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Interview with Ehud Barak

Aired April 19, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET



CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program, where we try to delve more deeply into the stories that really matter. And few stories matter more with higher stakes for the entire world right now than the nuclear standoff with Iran.

Today, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and the U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta are meeting in Washington. And it's a crucial moment. The world is watching and it's waiting to see if and when Israel will attack Iran.

I'll be speaking with Ehud Barak in a moment, but first, in tonight's brief, I want to take than question one step further. Suppose there is an Israeli attack on Iran. What then? What does the day after look like?

But let's step back for a moment and remember that there are talks underway, perhaps a last-ditch effort to resolve this diplomatically with Iran, and all sides are sounding somewhat hopeful.

But fear of war does linger. In fact, there's been so much talk about an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program that one expert calls it "mainstreaming war," making it sound normal, if not inevitable. And the war room scenarios range from surgical strike that simply sets back Iran's nuclear program, to a far more dire picture, sparking a major conflict with catastrophic consequences.

Most of the experts and officials I've talked to, both here in the United States and in other capitals say that if Israel does strike, it won't only be Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision, but just as much the decision of my guest tonight, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister. And I sat down with him just before he met with his United States Secretary of Defense.


AMANPOUR: Mr. DEFENSE MINISTER, talks are underway with Iran. The initial reports seem to be surprisingly upbeat. Do you have hope that this can be resolved diplomatically?

EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI DEFENSE MINISTER: Hopes of course I have but I'm really thick enough to -- not to be so optimistic about it. The Iranians have a long tradition of deceiting (ph) and defying the whole world, sometimes even shorter than the diplomatic steps like this. So we a little bit skeptical.

AMANPOUR: Right now there seems to be an attempt to prepare their own people. Senior Iranians, the foreign minister, the nuclear negotiator, are giving interviews, talking about the possibility of not enriching to 20 percent in return for having the right to have a civilian program.

Does that give you some hope that the conversation seems to be changing inside Iran?

BARAK: No, I always hope. You know, I would love to wake up some morning and to see that it's all over, that (inaudible) have decided to put an end their military nuclear program but that's not the case right now.

AMANPOUR: Right now there is an enormous amount of talk and focus about the fatwa by Iran's Supreme Leader, who's in charge of all the program, not only Iranians are talking about the fatwa, in which he said that Iran would not possess, would not develop, it's a great sin under Islam to have a nuclear weapon or anything, of weapons of mass destruction.

But it's not just him. It's Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It's even President Barack Obama. It's the prime minister of Turkey. It's many people now talking about this fatwa as if it could be some kind of diplomatic exit, an offramp to the crisis.

BARAK: I don't buy it so easily. It is the same Khamenei who said just a year ago, his quote, Gadhafi for buying so easy the pressure to give -- to give up his nuclear (inaudible). He pointed to where he is now.

Have you heard the term atakia (ph), which means in Islam, especially in the Shia, a kind of permission from heaven to the leader to lie and mislead. (Inaudible) as long as it's really in order to reach the objective, the political objectives of the movement agobo (ph), the tribal (inaudible) of the nation. So it's -- I don't buy it.

I follow the facts on the ground, enrichment continues. They got a pose (ph) of five months, five weeks until the next (inaudible). But, God (ph), everything is still working. It is clear to all of us, to (inaudible) whoever that the Iranians are focused on, which in nuclear military capability, they are already as ever to defy and deceive the whole world.

AMANPOUR: You're obviously very concerned, and so are many, should Iran get a nuclear capability that's military. As I said, the U.S. does not believe any such decision has been made. But there are people --

BARAK: No, no, no. The -- I want to correct you.

AMANPOUR: But that's what they tell us.

BARAK: No, no, listen. Ask them the following question. Are they --


AMANPOUR: -- their intelligence doesn't --

BARAK: No, no. I know, I'm talking for the American intelligence. I've talked to American leaders. There is no difference in the assessment of intelligence. It's true that probably Khamenei did not give an order to start building a weapon or a device.

But why he's doing this, just because he understands that if he starts to break the IEA and start to actually build a weapon, he might find himself faced with an American response, your response or whatever, in a way that might damage him. And that's the only reason why he did not give the order. But they're clearly heading toward this objective.

AMANPOUR: But if that's the case, then, then surely the pressure is working, that they're not doing it, as you said, because the pressure is there and the threat of (inaudible) what you might do.

BARAK: These are quite effective sanctions. But it's still far away from working.

AMANPOUR: I just want to go back to the fatwa in regard to what you've just said. As I said, many American officials are talking publicly about the fatwa. And there is a thought that President Obama might agree to allow Iran a civilian enrichment program if they can back up their fatwa and prove that they're not going to go the military route. Would you accept that?

BARAK: There's only (inaudible) fatwa if they stop enriching for 20 percent. They stop bringing out of country to a friendly mutually-agreed (ph) state.

The 20 percent enriched uranium and a 3.5 percent enriched uranium, beyond the few other kilograms which is not enough for a single device, and decommission the installation income (ph), and put the whole activity under the tight inspection of Protocol 3.1 of the IAEA and answer all the questions that have been raised by the IAEA along the last years about their military activities in regard to nuclear weapons.

Once they do this, it means that they gave up the military nuclear program. But that's the test. And that should be the threshold that the P5+1 are setting for them.

If this threshold is not set at the opening meetings of these negotiations, it will never be met. And without meeting it, you will never know whether you moved a little bit toward ending this military project or you just buried your head into the sand.

AMANPOUR: You're going to give this diplomacy a chance, you said. Is there any likelihood that there could be an order to strike Iran before the next round of talks?

BARAK: Christiane, I assume you're (inaudible). I do not like the kind of flood of descriptions and the speculations about the Israeli possibility attack on Iran.

I say that it should be -- remain in the -- behind closed doors as a part of a vague understanding that there is a big stick in the background and that it -- when we say and when the Americans say, when others are saying that all options are on the table, we mean it and we expect others to mean it as well.

And that might suffice. I don't think that it will help in any tangible manner to convince the Iranians by going into speculation about how such a strike, American or Israeli, might look like.

AMANPOUR: One of your own journalists, Channel 10, got a lot of access from your own military, your own Air Force, it was cleared by your own military censors, so it must be fine by you all.

BARAK: No, no, no. No, no.

AMANPOUR: Describing --

BARAK: No, it's not fine.

AMANPOUR: -- describe force, describing waves of aircraft that there could be dozens of fighter planes --

BARAK: It's not -- (inaudible) you don't seriously expect me to --

AMANPOUR: Many people understand the threat as you see it. What many people don't understand and don't really appreciate is the possibility that this could trigger a wider war, that Iran would react in some kind of way through its proxies, that would ignite a much, much bigger war.

BARAK: I've read almost every paper that came out of any American think tank or any other source in the last year.

And I should tell you I tend to agree with those of the experts who are saying that however complicated and with certain risk, even certain kind of unintended consequences of dealing with Iran, (inaudible) coming here, it will be extremely more complicated, extremely more dangerous and extremely more costly in terms of human lives and (inaudible) once it is nuclear.

And bear in mind, if we -- the international community and Israel (inaudible) will not act to actually, completely stop them, we will end up with a nuclear Iran. It already happened with North Korea. It's happened already with Pakistan. And Iran as the third player, it will be the end of any considerable non-proliferation (inaudible) with many other consequences.

AMANPOUR: Do you think Iran will strike back if Israel attacks its nuclear programs?

BARAK: I don't know. I assume that everyone will contemplate what to do if something happens, whether it's Israel or America or anyone. I don't -- I don't want even to go into it. I fully realize there are no actions, no steps that could be taken without having any risk.

AMANPOUR: Many American officials who I have spoken to fear that if there is an attack on the nuclear program there, that is what could turn them into making that decision to actually go military.


AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) about that?

BARAK: You know, you cannot exclude what you are talking about, the future (inaudible), exclude the kind of mathematically any kind of possibility. The real nightmare of the Iranian leadership is that America will be somewhat dragged into it.

It is clear to them, even along (inaudible) statements from the top American principals that if they break the IAEA and start moving toward a nuclear explodable device or weapon, America will contemplate action. That's what it tells them. And beyond that, even my probably contribute to these details. But that's the only reason.

AMANPOUR: Do you believe that any strike on their nuclear program at this time can do full damage? Can it -- can it -- can it end the nuclear program?

BARAK: What do you mean end? There is nothing, nothing that --

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible).

BARAK: There is no (inaudible) realities. We are both us mature enough to realize no perfect solutions.


AMANPOUR: In a moment, we'll be back with more of my conversation with Ehud Barak. On Syria, he had surprisingly strong call to action to stop the slaughter there.



AMANPOUR: Now back to my conversation with the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, and his message to the United States on Iran and his unmistakable call for action to stop the slaughter in Syria.


AMANPOUR: You are going to be meeting with your counterpart, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Will you, will Israel, give the United States a heads up, will they inform the United States if you decide to make a decision to Iran's nuclear --

BARAK: No, we don't -- we don't have a decision. As of now, it's not about -- it's something that we are contemplating. We have a very open kind of frank discussion of this issue with the Americans.

AMANPOUR: But will you alert them?


BARAK: We had to --

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) inform them?

BARAK: Let me -- I don't want to go into the details. We do whatever is -- makes sense and is reasonable. I don't want to --

AMANPOUR: Do you think that you'll join a war if you started one or decided to --

BARAK: I don't --

AMANPOUR: -- (inaudible) strike?

BARAK: I don't want to implicate the United States. I do not want to drag the United States into something. I think that the Iranian case is a major challenge (ph) for the whole world, not just for Israel. But we ultimately contemplate our position.

We would love, together with you, and I believe the leaders here, to wake up one day, as I have said, and see that it's all over. But we should be open-eyed and never lose a kind of eye contact with the challenge, and be able to make judgment and be able to take decision, if and when they are needed.

AMANPOUR: One of the things that people always ask me and makes them worry for Israel is about what President Ahmadinejad was said to have said a few years ago, about, quote-unquote, "wiping Israel off the face of the map."

Many Iranian officials who I've interviewed, including just now recently, have said that is not what he said, nor is it the policy of the Iranian government to have any military attack on Israel. Your own minister, Dan Meridor, said that, yes, that is not what Ahmadinejad said. He didn't say wipe Israel off the face of the map. Do you accept that? Or do you still believe that Iran has a military design on you?

BARAK: I think that we are focusing too much on the nuances of the topic, rather than --

AMANPOUR: This is really important, because everybody talks about this.

BARAK: No, no, I would tell you exactly what he said. He said, and others said in public many times, that the Zionist entity -- it's a code name for Israel -- is something unnatural in the Israeli -- in the Middle East and should be removed at this point. That's what he said.

You know, we should be responsible. I do not like to draw comparison from 70 years ago. It's not the same Israel had been and is still and would be in the foreseeable future the strongest military power in the Middle East, thousand miles around, Jerusalem from Tripoli in Libya to Tehran, including those two places. And we will remain strong.

AMANPOUR: I want to ask you about how you assess, which you must do on a daily basis, the rationality of the regime in Tehran. One of your own former intelligence chiefs, as you know, Meir Dagan of Mossad, was asked by "60 Minutes" whether he believes Iran is rational (ph).


MEIR DAGAN, EX-CHIEF OF MOSSAD: The regime in Iran is a very rational regime.

LESLEY STAHL, CBS CORRESPONDENT: Do you think Ahmadinejad is rational?

DAGAN: The answer is yes. Not exactly our rational. But I think that he is rational.


AMANPOUR: This is your own intelligence chief saying that.

BARAK: (Inaudible) OK. He (inaudible), freedom of speech and expression of thought and he's a clearly someone that we have to listen to. But I tell you my position, it's an extremist radical Muslim faction.

AMANPOUR: I want to play -- ask you another quote as well. It's along the same lines, and it was told to our own journalist, Fareed Zakaria.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: When you observe Iranian behavior, does it strike you as highly irrational? Does it strike you as sort of unpredictable? Or do they seem to follow their national interests in a fairly calculating way?

GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY, CHAIRMAN, U.S. JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: That is a great question. And I'll tell you that I've been confronting that question since I commanded Central Command in 2008. And we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor. And it's for that reason, I think, that we think the current path of Iran is the most prudent path at this point.


BARAK: That's -- you quoted him properly. So it means that that is a position.

AMANPOUR: We'll switch to Syria.


AMANPOUR: I'm hot, too.

BARAK: Yes. Go ahead.

AMANPOUR: The world is wringing its hands right now to try to figure out what to do about Syria. People are wondering whether there should be any military intervention.

A senior U.S. administration official told us that that would be very difficult, airstrikes on Syria, because of Syria's very sophisticated air defense system. How do you assess Syria's air defense systems? Are they any match for the United States? For Israel?

BARAK: They are more sophisticated, the (inaudible) system or probably even the London (ph) system, but they are not a match for any modern Air Force capability. But I think that what happens there is a tragedy. It's a crime. They are slaughtering their own people by the day, which no --


AMANPOUR: Should there be an intervention?

BARAK: I don't know what kind of intervention there should be much louder voice and backed by actions. Actions should take many -- can take many ways.

Tighter sanctions, telling the leadership that they might end up with the world's support at The Hague, but at the same time anything from providing them with weapons to creating a free area of -- along the border so that people can concentrate there, if they are fleeing out of this slaughtering and rape and (inaudible) and whatever.

AMANPOUR: Safe areas?


AMANPOUR: For a long time, many smart analysts said that if Syria goes, it'll affect the whole region negatively, that Israel would prefer to deal with, quote, "the devil it knows than the devil it doesn't." Do you still count on --


AMANPOUR: --Bashar Assad?

BARAK: I think that he lost his legitimacy. I predicted he would fall must faster, but it didn't happen probably because we are not -- or that the world is not active enough. I think that in -- what happens in Syria should disturb us much more profoundly, the toppling down of Assad will be a major blow to the radical acts, major blow to Iran.

It will weaken dramatically Iran. It's the only kind of outpost of the Iranian inside the Arab world. The Iranians are not Arabic, and it will weaken dramatically both Hezbollah and Lebanon and Hamas and (inaudible) Gaza, and it will be very positive event.

But having said that, he will not fall down if he's bottling up his forces (ph). The more he is slaughtering his people, the more the prospect is of later on a civil war, rather than immediately creating certain (inaudible) to represent --


AMANPOUR: But I mean, so just as -- I mean, you've said all this. So shouldn't the United Nations, the world powers lead some kind of effort to end --

BARAK: (Inaudible) experienced enough with these organs. In the United Nations, you need the U.N. Security Council resolution. The Russians and the Chinese will not agree for reasons that --

AMANPOUR: They didn't (inaudible) in Kosovo.

BARAK: -- quite, quite obvious. But we still remember. (Inaudible) you mentioned Kosovo was an example. Clinton and Blair (ph) did it on their own, Libya is an example. NATO with Turkey (inaudible) can take certain steps to influence (ph). But Turkey should feel the tailwind from Europe, from America, from the whole world who are taking those steps.

And I think that more could and should be done. We'll regret it when we look at it a year later backward, we will regret being unable to coordinate certain international much tougher and clearer response ,both vocally and more important on the ground in order to put and end to it. Not necessarily through sending divisions (ph). There are many other ways.

AMANPOUR: Ehud Barak, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

BARAK: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: So we'll wait and see whether Barak took that strong message into his meeting with Leon Panetta, and whether the United States will take stronger action to silence the guns in Syria.

And on Iran, we want to bring you all sides of this crisis. And so next week we'll have a rare interview with an Iranian insider, a former member of the National Security Council there, who worked on the nuclear dossier. You'll want to hear what he has to say.

But when we return in a moment, with all this talk of war, the cost of war, vividly revealed. Stay with us.



AMANPOUR: Imagine the day after you fight a war, and the days and months and years after that. Many of us have documented this. But who better to show it than military photographers recording their own? Here's one of the winning photos from the Military Photographer of the Year contest.

This is the bottom half of former Air Force officer Brian Kolfage, holding his wife, Ashley, on his lap. His prosthetic legs fill the frame. He was wounded by a mortar shell in Iraq, barely escaping with his life, and he may be the most injured surviving airman from any war.

That's it for today's program. And for the other view on this Israel- Iran issue, log on to You've just heard Israel's view on the Iranian nuclear capability. So watch my latest special for the other side, a nuclear Iran, the expert intel. Thank you for watching and goodbye from New York.