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Negotiating With a Troubled Iran

Interviewee: Mark Fitzpatrick, Senior Fellow for nonproliferation, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
July 20, 2009

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Mark Fitzpatrick, a veteran State Department official who worked on nonproliferation policy toward Iran, says that he is "not at all optimistic" that Iran will agree to return to the negotiating table for discussions on ending its uranium-enrichment program. But Fitzpatrick says the chance exists that in the aftermath of Iran's disputed presidential election, a "new need for legitimacy could make it more willing to accept some tactical compromise" to resume talks. He says the Obama administration's policy of seeking dialogue with Iran despite the questionable elections--but putting a time limit on how long it is willing to wait for Iran to agree to talks--is "a smart strategy." But he says Iran has a propensity to draw out negotiations without making any agreement.

In the aftermath of Iran's disputed presidential election, some observers have speculated that Iran, to restore its legitimacy in the world, might be more open to negotiations on freezing its uranium-enrichment program. Others have taken the opposite tack, saying that this will only make Iran tougher to deal with. What is your feeling on this?

I'm not at all optimistic, but I don't rule out the possibility that the regime's new need for legitimacy could make it more willing to accept some tactical compromise to get back to the negotiating table. I'm not optimistic because since April, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly said that he won't be negotiating the nuclear portfolio with anyone other than the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. He says he would only talk about global arms control, disarmament, UN reform, and other global issues with the United States. If you take him at his word, and he's in the past followed through on what he's been saying, that doesn't leave much room for optimism. On the other hand, the situation in Iran is unpredictable, which is all too clear from the results of the June election.

Nobody forecast that we'd be in this situation today. The possibility cannot be totally overruled. Looking at it from a step back, one of the problems the United States has faced in trying to persuade Iran to stop its enrichment program is that Iran has felt it has had the upper hand--in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories. It felt it had the United States on the run. The United States needed to build up its position so that if it got back into some kind of negotiating arrangement with Iran, the United States would be dealing from a position of strength. In the aftermath of the election, that has come partly about--Iran's leadership has been delegitimized. They may just be willing to find a way to enter talks with the United States.

It was announced that the head of Iran's nuclear agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, resigned. Was that important?

Iran's leadership has been delegitimized. They may just be willing to find a way to enter talks with the United States.

It was significant mostly because it was a further demonstration of the deep rift in the Iranian regime. He had been associated with reformist elements, and had been a very competent leader of the Iranian atomic energy organization. He brought a degree of management to an agency that had been mismanaged by his predecessor before he took over in 1997. For the Ahmadinejad crowd to get rid of him, it suggests that they place loyalty over competence, which is a huge mistake. The other reason that it's significant is that Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of France noted that Aghazadeh had been one who went public noting the criticisms the international community had of Iran's enrichment program, not that he was sympathetic to that criticism. But he noted that it was an issue that Iran had to deal with. That was an indication of how he was not in sync with the Ahmadinejad line of calling UN Security [Council] resolutions "nothing but a piece of paper," etc.

Has Ahmadinejad picked a successor yet?

He did pick a successor who was a former representative to the IAEA, Ali Akbar Salehi. I don't know his political affiliations, and I don't know too much about his strengths either. I will say that Aghazadeh has gotten the program to a shape where changing the leader is not going to have that much of an impact on the success of the program.

It's been reported by several groups, including the Institute for Science and International Security, which watches Iran very closely, that Iran now has enough enriched uranium so that it could make a nuclear weapon. Do you concur in that?

I don't think any analyst would dispute the conclusion of the well-respected ISIS institute that the amount of fissile material in the enriched uranium Iran has produced is sufficient for a nuclear weapon if it's further enriched. The question is how many months it would take for Iran to do that. And then there's a further question of in the meantime, how long it would take Iran to weaponize that fissile material. In a worst-case analysis, both of those tasks could be done in six months. It would take considerably longer to weaponize, but in the worst case it would take six months. And nobody knows how far Iran got in its military development work before it put the program on ice in 2003.

President Obama has said that by the time leaders congregate at the UN General Assembly in September, he'll look for some signal [that Iran will seriously engage in nuclear talks]. The administration has also suggested that Iran would have until the end of the year. Do you think this is a sign of weakness or a smart strategy?

It's a smart strategy to put some kind of time line on the offer that's been made to Iran, even if it's just to get them to the table for a "freeze for a freeze": freezing further sanctions in exchange for freezing further centrifuges, keeping both where they are. It's been on the table for over a year now and Iran hasn't responded to it. That offer can't be there forever. Meanwhile, Iran keeps ramping up its number of centrifuges. So what was a freeze a year ago is less valuable to the West than a freeze today. It makes sense to put a limit on it.

I didn't realize that they had not rejected it.

Iran met with the 5+1 [the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany] back a year ago when William Burns, the undersecretary of state, went to Geneva with his counterparts and met with Iran's nuclear negotiator. Iran never rejected the proposal, they just answered it the way they usually answer these things, by saying that they would first need four or more preliminary discussions and then some period of other discussions. They put on so many different stages that they effectively killed it with bureaucracy. It's a typical Iranian negotiating style: You never say no and you never say yes. You just draw out the process as long as possible. So it's an effective no, but it's not a formal no.

The hope in Washington is that if Iran doesn't come to the table and really negotiate a freeze that there will be tougher sanctions imposed, but we still haven't seen anything from the Russians that that's in the works.

There's no sign from the Russians that sanctions are in the works, even though [French] President Nicolas Sarkozy, seemingly speaking on behalf of the G8 after the summit in Italy, indicated that tougher sanctions would be forthcoming if Iran did not come to the negotiating table in a serious manner. The Russians made clear that they didn't think sanctions would be productive. So their sign is the usual Russian sign of not wanting to pile on more sanctions. But I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that Russia won't accept additional sanctions. After all, Russia has come along slowly and partially to every sanctions proposal over the last three years or so. In the end, they did agree to some series of sanctions but never as much as the West wanted. There could be the prospect of some additional UN Security Council sanctions. Even if there isn't, there's scope outside of the Security Council for the West to apply further pressure through the denial of financial services and the like.

It's a smart strategy to put some kind of time line on the offer that's been made to Iran, even if it's just to get them to the table for a "freeze for a freeze": freezing further sanctions in exchange for freezing further centrifuges.

Both Israel and Arab states have expressed great concern with Iran's nuclear program, fearing Iran will get a nuclear weapon. Are these countries exaggerating the threat?

Iran's neighbors have reason to be very worried about the prospect of Iran with a nuclear weapon, [but] not because Iran would consciously use that weapon against them. That would be an act of national suicide and I don't think Iran's leadership is irrational. Iran with a nuclear weapon makes it more dangerous in a number of ways. They could use it through a mistake or a miscalculation the way that the United States and the Soviet Union came close to an exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Iran with a nuclear weapon could have some group or individuals like the Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. Abdul Qadeer [A.Q] Khan, who took it upon himself to share the nuclear technology with anyone in the world who might buy it. If you could imagine an Iranian A.Q. Khan who wanted to share the technology with a terrorist group, that could be a very serious threat to Israel in particular. Iran with a nuclear weapon would strengthen its hegemonic hand and its relations with the Gulf states. In particular, Saudi Arabia, which has always sought to maintain a degree of power parity with Iran, would be in a notably inferior position.

And on its ostensible purpose, to use the enriched uranium for a nuclear power structure, is this a realistic possibility?

There are various reasons why it's illogical for Iran to insist on having an enrichment program for the purposes of making fuel for a nuclear power program. One is that its insistence on self-sufficiency will be impossible to realize anyway because it doesn't have sufficient uranium ore to provide the basis for the nuclear power program it envisions of ten to twenty nuclear reactors. It has enough uranium ore for one reactor, or for a nuclear weapons program, but not for the nuclear power program it envisions. A more immediate issue is that Iran cannot use the enriched uranium it is producing today in its Bushehr reactor that will come online early next year that Russia will have completed. The fuel assemblies for nuclear reactors are very reactor specific, and only Russia and maybe Westinghouse are certified to provide fuel to the reactor. If Iran tried to build its own fuel assemblies and put them in Bushehr, it would be terribly unsafe and would void all the liability provisions of the supply of Russia. Iran knows that and doesn't even talk anymore about providing the fuel for Bushehr. It talks about making fuel for some uranium reactor of the future, and they're talking about building one at a place called Darkhovin. The thought of Iran building its own reactor near the Persian Gulf will certainly send the Gulf Arab states into a tizzy of concern. If there's anything they're worried about more than Iran having a nuclear weapon is Iran having an unsafe nuclear reactor that will certainly not meet international safety standards and could contaminate the entire Gulf area if it had a critical accident.

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