stay so will you can (inaudible)? It's our blood.


KERRY: Well, it's -- I mean, it's very compelling and it's obviously a plea of urgency, dramatic in every respect, and I think the more the world can hear the plea of innocent people who are being slaughtered by their government, the stronger the response, hopefully, will be.

AMANPOUR: What would plan B be for the President of the United States, because clearly it looks like the Assad government, in many instances is -- and the secretary-general is saying that as well; certainly, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Rice, is saying that actually the Assad government is not living up to its promises.

So what is plan B, if it doesn't?

KERRY: Well, they're not living up to their promises. They haven't yet, and I think the expectations are very low in most quarters that they will.

There's a lot of talk now about how to engage with the Free Syrian Army, how to engage with the Syrian National Council, whether or not safe zones, humanitarian corridors are to be put in place, what kind of assistance might be given to the Syrian National Council. There are a lot of things being weighed.

But one caution I have to offer is that there is evidence of some very bad actors now getting engaged in Syria, trying to take advantage of this situation. So it's even more compelling that we know who we're dealing with and what the prospects are as we go forward, because the implications for the rest of the region are very, very serious.

AMANPOUR: Just on that note, I heard that President Clinton said to a group of Nobel laureates that the longer it's left, the more likely it is that these bad actors, as you say, will get involved and be able to get the momentum from those who are legitimately struggling for their -- for their rights. So do you think it's even more urgent to stop this sooner rather than later?

KERRY: I do think it's urgent to try to stop it sooner and to find a pathway forward. My hope is that the Russians will become more active in that effort. I'm going to be seeing Foreign Minister Lavrov in the course of the next week.

I know others -- the administration has already been engaged with the Russians, making efforts to try to change that dynamic. I think that really is one of the most important things that could happen here to shift the momentum, if you will.

AMANPOUR: You were quite a big backer of Bashar Assad. You thought that perhaps this could lead to reform in Syria. Do you still think that President Assad can lead any reform? Or is it over, as his legitimacy evaporated with all the killing?

KERRY: Well, let me -- let me correct you a little bit, if I may. I've never been a backer -- ever -- of President Assad. I engaged with President Assad, based on their offers to create a different dynamic with Israel and the West.

That never came to fruition, but the bottom line is I never suggested he was a reformer internally within Syria. What I said was he feels it's in his interest to try to engage the West and create a deal that brings them oil, technology and, hopefully, jobs for many of the unemployed young people in the country.

So that's a very different thing from, you know, somehow suggesting he's going to change the internal politics of Syria. I don't believe he is.

AMANPOUR: So he must go, then, in your view?

KERRY: Well, I think, ultimately, yes, absolutely. The question is can you arrange some kind of a peaceful transition in which you spare lives and in which you hopefully create stability and some process by which there is an emergence of these reforms and of a legitimate democratic process in -- or transitional process in Syria?

AMANPOUR: Senator Kerry, thank you so much for being with us.

KERRY: Thank you. Appreciate it.


AMANPOUR: And up next on the program, a view of Iran from the inside. When I spoke to Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, last week, I promised to bring the other side. And who better to give it than a former member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team. His unique insight into Iran's inner circle when we return.


AMANPOUR: Welcome back. And now to a rare opportunity to talk to an Iranian insider. Hossein Mousavian spent decades as part of Iran's foreign policy team, most recently serving on the nuclear negotiating team.

But when conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over the presidency in 2005, Mousavian was ousted for his moderate views, and soon after was charged with espionage, a charge that was later dropped. He was cleared of it.

Today, he's a visiting scholar at Princeton University. Mousavian says that he is not seeking asylum and fully intends to go back to Iran. But for now, he's here, uniquely qualified to give us a glimpse into the minds of the Iranian leadership.

Ambassador Mousavian, thank you for joining me --


AMANPOUR: --thank you for coming in.

You heard Senator John Kerry and you've heard a lot of people, including Iranian officials, sound optimistic about the talks that have already got underway. Are you -- do share that, having spoken to your former colleagues, who know about the negotiations?

MOUSAVIAN: I am also optimistic. The reason is in Istanbul for the first time, they agreed to find a solution in the framework of NPT before the P5+1, they were asking measures beyond NPT. And the second principle they agreed, reciprocity in previous negotiations, the P5+1 always asking Iran to show confidence-building measures and to take steps.

Now the base is reciprocity. The third is mutual confidence building. I believe the lack of trust is mutual, and also the last, which was very important, I believe, they agreed to work on step-by-step plan. These principles are very positive.

AMANPOUR: So the NPT, the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, is something that is a concession, then to be able to have the basis of negotiations on that.

What do you think is an outline of negotiations that could be successful? What is Iran willing to give?

MOUSAVIAN: The key issue would be whether the P5+1 would be ready to go for a broader package on the nuclear issue or would seek a piecemeal approach, a one-step move. If they have agreed in Istanbul to have a step- by-step plan, they should define a broader package to define all the steps. What is important for Iran?

First, to recognize the legitimate rights of Iran under NPT, which includes enrichment; second, to remove Iranian file from the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and IAEA, to normalize the file; and third, to remove sanctions.

What are the major requirements for issues the P5+1 are looking? First, for Iran not to have nuclear bomb, all assurances that Iranian nuclear program would ever remain peaceful. Iran would remain as non- nuclear (inaudible) state, to add this all IAEA's ambiguities, technical questions, including possibility of dimensions. These are elements of the package which they should agree about.

AMANPOUR: So what we're hearing now from both Western and, in fact, Iranian officials, who are giving interviews and speaking inside Iran, that if they do have the declared right to enrich that they would cease to enrich or minimize or -- I want you to tell me what they will do with 20 percent enriched uranium? Will they stop it? Will they get rid of their stockpile? What will they do?

MOUSAVIAN: If, Christiane, the NPT is going to be the framework, therefore they should not discriminize (sic) Iran under NPT.

But if they have problem with a stockpile of the 20 percent, they can agree on some confidence building measures about the stockpile, what portion of the stockpile Iran needs (inaudible) to divert to fuel rod, the rest, Iran can pay -- it can export in order to assure Iran is not stockpiling the 20 percent for bomb.

AMANPOUR: Would they also -- another big issue is the Fordo facility in Qom, near Qom, under the mountain. Would they agree to suspend activity there, stop activity there, enrichment?

MOUSAVIAN: I believe what already Iran has informed IAEA, which they would stop for the moment to have only the two enrichment sites at Natanz and Fordo is one big step, because Iran already announced they would go for 10 enrichment sites.

This is a big step already Iran agreed. The second on Fordo, I believe that the policy which they negotiate with Iran should be transparency, Fordo to be 100 percent under the IAEA supervision.

AMANPOUR: So the additional protocol?

MOUSAVIAN: From the beginning, Christiane, I tell you Iranian Supreme Leader told us the time (inaudible) negotiating and I am sure I know he has had the same policy with such others (ph), I mean, Aloijani, Jaleeli (ph). He has never had problem on transparencies, never.

AMANPOUR: When you were negotiating, there was a suspension of enrichment, and there was the additional protocol in place for something like 20 months. Do you think some kind of suspension is in the offing?

MOUSAVIAN: No, I believe the suspension era is over because now Iran has 9,000 (ph) centrifuges and I believe they should not discuss suspension any more. They should concentrate on the measures for transparency, confidence building.

Every measure which can assure international community that Iran would have open fuel site (inaudible), would be 100 percent open to IAEA for inspections, for verification, accountability. These are the major elements (inaudible) should negotiate.

AMANPOUR: As you know, part of the problem is that people are very skeptical, if not downright disbelieving of Iran's words and its intentions. You know, the Israelis just simply don't believe words. They want to see actions. Many in the United States as well.

How did this meeting in Istanbul begin? What did your contacts say? What -- was there a message from President Obama? What was said at this meeting (inaudible)?


MOUSAVIAN: (Inaudible) at the beginning I had President Obama had a positive message, mentioning the rights of Iran, respecting the rights of Iran and respecting the Iranian leaders' fatwa. Already President Obama made an interview with "Atlantic," where he said we count on the fatwa.

And American delegations also in the meeting, they reiterated on the fatwa. But some people like Israelis, they are questioning the fatwa.

AMANPOUR: So we're talking about the fatwa, the religious edict that the Supreme Leader issued?


AMANPOUR: People are saying, well, how do we know it's real? It's not written down. What is it/ I mean, there's a certain group who are saying --

MOUSAVIAN: See, Christiane --

AMANPOUR: -- just --

MOUSAVIAN: -- Christiane, you remember in 1980 to '88, Iran was invaded by Iraq. Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran. This was the first use of weapons of mass destruction against a country after the Second World War. Iranian army asked the Supreme Leader, the then-Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, to reciprocate (inaudible).

But even that time, the supreme religious leader said using chemical weapons, weapons of mass destruction are Haran (ph). I believe the time that a country invaded Iran, used chemical weapons against Iran, weapons of mass destruction, and Iran did not respond, based on religious fatwa. This is the best indication about the credibility of the fatwa.

AMANPOUR: Does the fatwa have to be written down?

MOUSAVIAN: No, just statement. And for you to know the first time this fatwa was declared by Ayatollah Khomeini, in mid-1990s, eight years before nuclear crisis. And since then, I mean, from 2003, he has repeatedly officially -- even this has been officially handed to United Nations -- (inaudible) to United Nations and (inaudible) at the United Nations by (inaudible) an ambassador in New York.

AMANPOUR: But let me ask you about what we started discussing, whether Iranian leaders are rational. You know very well that many people just think that it's a crazy cult, that they're lunatics, that they could do anything with a bomb in their hands.

Is the Iranian leadership rational? And in particular, I want to ask you, does the Iranian leadership have a military design on Israel, a desire to wipe Israel away?

MOUSAVIAN: Iranian official position always has been clear. They have frequently announced that Iran is not going to attack Israel. Unfortunately, this has been Israel, frequently even now is threatening Iran with nuclear -- with military attack.

But Israelis, they are making argument about threat. Iran does not have nuclear bomb. Iran has not decided to make nuclear bomb. And this is the consensus between (inaudible) and Americans also. And even Iran has never made a threat for military strike against Israel.

AMANPOUR: To be continued, Ambassador Mousavian, thank you very much indeed for being here.

MOUSAVIAN: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: And we'll be right back in just a moment.


AMANPOUR: And, finally, there's been much talk about economic sanctions against Iran. They are unprecedented, and they are biting right now. Well, imagine a world where they work so well that it's actually pulled the rug out from under an entire industry. That would be the Persian rug industry.

Since the days of the caravan, Iran's carpet trade has been one of its prime exports. But two years ago, the United States slapped an embargo on sales to America. Iran, of course, has become quite expert at finding its way around such obstacles, and turned to other carpet buyers, in China and the United Arab Emirates.

So hardest hit have been the rug merchants far away in Hamburg, Germany, the center of the global rug trade.

And you think things are bad in Hamburg, travel a few miles to Nuremberg, where the sanctions are taking another devastating toll on bratwurst. Iran, apparently, exports the uber-desirable sheep intestines that make the best casing for Nuremberg's beloved bratwurst.

Sheep intestines? Who knew about that valuable export? Since the embargo, the price has jumped from $8 per 100 yard of intestine to $22. Germans and sausage lovers everywhere are feeling the pain.

And that's it for our program. Thank you for watching, and be sure to tune in tomorrow, when I join in a revolutionary act. Manal al-Sharif, the women's rights activist from Saudi Arabia, takes me for a drive right here in New York.

In the meantime, log on to, where you can read the #AmanPost, a daily rundown of the stories catching my eye. See you at Goodbye from New York.