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Between The U.S., Israel And Iran, Who Blinks First?


Earlier, we spoke with Martin Indyk. He's the vice president and director of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. He's also a former U.S. ambassador to Israel. I asked him whether the United States and Israel have the same position on Iran.

MARTIN INDYK: Well, the essential difference lies in a symmetry between a superpower and a regional power. The United States has more than 5,000 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. We are a continental power. Iran is a long way away. And from an American perspective, we could afford to be not a lot more relaxed but a little more relaxed around Iran's approaching the nuclear weapons threshold than Israel can. It lives in a very dangerous neighborhood. Iran has repeatedly threatened to wipe it off the map, and Israel has a nonproliferation policy all of its own, which is essentially they will not allow another country in its neighborhood to acquire nuclear weapons. They've taken out the Osirak nuclear reactor, they took out the Syrian plutonium reactor, and they are now threatening to do exactly the same with Iran, because as Iran approaches the threshold of nuclear weapons capability, they see it as an existential threat. And there's no prime minister, whether it's the current one or any other one that would responsibly carry out his duty as the elected leader of the country and allow a country as threatening as Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capability, the means of destroying the Jewish state yet again.

MARTIN: There also seems to be an important distinction for Israel between Iran's nuclear acquisition and its capability.

INDYK: Yeah. I think the key thing is that Iran is moving with all deliberate speed towards what's called this nuclear weapons threshold. That is to say that it will have, before long, a stockpile of material that can be quickly enriched to weapons-grade material. They are now enriching to 20 percent. To get from 20 percent to 90 percent, which would be weapons-grade uranium, can be done relatively quickly - in a matter of three to six months. We know that they have been working on triggers for exploding that weapons-grade material as a nuclear bomb. We know that they have the means to deliver it. And so they're moving on all those fronts simultaneously in a way that leaves no doubt about their intentions. For the Israelis, they don't want to wait until they get to that threshold.

MARTIN: There has been this standoff between Iran and the West for several years now. What's different about this moment? You wrote an op-ed for The New York Times this past week in which you said, quote, "We are now engaged in a three-way game of chicken, which makes blinking more dangerous than confrontation." What does that mean?

INDYK: Well, essentially we're now in a vicious cycle. In order to calm the Israelis down and get them to back away from their intense interest in taking care of the program militarily, we are ratcheting up sanctions that essentially are aimed at Iran's economic jugular. We are doing that on the theory that the more pressure we put on them, the more we bring their economy to its knees, the more likely the Iranians are to cry uncle, to blink, to say, OK, we'll negotiate meaningful curbs on our nuclear program.

So, we're trying to drive them to the negotiating table. The problem is the kinds of pressure that we're putting on them, actually I fear convinces the Iranian regime that we're actually trying to bring down the regime. And the more they feel that we're trying to bring down the regime, the more likely they are to want to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities. So, they keep on pressing forward. The more they keep on pressing forward, the more Israelis get nervous and the more we say calm down, we'll ratchet up the sanctions, which then has the effect of convincing the Iranians that the best thing they can do is go for it. And so that vicious cycle is one that is now operative. And unless somebody blinks, I'm afraid it's going to lead to a confrontation.

MARTIN: Ambassador Martin Indyk joined us from the studios of the Brookings Institution here in Washington, D.C. He is coauthor of the forthcoming book called "Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy." Ambassador Indyk, thanks so much for talking with us.

INDYK: And thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.