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Will Israel Attack Iran?; Interview with Jon Huntsman

Aired September 4, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET



ALI VELSHI, CNN HOST: Good evening and welcome to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

We begin tonight with what is potentially the most dangerous situation on the globe, the threat of an Israeli military strike on Iran. Reports that Iran is drawing still closer to nuclear weapons capability are raising tensions between Israel and the United States.

Diplomatic talks on Iran's nuclear program have gone nowhere, and with no progress to report, the media is filled with rumors and speculation, among them that an Israeli attack on Iran is imminent; and from Israel, reports of a shouting match between Prime Minister Netanyahu and U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro, with Israel reportedly angry that the U.S. won't support an attack on Iran.

The U.S. is denying these rumors, but here's what we know for sure. Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges that it has installed underneath a mountain at the Fordo complex beyond the reach of an Israeli attack.

And General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Britain's "Guardian" newspaper that, quote, "I don't want to be complicit if Israel attacks Iran." That was his word -- "complicit". At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting angry at what he sees as a lack of resolve to keep Iran's nuclear progress at bay.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: It is a brutal regime that is racing ahead with its nuclear program because it doesn't see a clear red line from the international community. And it doesn't see the necessary resolve and determination from the international community.


VELSHI: Meanwhile, even the terrorists are weighing in. Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terror group, says that if there is an attack on Iran, the United States would become a target.

In a moment, I'll try to cut through all the reports to bring you the latest from all sides of this tense situation. But first, here's a look at what's coming up later in the program.


VELSHI (voice-over): Politicians like to talk of putting country above party. Jon Huntsman did just that as Obama's ambassador to China. Will his fellow Republicans ever forgive him?

And in Hitler's Germany, the Jews were forced to wear a yellow star. But after a recent attack on a German rabbi, Berliners wore a different badge -- of brotherhood.


VELSHI: We'll get to that in a bit. But first, to those rising tensions between Israel and the United States over Iran.

With me now are Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent for "The New York Times" and author of "Confront and Conceal."

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

David, let's start with you. In the absence of being in the room and knowing exactly what was said, there is a great deal of speculation that tension is rising with -- between the United States and Israel as the clock ticks, as some Israelis have said, faster and faster toward a red line for Iran.

What's your sense of how things are developing between these two nations?

DAVID SANGER, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Ali, certainly there is tension and there's been tension for a number of years. It has grown more severe in recent times with two different events.

One is what's happening on the ground in Iran. The latest IAEA report shows not only increasing production of enriched uranium, which was to be expected, but that most of the equipment has gone into a very deep underground site in Iran that the Israeli Air Force can't get at.

And then this raises a question, would Israel act before the presidential election? And of course, its leverage is highest before the election, because if they did act, President Obama would have very little choice other than to back them completely, even though he has said that an attack right now would be counterproductive.

VELSHI: So, Karim, this is interesting, because the red line to which the Israelis refer means the point at which Iran's ability to enrich uranium to a weapons grade is beyond the ability of someone to stop them. In this case, Israel's red line is different from the U.S.' because if Iran takes all of its capacity underground, Israel doesn't have the military capacity to take them out; the United States still does.

KARIM SADJADPOUR, POLICY ANALYST, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT: That's right, Ali. The reality is that the red line of both countries, both Israel and the United States, is imprecise.

But I would say at a macro level, for the United States, the red line is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And for Israel the red line is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. And I think therein lies the tension.

And if you look at Prime Minister Netanyahu, he said repeatedly that Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. When he wakes up in the morning, when he goes to bed at night, this is the first thing on his mind.

And I think for President Obama, what are more immediate priorities for him are, A, getting reelected and, B, improving the state of the U.S. economy. That's not to say that Iran isn't of great concern for him.

But I think the White House believes that there is time for diplomatic coercion to take place, to see if they can compel Iran to curtail their ambitions diplomatically without using force.

VELSHI: So it's not that the goals are entirely different. It's that the timeline is entirely different.

And, David, let me ask you this: the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Dempsey said -- made a statement in London, where he said, if Iran - - if Israel were to act preemptively and without international coordination, the international effort to back Israel stands in danger of falling apart.

Tell me -- parse those words a little bit. Is that the U.S. saying to Israel, don't act on your own and don't act prematurely or we may not back you?

SANGER: I think the message is that if Israel acts unilaterally, without, in other words, a U.N. blessing and without participation of others, then it could be increasingly isolated in the region.

And you might actually see a wave of sympathy toward Iran at a time that the U.S., working with its European allies and working with Israel, have been trying to build up this big coalition to squeeze Iran's oil revenues, to participate in other activities, including some covert activities, to make it much harder for the Iranians to get to nuclear fuel.

And so the U.S. is thinking about the day after the attack, and saying to the Israelis, you, too, should be thinking about the day after the attack, because, you know, you wake up in the morning. There may be a smoldering hole someplace. But the Iranians will start working to rebuild.

And the rest of the world might relax many of the sanctions that are now on Iran. I think the U.S. thinks that would be a big mistake.

VELSHI: You know, Karim, you said that this is existential to some Israelis, including Benjamin Netanyahu. This new IAEA report to which David referred shows that there is more installation of centrifuges in this Fordo plant. And Netanyahu might be taking that as validation of his concerns that they are getting to the point that they can have this weapon.

SADJADPOUR: I think, Ali, there's two ways of looking at the recent IAEA reports. One is that Iran has made some forward progress. But another way of looking at it is that Iran's approach has been fairly deliberate. I would argue that they're not in a nuclear sprint. They have taken a much more deliberate approach. They're -- it's more about a nuclear brisk walk.

And remember, Ali, when Iran's program was revealed in 2002, the Israelis back then were saying that Iran is two to three years away. A combination of diplomatic coercion, sanctions, sabotage and military threats have bought us another 10 years at least.

VELSHI: So -- but this is interesting. You -- so there -- they may be orchestrating a response. The IAEA does get access to this plant. And what they are saying is that Iran seems to be building this remarkable capacity to enrich fuel to the point that it can be processed in nuclear weapons, but that they're not doing that.

SANGER: That's exactly right. And there are lot of people who believe that, in fact, Iran's strategy right now is to build right up to the edge, in other words, to put that capability together, but not go the last stage to a weapon, because once you go that last stage, then they've violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Then they probably have to fill out the inspectors. A world of hurt would come on them. They might everything that they're looking for by being just a few screwdriver turns away.

VELSHI: That's interesting, your term "a world of hurt would come upon them."

Karim, you said that the red lines are different. Israel needs Iran not to have a nuclear weapon and Barack Obama, at least at the moment, needs to win an election. What about the option that David has reported on, that the Obama administration could simply come up with much stronger wording?

That is, something that sounds more in step with what Netanyahu is looking for, something that basically says what David just says, to Iran, if you turn that screwdriver a quarter-turn to the right, a world of hurt will rain down on you?

SADJADPOUR: Well, I think they are -- the White House would argue that they have made that assertion. If you remember, months back at the APAC summit, when Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Washington, President Obama famously said that I don't have a policy of containment; I have a policy of prevention.

And you know, what that asserted is that if Iran indeed tries to make a mad dash for a weapon, the U.S. would take military action to prevent that possibility. But I think the challenge here for the Obama administration is they don't want to set precise red lines, which then Iran may well transgress, which would bring them into a war in the Middle East, which they're trying to avoid.

And for that reason, this is one of the chief criticisms of the Israelis, is that the Obama administration has been very vague in its red lines toward Iran.

VELSHI: Although, David, the presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, has made far less vague comments about what he would do in -- if elected.

He said he would never agree to allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level. That sounds entirely unenforceable. I think an international coalition to not let them enrich any uranium wouldn't be supported.

SANGER: I think that that's probably right, as the Iranians make the case that they have a right to peaceful enrichment, and they do if there are no questions that they could be diverting some to nuclear purposes or don't have weapons programs going underway.

And that's a reason that it's important that -- to the U.S. and the Europeans that the Iranians answer all the questions that the international inspectors have posed to them for years now, and which they haven't answered about suspected work on experimentation that would seem to be related to weapons instead of peaceful use.

VELSHI: Karim, a final question to you, Iran is facing a number of sanctions on its oil. They've got -- there are more anti-missile systems being built in Qatar. The U.S. is engaging in an international minesweeping action around Iran.

The U.S. is saying we still have a lot more runway before an attack.

Is the U.S. right?

SADJADPOUR: I think the Iranian calculation at the moment, Ali, is that they can withstand this type of coercion, at least until November. They believe that the Obama administration isn't in a position to offer Iran a serious deal until after the presidential election. I think they're holding out till then.

And the reality is that the Iranian regime for a few decades now has shown that it's willing to subject its population to pretty severe economic hardship rather than compromise on its political and ideological aims.

So ultimately, Ali, I'm pessimistic about some type of a negotiated resolution because I don't see a Venn diagram in which Israeli national security doctrine, Iranian ideology and U.S. domestic politics all intersect in one place.

VELSHI: David Sanger, Karim Sadjadpour, great to talk to both of you; thanks very much for your analysis.

SADJADPOUR: Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI: Thank you.

When we come back, China as political football -- with a presidential race on in the U.S., both sides are pledging to get tough with the world's biggest nation. But one man says that misses the point, and Jon Huntsman should know. Before he ran for president, he crossed the aisle to be America's ambassador in China.

But before we go to the break, take a look at this picture. How's this for a scary partnership? That is Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shaking hands with a man many consider the real leader of North Korea, Kim Young-sam.

Now Kim may not be the Supreme Leader, but he has the power to make treaties like this one for scientific and technological cooperation between the two rogue nations. We'll be right back.



VELSHI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Ali Velshi, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

It's another big political week in the United States. Barack Obama makes his best case for a second term as president as the Democratic National Convention gets underway. One issue that looms large is China. Getting tough on China is a regular theme for both parties, but the American who may know more about China than anyone says that misses the point.

Jon Huntsman ran for the Republican nomination for president before he lost to Mitt Romney. He served as ambassador to China under President Obama and few know more about the complex relationship between America and China. He and I talked about the key conflicts between these two powerful nations. Take a listen.


VELSHI: Governor, the biggest challenge is -- in the United States, obviously, are jobs and economic growth and the debt and deficit. But beyond the United States, the biggest challenge or opportunity is China, something you know very well.

You were an ambassador to China. You speak Mandarin. You've spent a great deal of time there. You did a mission there when you were a young man. This always becomes a campaign issue. I want to play you something that Paul Ryan said about China. Listen to this.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), WIS.: Our trading partners need to play by the rules.


RYAN: And this challenge focuses on China. They steal our intellectual property rights. They block access to their markets. They manipulate their currency. President Obama promised he would stop these practices. He said he'd go to the mat with China. Instead, they're treating him like a doormat.


VELSHI: A lot of people who agree with that sentiment, in fact, Mitt Romney -- this isn't just campaign talk. Mitt Romney says first thing he's going to do when elected is declare China a currency manipulator. Tell me your thoughts on this.

FORMER GOVERNOR JON HUNTSMAN, PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I don't think a whole lot of people disagree with that sentiment. In fact, I can name elections going all the way back to 1980 where China was used to be vilified for political gain.

Why? Because it's a large, complex relationship that has a fear factor associated with it. So you can use it for politics and then, if you're elected, you have to put the pieces back together again. That's how it was done traditionally.

I remember when President Obama vilified President Bush for attending the Olympics in 2008. Everyone seems to get a bite of that apple. And then once you're in power, Ali, you've got to figure out what you want to do with the relationship.

The difference today is, unlike any other election cycle, the United States and China are on the world stage. It was only the United States on the world stage before. Now it's two countries. And we have to deal with that reality. And we have to say, what do we want out of the relationship?

It isn't as simple as just sort of poking around the economic side. Yes, they're manipulating their currency, but they're also appreciating the renminbi by about 5 percent per year, get back during inflation. Eventually they're going to get there.

They, in return, say, well, if you're going to hit us on our currency, you did that quantitative easing stuff with the Federal Reserve, and that had an impact on your currency. We're going to retaliate.

VELSHI: Our quantitative easing created a lot more money, lowered interest rates, lowered the value of the dollar, one could argue.

HUNTSMAN: That's correct.

And so when the president, President Obama announced the tires case a couple of years ago, where we put up a tariff wall against their imported tires, what did the Chinese do in response to that? It was a deal probably worth $2.5 billion, $2.7 billion punitively. They then took on American chicken parts --


HUNTSMAN: -- to the tune of about $2.5 billion. And so I say here's the grownup relationship and the reality of it. If you're going to take on China on one issue where you've got 15 to cover, and you can't do them one at a time, then you'd better be prepared for their response. And the response is going to punitive on their part. And before you know it, you could easily find yourself into a trade war.

VELSHI: Where are we, though? For all the rhetoric, for all the campaigning, where are we? Are we in a good place and moving forward in our relationship with China? Are we in a dangerous spot?

HUNTSMAN: As my good friend, Winston Lord, former U.S. ambassador, would say, it's very much a sweet and sour relationship. And so there's a lot of yin and yang associated with the U.S.-China relationship.

What is fact is that we are so interdependent that we'll pull it a little bit, give a little bit, pull a little bit, without recognizing that you've got to achieve a balance here. And the only way America's going to achieve a balance is by standing up for the principles that we are known for, that are going to move the population of China in the future.

Now what is it that we're known by? We're known by liberty and democracy, human rights and free markets. And whenever we mute that message, we find ourselves in trouble. Whenever we stand tall on who it is we are, that's our name brand in the marketplace, Ali. We never regret it. It might carry with it a little bit of pain, but it pushes countries toward reform in ways that I think are very healthy.

VELSHI: Let's talk about a commentary that was in China's state-run news agency. They talked about the U.S. power in Asia, and they said, "U.S. power is declining, and it hasn't enough economic strength or resources to dominate the Asia Pacific region."

I ask you this, because should we be thinking of China as a competitor in terms of dominance in the Asia Pacific region?

Or should we be thinking of it as a remarkable opportunity for America? Their economy is growing at a pace that is more than three times the speed of ours. Are there greater opportunities we should be looking at?

HUNTSMAN: I like to see China not just through a prism of fear, but through a prism of opportunity, because what are we going to see in the coming years? We're going to see their economy making a transition from an export platform to a consumption platform, where the saving rate is very high in China.

People are going to start taking out their renminbi from under the mattress and investing in things. That means greater exports from the United States, which is a job creator right here at home. That's a huge deal for the United States.

And I want this country to be part of that, while at the same time we have to watch very closely things like their military development, their weapons system development, the relationships that they have with some unsavory players in the international community, like Iran, like Burma, which has become a little friendlier over time, like North Korea.

These have all got to be watched, and we have to make sure that with every new weapons system that is developed in China, we have the ability to counter it somehow, someway, which means a very aggressive approach toward eyes on, looking at what their systems are producing and developing as they move into the future.

So I say I want all of the opportunities that'll come from what will be the largest trading relationship the world has ever seen. Right now, we're number two, just short of Canada. We're doing about a little over $400 billion a year with China from zero, when Richard Nixon stepped off the plane in 1972. We're soon to become $500 billion, $600 billion, $800 billion in bilateral trade.

This is a good thing. And we want to make sure it happens in an environment that speaks to stability and peace and the rhetoric ratcheted down and collaboration on the disputed islands in the South China Sea in ways where we're actively taking a leadership role there in ways that speak to overall stability and prosperity.

VELSHI: Are you going to stick around and run again?

HUNTSMAN: Well, typically you let at least a year pass by, Ali, to clear out all of the cobwebs in your head and make sure that you're looking at it realistically. It was an extraordinary experience for my family. And we loved every minute of it, even though we didn't punch through, as I thought we might. I wouldn't trade it for anything. As for the future, we'll have to leave that for another day.

VELSHI: Governor Jon Huntsman, former presidential candidate, former U.S. ambassador to China, amongst other things, great to talk to you.

HUNTSMAN: Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI: After the break, a hate crime in Germany. In Hitler's Berlin, being abused was a blood sport. But a recent attack on a rabbi brought out the best in Germany's capital city. Berlin wears a yarmulke, when we come back.



VELSHI: A final thought, imagine a world that's Hitler's worst nightmare, Germans wearing yarmulkes to defend the Jews. Last Tuesday, Daniel Alter, one of the first rabbis ordained in Germany since World War II was with his 7-year-old daughter when four young men of Arab descent attacked him, breaking his cheekbone. One of them told his daughter, "I'm going to kill you."

Fortunately, the little girl was not harmed and Rabbi Alter is out of this hospital. And this weekend, over 1,500 Berliners, many wearing yarmulkes, rallied to show their support. Rabbi Alter told the crowd, "My cheekbone was broken, but these guys did not break my will to stand up for dialogue between religions"

One of Germany's leading Muslims said, quote, "An attack like that is an attack on everyone." In fact, Germany's Jews and Muslims share a common threat, the neo-Nazis, who are responsible for the vast majority of hate crimes. Berlin once gave us the Night of Broken Glass, and the burning of synagogues. But this time an act of brutality was met with an act of brotherhood.

That's it for tonight's program. Meanwhile, the Amanpour box is always open, Thank you for watching. Good night from New York.