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Iran Nuclear Talks: A Widening Chasm

Interviewee: Robin Wright, Joint Senior Fellow, U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 8, 2010

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Two days of talks in Geneva between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany ended December 7 with little progress beyond an agreement to meet again in Istanbul next month. Despite the planned January talks, "it appears that the two sides are even further apart than in October 2009, when they last met," says Iran expert Robin Wright, as Iran says it will not discuss enrichment unless sanctions are lifted. The United States had hoped to have a private meeting with the Iranians during the Geneva talks to discuss human rights and other concerns, say Wright, but the meeting never took place, and "the American delegation is probably disappointed" by the lack of results. Wright, who recently edited USIP's The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and U.S. Policy, adds that the Iranian government has succeeded in cracking down on the political opposition, the Green Movement, "but that doesn't mean that there isn't still a strong groundswell of resentment or opposition to the current government."

There seems to have been a little progress during the two days of meetings in Geneva, but where's the emphasis? How "little" and how much "progress"?

The emphasis has to be on "little." In many ways, it appears that the two sides are even further apart than in October 2009 when they last met. There's no concrete plan on the table. We're still locked into a process, whereas in October 2009 there was a deal which would have given something Iran had wanted--higher enriched uranium for its medical reactor in Tehran--in exchange for suspending enrichment, the kind of thing the United States and other members of the Security Council wanted to see. The administration set very low expectations for this round, and I suspect the outcome is even lower than it expected.

I gather that the Iranians kept insisting there's no point talking about their enrichment program unless the United States and the other powers lift the economic sanctions, right?

Crisis Guide: IranThe Iranian negotiator has already said that at the meeting in January in Istanbul, Iran will not discuss its uranium enrichment program. That pulls the rug out from underneath the efforts even before they begin.

Then why are the Iranians agreeing to these talks?

There are a variety of possible motives. It could be that by having talks, they appear to be addressing international concerns. They don't want to be seen as the problem. The issue is always in whose court is the ball, and for the last fourteen months the ball has largely been in the Iranian court. Now that they've agreed to talk, some of that pressure might come off, and countries like Russia and China would have no or little incentive to push for a new round of sanctions. My sense is that to Iran, this is more process than substance, and it's only likely to produce movement with this hard-line regime if the talking points are far broader--if, for example, the talks include nuclear programs throughout the Middle East, which means Israel. The Iranians come to the talks with very different world views, very different objectives, than the five members of the Security Council plus Germany.

Now we're beginning to start a process that looks hauntingly like the Middle East peace process, where you go from meeting to meeting to meeting, and it doesn't get very far.

Some people have speculated that the reason Iran is willing to have these talks is that it allows the government to crack down even further on their domestic opposition. What is the status now of the so-called Green Movement, which when we last talked a year ago was still demonstrating in the streets?

The Iranian crackdown has been very effective against the opposition. The Green Movement has for the time being been sidelined. But that doesn't mean that there isn't still a strong groundswell of resentment or opposition to the current government. You see it in the sporadic labor strikes. There were small demonstrations on campuses (BBC) to mark Student Day today [December 7]. There is still tiny evidence in acts like these of Iranian resentment. But the regime has very effectively over the last fifteen months militarized itself, and the Revolutionary Guards have arguably never been stronger, and the crackdown has never been so severe since the crackdown on the Shah's regime after the Revolution in 1979. But I don't think that the Iranians went into the negotiations thinking this would give them a freer hand at home.

Do you think the United States was satisfied with the results?

The United States had counted on bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the talks in Geneva. That didn't happen. And that was the place where the United States wanted to bring up other issues, notably human rights. It knew that the multilateral talks would focus just on the nuclear issue, because that's how the P5+1 [the five Security Council members plus Germany] had been created. So the United States was going to talk about other issues with Iran, on the sidelines, and it didn't have that opportunity. That's another reason why the American delegation is probably disappointed. It was all about posturing at this first meeting. And the second meeting is in Istanbul, where Iran believes it will have Turkey as a host that will side with it.

Now we're beginning to start a process that looks hauntingly like the Middle East peace process, where you go from meeting to meeting to meeting, and it doesn't get very far.

The U.S. administration has no intention of seeking a private meeting with the Iranians outside the P-5 framework, right?

Correct.

The United States and the other powers agree Iran has the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Iran purportedly wants to have electrical grids powered by nuclear energy, yet we're insisting that Iran stop its enrichment program. Are the two inconsistent?

Not really. Remember, the Russians are providing the fuel rods for Bushehr, which is their first nuclear reactor, which should be up and running in the near future. And the United States doesn't have any objections--and has been stating that since the Ford administration--to an Iranian peaceful nuclear energy program. The question is: If Russia and others provide the fuel, why does Iran need its own enrichment program? Unless it also has other intentions.

Any halt to enrichment would be followed by the agreed-upon set of new inspection rules (PDF) for the International Atomic Energy Agency, I suppose?

The issue is whether Iran is looking for the Japan model, or the Pakistan model. The Japan model is a capability to assemble a weapon if and when they face a threat. And the Pakistan model is to build bombs and have them ready for whatever purpose.

The West is looking for answers to questions that Iran has never answered about that eighteen-year period prior to 2003 where it had a secret program. They haven't fully answered those questions, and they have not allowed access, for example, to the scientist believed to be in charge of their nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.) In other words, the inspectors have not had the kind of full access they want.

What do you make of the bombing attacks on the two Iranian nuclear scientists last week?

It's a fascinating story. Who could get so close to those cars to put explosive devices on them? What kind of intelligence operations would know the daily car routes of these scientists? For all we know, they may very well vary every day. You'd have to know their cars, their license plates, where they live. This was a major intelligence operation as well as a sophisticated assassination attempt. There are lots of different possibilities, but I haven't a clue. And these are not the first two who have been attacked. Last year, another scientist was killed who apparently was found to be tied to the opposition. So they're not necessarily connected.

Some critics want the United States to broaden the Iran agenda to include human rights, and also to discuss things the Iranians would like to talk about, such as Israel's nuclear weapons.

Iran's position has consistently been that they want a nuclear-free region. So Iran and the Western powers, or the world's major powers, come at these talks from totally different perspectives, what they even want on the agenda, and that's what's so discouraging about the diplomatic efforts. Just getting them to come up with a common agenda, get them on the same page, is very difficult. I don't know anyone who holds out great hopes that these talks are going to lead to Iranian concessions. But I will say the administration is committed to diplomacy, in part because of the reality that the military option is far, far more complicated in many ways than Iraq and Afghanistan were.

Relations between the Obama administration and Israel have been tense over negotiations with the Palestinians. Do the United States and Israel agree on Iran right now?

The major players in Israel agree on one thing: They don't want Iran to have a nuclear capability or a nuclear bomb. But there are significant differences, particularly on the timeline. The United States believes it will take a year or two at least for Iran to get to a point that the international community is concerned, really concerned, and is forced to act in some way, whereas Israel's timetable has been much shorter. So while there will be two sides at the table in Istanbul next month in January, looming like a fly on the wall is Israel, because it has its own agenda, its own timetable, and its own military force if it wants to act independently.

What is the likelihood of Israel acting independently of the United States?

The United States has gone to great lengths to try to reassure Israel that it's doing what it can, and to try to convince Israel to give the United States more time. But there will be people who criticize the diplomacy and the fact that the Iranians are simply playing diplomatic dodge ball, that time is on their side, and they can simply stall if that's what they want to do. Show up for these talks, nothing happens, and they agree to another round.

When you talk to administration officials, do they think Iran really wants to have nuclear weapons?

They can't come to an agreement on a national estimate on Iran. That hasn't been released, and it's been due for over a year.

The common statement used to be, "We're worried that Iran wants to have the potential, the ability to build nuclear weapons, not necessarily to build them."

That's the Japan model. The issue is whether Iran is looking for the Japan model, or the Pakistan model. The Japan model is a capability to assemble a weapon if and when they face a threat. And the Pakistan model is to build bombs and have them ready for whatever purpose. That's one of the many big questions that have to be answered. But the truth is we know less about Iran's program, what they do and don't have, than we did about Saddam Hussein's program in Iraq.

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