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Outgoing Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren On Iran, Syria


Iran's nuclear program and the civil war in Syria are both matters that figure prominently in U.S.-Israeli dealings. And joining us to talk about those issues is Israel's outgoing ambassador to Washington, the American-born writer Michael Oren. Ambassador Oren, welcome back.

MICHAEL OREN: Robert, always delightful to be with you.

SIEGEL: Israel said yesterday that Iran is using deception and concealment to buy time for its nuclear program. Do you see no potential opening of substance behind the more friendly atmospherics that Iran's new president has introduced to his dealings with Washington?

OREN: Well, be assured, Robert, that no country has a greater interest in resolving the Iranian nuclear threat peacefully, diplomatically than Israel. We have the most skin at the game, but we have to be very realistic. We've seen how Iran, over the past three decades, has systematically lied to the world about its nuclear program. Even President Rouhani has lied to the world. He lied in 2004; he said he was negotiating peacefully but installing centrifuges.

There's a lot of spin coming out of Iran right now. They're denying that they're denying the Holocaust and saying they want to negotiate but not meeting the demands of the Security Council to stop enrichment, to ship their stockpiles abroad. That's spin, but the centrifuges continue to spin in Tehran, enriching uranium.

SIEGEL: But President Rouhani, who did tell NBC that he regards Israel as an occupier and a usurper government, has also spoken of renouncing nuclear weapons, that Iran has no intention of ever having. What do you make of him? How seriously do you take him?

OREN: Well, you know, he said that Iran never had a military nuclear program. We know that's a lie. America knows that's a lie. Iran is in violation of not one but four Security Council resolutions. Let them fulfill their obligations to the international community. And then if we can find a diplomatic solution to this, nobody would be happier than the people of Israel.

SIEGEL: But when you think in terms of a diplomatic solution, do you foresee the Iran nuclear issue playing out like Syria, that is the world goes to the brink or Israel or the United States goes to the brink of airstrikes, and then Tehran suddenly concedes everything? Or wouldn't you assume that there would be some kind of incremental steps toward relieving the crisis that would lead to a successful resolution of it?

OREN: Well, I believe there actually is a connection between the Syria issue and the Iranian issue. What has brought the international community and the Russians to try to seek a diplomatic solution for removing chemical weapons from Syria? It is the credibility of an American military action. The paradox is the more credible the action, the less the chance you'll actually have to use it. And that is why we strongly believe that this is the time to endow the military threat to Syria with greater credibility and to ratchet up the pressure.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Oren, you made some news this week in an exit interview with the Jerusalem Post, you said Israel has always wanted Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, to go. You said bad guys aligned with Iran, that is Assad, are worse for Israel than bad guys who aren't. Do you think that the destruction of Syria's chemical arsenal will weaken the Assad regime as much or more than U.S. airstrikes would weaken the Assad regime?

OREN: I think that the removal of chemical weapons from Syria is a Middle Eastern interest, not just an Israeli interest. It's a global interest. As for Assad, here's a leader who has encouraged terrorism around the world. He's provided over 70,000 rockets to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and those rockets are aimed at our homes, at our families. He has tried himself to make a secret nuclear military facility, which fortunately does not exist anymore.

SIEGEL: Which Israel struck at with warplanes...

OREN: Well, we're not going to confirm, deny, but it no longer exists, and you could imagine if he had nuclear weapons right now, what he'd be doing to his own people. You see what he's done with chemical weapons. And he's complicit in the massacre of over 100,000 of his own people, but then they want Assad to stay?

SIEGEL: Well, but does what's happening right now - the Russian initiative and what Assad says may take a year, the U.S. says sometime by the middle of next year - depriving him of chemical weapons? Do you regard that as hastening Assad's departure? Or does it leave his grip on power more or less unchanged?

OREN: I think it's not - it's certainly not going to strengthen him. And he would not be cooperating with this effort if the Russians weren't convinced of a credible American military option. That's what's brought him around, too.

Having said all that, Robert, it's very important to note that Israel has no intention of being involved within Syria. We're not going to bring about regime change in Syria. Just that the Syrians should know that should they ever shoot at us, they will pay for that decision very heavily.

SIEGEL: Israel is one of the very few countries that has not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, even though you signed it 20 years ago. You're in company with Myanmar in that regard. Syria was one of only a few countries that hadn't signed it - Egypt is another one, North Korea. Why doesn't Israel ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention?

OREN: Well, as I mentioned, we have signed that chemical weapons, and we (unintelligible) organizations.

SIEGEL: But not ratified. But not ratified.

OREN: Indeed. Because we are living in a neighborhood where countries have weapons of mass destruction, and they have declared openly that the purpose of those weapons of mass destructions is to wipe us off the map. That impacts our democratic system of ratification. But we have signed it, and indeed, Israel looks forward to a time when the entire Middle East is free of weapons of mass destruction as a product of peace.

SIEGEL: Not as a contribution toward a process that might lead to peace. Israel would not look at those arsenals or demands to disarm nuclear - its nuclear arsenal...

OREN: Well, we have said now for well over a half a century that Israel would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East. We stand by that position. But, again, we have to face up to a reality. We're surrounded by these countries that want to destroy us and use weapons of mass destruction to accomplish that.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Oren, thank you for this interview. And as you're about to leave Washington, thanks for interviews in the past.

OREN: It has been always a pleasure and an engaging experience, Robert. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Michael Oren is, for the next 10 or 11 days, Israel's ambassador to the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.