Richard Perle is a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. A notable neoconservative, he previously served as Chairman of the Defense Policy Board and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy. I talked to Perle about the latest International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report in which the agency said it has "serious concerns" about Iran's nuclear program and has obtained "credible" information that the Islamic Republic may be developing nuclear weapons.
Amar C. Bakshi: Do you advocate military action against Iran?
It seems to me the preferable course would be to encourage the internal opposition to what is a very unpopular Iranian regime to continue the opposition that we saw so graphically after the last so-called election.
They need help. They are being subjected to unspeakable brutality, murders, disappearances, assassinations, torture and arbitrary arrest. We have not been giving them any significant assistance. We should.
What should we be doing? Can you be more exact on what the assistance would look like?
First of all, we should be very clear in speaking out in their support. The [Obama] administration has waffled, during the uprisings that followed the elections. The U.S. said almost nothing....So the first thing is moral support.
Second, material support. You cannot spend full-time organizing an opposition if you have to feed your family and you have no other source of support. So we ought to be able to get modest amounts of money to people who are prepared to devote themselves to organizing the opposition.
Third, communications. The regime’s opponents need equipment to communicate with one another and they need a steady stream of news coming from the outside world and they need to be able to get news out.
Those are the three critical things.
Are we not doing this right now?
No we’re not. As a matter of fact, a volunteer, private effort to put some video cameras in the hands of opponents so they could record the brutality and get it out to the rest of the world to see was blocked when our own government, operating under the sanctions against Iran, said that the organization that had raised the funds for this could not transfer assets to Iran even though the assets were going to the opponents. It’s an absurd situation.
Do you think there could be a regime change absent an opposition using military means? Do you think that street protests alone - which we saw in 2009 and which were not successful - can overthrow the regime? If so, why would that be the case now if not a couple of years ago?
I believe that the regime continues to be extremely unpopular. The Iranian administration became extremely brutal toward large numbers of people out in the streets. But there was very little outside support and very little in the way of organization. You don’t bring governments down simply by spontaneous protests. So the kinds of assistance - material assistance, communications equipment, moral support - and the continuing diplomatic and political isolation of Iran, which Iranians don’t like, all of those things could contribute, late as it is, to empowering the people of Iran to change their government.
What about the argument that by the U.S. and international actors providing support to the opposition, it strengthens the hand of the regime? The Iranian regime is able to call out and say, ‘Look, it’s us against the West.’
They say that anyway. They say it all the time. They accuse almost every dissident of having ties to the West, to the Zionists - as having been controlled from outside. Iranians are not stupid. They understand that the regime will try to discredit the opposition in any way that it can. And at the end of the day, we have to rely on the judgment of the opposition and the opposition wants help. They want help because, as a practical matter, it’s extraordinarily difficult without outside help.
Would you advocate, at some point, Israeli military action, or U.S. military action, or some combination thereof? Or do you think there’s not a military solution to the Iranian threat?
I think that when we arrive at the last possible minute -
Which we’re not at right now?
We’re not at it now but I can’t tell you when it will come and I can’t even define it. And the reason for that is that the last minute is not when they actually produce a weapon, it’s when a combination of their actions place the program beyond vulnerability to attack and then the option [of a strike] is lost.
In 1981 when the Israelis destroyed a reactor near Baghdad, they did it not because it was about to produce nuclear weapons. It wasn’t. They did it because it was about to be loaded with nuclear fuel. And once the fuel went into the reactor, it was no longer a plausible target for aerial bombardment because that would spread a lot of radioactive material in a populated area and the Israelis were not prepared to do that.
So the last minute was just before the fuel went in. In the current case, the last minute will undoubtedly be something else, and it may well be before the Iranians are able to take some crucial facilities that are now above ground and place them underground.
For example, the facility at Natanz is above ground. But the Iranians are certainly working to create deeply buried spaces that can accommodate the equipment now at Natanz and possibly other equipment. So that’s the sort of thing the Israelis will be looking at. They consider a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat and I don’t think that anyone can blame them.
If they come to the conclusion that it is the last opportunity to stop that program or at least set it back significantly -
We don’t know when that will be -
We don’t know when it will be but there’s a very high cost attached to getting it wrong. If you go a little bit sooner than was absolutely necessary, that has some consequences. But if you’re unable to do it because it’s too late, that has even more serious consequences. So, if one is to err, it would be better to err on the side of deciding too soon.
On the question of whether the Israelis can actually do it, I believe they can and I think they’ve been planning for this contingency. They’re not eager to do it, of course, but I believe they have put in place and continue to put in place the critical capabilities necessary to do the job.
Would the U.S. partake in such a strike, do you think? Would this be an Israeli activity that we support from afar?
Well, it might even be an Israeli activity that we don’t support. We now know from former vice president Cheney’s memoir that he urged that the United States destroy the Syrian reactor provided by the North Koreans and that the Israelis destroyed it on their own when we refused to help. And we might well refuse to help again. Although it does seem to me that if the Israelis decide they’re going to do this, then the worst of all outcomes is an Israeli attack that fails because it would result in a wounded beast. And at that point, whatever we may now think, it would make sense to reconsider and to possibly join in supporting them.