RFE/RL: The aircraft carrier the "USS John C. Stennis" recently joined the "USS Dwight D. Eisenhower" in the Sea of Oman. Many analysts argue that the real aim of any massive military presence of U.S. forces in the region cannot be, let's say, defeating insurgents in [Iraq's] Anbar Province. They suspect that the main -- and probably the only -- aim of U.S. forces' presence in the region is a sort of preparation for attacking Iran. Do you agree?
John Bolton: The aircraft carriers are there because of the circumstances that the coalition faces in Iraq and because of normal rotation of assets. But I think as well that the government in Tehran has to take seriously the U.S. position that 'all options are on the table' if Tehran does not cease uranium enrichment as required by the UN Security Council resolution .
RFE/RL: Russia and China have so far been reluctant to punish or sanction the Iranian government to the extent that Washington wishes. Now Iran has openly defied and ignored UN Security Council Resolution 1737. How far would Beijing and Moscow go to support the U.S. position in tackling the Iranian case?
Bolton: I think Russia and China have been protecting the government of Iran from the full effect of economic sanctions. And I think that has weakened the possibility of the Security Council really imposing effective sanctions on the government of Iran. That's not a good thing for the Security Council, and what it means is that the United States and others who are concerned about Iran's pursue of nuclear weapons will go outside the Security Council. Because if the council can't act, we can't allow that inability to act interfere with our responsibility to protect American citizens and our friends and allies.
RFE/RL: Nuclear activities in Iran have preoccupied U.S. policymakers to the point that Washington has become a target of criticism by human rights activists. They say the United States has practically shelved the human rights situation in Iran.
Bolton: I certainly hope that's not what people think, because I know in the United States concern about the human rights situation inside Iran is very intense. And in fact, especially among the Iranian-American community, knowledge about the conditions inside Iran and concern about conditions there is very, very strong. So although the nuclear threat and Tehran's support for terrorism are the most critical national security issues, I think the human rights situation in Iran remains very much on the U.S. mind.
RFE/RL: Some critics of Washington's stance vis-a-vis Iran say the United States has softened its stance by agreeing to sit at the same table with Iran at the March 10 Iraq Security Conference. Some analysts have described this agreement as a crack in the wall between Tehran and Washington.
Bolton: Actually, this conference that's being announced is something that comes from the government of Iraq; it is one of their suggestions. It is modeled on the compact for Afghanistan that was quite successful some years ago, and where all of the regional powers with borders on Afghanistan participated. So I don't view these conferences as dissimilar from that. It's really not intended to be a way backdoor for the United States to talk to Iran. It really is about [Iraq] and our desire for a better life for the people there.
RFE/RL: Do you think the U.S. pressure is having any effect on Iran?
Bolton: I don't see any real prospect that the current government in Tehran is ever going to give up the pursuit of nuclear weapons voluntarily. They certainly have paid no attention to the resolutions of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] or the near-unanimous resolutions of the UN Security Council. And if they continue to pursue that course of action -- which it certainly looks like they are -- then I think we have no alternative than to take other steps. I personally think that the government there will continue to pursue nuclear weapons as long as it's in power -- which is one reason why I would like to see regime change in Tehran. I'd like to see a truly democratic government [that is] really reflective of the will of the Iranian people in control in Tehran rather than the current regime.
RFE/RL: You just mentioned "other steps." What other steps? A military strike, as President George W. Bush has said time and again...would remain on the table as an option in tackling the Iranian nuclear crisis?
Bolton: I think the president is quite serious when he says he's not taking any option off the table. And, in fact, Vice President Dick Cheney said a few days ago -- echoing Senator [John] McCain [Republican, Arizona] -- that while no one really looks forward to the use of military force, the only thing worse than military force is this regime in Tehran with the control of nuclear weapons. So I think that if the Iranian government really understood how strongly the United States feels about the possibility of the use of military force, that actually might contribute to the government changing its policies. But if Tehran doesn't plan to change its policy, then I think that's certainly an option that the United States should not take off the table.
RFE/RL: But the Iranian regime deeply believes that U.S. forces are bogged down in Iraq and that, therefore, Washington is not in a position to stretch its forces and, by attacking Iran, start a new military campaign in a highly volatile region.
Bolton: I don't think the military option, with respect to the Iranian nuclear program, would involve forces on the ground. I think it would involve the destruction of the nuclear facilities. And that can be done in a variety of other ways. So if I were in the government in Tehran, I wouldn't be counting those chickens just yet.
A control panel at the Bushehr nuclear power plant (Fars)
CASCADES AND CENTRIFUGES: Experts and pundits alike continue to debate the goals and status of Iran's nuclear program. It remains unclear whether the program is, as Tehran insists, a purely peaceful enegy project or, as the United States claims, part of an effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
On June 7, 2006, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with nuclear expert Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden to help sort through some of the technical issues involved. "[Natanz] will be quite a large plant," Kile said. "There will be about 50,000 centrifuges and how much enriched uranium that can produce [is] hard to say because the efficiency of the centrifuges is not really known yet. But it would clearly be enough to be able to produce enough [highly-enriched uranium] for a nuclear weapon in fairly short order, if that's the route that they chose to go...." (more)