NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Yesterday, Iranian security forces stood by as hundreds of protesters stormed into British embassy buildings in Tehran, burned flags, ransacked files, broke windows and detained six staff members for a few hours, until police eventually intervened. Today, Britain closed its embassy, recalled its diplomats home, and gave Iranian diplomats in London 48 hours to leave. While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the incident as unacceptable and the foreign ministry expressed regret, Iranian media described the protesters as members of a militia loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The attack seems sure to increase Iran's isolation and invites more sanctions. What does this say about Iran's internal and external priorities? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Commentator Ted Koppel joins us now from his home in Maryland. And Ted, the analogy to the seizure of the American embassy in 1979 will be lost on no one in Washington or in London or in Tehran.
TED KOPPEL, BYLINE: As the great Yogi Berra used to say, it's deja vu all over again, isn't it? And what a lot of people forget is that when the embassy was seized, the U.S. embassy, back in November of 1979, that was actually the second time that year that happened. It had happened previously, I think, in February of '79, and the U.S. ambassador at the time came out, talked to some of the demonstrators who had briefly seized the embassy, and it was all over in a few hours.
I can't help but believe that this is Iran's way of saying we can do it. We can do it any time we choose to. And anyone who thinks that an attack on Iran - and I realize that's a big jump, but I'll get to that in a moment...
KOPPEL: Anyone who thinks that an attack on Iran would not be met with countermeasures is dreaming.
CONAN: Well, there are several things going on here. One of them is - we've talked with Mike Shuster about this - NPR's foreign correspondent - clearly tension, enormous tension, between the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
KOPPEL: Absolutely. As there was, I don't need to remind you, because you've covered it many times and profoundly over the years, but as there was back in '79, between the Ayatollah Khomeini and the foreign ministry at that time, many is the time we heard from the foreign ministry: Don't worry about those American diplomats being held at the embassy; we're taking care of it; we'll get them release very soon, very quickly. If I could count the number of times that I sat up while ABC was doing its "America Held Hostage" series, waiting for the release of those hostages.
Of course, it didn't happen. And I think something very similar is transpiring today. Ahmadinejad, the president, who would have thought that we would be sitting here in a sense almost rooting for Ahmadinejad in his internal battle with the ayatollahs, but that's the way it looks.
CONAN: The protesters were chanting death to England, but they were specifically protesting sanctions levied on Iran after an IAEA report issued damning but not quite conclusive evidence that Iran is continuing to work on a nuclear weapon.
KOPPEL: And that, of course, brings us to the point that I was referencing a few moments ago. There is growing concern in the region - and I just came back from Iraq, Neal, as you know - there is growing concern in the region that the Israelis are in fact going to hit Iran and hit some of Iran's nuclear facilities before the Iranians make that final breakthrough and achieve weapon status. I think part of what is going on here is that Iran is saying to the rest of the world: be careful, don't take that kind of a move because we have measures that we can take against you in your locations. Remember now, there was the plot against the Saudi ambassador here in Washington, which the Obama administration says it believes, quite firmly, originated in Iran, to assassinate the ambassador here. They have, in the past, blown up a synagogue in Argentina. They exercise, I would say, almost total control all over Hezbollah in Lebanon. They have influence in Gaza. There are many things that the Iranians could do. And I think part of what they're saying here is, be careful, restrain the Israelis if you can.
CONAN: Yet, a stiff op-ed in The New York Times might have got the message across rather, as forcefully - well, maybe not as forcefully, but without inviting more sanctions and inviting the appropriation of the world, who's just denounced this as outrageous violations of the Vienna Conventions, just beyond the behavior of normal states.
KOPPEL: Except, remember, we had almost 40 years of this now. They have grown accustomed to the sanctions. The sanctions do bite. I don't think there's any question about that.
But a quick story. I was in Iran about four years ago, and I was trying to check out of the hotel and handed my credit card to the cashier at the hotel. He said, would you come back for your credit card in half an hour, please? I did. I'd forgotten, totally, that, you know, obviously, he can't use an American credit card in Iran. But I'd handed the credit card in without thinking about it, came back half hour later. The bill was paid. I forgot about it. Two or three weeks later, my assistant came in to see me and said, Ted, did you buy $1,300 worth of sporting goods in Dubai?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KOPPEL: And I said, how much is that again? And it turned out to be precisely the sum of my hotel bill in Tehran. I tell that story only to point out that the Iranians have found numerous ways of getting around those sanctions.
CONAN: And they continue to sell their oil. Lately, some are calling for restrictions on Iran's central bank. That would make it, well, much more difficult to sell their oil.
KOPPEL: Well, you know, one of the things - as I say, I just came back from Iraq. And one of the great concerns in Iraq right now, is over the degree of influence that the Iranians, A: already exert in that country. And B: with the withdrawal of the last U. S. forces by the end of this year, the additional control that they could exert if they chose to in southern areas of Iraq, like Basra, which has some of the biggest oil fields in the world. I was down at the U.S. consulate in Basra, and while I overnighted there, there were three rocket alerts. They are routinely hit by rockets from just a few miles away. The rockets all coming across the border, which is only about 13 or 15 miles away, from the border with Iran.
So Iran is already exercising a great deal of influence in that part of Iraq. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and parenthetically about 17 or 18,000 Americans are remaining behind whether they'd be diplomats or civilian contractors, defense contractors, CIA, DEA, FBI, they're all over there. And they are tremendously vulnerable now that the U.S. military is pulling out.
CONAN: We want to hear from you as well. What does the attack, yesterday, by protesters on Britain's embassy in Tehran and a diplomatic residence as well, what does that say about the internal and external priorities of the government in Tehran? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. Reese(ph) is on the line, calling from Wallingford in Connecticut.
REESE: Hi. I was listening to Mr. Koppel. And my point is, actually, the current Iranian government, they love an Israeli attack - actually, they inviting it. Because I'm Iranian immigrant myself, I know the dynamics over there. By attacking on certain, you know, spots, they can suppress the opposition and shut down all - whatever is left of the newspapers and the media. So my point is, I guess, as opposed to what Mr. Koppel was saying, the current government actually waiting and loves an Israeli attack on locations. they cannot - an excuse to suppress better. I don't want what your thought about it.
KOPPEL: Well, I can't imagine any nation in the world - I understand the point that Reese is making - but I can't imagine any nation in the world inviting the kind of attack that would have to be - I mean, if the Israelis attack, it's not just going to be a pinprick. It's not just going to be on one facility. The Iranians have gone the great lengths to disperse their bomb-making facilities and their nuclear facilities around the country. And I rather suspect that if Israel moves - and I don't for a moment consider that to be a foregone conclusion. But if they do, it would have to be massive. I can't imagine anyone inviting or welcoming a massive attack like that.
CONAN: And if the Israelis did attack, it would seem, a lot of people say, impossible for the United States not to be drawn in.
KOPPEL: Well, I think the great problem here, Neal, is that it might, in fact, be true that the United States knows nothing about it before it happens. But nobody in the region and, quite frankly, not many people in the world, would believe that if a close ally, Israel, would attack Iran, that it would have happen without the knowledge and some sort of consultation with the United States. So this going to be a hung for a sheep as a lamb kind of situation. If it happens, I think most people in the region will certainly believe that the United States knew about it, and, probably even supported it.
CONAN: Reese, thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking with commentator, Ted Koppel - as he mentioned, just back from a visit to Iraq - about Iran's situation and internal and external priorities after an attack by protesters, yesterday, on British diplomatic facilities in Tehran. As we mentioned, Britain, and now France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway, have recalled their diplomats from Tehran for consultations. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let's go to Ken. Ken calling us from Memphis.
KEN: I'd like to know whether or not Mr. Koppel has any solutions for the problems that's he's been illuminating.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KOPPEL: If I did, maybe I'd be better off, you know, serving in an administration. I don't. That's why I'm a journalist. I point out the problems that I see. I wish to God I knew what the solution was.
KEN: Are there any people in the region capable of solving the problems?
KOPPEL: Well, you know, I mean, in terms of solving the problem, it requires at least two sides to negotiate. I remind you that when President Obama came into office, and he was much ridiculed for doing it, he extended the hand of friendship to the Iranians and suggested that there be negotiations. I don't recall seeing any countermove on the Iranian part. Quite the contrary, things seem to have gone from bad to worse.
KEN: What about the Saudis or some of the other big players in the region?
KOPPEL: Well, I mean, I think the Saudis and the Iranians are about as close to being at sword's point with one another as any two nations in the world. I don't think the Saudis are in a position to be of much help as peacemakers here.
CONAN: Ken, thanks very much. And I'm sorry we couldn't give you a better answer.
KEN: Well, you know, I'm just wondering like everybody else's, what these fools are going to do.
CONAN: They may not see it as being foolish. But policies, I think, in one of your favorites phrases, Ted, have unintended consequences.
CONAN: As you were in Iraq - and I know you're working ahead to a piece that's going to be airing on NBC in future weeks. But as you were Iraq, the extent of Iranian influence there - we have Ray Takeyh on - from the - describing a piece that he'd written that "How Iran Lost Iraq." That he argues that, in fact, Iraq's - Iran's influence is not as great as people think and that, indeed, they have fumbled the situation badly.
KOPPEL: Well, look, Ray is an acknowledged expert on the region, and I admire his work, greatly. But in this case, I disagree with him for this reason. By the end of this year, the 40 some odd thousand troops that we still had in Iraq will be out. At the moment, there - I mean, negotiations are almost complete for the Iraqi government to buy a significant number of F-16 fighter aircraft. They have already purchased 140 M1A1 tanks, which are probably the best tanks in the world. They're being trained up on them right now. They're being trained to use them. Eventually, they will have to be trained on how to use the F-16s.
If ever there were a point of Iraqi vulnerability to Iranian influence - and I agree with what I assumed was Ray's point about influence also coming in the form of, you know, soft influence, of people welcoming the Iranians in - I might agree with him on that point. But I think the vulnerability of Iraq now to Iraqi influence and possibly even more than just influence - those rockets that are being fired at the U.S. consulate in Basra two or three times a week, they come from Iran. Once U.S. forces are out of there, and before Iraqi forces are trained up on these sophisticated weapons, would be the time for Iran to move.
CONAN: And doesn't Iran - we just have a minute or so left. But doesn't Iran also face a sharp, strategic setback if its ally in Syria, the Assad regime, if they continue to experience - well, they're clearly going to continue to experience difficulties. They may be out before too long.
KOPPEL: Well, they may be out. Interestingly enough, our friends in Baghdad have been among the very few nations in the region who have refused to take action against the Syrians and refused to go along with any kinds of sanctions against the Syrians. Remember now, Iraq and Iran together would control so much oil in the region. That if they collectively would decide to shut down or close down the spigot temporarily, they could have an enormous influence on the world's economy.
CONAN: And, indeed, on the American election, which is, well, we keep hearing, all about the economy. Ted Koppel, we look forward to your report from Iraq.
KOPPEL: Thank you very much. I look forward to talking to you again soon, Neal.
CONAN: NPR commentator, Ted Koppel, joined us from his home in Maryland. Tomorrow, it's Gary Knell's first day on the job as NPR's new CEO. He'll join us to take your calls. It'll be interesting. Stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.