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No Signs of Iranian Flexibility on Nuclear Program

Interviewee: George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies and Director of the Nonproliferation Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor,
September 2, 2009


George Perkovich, a leading expert on nuclear policy, says despite the world's revulsion at the apparently staged elections in Iran, the United States should be prepared to talk to the Iranian government. "The question isn't our willingness to negotiate or to try to find some resolution with this government in Iran," he says. "The real question is whether this government in Iran is at all willing to make compromises on its current posture." Perkovich also says that for President Barack Obama to make progress on his stated goal of seeking a world without nuclear weapons, he should push for Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

President Obama has said he's waiting for a response from Iran to discuss not only its nuclear program but other issues of interest as well. In particular, he wants some response by the time of the UN General Assembly meeting later this month. What should the United States do about Iran?

On the question of if we should be prepared, or even seek to talk or negotiate with this government of Iran, the answer is clearly yes. The question isn't our willingness to negotiate or to try to find some resolution with this government in Iran. The real question is whether this government in Iran is at all willing to make compromises on its current posture and take the steps that are required by the Security Council. If the government in Iran is prepared--and its central figure is Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei, the supreme leader--to negotiate and make compromises, that would be a big step forward for international security. And by the way, it would be a major relief for the opposition in Iran. Even those in Iran who are most optimistic about the capacity to somehow displace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even change the system of having a supreme religious leader, those [people] don't want to have to deal with the nuclear issue. It's a very difficult issue. If somehow this government in Iran could find common ground with the rest of the world, everyone should welcome that.

Have we had any such signals from Iran that you know of?

No. That's why I find it understandable but curious that we're focusing on whether the United States should be prepared to negotiate with the Iranians when the Iranians show no sign that they're going to be genuinely prepared to negotiate. They may show up for talks, but they've shown up for talks in the past. In fact, the Bush administration showed up for talks with the Iranians on the nuclear issue in July 2008. William Burns, the undersecretary of state, was there. We've broken that ice, but the reality is that the Iranians haven't negotiated. The Iranian representative Saeed Jalili gives hour-long diatribes and lectures on theology and other issues, but there's absolutely no give and take, and there hasn't been any since, probably, 2005. The question is whether the Iranians are prepared to actually engage in give and take, and I see no signs of that.

What do you make of the positive-sounding comments today attributed to Jalili?

Iran will do as it has for years: When pressure mounts, as when the P-5 [five permanent UN Security Council members] plus Germany meet to consider tightening sanctions, and the Iranian leadership feels unsure of itself, it makes gestures that seem accommodating.  Each time it has done this, the "offer" it is preparing turns out to be completely unresponsive to the legal demands of the UN Security Council and the IAEA.  Often the "offer" or the appearance at talks amounts to a long lecture about the injustice of any doubts that Iran's nuclear program is not entirely peaceful.  Yet the IAEA continues to report that Iran refuses to answer important questions or provide evidence to counter evidence that it has, in fact, done work related to nuclear weaponization. So Jalili is, as before, trying to dissipate pressure and buy time.  This is not all bad. When Jalili and his patron President Ahmedinejad feel confident, they don't even pretend to be interested in negotiating.

The latest IAEA report that was leaked to various organizations last week didn't move the ball forward at all, did it?

No. In fact, what it did was show how the Iranians operate on this issue. In other words, it said the Iranians haven't increased the level of enrichment that they're doing, but they have added to the number of centrifuges. They've added machines, but they don't have them turned on. They finally allowed inspectors to visit two facilities that had been previously denied. There's a pattern where--when the Iranians feel under pressure, which they do because of their domestic crisis and because of possible sanctions--they make a gesture intended to throw the rest of the world a little bit on their heels. [This] enables the Chinese and Russians to say, "Well, they're making a gesture." They do something that's not as bad as they could be doing, but at the same time they add a sense of threat or deterrent by putting more machines in the facility. That's basically the pattern of Iranian negotiations we've seen since 2003.

It's the end of September and there is no real response from Iran on what the P5+1 powers are looking for, and the United States says that it'll seek tougher sanctions. What kind of sanctions would be effective, and what are the chances that they'll be approved by the Security Council? Or is it not necessary to get them in the Security Council?

It's very, very important to get them in the Security Council, primarily for political reasons. In other words, the nuclear issue in Iran is largely political. It's been made into an issue of nationalism. So if you have the Security Council, which represents the entire world and especially Asian powers, say that Iran has gone too far and is out of line, that has a big impact on Iranian politics and on the Iranian psyche. If the entire world basically says that you're beyond the pale, people will turn on the government and say, "How could you put us this far out of line?" But if it's not the Security Council, and it's just the United States and some Western European countries, then the effect of that is much less. People will say it's just a Zionist-American conspiracy and they never liked us anyway.

Economically, however, the effect of sanctions is significant over time, and especially if it includes Europe. The sanctions that are most effective are financial, and can even be indirect--the kinds of sanctions that make people not supply capital to Iran. These would also include the insurance industry: If you can get insurers to feel that they will be in jeopardy for insuring transactions or shipments involving Iran, that has a big bite. There is a sanction that is being talked about, and even advocated by the U.S. Congress, sanctioning petroleum or gasoline imports into Iran. First of all, Congress will do it as a unilateral congressionally mandated action, and that will be a big mistake and the kind of thing that never works in Iran. Even more broadly, if you could get the rest of the world to agree to sanction gasoline imports into Iran I still don't think it's a good idea, in part because it actually would help the Revolutionary Guards [branch of Iran's military], who control the borders and would make a windfall on smuggling.

Is there any chance that the Russians or the Chinese would agree to tougher sanctions if nothing happens?

If nothing more happens, I don't see them agreeing in September to it. What they're going to wait for is to see whether the Iranians do respond to the Obama overtures and come to the table. That's why the Iranians will at some point indicate that they'll talk. That will buy them more time because the talks will take a while to prepare. Then the Chinese and Russians will want to see what transpires in the talks, and when the Iranians don't say or offer anything, the United States, France, and Britain will turn to the Russians and Chinese and push for sanctions. That'll take a couple more months to negotiate. I just see this rolling onwards. In months, you could get support for stronger sanctions, but it'll take quite a bit of time.

You've been a great exponent of getting the Senate to approve the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT], which the Clinton administration tried to get passed in 1999 but failed. Is that a live issue now?

If you have the Security Council, which represents the entire world and especially Asian powers, say that Iran has gone too far and is out of line, that has a big impact on Iranian politics and on the Iranian psyche.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is a live issue. President Obama has said that it's a significant priority of his to have it reconsidered for ratification. It is a treaty that the rest of the world has for decades seen as the sine qua non of demonstrating that the nuclear arms race is over and that the United States and other nuclear armed states are prepared to live up to their commitments to the rest of the world.

This treaty would ban underground nuclear tests as well as atmospheric tests currently prohibited by the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963?

Yes. The technical language bans all tests with a nuclear yield. It's very important to the rest of the world. If you worry that Iran would make nuclear weapons, which I don't think they've decided to do, one of the things that you'd want to block or make more difficult is Iran's conducting nuclear tests. Presumably, if they had one or two nuclear weapons, they'd be tempted to test at least one of them to show their own people that they have the capability and to also claim status and negotiating leverage. North Korea did this, and so did India and Pakistan. If there is no test ban and if the United States opposes the test ban, which was opposed by the Bush administration and [is] still opposed by Republicans, an Iranian test wouldn't violate any international treaty. If Iran were considering testing, we would want to have a global treaty that we all supported. As long as the United States is seen as an impediment to such a treaty, we could denounce an Iranian nuclear test all we want but the rest of the world is going to say we were the ones who blocked it for all these years.

The reality is that the United States has had a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing since 1992. It's been a unilateral moratorium. Right now, and since 1999, we've been in the worst of all worlds. We're not testing, so whatever putative benefits or requirements that would be met by testing are not done for national policy reasons. And yet we're getting none of the benefits of having ratified a treaty or having a treaty enforced globally. It's an absurd position that we've been in since 1992. Even President [George W.] Bush never proposed a nuclear test. But he never considered putting forward the treaty for ratification. Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, who's the leader of the opposition to the treaty, isn't proposing that we should go out and conduct nuclear tests. It's a bizarre situation: we're not testing and we're not getting the benefits of the treaty.

Is everything on hold on this subject until this nuclear posture review is finished in December? What exactly is this nuclear posture review?

The nuclear posture review is mandated by Congress and basically aims to produce a memo that the president writes to the government--the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy--every five years saying, "this is the role of U.S. nuclear weapons; these are the missions I want you to be able to carry out; and you should therefore plan and deploy the nuclear arsenal in ways that serve these purposes." In other words, you could say that you want nuclear weapons to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others and add that you would consider using nuclear weapons to fight a conventional war. In the past, it would say that our nuclear weapons are to deter conventional war in Europe, so we had thousands of nuclear weapons that we would then plan to use in a battlefield in Germany.

With President Obama declaring in Prague that the ultimate goal is to eliminate nuclear weapons on one hand, but on the other hand saying that as long as we have them--which we'll have as long as anyone else has them--they have to deter and be reliable, this posture review will be his version of why nuclear weapons are needed and the conditions under which we could imagine using them. At the same time, he'd want it consistent with the ultimate goal of getting rid of them.

Do you think he'll get such a memo?

I don't think he'll get it if he doesn't ask for it. In other words, if you leave the system to itself then the default position will be very conservative, much like it's been done in the past. Business as usual is always the easiest thing. The president himself is going to have to--before there's even a draft--ask for a briefing and weigh in. If he weighs in, he'll shape it. My understanding is that, in fact, his officials in the Pentagon understand--given the Prague speech--that he has views on this. So they're considering a posture review that has options that range from the status quo to something that's much more forward leaning.

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