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Bringing Iran Back to the Negotiating Table

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Carla Anne Robbins, Adjunct Senior Fellow
February 11, 2013

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International powers are set to meet with Iran at the end of February to discuss the country's controversial nuclear program, even as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei rejected a recent overture by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to meet bilaterally over the issue. The United States and Europe allege that Iran's nuclear program is intended for manufacturing nuclear weapons, while Iran asserts it is only interested in developing nuclear energy. Even as U.S. and European sanctions on Iran are hurting its economy by spurring high inflation, Khamenei's intransigence over nuclear negotiations "doesn't bode well for a deal," says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Carla Robbins. At the same time, Robbins notes that the United States and its allies have "come really far on this," and have essentially agreed to allow Iran to enrich uranium as long as it ships it out of the country to be processed into fuel. But, Robbin says, "the Iranians are not taking 'yes' for an answer."

"For all the sabre-rattling, the United States and its allies have already offered the Iranians everything that they wanted, if they really want a peaceful nuclear program."

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, along with Germany, will meet with the Iranians in Kazakhstan on February 26 for the latest series of talks over Iran's nuclear program. Where does the United States stand with the Iranians?

This is not the first time we've seen this back-and-forth--keep in mind that a senior Iranian official said at the same time in Munich that the possibility of these bilateral talks was attractive, and then the supreme leader overruled it. Given that, one cannot be particularly optimistic about this February meeting; it's the first time they have talked in more than six months. And every time, people say, "If only they could also get this bilateral conversation going on with the United States, that's what the Iranians really want." Well, it looks like Khamenei doesn't want it, and that doesn't bode well for a deal.

A recent article in the New York Times suggested that international sanctions on Iran have not really hit the country particularly hard. There's a lot of commerce still. If the sanctions are not really biting, even though the United States insists they are, and the Iranians don't want direct talks, is the United States getting closer to having to make a military decision?

I haven't been into Iran, so I don't know how much the sanctions are weighing there. The article also talks about the level of hyperinflation: People buy because they know that the value of their money is disappearing by the second. The stores are stocked particularly with goods from countries that [Iran is] still selling oil to, but only under barter deals, because the United States and the international community have now cut [Iran] off from the international banking system. I find it hard to imagine, even though it may look very good on the streets right now, that that's sustainable. Hyperinflation has a very profound effect, and eventually people are going to see that their savings have completely disappeared. I can't imagine the economy [sustaining] this indefinitely.

President Obama is making a trip to Israel at the end of March, and clearly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to want to talk about Iran and its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Right now, in the wake of an election in which [Netanyahu] didn't do particularly well, and in which Israeli voters made clear that their number one issue is not Iran but the domestic economy and a fundamental inequality in Israeli society, he's a much weaker guy. So even though he came out of it and said, "Iran is still my number one concern," he's going to have to do a lot of mending at home. The other thing that I find really intriguing is Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who had been, in many ways, the most hawkish in speaking about Iran, gave an interview in which he basically said, "The U.S. has come up with a plan; it's surgical, it will set [Iran] back for a while. And if we have to get to the point where diplomacy and sanctions don't work, we're not worried about it; we think it can go forward." So instead of [taking a unilateral approach], I can hear from a guy that's been very hawkish on this topic a lowering of the tension, at least for right now.

In six months or less, Iran will have their presidential elections, and we don't know yet who the official candidates are. But there is a lot of speculation that the nuclear issue will loom high. Do you have any thoughts on whether this presidential election will, first of all, be fair?

I don't think there's a fundamental disagreement among the Iranian elite about Iran's right to have some form of nuclear program, and I don't think that the public is going to demand that they drop the program altogether. So as much as the United States would like to hope that these sanctions are translating into some sort of public demand for dumping the entire nuclear program, I don't think that is going to be a central issue, because I don't see fundamental disagreements among anybody.

At the same time, you see this sort of fight between [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and [Parliamentary Speaker Ali] Larijani [Ahmadinejad leveled allegations of corruption against Larijani's family earlier this month], which is really interesting and shows just exactly how out of control things are politically. The issues in the election will probably be the issues that there were in the [presidential] election the last time [in 2009], before the government stole it. It's going to be the questions of corruption, questions of freedoms, questions of a need for fundamental political and economical reform in the country itself. I don't know whether they're going to try and steal it again; their security forces are very nervous. The fundamental thing is this regime is afraid of the people. They've managed to quash this Green Revolution for a while, but they've been throwing journalists in jail right and left lately. The crown is not sitting lightly on their heads.

"Hyperinflation has a very profound effect, and eventually people are going to see that their savings have completely disappeared. I can't imagine the economy [sustaining] this indefinitely."

There are many critics of the Obama administration's Iran policy who think it is too hawkish. How do you see that argument?

For all the sabre-rattling, the United States and its allies have already offered the Iranians everything that they wanted, if they really want a peaceful nuclear program, including the right to continue to produce fuel. There was a long time there when they wanted them not to produce any fuel at all, because they said they weren't trustworthy. Even though they've been ordered to stop spinning all their centrifuges and suspend their program, the Western position now basically is, "You can produce a certain amount of enriched uranium, you can ship it out of the country, and we'll turn it into fuel for you." The Iranians are not taking "yes" for an answer.

The other demand that the West is making is that [Iran] has to come clean with military aspects of their program and answer the questions that they are not answering with the IAEA. Why don't they want to accept what they've been offered? It goes to this fundamental question of is this really for a nuclear weapons program? The United States and its allies have come really far on this for a long time.

The North Koreans are moving ahead with their nuclear program. They're threatening another nuclear test soon and the United States can't do anything about it except issue new sanctions. No one is going to use force against North Korea. The same thing with Pakistan: They are safe as long as they have nuclear weapons. Do you think the Iranians read that message?

Absolutely. What's the difference between North Korea and Iran? That is the basic question that everybody is quite aware of. On the other hand, the North Koreans don't care [about sanctions]--they're used to starving their own people. Iran is a middle-class society; it's a very different set of political pressures. I think the supreme leader and the government are not particularly afraid of the United States; they're afraid of their own people.

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