NEAL CONAN, HOST: The next round of talks on Iran's nuclear ambitions opens in Moscow next week. In the meantime, former and current U.S. officials have visited Israel with two blunt messages: That if needed, the United States is ready to use military force, and that a unilateral attack by Israel would be counterproductive, at best. Among those former officials, Michele Flournoy, until February undersecretary of defense for policy, now co-founder and member of the board at the Center for a New American Security. She joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.
MICHELE FLOURNOY: Thanks so much. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And you spoke at a conference in Tel Aviv last month and said when the president said all options are on the table, let me reassure you those options are real and viable. Does that mean contingency plans are - have been prepared? U.S. forces are ready to go on short order?
FLOURNOY: Well, the president has been very clear that his objective is preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and he said from the beginning that all options are on the table. He's ruled out nothing. Right now, the focus is on tightening the sanctions, which are the most crippling in the history of any country, and negotiations to see if those sanctions can put enough pressure on Iran to come to the negotiating table seriously, but all options remain on the table for the future.
CONAN: But you also said let me reassure you, I've seen the quality of that work. In other words, these plans are viable, credible, ready to go?
FLOURNOY: Yes, I have. I did say that. Part of my job in the Pentagon was the oversight - civilian oversight of military planning, and one of the things that we've, you know, we're charged with is to prepare options for the president no matter the contingency. And certainly, there are very viable plans with regard to contingencies involving Iran. But again, the judgment is at this point that's not where the focus should be.
CONAN: And as you know, Israel has - well, has plans of its own - contingencies. And I know a large part of your speech was devoted to the idea that they should hold off and reassuring them the United States would take action if necessary and that Israeli action would be counterproductive. More counterproductive than an American strike?
FLOURNOY: Well, my point to them was we have a shared objective here - preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons and that, you know, any military action really only buys time. It's a delaying action for one to three years. It sets the program back, but it doesn't solve the fundamental problem of Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. To do that, you'll need a continued international campaign with sanctions, with negotiations to eventually change their calculus.
And so how and when a strike is conducted, if ever, really matters, and that it can't be done at a time or in a way which undermines the unity of the international community that's needed to succeed in the long-term objective of actually preventing Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. So the point was this is something that we need to address as an international community, not on a unilateral basis. And we need to give the current track of sanctions and negotiations a little bit of time to work.
CONAN: There's a range of opinion in Israel on this point. I wonder what your reception was like.
FLOURNOY: Well, it was interesting. I - many people came up to me after the speech and were very supportive of the message that I'd sent. And to me it made clear that there's a much broader range of opinion inside Israel than you sometimes hear through just official channels.
CONAN: Did you, though, get a chance to speak to government officials? For example, the prime minister and the secretary of defense and minister for defense in Israel are at least publicly of a different opinion.
FLOURNOY: They are. I did get a chance to speak to Minister Barak on the margins, and they are in a different place. I think they feel responsible for ensuring that the - Iran's nuclear program doesn't get to a point that threatens Israel's security fundamentally. And they're nervous. They feel - they see the program progressing. They see it approaching that point. And so they're - they assert their, you know, the right - their right in terms of self-defense of making sure that certain lines aren't crossed.
Again, our message - my message to them personally was, you know, we have some time. We're going to be much more effective if we act as an international community, if we keep this coalition that President Obama has put together, keep it strong, keep it together, including Russia, including China and, you know, all kinds of countries who share this objective. That's the best way to solve this problem fundamentally, not by one country taking early action on a unilateral basis.
CONAN: And you talked about the importance of keeping the sanctions on - there's a new round of sanctions, a total embargo on Iranian oil to be sold to any member state of the European Union that's set to take effect on July 1st. That is the context in which these talks are going on, first, in Ankara and then in Baghdad and now in Moscow. But the atmospherics that we've been seeing in the past couple of weeks are pretty disappointing.
FLOURNOY: Well, I think the, you know, at the end of this month, you will see the next turning of the screws, if you will. You're going to see sanctions put on any financial transactions with Iran's central bank, which we anticipate will be very crippling. You're also going to see additional sanctions on Iran's ability to export oil, which is the, really, the pillar of their economy. And so I think things are going to get a lot worse for the leaders of Iran. And I think that at that point, we should have a sense of whether we're really affecting their calculus successfully.
I think the president has also been very clear that, you know, the door to negotiations isn't open forever. But we do believe that now is the time for Iran to make the choice to come back into compliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and under a variety of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
CONAN: There are also exemptions which have just been granted to South Korea and India, among others, to allow them to continue to buy Iranian oil. Doesn't that undermine the whole idea of sanctions?
FLOURNOY: Well, I think what the judgment has been that they have taken - all of the countries you've mentioned have taken tremendous steps to diversify their sources of supply to dramatically reduce their dependency on Iranian oil. And with the cooperation of other Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, there's been an opportunity to sort of shift towards other modes of supply. But I think we - the judgment that the administration made was that they have made enough of a good faith effort that we should be supportive of that and not sanction them for the small bit of activity they haven't been able to address yet.
CONAN: There is also - you mentioned Israel sees this as an existential issue. They have, of course, their own obligations to self-defense and protect their people, but they also see a difference in the time frame with their weaponry. They say there is a period of time in which Iranian facility are still vulnerable to attack; after they harden those facilities and move more centrifuges down deep underground at that base, that facility near Qom, that they will be out of reach of Israeli weaponry. That's the moment they fear that they have to either act or acquiesce in the creation of an Iranian bomb.
FLOURNOY: That is there their fear. And again, what my message to them was, in Tel Aviv, was: look, since the founding of the Israeli state, the United States has been a stalwart ally, and that is no exception now. There's - one of the things that Minister Barak said is there's no administration that's done more for Israel's security than this one. And this is a bipartisan tradition of many, many years. So we have their back. They've always been stronger and more effective when they've acted in alliance with us. And so, you know, that reassuring message, I hope it was heard.
CONAN: And it is important. Some people say that the administration is risking the advancement, that Iran is just playing for time as it has in previous discussions and spinning things out and asking for preliminary meetings and other discussions technical to - just to play this out as long as possible to continue their development, to continue to enrich uranium. And then that the administration is playing a game, saying, well, let's wait until November 5th.
FLOURNOY: Well, I think the administration has its eyes wide open in terms of Iranian negotiating tactics. And again, they have been clear that this is not an open-ended negotiation. This is not forever. I think they're going to lay down some markers that certain steps need to be taken as an - as evidence of good faith. And if they're not taken, then that's going to send a message that, you know, look, this isn't serious.
CONAN: Since the last round of negotiations, Iranian officials have said publicly that Iran will insist on the right to negotiate to continue to enrich uranium to the 20 percent level. That is one of the issues that is very much under discussion at these talks. How much credence should we put in public statements by senior Iranian officials about non-negotiable positions?
FLOURNOY: I think, given what we know about the internal divisions within Iran on some of these issues and the - their negotiating behavior in the past where they've made outrageous public statements and then in negotiations walk right - walked them right back, I wouldn't put too much credence in those statements at this point.
CONAN: How much confidence do you have that the sanctions and the negotiations are going to be fruitful?
FLOURNOY: I think that this is going to create the best opportunity we've had in many, many years to test the seriousness of the Iranians and whether they're willing, you know, really, they're - they have a choice between either saving their economy and being part of - a viable part of the region or pursuing a nuclear weapons program that will make them a pariah, even more of a pariah than they are today. That's a pretty fundamental strategic choice. And I think we'll know in the coming weeks and months what choice they make.
CONAN: Why won't deterrence and containment work with Iran?
FLOURNOY: Well, I think the problem is that if Iran were to actually acquire a nuclear weapon, many other countries in the region might feel very threatened, not only Israel, but countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Turkey might feel the need to pursue their own nuclear weapons capability. And then you'd be in a world of a cascade, a new round of nuclear proliferation in a very volatile and unstable region that's going through lots of turmoil and changes. And I think that's the sort of situation where classic Cold War deterrence doesn't help you very much. It's - it would be a very disturbing reality and one that I think the United States and many other countries do not want to allow to happen.
CONAN: So you've said - you echoed the president's remarks that negotiations will not continue forever. Are we talking - and I don't know if you can say this in your capacity as a former official - but now in your wonk capacity, are we talking weeks, months, years?
FLOURNOY: I don't know what the timeline is, but I think that - again, I think that once the new round of sanctions hit and they're really felt in Tehran, we will know very quickly whether they're serious. Whether they come to the negotiating table with a different attitude, I think we'll be able to assess that.
CONAN: And that they should be able to feel that, certainly, by the end of the summer.
FLOURNOY: Well, I think in the coming months, you know, it will take some time for the sanctions to be fully felt in all of their, you know, seriousness.
CONAN: And is there anywhere else, is there another ratcheting up of sanctions that's possible?
FLOURNOY: I think, you know, it's always possible to do more, but I think this next step will be the biggest change, the biggest increase in terms of what they'll really feel. The Central Bank piece is enormous, basically forces every financial institution in the world to choose between dealing with the American financial institutions and dealing with the Iran Central Bank. Not many people will choose to deal with Iran's Central Bank and that will really hamper their ability to have any kind of exchange in the international system.
CONAN: Michele Flournoy, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
FLOURNOY: Thank you.
CONAN: Michele Flournoy joined us here in Studio 3A. She served as undersecretary of defense for policy from February 2009 to February 2012. She's currently co-founder and member of the board at the Center for a New American Security. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.