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Hugh Hewitt Book Club

Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, on Iran, Syria and Egypt

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HH: I want to begin abroad today, because in the last few days, I’ve been preparing for a couple of interviews for the week after next. Dan Silva’s got his annual Gabriel Alon novel coming out, The Fallen Angel. So I spent hours reading that. And then, Dan Raviv’s got a new book out called Spies Against Armageddon, and I’ll be talking to Dan the week after next as well. And after both of those books, I thought if we could get Ambassador Michael Oren, who’s Israel’s ambassador to the United States to join us, that would be terrific, and he’s back. Ambassador Oren, welcome, it’s good to have you.

MO: And always good to be with you, Hugh, and I’m just envious. You get to read all these good books by my good friends, Dan Silva and Dan Raviv.

HH: And they’re great, great interviews as well, but they do leave me more than a little alarmed. Both of them are concerning themselves with Iran, and that’s what I wanted to talk with you about today.

MO: Right.

HH: How do you see, are we making any progress, the West, against Iran’s march to nuclear weapons?

MO: Well, the sanctions have proven very effective in taking a chunk out of the Iranian economy. They sent the Iranian currency into something like a freefall. So that has been effective. What we haven’t seen is a major impact on the Iranian nuclear program. And on the contrary, according to the United Nations, the Iranian nuclear program has been accelerating. And during the period of the negotiations, in particular, they keep on spinning out enriched uranium, and advancing their programs significantly. And as Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, we don’t have a lot of time. It may not be days or weeks, but it’s not years, either.

HH: When you talk about that window when they can go critical, one of the things that Dan Raviv in particular says is that many in the Israeli intelligence community are worried about a sort of sprint to nuclearlization and weaponization, that the Iranians will feel the jaws closing in on the economy, and they’ll turn everyone loose on doing this. Have you seen signs of that?

MO: No, we haven’t seen signs of an actual sprint, but they’re moving up all the pieces to a point where they’re sort of at a starter’s line, if you want to extend the metaphor. They’re moving all those pieces up to the starter’s line, so when they have the sprint, they can move this program very quickly forward. And the more time they have to move those pieces and prepare them, then the shorter the sprint will be. There’s an institute in Washington here, right from where I’m speaking, called the Bipartisan Research Institute that said about six, seven months ago, that if the Iranians decide to break out or sneak out, they can get a deliverable device, nuclear device, within 54 days. And within a year, that period will be reduced to 12 days.

HH: Wow.

MO: So that was, oh, more than half a year ago they said that, so the Iranian program today, according to that institute, would be something like 25 days. So the sprint is also getting shorter and shorter in distance.

HH: What does the government of Israel wish that the government of the United States had done that they haven’t yet done, if anything?

MO: Oh, we feel strong still that a combination of crippling sanctions and a credible military threat stands our best chance of dissuading the Iranian regime from trying to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s important that when I stress the credibility of the military threat, it’s not enough that we all say that options are, or all options are on the table, but it’s very important that the Iranians believe us when we say that all options are on the table. And President Obama has said repeatedly that all options are on the table, with the exception of the one option of containment, which is very important that he says that that option is not on the table. It’s important that the Iranians believe that. So endowing the military threat with credibility, and ratcheting up the sanctions, that stands the best chance of dissuading the regime.

HH: Now obviously, Ambassador Oren is a very successful here in America, as well as the Ambassador of Israel to the United States. You know American politics intersects with this issue fairly soon, if not already inevitably intertwined. What is, what happens within Israel as we get closer to November, and the level of public conversation that goes on about this issue, if anything?

MO: Well, keep in mind that there are structural differences between us, Hugh, built-in differences. America is a very large country with very big military capabilities. It’s not threatened with destruction by Iran the same way that Israel is. Israel is a small country with limited capabilities, and we’re in Iran’s backyard, and the Iranian regime never misses an opportunity to say that its finest dream is to wipe Israel off the map. They said it just yesterday again. And so given our capabilities, our timetable is much more limited that the United States timetable is, and it’s not determined by the American elections. It’s not determined even by the tempo of the contacts with the Iranians that have been going on in various capitols. It’s determined by the degree to which the Iranians are progressing on the nuclear program, moving parts of that program into fortified underground bunkers. And those are the clocks that we are looking at, and they will determine our actions.

HH: Ambassador Oren, looking back to Harry Truman and the founding of the state of Israel forward, do American presidents and American presidential candidates have a history of saying one thing before the election and doing a thing differently thereafter when it comes to support for the security needs of Israel?

MO: American presidents have, from both Republican Party and Democratic Party, have been outstanding in their support for Israel. You know, they pledged to uphold Israel’s security, they maintain that pledge. Security relations with the current administration are excellent. They’re excellent under previous administrations. We have advanced immensely in the fields of anti-missile defense systems and intelligence sharing, in training. We’re about to have the largest joint exercise between American armed forces and the Israel Defense Forces in our history. So looking at it from a historic perspective, not just as an ambassador, I say without reservation that the U.S.-Israel relationship, its alliance, is the most multifaceted and deepest alliance which this country, the United States, has had with any foreign country in the post-World War II period.

HH: Oh, that’s significant. Now when are these maneuvers unfolding?

MO: In October.

HH: Oh, terrific. Now the next thing I want to ask you is about the former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, who is quoted extensively in Dan Raviv’s new book. And the public quote that many people remember is the 60 Minutes quote. Was that controversial within Israel? And how would you have people understand the former head of Mossad saying you know, that would be the stupidest thing ever for Israel to attack Iran?

MO: Well, listen, Meir Dagan is a person who has devoted his life to Israel security, and he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. But that’s one man’s opinion. There are many other opinions that take issue with what Meir Dagan says. And Meir Dagan is also a person who was involved in political differences with the current leadership in Israel, and we have to take that into consideration also. So again, he’s entitled to his opinion, we respect the contributions he’s made to Israeli security throughout a very long career, but as in this country, there are people that disagree with one another, particularly on security issues, and the Israel government represents a different view.

HH: All right, turning, with our last couple of minutes that we have, to your northern border. The chaos in Syria continues, as does the slaughter. Is there an aspect of policy towards Syria that you would wish the United States would do differently or talk about differently?

MO: No. We agree that Syria without Bashar al Assad would be a better place, and the quicker that he departs, the better. We are not, we want an end to the bloodshed. We want an end to the suffering. We are deeply and movingly impressed by the courage of the Syrian people in standing up to the tyranny of this regime. We are not making specific recommendations about how Bashar Assad and his regime will depart. We feel that that would be counterproductive for the opposition. And so we don’t want to hurt the opposition in any way. But we are in close consultation with the administration about the situation in Syria, and for the concerns we have about the situation in Syria. The bottom line, Hugh, is that we want him out, and we want him out sooner rather than later, and we hope that Syria can emerge as a peace-loving democracy.

HH: And a last question, the new president of Egypt used his first address as president, or president-elect, to call for the release from the United States maximum security prison in Colorado of the Blind Sheik. Now translate that for us, from Middle East speak. Is that a serious demand on the United States, Mr. Ambassador?

MO: I really can’t tell you. You probably have to pose that one to the Egyptian ambassador here. What we are particularly looking for from President Morsi in Egypt is the reaffirmation of his commitment to uphold the peace between Egypt and Israel that’s existed now for more than three and a half decades. And it’s the cornerstone of our security, certainly in the southern part of our country. And so far our indication is that the Egyptian government is committed to that treaty. And we hope that a commitment continues.

HH: Very good news. Ambassador Michael Oren, thanks for spending time with us in the middle of a very hot Washington, D.C. I appreciate it very much.

End of interview.


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