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Nuclear Quagmire with Iran

Interviewee: George R. Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
November 23, 2009

A leading arms control expert, George Perkovich says Iran's domestic political turmoil has seemingly caused it to back out of an agreement with the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany to send its processed uranium out of the country. Although President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad apparently backed the accord, he ran into criticism from his political enemies, and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supported the critics. Now the United States and its allies must redouble efforts, Perkovich says, to make sure that Iran does not try to make nuclear weapons. He thinks if there is evidence of such moves, Washington could get Russian and Chinese backing for very strict steps.

The Security Council's permanent members plus Germany have met and issued another statement asking Iran to reconsider its apparent rejections and respond positively to the tentative agreement that was reached in Vienna a month ago, calling on Iran to transfer most of its low-enriched uranium to Russia and France. But since then, the Iranians have seemingly walked away from this tentative agreement. What do you think has happened in Iran?

The tentative expression of "yes" by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chief negotiator in Vienna, Saeed Jalili, that they would accept this deal indicated two things. One, that in fact it was a very good deal from Iran's point of view. Objectively it was and is. And two, these two gentlemen who previously had been resistant to negotiations or agreement with the West saw that the revelations about the secret enrichment plant at Qom, which had been revealed by the West just days before Vienna, had put Iran on the defensive. It worsened Iran's position. And so they recognized that this deal which was offered was not only beneficial materially to Iran but also would deflect attention from Qom. Thus, they wanted to make the deal.

And then what happened?

[D]ealing with the West is important to Iran, but it's not so important to Iranian politicians as fighting it out for power and influence in Tehran.

Well what happened is that Jalili returned from Vienna to a place where the leadership had systematically made enemies of many in the Iranian establishment, including the speaker of the Parliament, Ali Larijani, who was the former chief nuclear negotiator and who himself has been regarded as a pretty hard-line guy. Ahmadinejad in the past had belittled him and said that he was weak, and so now was time for payback. Everybody who had been angered or frustrated or brow-beaten by Ahmadinejad turned around and dumped on him. So Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the leader of the opposition, and Mehdi Karroubi, the other leader of the opposition, as well as Larijani, all denounced the Vienna accord as a weak-kneed accommodation to the West, that it was giving away "our great patrimony." The deal actually is very good for Iran, and so the explanation for the turnaround is Iranian politics.

We did notice at the time that Mousavi, who people in the West had been lauding for his opposition to Ahmadinejad's staged reelection, was in the forefront of the opposition. This shocked people who thought, incorrectly, that everyone opposed to Ahmadinejad would seek an accommodation with the West.

This demonstrates how all politics or, in many cases, all international policy ends up being local. Resolving the nuclear issue and dealing with the West is important to Iran, but it's not so important to Iranian politicians as fighting it out for power and influence in Tehran. So that's what happened. And so Mousavi and the others attacked Ahmadinejad for domestic purposes and also, literally, payback.

I haven't seen much from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on this, have you?

He has said some things in the last few weeks that were important to the effect [of] "we can't deal with the United States. And Obama is more dangerous than Bush because he's subtle and sounds nice, but underneath he's tough." Most Western governments believe the deal was brought to Khamenei, but after it had gotten controversial within Iran, he then came down against it and against Ahmadinejad, in part because it's possible that he hadn't been briefed on the details. This is not surprising, because on things nuclear, it's very often the case that leaders of government don't really know the details because they're technical or hard to understand. So once it got controversial, he said "Well I didn't agree to this" and basically stopped it, so that's where things are standing. And I'm just guessing now, but one reason why International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei can correctly say we haven't heard officially is that no one knows who speaks for Iran. In other words, officially Ahmadinejad is the chief executive and he supported the deal, but the supreme leader is the ultimate decider, and he evidently doesn't support the deal. But the leader doesn't communicate to other governments or to entities like the IAEA, so maybe we won't be hearing officially.

I noticed Obama, in his comments in South Korea at the end of his Asian trip, said the United States and its partners would give Iran until the end of the year, and then they would have to think about tougher sanctions. That's pretty much been his position lately, and wouldn't this undercut Obama's big effort to get a real dialogue going with Iran?

It does. During the Bush administration when people were always saying, "It's Bush's fault," I'd say there's no evidence that the Iranians want to have a dialogue. And in fact the Bush administration was desperate for a dialogue with the Iranians, and the Iranians wouldn't talk to Bush. Now Obama is clearly eager for a dialogue, and it is not evident that the top Iranian leadership, starting with Ayatollah Khamenei, is really prepared for one with the United States. What was the hope in the nuclear fuel deal was that it was so favorable to Iran in many ways that Iran would then take it as a bona fide and say, "Yes we'll take this deal," and then that [would] impart momentum for talks on a whole range of issues. And so the rejection or apparent rejection of the deal is important not only for what it says about the nuclear crisis, where there's a clock ticking, but also if it means Iran's not able or willing to engage directly with the United States on a whole range of issues.

And you've been fairly convinced for some time that Iran really wants the capability to have nuclear weapons, right?

Yes.  I've been one of those who says Iran wants a capability to have nuclear weapons but has not decided that they want to build nuclear weapons. There are some that say, "No, they're hell bent to create nuclear weapons." From the information that I see in the open, non-secret world, I can't draw that conclusion.  And whenever you ask people in government: "Do you have concrete evidence that Iran's decided to make nuclear weapons?" the answer is no. But they certainly want the capability, and there's a general trend that's worrying, which is the growth in the power and influence of the Revolutionary Guards. Those guys are the least interested in engaging with the world both economically, politically, and otherwise, and [they] would be most likely to have a false but nonetheless an important view that if you build nuclear weapons, no one can threaten your security or your hold on power. So the more power they get and the longer they hold it, the greater the potential that they would decide actually to build nuclear weapons.

What do you make of this formerly secret facility near Qom? They claim it's a fallback for its big processing facility in Natanz. But it's so small, they couldn't really do much nuclear processing there, could they?

[The] apparent rejection of the deal is important not only for what it says about the nuclear crisis, where there's a clock ticking, but also if it means Iran's not able or willing to engage directly with the United States.

Exactly. So they still haven't had a real good explanation for it because it's too small. It would house perhaps three thousand centrifuges. That's too small even to provide low-enriched uranium fuel for nuclear power plants, which is the reason Iran gives for its nuclear capability.  And in fact, Iran's own argument for Natanz, the big facility that was secret that we've been monitoring since 2003, was, "Well, we want to produce fuel for nuclear energy, and so we have to have this gigantic facility."  But now they've got a small facility that was also secretly being built, [and] it's a little hard to say, "Oh well, we got to have this for nuclear energy," when it counters the justification they had made for the big facility.

Do you agree that Iran doesn't really have enough uranium to have a nuclear power plant capability without importing uranium?

That's my understanding from what other people say, that they would be dependent on imports of either raw uranium or yellow cake and are now looking for potential collaborators in Venezuela or in the Congo and other places.

But there are sanctions against them being able to import it, right?

Actually, the sanctions aren't against importing raw uranium. That could be added and perhaps should be. There's a question, though, whether they are illicitly importing it. There's also something that people haven't noted. The IAEA issued a report the other day that notes that the IAEA discovered a pretty large quantity of heavy water at the facility at Isfahan and that that was another breach of Iran's obligations because they had been obligated to report this heavy water.

Heavy water in itself isn't dangerous at all, you don't make weapons with it, but it does enable you to operate a nuclear reactor that is optimal for producing plutonium, which could be used for bombs. So it's a sensitive material, and it's supposed to be reported when you acquire it. And the IAEA found it at Isfahan in a building that they didn't usually go in but decided to go into this time. They found this stuff, so once again Iran is in violation of reporting requirements to tell people they have this stuff, and then the question arises, where did they get it and when?

Let's play out a little scenario. We've got five weeks left before the end of the year. If you're in the inner circles with Obama, what do you advise?

Obama has been smart, even though it frustrates some in Washington and some in Paris. He's been smart in being very positive and not alarmist and not bellicose with the Iranians. But you have to start concluding that the Iranians aren't able to negotiate, and so we ought to move now to the other members of the Security Council and say, "We need to delineate amongst ourselves all of the red lines that our technical people tell us would indicate that Iran's trying to make nuclear weapons." We really have to draw the line and enforce that Iran doesn't go from the capability to making nuclear weapons. And for Iran to do that, we know that there are a number of steps, there are a number of experiments, there are a number of pieces of equipment. There are a number of metals and others things whose only purpose is to make nuclear weapons. And we should agree amongst ourselves that if we see any of these activities or any of these materials in Iran, that we're agreed as a Security Council that that means weaponization. And we said that's intolerable all along, and we're prepared to enforce that with the strongest possible measures.  The Russians and the Chinese say Iran can't have nuclear weapons; we don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons; the Iranians themselves say they don't want nuclear weapons, so we need to define what we agree are steps toward nuclear weapons and then be prepared to enforce their ban.

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