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Ferguson: Iran Likely to Accept U.S. Offer for Negotiations

Interviewee: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 5, 2006

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Charles D. Ferguson, a CFR expert on Iran's nuclear program, says that he believes that ultimately, Iran is likely to accept the offer being made by the United States and its negotiating partners to join in negotiations on its nuclear program. But Ferguson says the first challenge facing the parties is to define what it means to suspend Iran's uranium-enrichment program.

You and a number of other experts on Iran have been arguing for some time that it is important for the United States to get directly involved in negotiations with Iran. Now there is an offer on the table by the United States to do just that. What do you think of this latest turn in diplomacy?

Ray [Takeyh, CFR Senior Fellow] and I wrote an article for the March issue of the magazine Arms Control Today in which we elaborated on that point of view. It is very similar to what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proposed: that you can have seven parties in the talks, the permanent five Security Council members, the United States, Britain, Russia, China and France, and Germany, and Iran. So you can think of it as seven-party talks.

When you describe it as seven-party talks, of course, people immediately think of the six-party talks going on with North Korea—or not going on with North Korea. So it might be the kiss of death to talk about this as a seven-party talk format. But I think the idea of multilateral dialogue has been tossed around by a number of political observers and analysts and politicians in recent months, and I felt the Bush Administration was feeling a lot of pressure. They finally saw that everywhere the administration looked, its allies and other people and other countries were telling it to "get engaged." The question was "Why can't you talk to Iran on this issue?" So finally Secretary Rice, in one fell swoop, said "Okay, we get the message; we are willing to engage."

Her offer to get involved was conditioned on "Iran agreeing to a suspension of its nuclear enrichment program." They have suspended enrichment before when they dealt with the European Union two years ago. Do you think Iran will bite at this offer?

Well, they say the devil is in the details. It depends, as you indicate, [on] how you frame the question. What do we mean by suspension of enrichment, and does it mean that Iran can still operate the small uranium centrifuge cascade [a connected series of machines crucial to enrichment] they currently have? What does it mean to operate the cascade? Can they keep centrifuges spinning? They might be able to keep them spinning, and as long as they do not introduce uranium into the enrichment cascade, then we might be able to describe that as some type of informal suspension. So, there is a lot of flexibility here as to what we mean by suspension. If the United States insists on Iran shutting down the centrifuge cascade, that may cross a red line for Iran. The Iranians may not be willing to accept that. So there might be some wiggle room in here, and I think we will see in coming days, from both sides, how they are going to define what they mean by suspension.

Now we have not seen the actual text of what the six nations of the would-be negotiating team have agreed to offer to Iran in the way of incentives. Apparently, that is the first part of the package. What do you make of that?

Well, I have also been searching to see if we can find some details about what the incentives would entail. But I think we could speculate [on] what the manner of the incentives look like. I think one of the first major incentives would be to re-offer Iran the option of having its nuclear fuel supplied by a guaranteed, outside source. It could be Russia; it could be some other consortium through the [European Union]. You could use Urenco, a Dutch, British, German consortium. On the one hand, it is a successful operation because it shows that three countries can combine their resources and have a multinational uranium enrichment corporation.

But on the other hand, Urenco has not had a completely clean record because Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, back in the early 1970's, worked there when he was living in the Netherlands. He stole plans for uranium centrifuges from Urenco and took them back to Pakistan. Then he was able to launch Pakistan's nuclear weapons program and launch his nuclear black market. Maybe we should not hold that up as the exact model to follow. But I think if you have multiple suppliers of nuclear fuel to Iran, you might be able to alleviate Iran's concerns that they can't rely on the West to provide this fuel because Iran says, in the past, the West has promised to provide nuclear fuel and didn't.

You could go back to the agreement that the Shah had, back in the 1970's, with the French firm Eurodif, in which the Shah bought or invested in Eurodif. It never came to pass; Iran never received nuclear fuel from that source. So, the Iranians feel very bitter about that and say they cannot trust the West because of those past experiences. I think you would need to have an honest broker—perhaps the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—to step in and guarantee the fuel supplies. You could create a virtual fuel bank, in which you have a number of suppliers. So if one supplier falls through, you could go to other suppliers to ensure that you still have nuclear fuel going to Iran, as long as Iran adheres to its safeguard commitments.

Is part of this incentive program to supply them a light water reactor?

Yes. That could be another part of the incentive package. Right now, Russia has completed or is nearing completion of the Bushehr Reactor [civilian nuclear plant]. The Bushehr Reactor still has not started, but apparently, it is basically finished. Right now [the Iranians] are just waiting on the finalization of the operation and have fuel supplied. Russia has already said that they have promised Iran to supply the fuel. Russia would also take care of the spent nuclear fuel, managing the nuclear waste that would be produced. So that should be part of the incentives package with Iran. The fuel services would be a complete set of services—outside sources could guarantee fuel supplies and [there should be] a guarantee to handle spent nuclear fuel, making sure that nuclear waste is stored properly, and Iran would not have to deal with that messy and expensive business.

I've heard rumors of access to the World Trade Organization.

That is right. In fact, I think this goes back [to early 2005], when Secretary Rice was able to convince President Bush to be supportive of the EU and the negotiation process with Iran. The administration was not ready yet to engage in talks, even in a multilateral format. But it agreed not to stand in the way of the Europeans, and it also told the Europeans, "We will not stand in the way of having Iran be considered part of the World Trade Organization." The United States removed its objection to Iran potentially joining the WTO. That is probably going to be part of the incentives package, at least reiterating that offer from a year ago. Another incentive could be access to airplane parts for civilian airplanes. Iran is, apparently, in desperate need of those parts. Then you could image the whole suite of other incentives to help the Iranian economy because that economy is in a bad condition.

There had been some press reports before all this, saying that Iran has been having trouble keeping its centrifuges going, or at least the work on nuclear enrichment is not going very well. Do you know anything about that?

Well, people I talk to say, "Yes, they have had problems." Some problems are that they have had contamination issues: elements other than uranium have been contaminating the enrichment input material, and they have to solve that problem. I have been told by people who know centrifuges, that that really is not a show stopper; it is a problem that Iran can solve, if it has not solved it already. Another problem is that these centrifuges are very temperamental machines, and you have to handle them with kid gloves.

They spin very fast, and you have to be very careful, when you start spinning them, as they start spinning faster and faster, they reach a zone where they could fall apart because they reach certain resonant frequencies. So you have to be able to spin them at supercritical speeds to be able to enrich uranium. Apparently, a number of centrifuges have crashed in the process of operating the cascade and some of the tests they have done. Those are some other engineering problems that they are going to have to figure out. When people pick the worst case and say, "If Iran is able to extrapolate from this 164-centrifuge cascade, up to a 3,000-centrifuge cascade, it is going to be a steady linear progression?" Then we could see them have the 3,000[-centrifuge] cascade in a year or two, and a year after that, they could conceivably make enough highly enriched uranium for their first bomb. Worst-case analysis dictates that they may have their first weapon in three or four years. In fact, John Negroponte, the national intelligence director, gave an interview with the BBC [last week]. He said that the earliest, according to his analysts, that Iran could get a nuclear weapon is four years from now. Anywhere from the beginning of [the] next decade, 2010, to 2015 is the time frame.

The nationalism in Iran is rather interesting. You get the impression that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as Ayatollah Khamenei are really more interested in drumming up anti-Americanism, and they would be most reluctant to agree to these kind of talks because that would force them to admit that they are dealing with a great Satan.

It seems that confrontation can serve their interests to some extent because it can draw attention away from the poor economy. President Ahmadinejad made a lot of promises last year when he was running for president. He was going to improve the economy and try to get more Iranians jobs. Apparently, this is not working. A lot of political leaders feel like they need to distract people, create a crisis, or create a confrontation. I think there is something deeper driving him.

He is apparently a very spiritual man: When he wrote a letter to President Bush a few weeks ago, there were different interpretations. I think the first round of interpretations analyzed it as an awkward way of reaching out to President Bush, putting out some feeler, saying "We're interested in talking to you, we are interested in having a dialogue." That is one way of looking at the letter. Another way of looking at the letter, if you read the letter, is that it is putting down a marker. It is saying, "We have very serious concerns not just with your foreign policy, Mr. President, but serious concerns about your spiritual values."

You can read the letter as a possible declaration of war against the United States. If that is the case, it is just astonishing. In response, we have the Secretary of State saying, "All right, we are willing to talk." In some sense, Iran has been able to keep moving the goalpost and inch its way toward what they want. The Iranians have been able to operate a uranium conversion plant, which started last August. They have been able to start up this uranium-enrichment cascade, albeit on a small scale, but it shows they have crossed a certain threshold. They have been able to put limits on the IAEA inspectors' ability to inspect the nuclear program in Iran and have the kind of access the IAEA would like to have. They have been able to outline what they believe is their foreign policy to the President in a rambling type of letter, but still a letter that is also very poignant, saying that they believe the United States is doing harm in the Middle East.

Do you come to the conclusion that the Iranian leadership will not accept the offer or will other Arab voices be heard from the business community and elsewhere that will persuade them to join in these talks?

From talking to political experts on Iran, it seems that first you get the immediate response: "No, we do not accept your conditions for the talks." Then they have to think about it. Then you will get another response; it may soften a bit. Then they might come back with a third or fourth response before they finally settle what they want to do. I think it is going to take some days to figure that out.

My reading is that they will eventually agree to talk because they will figure out if they do not do that, they will look like they are obstructionist. They do not want to feel like they are being isolated and obstructing the process. I think one of the main reasons Secretary Rice made a proposal when she did is because the U.S. government was becoming isolated from its partners. The West does not want to become the one that is isolated; we want to maintain a solid position. They want to make sure Iran feels like it is being isolated. What I hear from Iranians is that they don't like being isolated. They are very cosmopolitan people. They want to be engaged in the world. I think that thinking will ultimately lead them to seriously consider this offer and at least engage in some type of talks. Otherwise, they are going to risk becoming pariah[s].

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