Confronting Iran over its nuclear program

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President Barack Obama says the US and its allies are developing a ?significant regime of sanctions? against Iran for its nuclear program. Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, Mr Obama said said despite Tehran's denials, it was clear Iran was working to build nuclear weapons. The President's remarks came after Iranian state media reported that Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to 20% for use in a medical research reactor. Marco Werman talks with David Sanger, author of The Inheritance about the Iran challenge.

MARCO WERMAN: Shirin Ebadi did see some action from President Obama today. He extended U.S. sanctions against Iran. The administration froze the assets of the engineering arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. The move is a response to Iran's declaration that it has started the process of further enriching uranium. Some are calling for stronger measures, possibly even military ones, but the U.S. is already pursuing another option. Washington has reportedly been engaged in a covert campaign to disrupt Iran's nuclear program. David Sanger is Chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times. He says the U.S., Israel and several European nations have all attempted to sabotage Iran's nuclear ambitions.

DAVID SANGER: Over the years there have been many efforts to interfere with key elements of the supply chain that's fed into the nuclear program. There was a famous incident where the Iranian's brought in power supplies for the centrifuges that enrich uranium. And what do you know if the first 50 they brought in didn't blow up? Well they had been tinkered with before they made their way into Iran. The Iranians then adjusted and went off and found some other suppliers. Increasingly if you look at the Iranian program, they have begun to make more of their own parts by themselves in Iran.

WERMAN: And did U.S. officials confirm that there had been covert tinkering with those cylinders?

SANGER: You know, when I went back to the U.S. officials and described these events, one of them looked at me and said "Boy, what a shame. Accidents do happen." But that's only part of the effort. There was, in 2008, a new program under way to disrupt the power grid going into the Natan nuclear facility, which is where much of the enrichment happens. Its unclear how successful that was and at the time that President Bush left office, the program was still in its - - shape. But all the indications are that it has continued since President Obama took over.

WERMAN: Now we heard in the previous story about the ongoing street protests in Iran and the instability those demonstrations create, does that sort of atmosphere provide even more opportunity for these sorts of covert efforts? Or did they jeopardize those efforts?

SANGER: Figuring out to play the opposition movement on the streets in Iran has been one of the hardest problems facing the Obama administration. On the one hand they are more sanctioned, particularly against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp which runs the nuclear program, but also has been cracking down on the protestors. At the same time, even the opposition in Iran is an extraordinarily nationalistic opposition. Many of the opposition leaders support the nuclear program. So any American policy makers who believe that if the opposition wins the nuclear problem is over, well that may be too hasty a conclusion.

WERMAN: It's interesting, one of the officials you spoke with admitted that none of these covert efforts are game-changers, so I guess the bottom line is no matter what the United States is engaging in with Iran; the effort to produce nuclear material is marching on, isn't it?

SANGER: It is marching on, not quite as fast as the Iranians would like. But remember, a lot of this effort is about buying time. Initially it was about buying time from the Israelis to keep the Israelis from striking the nuclear facilities and figuring a broader conflict. But the new factor in all of this is the fragility of the regime facing these protests. Clearly the administration is hoping that by buying some time, they might see the regime fall of its own weight.

WERMAN: And what do you think about that hypothesis?

SANGER: These are unpredictable things. Every American President since Harry Truman has been convinced that the North Korean regime would be gone in a few years. Well guess what, the regime is still there.

WERMAN: David Sanger writes for the New York Times. His latest book is The Inheritance, the World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power.