New York, NY
MARIE STRAUSS: Thank you very much. I would like to welcome everyone to the Council’s press briefing on Iran and nuclear proliferation. My name is Marie Strauss and I am deputy director of communications here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This conference call was set up to give you some background on the situation in Iran and its nuclear program. As you may know, President Ahmadinejad is scheduled to address the General Assembly, I believe, tomorrow. We have with us today, Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies and a top Iran expert; Charles Ferguson, fellow for science and technology and expert in nonproliferation as well as nuclear terrorism, and Lee Feinstein, senior fellow in U.S. and foreign policy and international law and deputy director of studies who will moderate the discussion.
We will have brief statements by our speakers starting with Ray Takeyh, followed by Q&As. At that time, the operator will come back on line to explain the procedure for asking questions. And before I start, I want to remind everyone this session is on the record, so without further ado, I would like to turn over the proceedings to Lee Feinstein.
LEE FEINSTEIN: Welcome to all of you. I think I may have seen some of you at the UN Correspondents Association last week, and we were hoping to do this in person, but because of the deluge of world leaders we’re going to do this this way. We look forward to your questions about a subject that will be in the interstices of the discussions at the UN and certainly in everybody’s minds. The way we will do this is we’ll start with some opening comments by our two experts, beginning with Ray Takeyh.
RAY TAKEYH: Okay. I’ll just say a few brief things. In the past, I suspect, couple of months, there has been a sort of a change in the mood within the Iranian polity. Their embarking on the European track in addition to the IAEA track was a mistake, and increased Iran’s obligations beyond those that are mandated by the IAEA and NPT obligations, it has led to a suspension of activities, which although voluntarily, nevertheless have gained the character of sort of international law. So the entire EU-3-Iran diplomacy was quite possibly counterproductive and there’s been an attempt to gradually withdraw from those European-Iranian commitments.
FEINSTEIN: They were, say, counterproductive from the Iranian perspective, counterproductive.
TAKEYH: Yeah, that’s right, yes. And there has been an attempt to gradually withdraw from those obligations and perhaps come back to the flexible confines of the NPT.
There are two European-Iranian commitments that the more onerous one was, of course, November, 2004, where Iran agreed to suspend all enrichment and processing activities, and therefore you began to see them gradually, as I said, withdraw from those treaty obligations. Now, those non-treaty obligations actually.
The first one was, of course—Charles will talk about that in more technical detail—the resumption of Isfahan operations, which, as I understand it, is designed to produce yellow cake that will be feeding into the uranium enrichment activities. And I think you’re going to see that in the next several months and perhaps and next several weeks, even where gradually Iran will begin resumption of its uranium enrichment activities that were suspended as part of the EU-3-Iran compact, and they will do so in conjunction and in cooperation with the IAEA, so essentially the strategy at this particular point has changed. Possibly when Iran first embarked on this EU-3 diplomacy, it was hoped that it would establish a negotiating mechanism that would draw the United States in the way the six party talks have done so with the United States and North Korea. Once that came and went, it was hoped that the continuation of the European track would lead to divisions with United States and Europe, and that seems also to have—and that anticipation at least momentarily has evaporated with the continued European resolution on this issue.
So now the diplomacy at hand seems to be to sort out separate IAEA from the EU-3 and the United States as well. So Iran will, I think, continue to cooperate with the IAEA, but not necessarily continue to assume its obligations under the November, 2004, Paris Accord with the suspension of all the processing activities. And this stems from a larger foreign policy orientation that has been introduced, which is not all that new and perhaps revolutionary; namely, the idea of more of an Eastern orientation that the president and his security advisors, particularly Ali Larijani and others, have spoken about.
The idea being that the future or Iran lies in cementing its commercial and diplomatic ties with the emerging industrial giants of the East, whether it’s India, whether it’s China, Japan, and so on, as opposed to privileging the relationship with the West. Now, that’s not new: Iran has had growing diplomatic-economic relationship with China, but for the new regime, those relationships imply that they no longer have to make concessions to the Europeans. For the previous regime, those outreaches were part of a general international outreach to Europeans, the Chinese, and everybody else. For the new regime, it implies that as you grow your relationship with the Eastern states, you can diminish it with the Western states, so consequently that means that they’re unlikely to make significant concessions for European—you know, relationships with European generosity, much less American benevolence.
It’s going to be a more assertive regime and a more determined regime in terms of its nationalistic prerogatives and also in terms of its nuclear calculations. What that portends for the diplomacy that is taking place in the United Nations—I always thought that it was a precarious activity to try to take Iran from Vienna to New York for safeguard violations that took place prior to October of 2003; the time to do so would have been October of 2003. It would be a more difficult case to make today, but this is the case that’s going to be made next week, September 19th. Iranians, at this point, think they have about 14 out of 35 votes. Americans say they have 14 out of 35 votes, different 14 to be sure, and you sort of fight it out on the margins for the remaining votes, but that’s going to be interesting to see if this issue comes deferred to the United Nations Security Council, but also how it’s deferred to the Security Council. If it’s by a mere limping majority vote, then I think the prospects of the Security Council enacting significant punitive sanctions against Iran is diminished, if not improbable.
I’ll stop there and let Charles talk about some of the more technical aspects of this.
CHARLES FERGUSON: Thanks, Ray. As many of you probably know, for any nation—not just Iran, but any nation that wants a nuclear bomb or even the latent capability to make a nuclear bomb, there are two paths to do it, either enrich uranium to make bomb fuel or reprocess plutonium from spent fuel from reactors to make bomb material. And Iran is actually exploring both pathways, but as probably many of you know, there is this issue of dual use dilemma that the same technologies that can be used for peaceful purposes can be turned to military purposes, and that’s why it’s so incredibly difficult to figure out what is a nation’s intent just based on IAEA inspections. And as an IAEA official told me just a couple of weeks ago when I was in Copenhagen at a conference, he said you can’t verify intent. And, you know, I think, you know, Ray gave a very good kind of background talk about what it—you’re trying to get at what is Iran’s intent. You know, we just don’t know whether they made a decision yet to make nuclear weapons or not, but from a technical standpoint, they’re much further along in the uranium enrichment pathway than they are in the plutonium pathway.
So let me just first quickly take care of the plutonium pathway and we can set that aside for the moment. They are—Iran is working on heavy water research reactor at Arak, A-R-A-K, and are also working on a heavy water distillation plant at the same site. So they say that that reactor is just intended for research purposes or to produce isotopes for medical use—those kind of peaceful uses, but that type of plant, once it’s operating, would be well structured to produce weapons-grade plutonium.
And Arak—Iran plans to finish the Arak facility by the 2014 time frame. It’s likely it might take a year or two or more to complete the plant, so were—if we were worried about the plutonium production pathway in Iran, it’s at least 10 years away.
Now, let’s now turn to the uranium enrichment pathway, and that’s much closer to fruition although, you know, Iran is probably still anywhere from three to five or more years away from making weapons-grade uranium based on what we know from the IAEA inspections and other open sources. What we do know is that Iran has a pilot-scale uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and they have plans for a much bigger commercial scale uranium enrichment facility also at Natanz. The pilot scale plant will probably hold around 3,000 or so centrifuge units and the commercial scale plant has plans for 50,000 of these centrifuge units. That would be enough units to make—to enrich enough fuel for the Bushehr commercial nuclear power plant, and the pilot scale plant are extensively just for research purposes.
Now, there they have installed one enrichment cascade as a pilot scale plant, but it’s not nearly enough centrifuges to produce weapons-grade uranium on a reasonable time scale. Just with that cascade, it probably would take them some 10 years to produce enough weapons-grade uranium. However, we do know that Iran’s probably produced anywhere from 12,000 to 13,000 centrifuge units that they couldn’t install up in the cascade at that pilot-scale plant, and once that’s operating it could take anywhere from two to three years to produce enough material for one nuclear bomb, so that’s why I say they’re at least three or so years out from beginning to produce enough material for one bomb.
Now, before they can do that, they have to cross another technical hurdle and this is why, I think, aside from the political issue of starting their uranium conversion facility at Isfahan is they want to resolve technical problems at the uranium conversion facility. The uranium hexafluoride that has been produced there is impure. And basically, there are different phases that you have to go through to convert uranium. Ray mentioned that they take what’s called yellow cake which is the material that has been milled from a uranium mine and that’s kind of yellowy powdered material, and then they need to convert that into uranium hexafluoride gas, which is fed into centrifuge units, but along the way there are other steps that they have to master and according to open sources of trade press in particular, we’ve been reading that that material is very impure. It contains molybdenum, vanadium, zirconium, other trace elements that will muck up—that will—could mess up a centrifuge plant, and so the more than enrich that type of uranium that’s impure, the more those impurities are going to stay in the mix and the less useful that material is going to be, either for nuclear fuel for a reactor or for use in a bomb.
So I think that’s why they’re really pushing to work on this conversion plant. Let me stop there—that’s just raising these technical issues and problems—and see what questions we have.
MR. FEINSTEIN: Okay, well, I think we’ve got an excellent introduction into the political and technical dimensions of Iran’s nuclear status, and with that, let me open it up to your questions.
OPERATOR: At this time, we’ll open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the * key followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phones now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they’re received. If at any time you’d like to remove yourself from the question queue, press *2. Once again, to ask a question, please press *1 now.
Our first question comes from Barbara Slavin with USA Today.
BARBARA SLAVIN: Hi, Ray. I wanted to ask you a little bit about the new negotiators for the Iranians, what you know about them and whether you think their game plan will be very different from those that they’ve replaced. There’s some who’ve suggested that, you know, Iran is sort of playing this cat and mouse game where they will return to negotiations and then pull back when they want to do something on the technical side, but these guys sound a lot more hard-line. What do you think of them?
TAKEYH: This—currently the individual that not just heads the negotiation, but to a large extent determines Iran’s foreign policy is the new head of the Security Council, Ali Larijani, and he’s played a curious role. He was actually always part of the team that oversaw the past two years’ negotiations, so he was intimately involved in both the October, 2003, and November, 2004, agreement.
Now, he was critical of it then; he’s critical of it now, but their point is that they’re going to try to expand the parameters of negotiations beyond the European Three. They’re talking to—discussions with India, Pakistan, and so on. And the Europeans, of course, are welcome. They will continue to negotiate with the Europeans, but essentially will no longer capitulate to the European pressure. So the question is, what is there to be negotiated with the Europeans?
Well, I mean, the next step, I suspect, in starting this—in this nuclear process will be to resumption of some sort of an enrichment activity and some sort of pilot program of centrifuging and so on. That’s likely to come down the pike. And I think they’re moving rather systematically away from the European Three terms and if that’s unacceptable to the Europeans, then they—you know, they can proceed with their own plans to come closer to the United States. I think they’ve been very persistent and disciplined in suggesting that no level of economic and commercial concessions are necessary or relevant in terms of their assertion of their nuclear rights. I take them far more seriously on this issue than I do their predecessors because they do seem rather indifferent to European or American opinion on this issue; but, again, they tend to be rather careful in staying within the parameters of the NPT, within the parameters of the IAEA, and even within the parameters of the additional protocol so far. That may change if this issue is referred to the Security Council.
SLAVIN: Thank you.
FEINSTEIN: Ray, on this question, this—what—and Charles, how intense is the Iranian politicking within the IAEA or with the IAEA member states? Oh, and how does that compare to what the Europeans and the Americans are doing?
TAKEYH: Iranians have been extremely energetic in terms of discussions with the members of the IAEA and even beyond. I mean, the head of the Iranian atomic energy plan is today in—organization is in Russia; Larijani was in Pakistan, India. There’s been—they’ve been very energetic and effective in terms of their diplomacy. The United States and the Europeans are starting to become energetic now. The EU-3 have—are now, you know, pounding the pavement in IAEA, but they’re a little late. But I—you know, how this vote comes about on September 19th—Charles and I were talking about this before: both sides claim to have about 14 out of 35, and so everybody is fighting for those votes in between. The three countries that I think are going to be particularly relevant are going to be South Korea, Japan and Mexico.
FEINSTEIN: Mexico, right.
TAKEYH: I think Iranians have 14 votes that they have enumerated of countries. That doesn’t include Russia or China.
TAKEYH: If they pick those two, there are 16 and then the game starts for the undecided three. Argentina is also undecided, but I suspect for its own political problems with Iran, they’re likely to side with the United States.
FERGUSON (?): But you know, U.S. will probably pick up South Korea and probably Japan also. So U.S. has 16 right there. So it looks pretty tied.
Well, it’s interesting, Ray and I were looking at the IAEA website trying to figure out the voting rules of the board of governors and we’ve talked to people who would say they’re experts around the—or the governor’s IAEA rules, and it’s—you know, it’s a big question, what do you mean by consensus? And you look at the actual voting rules and it says, you know, a lot of the important decisions by the board has to be decided by two-thirds majority. However, you go further down the voting rules, it said that on other issues you can do a simple majority. So Ray was thinking they might be able to do a simple—from the U.S. government’s perspective, do a simple majority vote to suspend the two-thirds voting rule and then do a second vote to try to get a simple majority to take this to the Security Council.
TAKEYH: Right, you’re going for a—for a simple majority, 18 out of 35, but just every other decision that the IAEA has taken on Iran has been based on consensus which has almost been a unanimity of—
FERGUSON (?): Right.
TAKEYH: So, this will be a departure from that, but at this point, if you get—deferral will be based on 18 votes or some place close.
FEINSTEIN: Okay, and it sounds like there might actually be a debate as to whether that was be sufficient to refer based on the rules. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Carol Giacomo with Reuters.
CAROL GIACOMO: I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the political dynamics with the big three. I mean, the United States has worked—I know when Bolton was the undersecretary, he was working really hard with the Russians to try to keep them on board with Iran. It looks like that’s pretty shaky now. You had Congress going after India the other day because India looks like it’s not going to be going along with the United States, and then Zoellick made some critical remarks about China, basically also putting Beijing on warning about its, you know, energy dependence on states like Iran and how that could have implications for the future. And so I’d like you to talk a little about that. Is there anything the United States could do to try to get these guys tow along with them?
FEINSTEIN: All right. We’ll start with Charles. Thank you, Carol, from Reuters.
GIACOMO: I spelled it.
FERGUSON: Yeah, it’s interesting how you defined the big three—first when you said Big Three, I thought EU-3, but obviously, you know, Russia and China are going to be really the key players here. And I’ve just been of mind that, you know, Russia and China are not going to be supportive of serious action against Iran, but I know other analysts who kind of disagree with Russia; Russia is maybe a bit of a wild card here. You know, I don’t think—I think China at best would probably abstain if this went to a Security Council vote, but Russia obviously is making money off of Iran. It has some $800 million in Bushehr. Iran recently came out and made a statement they want several more nuclear power plants by the year 2020, and I’m sure the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry is just salivating. They would like to jump on that and make billions of dollars off of them, so I don’t really see that they have incentives to push hard on Iran.
TAKEYH: Again, there are two votes, the IAEA vote, and I think on that one the Russians and the Chinese are going to back the Iranians. The Russians have pretty much almost said that to the Iranians, and if they jump, I think the Chinese will use that as a cover to jump as well.
The second vote and the second set of diplomatic discussions will take place if this issue is referred to New York, then the position of Russia and China differ. Instead of being members of the 35-member board, they become part of the permanent five deliberating on this issue within the Security Council as opposed to within the IAEA. At that juncture, I think they will do everything in their power to water down a prospective resolution. It’s a resolution that the United States insists on pushing as excessively coercive and here—and I’m talking about oil embargo or anything like that, but prohibiting American—prohibiting Iranian diplomats from traveling abroad or what have you. If there’s anything beyond a symbolic rebuke, I think they may exercise their right to veto, but I’m just not certain about that.
I think they will try to water it down and live with it. You’re likely to get—if this issue is in New York, you’re likely to get a symbolic resolution to begin with, and I think United States will want a symbolic perfunctory resolution that calls on Iran to resume its suspension and so forth, and that might be the end of any sort of a consensus within the Security Council.
FERGUSON: I think if I were a Russian energy official, I would not want to close off Iran’s nuclear program—peaceful nuclear program. I would want to get some kind of acknowledgment that Iran has a right to some kind of peaceful program, at least around the Bushehr nuclear reactor. You know, Russia has—(inaudible)—that for Iran, and I think the Russians will probably be eager to keep selling nuclear fuel to Iran—to be the proprietor there.
I mentioned in my opening remarks, Iran is still many years away from making its own nuclear fuel, so you got to look around. If Iran is serious about a peaceful nuclear program, they want to really show the world that this is not just a cover for a nuclear weapons program, they need to try to operate that Bushehr nuclear power plant. Otherwise, I would think they would raise some—start ringing some alarm bells. And in that respect, you know, Russia would want to go in and sell nuclear fuel and make some money off this more.
TAKEYH: My (acute ?) sense on this, Carol, would be that there is a lack of enthusiasm among the EU-3 and I would also say in the United States government about a referral to the Security Council in spite of the stated position. And I would not be surprised if the September 19th vote was not a make or break moment for Security Council referral and that what the Europeans are really hoping for is some kind of temporizing measure that keeps the threat increasingly incredible, as a not credible threat in my judgment, but keep the threat of Security Council referral out there without having to execute it at the meeting.
FEINSTEIN: Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Tyler Marshall with Los Angeles Times.
TYLER MARSHALL: I’m just picking up on the last point of getting the referral to the lack of interest in taking it into the Security Council. The EU—from your earlier description, the EU has a lot less leverage as this new government in Tehran tries to build to the East and diminish its commitments to the West. That would seem to give the EU a lot less leverage and the U.S. a lot less leverage in this. Can you talk on that, and two other quick points, what are you expecting the Iranian president to say tomorrow? Do you expect new proposals? Do you expect a denunciation? And on the technical side, can you talk a little bit about the—a little bit more about the issues at Isfahan on the impure yellow cake and how big of a problem you see that to be?
TAKEYH: Let me just spell it out, and Charles, you can jump in. On the issue of the leverage that the Europeans and the Americans have, it’s far less today than it has been in the past in terms of the diplomatic and commercial leverage. As I said, it’s a government in power today that is not, I would say, hostile to continuation of ties with the Europeans, but it essentially makes the point that they are not going to make extraordinary, beyond NPT treaty concessions to sustain that dynamic. It is not profoundly unreasonable position from their perspective, and I will say that increasingly the last government was coming to the same conclusion. There was a sort of consensus being built across the political spectrum that the EU-3 diplomacy did not serve its purpose and they would have to disembark from that particular strategy.
And as I should note that the resumption of the Isfahan operation actually were announced by the previous government, as opposed to this one, and you know, that’s the perspective: that we’re not going to make concessions to sustain those ties when those requests are onerous and provocative.
On terms of relationship with the United States, it is a government that’s actually indifferent to relationship with the United States, and in some ways it’s a healthy thing because for a long time the United States has been a sort of essential protagonist in the Iranian drama. Everything that went wrong in Iran was the fault of the United States and everything could be right in Iran, perhaps some would argue, if there was a resumption of relations. And this president and others have said, we can’t blame all our problems on the United States and we shouldn’t look for all the solutions to our problems to the United States. So some level of indifference may complicate the nuclear issue, but I think it’s healthy for the development of Iranian society. I mean, Charles can talk about the—
MARSHALL: What about Iranian president tomorrow?
TAKEYH: Oh, the president tomorrow, the—I think it’s going to be largely a talk based upon some of the indications that one sees. It’s not going to be a provocative talk about Iran sort of embarking on a new aggressive foreign policy, but it’s going to be a talk, I suspect, about the importance of nuclear energy in terms of economic modernization and the right of all countries to develop such nuclear energy, and the unfairness of the international community and unfairness of the United States and the nuclear weapons states who suggest that they should have nuclear energy for whatever purposes they deem necessary, but Third World countries not to have those rights, so I think it is going to be couched in North-South terms; namely, the northern states—the sort of European developed states trying to keep down the Third World countries by depriving them of nuclear energy, which is indispensable to their economic growth and therefore viable sovereignty.
FERGUSON: Yeah, the technical issue involving the Isfahan conversion plant—well, we need to go back to the 1980s when Iran obtained some uranium yellow cake from South Africa, and it’s believed that that’s the material they’ve set into the conversion plant to try to test the plant and make sure they can carry through the conversion activity and make, you know, relatively pure uranium hexafluoride, but lot of the IAEA officials have been talking to the trade press, Nucleonics Week, people like that saying, you know, this stuff is just junk. I mean, they quote one official saying it’s junk. I mean, it’s just not the kind of stuff you can make even into reactor fuel, let alone having enriched uranium for weapons because if you have a contaminant like molybdenum, which is much lighter element than uranium, and you then feed that into a centrifuge plant, the light molybdenum will just be carried throughout the plant. So every time you go to another enrichment stage, ratcheting up to a high-level enrichment in uranium, you’re going to carry along all these impurities with you too. So the highly enriched uranium is going to be a lot impure than even the low-enriched uranium that’s useful for nuclear fuel. And so I think that’s a very important point to keep in mind.
So we need to ask ourselves, so does Iran still need our help? Do they still need outside assistance? And some people are arguing, yes, they do. And in fact, that shows that maybe the Nuclear Suppliers Group—the NSG—has an important role to play here because it was the NSG and the U.S. government in the 1990s that was able to block a lot of assistance primarily from China going to Iran on this conversion plant. The Iranians wanted to buy a complete conversion plant from China in the 1990s, but U.S. government pressure dissuaded China from providing the whole kit and caboodle. It’s—China has provided, you know, sort of blueprints and other advice to make this conversion plant, so Iran had to do a lot of work on its own and because of that it’s delayed the onset of this plant and it’s probably also led to the plant not producing pure enough material.
So—(inaudible)—argue that, you know, export controls and those types of controls do work. They’re not bulletproof—I mean, they’re not a panacea, but they do have a role to play, and Iran—they need to go outside to try to work out some of these impurities in the plant.
FEINSTEIN: Let’s go back to the questions.
OPERATOR: Once again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1 on your touch-tone phone now. Your next question come from Dominic Patten.
DOMINIC PATTEN: Hello. I have a question for Ray. Part of my question was actually answered in the previous one, but Ray, there have been some reports of divisions within the Iranian government emerging of late with the new president’s administration. What effect do you think these are having on decisions being taken in terms of the conducting of foreign policy?
FEINSTEIN: Would you just speak—your name broke up in the transmission.
PATTEN: It’s Dominic Patten.
FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Dominic.
TAKEYH: I think on the issue of foreign relations, I see far less division than any time before. There are these—the issues of division emerging on domestic politics, on the nature of the economic program, on the nature of the cultural issues and so on, you may see some degree of divisions within that, and the parliament has already been assertive. The right wing parliament has already turned down number of the presidential nominees for various cabinet postings. So there are divisions, but on issues of foreign policy—on the issue of nuclear policy, this has always been a more of a consensus position anyways among different factions. They’re all in agreement that their country requires an advanced nuclear program that may, at some point, offered it a weapons option. The differences over the past few years were whether the program should be suspended, retarded as a concession to the international community, to the Europeans, but even that has broken down. And so everyone is in agreement, I think, that this program needs to move forward and it can’t be perennially suspended.
PATTEN: Thank you.
FEINSTEIN: Next question?
OPERATOR: Once again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1 now. Currently there are no questions in the queue.
FEINSTEIN: Well, this was an extremely productive session, I thought, and excellent opening statements and fine questions from all of you. And all of us are available to you at any time as we get closer to the vote in later this month. I want to thank you all and thank Marie Strauss and (Moon ?) also for conducting this so well.
STRAUSS: Thank you, everyone.
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