Can Iran be Trusted?

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Nov. 29, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIT HUME, HOST: It’s hard enough to tell what Tehran (search) is saying. And harder still to know whether to believe it. One thing seems clear, keeping that country from acquiring nuclear weapons is the objective. The question, of course, is how?

Well, who better to ask than Kenneth Pollack, who is now with the Brookings Institution and has a new book called "The Persian Puzzle," subtitled "The Conflict between Iran and America?"

Ken, welcome. Nice to have you.

KENNETH POLLACK, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Thank you, Brit. Great to be here.

HUME: So first of all, it appears that what the Iranians have said they agreed to is what everybody wants. Correct, to suspend their program.

POLLACK: True enough.

HUME: But how sure can we be that they’ll actually do it? And what are the consequences if we believe they are not?

POLLACK: Well, of course, this is the problem. They have only agreed to a temporary suspension. And there’s every reason to believe that the Iranians are going through the motions of the temporary suspension for their own gain. There are people who believe that the Iranians actually have hit a snag in their nuclear program. They need time to work it out. So why not agree to a suspension?

HUME: A technological snag.

POLLACK: Exactly. There are other people who believe they are just trying to get the Europeans off of their back for a little while. Once the European have settled down, they’ll go right back to it. We’ve seen 20 years they’ve wanted this program. It’s hard to imagine they’re giving it up soon.

HUME: It seems to be they’re trying to avoid the imposition of economic sanctions (search). Do economic sanctions constitute a real deterrent to the Iranians right now?

POLLACK: They do because there is a real problem in Iran with Iran’s economy. And that economic set of problems is causing problems for the government. The young people in Iran, most of the population are very unhappy with this administration; in large part because of the tumble that their economy has taken.

And so there are a lot of Iranians who are very nervous that if they lose the aid and trade from Europe, it will crush their economy. That would in turn undermine governmental support and it could lead to a toppling of the regime.

HUME: How do you assess the sternness and the willingness of the European countries who are critical here to be tough with Iran?

POLLACK: Well, I have to say I have been surprised by them in the last few days. All through 1990s, what I saw from the Europeans was a willingness to excuse every single act of Iranian misbehavior and just to write it off to everything. I’ve really been struck by the fact that they were willing to hold Iran’s feet to the fire, even if only on this temporary agreement. It’s a long way from what we need. But it does show maybe the Europeans have gotten so concerned about Iran’s nuclear program that they’re actually willing to do something.

HUME: If they cheat during this period, will we know?

POLLACK: We don’t know. That’s the problem. The Iranians have shown a remarkable capacity to hide their nuclear activities from us. You remember that it wasn’t until 2002 we found out about their uranium enrichment program at Natanz, their plutonium (search) separation plant at Arak. We don’t know how many facilities like that are out there in Iraq.

HUME: Does that mean that if comes to it, and we believe that they’re cheering, that there’s no way that we can attack that program militarily, or at least by short of an invasion.

POLLACK: Well, it is one of the biggest problems with the military option toward Iran, is that most of the people who watch the Iranian nuclear program believe that the Iranians have gotten so good at hiding their facilities from us, that we really don’t no the full extent of their program or where it’s located. I know that the Israelis are so concerned; they’re convinced that the Iranians have secret facilities that they don’t know about.

HUME: That they, the Israelis, don’t know anything about it.

POLLACK: Correct. And obviously, they don’t, we don’t.

HUME: But the Israelis seem for obvious reasons, I guess, are more preoccupied and worried about the threat from Iran than anyone else who’s friendly to the United States. If it came to that, is it conceivable in your view that the Israelis could do anything about it? Or are they hamstrung just the way everybody else is?

POLLACK: I think it’s going to very tough for the Israelis to do anything. I think that’s one of the reasons you’re seeing the Israelis making such a public issue of this. Israel’s feeling is that Iran is getting closer and closer to a nuclear weapon. And no one is doing anything about it.

HUME: Do we have a sense of what kind of nuclear weapon it would be? Would it be the kind that is put on a missile and shot halfway around the world? Or is it the kind that would be put in a suitcase? Do we know?

POLLACK: We don’t. Obviously the crudest kind of a nuclear device would have to be put on something like a freighter or a semi trailer. But remember, if the Iranians want to, they can put it on a freighter, drive it to New York Harbor (search) and say either do what we want to or we detonate this thing.

HUME: Or they have terrorists do it. In which case, you couldn’t even be necessarily sure that it was Iran behind it.

POLLACK: Also possible. Sure. But with the Iranian, they’ve shown a willingness to try to keep control over their own weapons of mass destruction and not give them to terrorists.

HUME: Does that mean that detainment, deterrent could work with Iran in your view?

POLLACK: I think that it probably could at the end of the day, if we were absolutely pushed to it. But I’d really prefer not to be. I much prefer to prevent the Iranians from getting the weapons, or convince them not to go ahead and get them.

HUME: And do you believe that at the moment they haven’t quite gotten there? I mean that there has been a hitch in the technology?

POLLACK: I think there’s a fair consensus that the Iranians still don’t have a nuclear weapon. Most of the estimates are that they’re several years away from acquiring it?

HUME: And several meaning what do you think, two to three years?

POLLACK: I’ve heard everything from three years to eight years. But nobody really knows. And that’s the problem with Iran. Again, it’s one of these black boxes; we just can’t be certain where they are on it. It’s why, I think, we need to move quickly to try to head things off.

HUME: When you say, "move quickly," what would be on your list of next steps?

POLLACK: Well, the first thing think I’d like do is I would like to see if we can’t turn the European deal into something that could actually be credible; something with a real inspections regime. You know, we need to learn from our experience in Iraq. In Iraq, we actually were much more on top of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program...

HUME: Than we thought we were.

POLLACK: Exactly. So that ought to give us some confidence with the Iranians. If there was a real inspection regime with intrusive inspections, and backed up by the threat of punishing sanctions, exactly the kind of sanctions that Iran is afraid of, under those circumstances, there would be a real incentive for Iran to move in a very different direction. Move back in a direction where a lot of Iranians are saying, which is we need to work on our economy, not nuclear weapons.

HUME: Do you believe that in the interim period where they’re under involuntary restraints -- we just have a few seconds left, that Europe would be prepared to try to go for that? Or do you think not now?

POLLACK: At best, it is unproven at this moment. I think we need to test the Europeans and see if they’re willing to do the right thing.

HUME: Ken Pollack, great to have you. Thanks for coming in.

POLLACK: Thank you, Brit.

HUME: All the best to you.

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