NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This week, we've been taking time to listen to several world leaders address the U.N. General Assembly in New York with special emphasis on the looming crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions. We heard from President Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Tuesday, from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday. Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the gathering and outlined the situation in stark terms. He warned that Iran will have enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear bomb by next summer.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: So I ask you, given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons. Imagine their long-range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, their terror networks armed with atomic bombs. Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who'd be safe in Europe? Who'd be safe in America? Who'd be safe anywhere?
Now, there are those who believe that a nuclear-armed Iran can be deterred like the Soviet Union. That's a very dangerous assumption. Militant jihadists are not secular - militant jihadists behave very differently from secular Marxists. There were no Soviet suicide bombers, yet Iran produces hordes of them. Deterrence worked with the Soviets because every time the Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose their survival. But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get nuclear weapons.
There's a great scholar of the Middle East, Professor Bernard Lewis, who put it best. He said that for the ayatollahs of Iran, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent. It's an inducement. Iran's apocalyptic leaders believe that a medieval holy man will reappear in the wake of a devastating holy war, thereby ensuring that their brand of radical Islam will rule the Earth. Now that's not just what they believe. That's what is actually guiding their policies and their actions. Just listen to Ayatollah Rafsanjani, who said - I quote - "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it would only harm the Islamic world." Rafsanjani said, "It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality" - not irrational. And that's coming from one of the so-called moderates of Iran.
CONAN: That was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who went on to tell world leaders at the United Nations, quote, "the hour is getting late. The Iranian nuclear calendar does not take time out for any one or for anything." Aaron David Miller joins us now from a studio at the Woodrow Wilson Center here in Washington, where he's the public policy scholar in the Middle East program, a former U.S.-Middle East peace negotiator. Nice to have you back on the program
AARON DAVID MILLER: Pleasure to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And, again, Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his call for a clear red line. Did you hear anything new in his speech today?
MILLER: You know, it's interesting because he is very effective. The prop, which is actually cartoon-like in a way, was new and quite dramatic. But the reality is I'm not sure anything has change. I was thinking about this earlier, I mean, tomorrow morning, what rule it changed? The fact is - and we shouldn't trivialize Israel's concerns or Iran's determination to enrich uranium to at least acquire the capacity to produce a weapon.
But the problem is that neither sanctions nor negotiations seem to be discouraging the Iranians and nobody - certainly not the president of the United States and I don't even think the prime minister of Israel - right now wants to risk unilateral military strike in order to deter, prevent the Iranians from enriching uranium and acquiring weapon. So the problem is, when in doubt, when you have no other options - I guess, the Israelis have no alternative but to try to warn and to admonish, and to play with this whole issue of red lines.
One additional point: The problem, however, is the more you talk about something - particularly for a small power and a dangerous neighborhood - the more you talk about something without actually doing it, the more your own credibility and your own deterrent capacity begins to erode. And I think frankly, last point, that Israel's real timetable is the spring of 2013, not now. And if that's the case, then you have to wonder, unless you can sign up a lot of other people to the red line club - which I don't think the Israelis will be able to do - you have to wonder what's the point of repeated threats without action.
CONAN: A lot of people might say putting pressure on the president of the United States of America. The, you know, prop you mentioned was a chart that Prime Minister Netanyahu held up that showed - again, it does look cartoonish, sort of a Rocky and Bullwinkle bomb, which - but shows the first stage at 70 percent enrichment, the second stage at 90 percent and the final stage up at the top of the bomb with the fuse burning down - and that's where he drew his red line - and by saying that next summer they would have enough uranium. He seemed to be operating on pretty much the same calendar that you are outlining.
MILLER: I think that's the case, and I think he is trying to persuade the president, either to give him an assurance fairly early on - whoever is going to be president after November - to give the Israelis an assurance that if they stay their hand, the United States will make good on what the - this president has already articulated, that he will do everything - we must, he said I think at the U.N. General Assembly speech - to prevent Iran from acquiring a weapon.
Now, Romney has talked about preventing the Iranians from acquiring a capacity. But I suspect, if he became president, that between the agency - the CIA and the joint chiefs in the Pentagon, he would pause before creating that as a premature red line. So I don't think he's persuading the president, frankly, who really does want to avoid a unilateral military strikes, certainly between now and year's end.
And here again, I think the more - and I understand why the Israelis are doing this. They have - they do have a serious problem for which no one, frankly, has a solution. But the more you focus and the more you talk about something - and they're not getting the response from the international community or from the United States, their key ally - the more, I think, you really do risk not being taken seriously.
CONAN: You mentioned the Pentagon putting some breaks and the CIA as well. There is very little enthusiasm for a military strike against Iran amongst the American military and intelligence leadership.
MILLER: None. And politically, for this president, assuming he is re-elected, who has made his entire campaign trope about extricating America from its two longest wars in its history, the last thing he wants to have greeting him in January of 2013 is the possibility, probability of another military campaign, which, frankly, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, it would probably have domestic consequences, tumbling markets, increasing oil prices.
And I would suspect the Iranians will do everything they can to turn up the heat against American forces in Afghanistan, who are already at risk, at a time when the president is trying to stabilize the situation so he can bring - presumably bring them home. So this really is - that is to say the military option - a cosmic roll of the dice.
CONAN: One other thing. This issue, Iran, absolutely dominated Prime Minister Netanyahu's speech. There was virtually nothing of talk of, well, progress or anything else on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
MILLER: You know, I think he, in a large part, was kind of - I mean, I think you're 100 percent right. Iran is sucking up every ounce of oxygen in the room and has become the number one priority for this Israeli prime minister. And the chances of other issues, which - like the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, somehow renewing themselves in the phase of this kind of uncertainty - add to that the Arab Spring situation, Egypt and Syria - and you have a situation, I suspect, that until the Iranian situation clarifies in some way, the prospects of an Israeli-Palestinian serious negotiation are probably pretty low.
CONAN: There was another important speech at the U.N. yesterday: Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who's been criticized by many in this country for slow response when a mob scaled the wall at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag. Earlier this week, President Obama denounced the anti-Islamic video that sparked that protest but also declared that new democracies need free speech, that the answer to blasphemy is more speech. Speaking through an interpreter, President Morsi explicitly rejected that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT MOHAMMED MORSI: (Through Translator) The obscenities that I have referred to were recently released as part of an organized campaign against Islamic sanctities, are unacceptable and require, from us, a firm stand. We have a responsibility in this international gathering to study how we can protect the world from instability and hatred.
Egypt respects freedom of expression, freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone, not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture. A freedom of expression that tackle extremism and violence, not the freedom of expression that deepens ignorance and disregard others. Could we also - as we have said before and reaffirmed before - we also stand firmly against the use of violence in expressing objection to these obscenities.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, some have said President Obama, when he called for free speech in the region on Tuesday, was addressing his domestic audience. He's facing election, and that some might suspect President Morsi was doing the same.
MILLER: Yeah. I mean, I think that's right. Quickly, you've got a very high protected bar in this country on freedom of speech, which is going to change. And in Morsi's Egypt, you have a very high sensitivity toward being offended by that same free speech. So the - where is the balance? And the balance, I think, is that - and Morsi said it himself - that violence is not the answer. So the message to Morsi is that he's got to make sure that whatever peaceful protest, whatever anger is channeled through what will continue to be the exercise of free speech, even if it's vile and despicable, has got to be contained and the line has to be drawn that he will not tolerate attacks against American's diplomatic facilities or diplomats themselves.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar in the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. How much does Mohammed Morsi need American foreign aid? How much does he need American investment? How much does he need American tourists? Aaron?
MILLER: Look, I think that you've got a guy who's presiding over an economy which is structurally almost impossible to fix. So the answer is he needs a debt forgiveness from the United States, which we have pledged, in order to maintain cordial ties with the military. He needs $1.5 billion that we provide and have provided in the wake of Camp David agreements. He needs direct foreign investment, and he needs American support in helping him campaign for the IMF loan, which is $4.5 billion. The short answer is he needs us a lot, but he also has multiple constituencies.
And while I think he'd look to the Saudis to replace some of that aid, it's not quite the same. They can't provide the military hardware that we do, and they don't have the same clout to run an operation tin cup on behalf of Egypt in the international community. So he needs the United States. There's no question about it, and I don't think he's prepared to break, and neither are we.
CONAN: There is also the situation of the treaty with Israel, which just the surprise of some, remains in effect.
MILLER: Yeah. In fact, if there's any good news in this very uncertain, confused situation, it is that. It is that the Muslim Brotherhood - contrary to many who were persuaded that somehow the treaty would be renounced and Egypt would be pushed back to the confrontational line - the fact is every day that Mohammed Morsi is the president of Egypt, every day that that treaty stands and every day that the Egyptian-Israeli military, as they do, continue to cooperate. In an odd way, he legitimizes the relationship with Israel, and I don't want to push this to the point of absurdity.
But the fact is, you're seeing a phase of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, which I believe could be under the worse possible conditions, actually they may muddle through. And if, in fact, they do and you can get Israeli-Palestinian credible process going, who knows what further moderating tendencies might result.
CONAN: You've just said earlier, though, that that process not likely to get started while Iran is taking all the oxygen out of the room.
MILLER: That's exactly the point. And I think that's true also for the long arc of democratization in the region. This region is not going to stand still. And, you know, the arc of democracy is a long one. It took us 150 years in this country to reconcile the Declaration of Independence, the principles contained therein with the Constitution on the issue of slavery, and we're still not there yet. And we had non-predatory neighbors to our north and south and literally (unintelligible) - or east and west.
This region doesn't have the luxury. There's going to be conflict. There's going to be dislocation, and there's going to be contention. And this is why I fear that the diplomatic process, that is to say on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which is important. It may not be the critical key. It's important, and I suspect it's going to suffer as a consequence.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, thanks very for your time today.
MILLER: Pleasure, Neal, as always.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program and a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator. You can hear more about today's remarks at the United Nations later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll talk to you on again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.