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Albright: 'Room for Optimism' in Confrontation with Iran

Interviewee: David Albright, President, Institute for Science and International Security
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
September 12, 2006


David Albright, the president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a well-known expert on Iran’s nuclear program, has published the hitherto secret Iranian response to the U.N. Security Council’s demand that it suspend its uranium enrichment program. He says “the Iranian response is not hollow and there is room for optimism,” even though it is not completely clear what Iran’s intentions are.

Noting that Iran has reportedly offered a two-month suspension of its enrichment program to open negotiations with Security Council members, Albright says “If it’s going to be a real proposal, one never knows. But it’s one of the indicators that lead one to be hopeful negotiations can actually start and this problem can be solved diplomatically.”

Your organization has published for the first time a translation of the full text of the Iranian response to the UN Security Council’s demand that it suspend its uranium enrichment program in advance of negotiations on a permanent solution. Does the response lead you to optimism or pessimism?

The Iranian response is not hollow and there is room for optimism. The response isn’t just a schedule of how they’re going to build a Natanz enrichment plant, which it could have been, and where the only flexibility would have been in how fast or how slow the Iranians wanted to proceed. So on balance I would say it’s not an empty document and diplomats can work with it to start negotiations.

What is the status of these negotiations? The EU negotiator, Javier Solana, met with Iran’s negotiator Ali Larijani last week and they’re supposed to meet again, is that right?

That’s right, the European Union and Iran are in what I call a pre-negotiation phase. Those talks do not include the United States, but nonetheless, they do include the European Union and the Iranians appear to be making some concessions in those talks, one of which is that Iran would end its enrichment program for a limited period of time, two months. This would be a major concession by Iran and it appears to have been accepted by both the European Union and the United States.

Are you fairly confident on that concession because I saw one AP story this morning suggesting there were no concessions. There is a certain amount of confusion out there.

In any negotiation with Iran offers appear and disappear. Iran can deny it ever made it. I believe this offer was put on the table in some manner over the weekend by Larijani. If it’s going to be a real proposal, one never knows. But it’s one of the indicators that lead one to be hopeful negotiations can actually start and this problem can be solved diplomatically.

I noticed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seemed amenable to a temporary suspension.

Yes, and I think that was a very important concession by the United States because the United States could have taken the position that “No, the suspension has to be indefinite.” And I think they’ve rightly calculated, “What does it matter since any movement towards sanctions is going to be slow and laborious and if there can be negotiations for a couple of months, why not try it?”

I noticed Iran again denied it has any intention or desire to have nuclear weapons. Do you still believe they do want weapons?

This document didn’t in any way reassure me they don’t have the intention to eventually build nuclear weapons. There are many places where they could have not only stated clearly they have no intention to have nuclear weapons, but they could have said, “We will cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA); we will commit not to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).” Iran in this document did talk about remaining in the NPT and the IAEA, but it was loaded with conditions, one of which was that the European Union and the United States have to get Israel to give up its nuclear weapons.

I think Iran isn’t doing much enrichment and therefore for it to suspend enrichment for a few months is not that big of a step.

And there are other conditions which are equally nonstarters and so after reading this document, you’re not quite sure Iran is really promising a peaceful nuclear program in the future. I found it kind of a chilling document. It provides insight into their thinking, indicating the Iranians are clearly not of one mind. Some people in Iran just see the IAEA as a bunch of spies and therefore IAEA activities should be severely restricted. Others think perhaps a deal can be reached that meets Iran’s interests, including a suspension of the enrichment program. I don’t think Iran will ever agree to a permanent suspension, but [it] might agree to one for many years and the document appears to hold out hope that could be Iran’s position although on the other hand the document clearly states Iran wants to enrich and doesn’t understand why people would stop it from enriching.

Again, I don’t believe the Iranian regime is of one mind on these nuclear issues and that creates in the end a relatively confused, ambiguous document.

It’s interesting the English language document is obviously done by more than one translator and the whole style of it looks like it was patched together by different ministries or parts of the government rather than the rather sophisticated translation you would have expected from Iran.

That’s right. And it does look like this document was written by a committee and then translation was done by people of different qualifications to translate from Farsi into English. So you worry the English doesn’t full convey the Farsi text.

The Western countries I assume got a Farsi document too, right?

I think so, but we’re not totally sure. We were first told only a Farsi document was given to the United States and we learned that wasn’t true and in fact this had been given. But given the uncertainties about the translation and given the ambiguities, I think it makes more sense to try to look for points that can be built upon. One could as easily go and find things that would say to you, “No deal is ever possible, these people are just hopeless to negotiate with, and let’s just go and get sanctions and try to fundamentally change their behavior.”

And of course the sanctions possibilities seem even vaguer now because the Security Council demand hasn’t been firmly turned down so that makes sanctions more difficult to obtain, right?

Definitely. And Iran is a master at working these splits among the European Union and Russia, China and the United States. Iran is a master at trying to widen splits and this document is partly aimed at doing that. And the Europeans have split with the United States in the sense that they are negotiating with Iran, they are pre-negotiations with Iran instead of just moving to the Security Council and trying to get a resolution that would include some sanctions. Now it appears the United States is moving toward the EU position. We don’t even know what Russia and China are thinking. It’s disappointing the United States doesn’t seem to be able to develop a consensus and maintain that consensus. You have to wonder if the Bush administration is really up to handling the Iran situation.

On a side issue, how far along is Iran in its own nuclear development?

That’s another bright spot and I think that’s one of the things that opens up this idea of pre-negotiations. Last April when I talked to people in the IAEA with knowledge of the program in Iran and people in the United States there was an expectation that by the end of this summer Iran could very well have five or six cascades [a
connected series of machines crucial to enrichment] operating. A cascade would be 164 centrifuges connected together by pipes, but in fact they only have one operational. They didn’t finish the second and third. The first one, which is operational, we estimated from the IAEA safeguards report only operated about 10% of what it could have. They barely have any enrichment going on. You don’t have Iran expanding the pilot plant as was expected last spring and so again you almost have something close to de facto suspension.

So I think Iran isn’t doing much enrichment and therefore for it to suspend enrichment for a few months is not that big of a step. And since there isn’t much enrichment going on I think the Europeans decided that could start a pre-negotiation process with Iran.

How many cascades are necessary to produce enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb?

Iran would want about ten to fifteen cascades operating to be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb a year. There are a lot of factors in play, but it needs to go considerably further before it has a plant big enough. And the pilot plant may not be the best place to do it. It was designed to hold six cascades that could operate in parallel or simultaneously. That’s what you have to do in a centrifuge plant. It’s not enough to operate one, you have to operate many and they have to operate with common systems. So the pilot plant really isn’t set up to be a production plant. It is certainly not designed to make highly enriched uranium. You could do it, but it would very inefficient.

What’s caused the slowdown?

I’m not sure the IAEA knows. Is Iran moving slowly because of technical problems or because it does not want to rock the boat internationally? On the technical side, the kind of centrifuge they are trying to operate, this P-1, which originally was a Dutch design, does not work very well. It’s a tricky centrifuge to get to work particularly in a cascade. Iran may be going slowly because it’s really worried that a lot of centrifuges will break, or that it just won’t enrich properly. That can actually happen when you start to operate the cascade. It may not work efficiently and you end up with far less enriched uranium than you intend or want or it’s not enriched enough and therefore you don’t meet your real goals.

So they may be moving slowly and they may be spending time learning everything they can learn about operating one cascade before they move to operating the second. And once they operate the second you would expect Iran to operate those two cascades together to see if they can manage that situation. One of the problems with the current level of inspections in Iran is the Iranians don’t have to tell the IAEA much of anything about where they‘re going with the cascade or what they plan to do with the pilot plant or the underground facility.

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