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Perkovich: If Iran Stone-Walls, Stop Trying to Negotiate

Interviewee: George R. Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, director of Non-Proliferation Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 24, 2008


George Perkovich, a long-time expert on Iran's nuclear program, says the United States and its negotiating partners should set a deadline for Iran to agree to negotiations on suspending its nuclear enrichment program. If Iran still refuses to talk, he says, the negotiators should pull all previous incentive offers from the table and seek tougher sanctions. "Each day that goes on, they get closer to achieving what we are trying to prevent. So we ought to set a deadline that says 'look, if we don't get a sign from you that you are prepared to negotiate on this term of suspension, then fine. We'll pull all the offers that we've offered and we can break off talks because there is nothing really to negotiate if you're not prepared to consider suspension.'" He also is opposed to using a military threat unless it is proven Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

You've recently published an article on policy toward Iran in which you advocate what sounds like an ultimatum to Iran-although you didn't use the word-to get into serious negotiations on suspending their nuclear enrichment program. You said the United States and its negotiating partners should offer Iran "one last, time-limited chance to negotiate suspension of its fuel-cycle-related activities." Can you give some of the background on your thinking on this?

Basically Iran hasn't been negotiating since at least 2005, and if you talk with any of the European governments who have been meeting with Iran, they will tell you this. There has been nothing even resembling negotiations. So the demand of the UN Security Council, of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United States, and other governments is that Iran temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment program and use that time of suspension to build confidence that its nuclear program in its entirety is peaceful. Iran rejected the premise and that possibility, so in fact, there has been no give and take in any way.

What I'm saying is that we need to recognize that-and stop what we've been doing which was kind of chasing them around the room saying "if we increase the offer, if we give you more, will you then negotiate?" And the longer they wait, the more they've been getting offered and I think it's time to recognize that that dynamic doesn't work. The reason for those incentives was to induce Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, which Iran insists it has the right to continue. Each day that goes on, they get closer to achieving what we are trying to prevent. So we ought to set a deadline that says "look, if we don't get a sign from you that you are prepared to negotiate on this term of suspension, then fine. We'll pull all the offers that we've offered and we can break off talks because there is nothing really to negotiate if you're not prepared to consider suspension."

But isn't it likely that they'll say OK, forget about it?

What I'm suggesting is that we calmly react if they reject that offer and say OK, you've decided that you are going to defy this legally-defined demand from the Security Council, which is your prerogative. We're not going to attack you, which I think is very important to say, but we are going to walk away and not offer you more incentives. Instead we are going to concentrate on the durability of the sanctions already in place. We should focus our energy on maintaining sanctions for as long as Iran doesn't comply, and where possible to strengthen those sanctions. I think if you do that, which we haven't done, it could produce a conversation within Iran that hasn't occurred because the Iranians so far believe that they can keep stringing this out. If they decide to negotiate later after they've gotten the nuclear capability, they could make a deal and get all of the benefits that we're offering. So I'm saying, we need to walk away and let them understand that they're going to have a nuclear program that makes no economic sense; that can't produce fuel for any kind of nuclear reactor, and they would be offered nothing for it, and they would be stuck with it. They will have to learn that they played their hand too long and that they should have agreed earlier to the suspension.

Now of course there are many people out there who believe this whole nuclear enrichment program is just to prepare the way to an eventual nuclear weapons program. If that's the case, there is probably no way you could get them to stop short of using something more than just sanctions.

Right, and I think that is a big concern. Although the CIA and the intelligence community have said that Iran has stopped trying to build nuclear weapons, but that they were continuing their enrichments. I would rather keep pushing for suspension, number one. Number two, the Iranians insist at the highest level that they don't want nuclear weapons. I think it's always been very important that the world remind Iran of this, and that is why I think it's always been a mistake to say that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. Because as long as their leadership keeps insisting that they don't want nuclear weapons because it violates religious tenets to do that, we ought to be trying to lock in that position, to make it harder for them to change. The deal that we're offering is about suspension of enrichment. But since they're likely to reject that deal, we need to say we're pulling everything off the table and you better not make nuclear weapons because you've committed not to do so and there is a treaty and requires you not. And we should be concentrating our attention with China and Russia on clarifying that if there is new evidence that they're trying to make a nuclear weapon, then all bets are off. Then we ought to really increase sanctions and that's the only circumstance in which military force should be on the table.

In the last year or so, relations between Russia and the United States, and more recently between Russia and the European Union, have gotten more strained, and the conflict in Georgia in the summer has only worsened things. Is Russia still on board with sanctions?

They were never enthusiastic about it but at the same time it's very clear that Russia does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. The issue is how much they are willing to pay in order to keep that from happening. You have to step back and look at it from the Russian point of view. The Soviet Union had major positions in the Middle East in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. In the 1991 Gulf War, when the U.S. coalition invaded and defeated Iraq, the Soviets basically got expelled from the entire region. They have a foothold of influence in Iran now. So the worst thing that could happen from Russia's point of view would be improved relations between the United States and Iran, because if that happened, it's very likely that Russian influence and position would suffer enormously. That is a worse fear for Russia than Iran having nuclear weapons. So it limits how much they are willing to do. If they are going to join with us in really pressing Iran, then they are going to want to have their other big interests satisfied whether it's a question of NATO expansion, missile defenses in Europe ... top Russian priorities where we would have to concede in order to get them to work harder with us on Iran.

What about the thought that's been kicked around a bit in the presidential campaign of direct U.S. -Iran talks?

I think that's a great idea. In my view, we should always be willing to talk or negotiate with adversaries if only to get better intelligence and a better feel for how they are thinking and what they want. But I think it's the Iranians who don't want to talk. The Bush administration belatedly, but wisely sent Undersecretary of State William Burns to Geneva in July for the meeting with the EU and Iran and basically the Iranian representative kind of shrugged and said "so what." I think the United States has made clear that is perfectly willing to talk and it's the Iranian leadership that is nervous and doesn't know how to proceed on that.

Are they any sanctions that would be effective really?

Sure, but the main problem with sanctions is that they take a long time to really work. In this case, we are up against a technical clock that ticks much faster than sanctions do. But if the Iranians thought strategically about their economy, they would realize that over time they desperately need the technology that only the West provides for the oil and gas industry and the investment that comes with that. As oil prices come down, that is the biggest sanction that you could imagine on Iran, but again, that would take time. It's also another reason why I don't think it's useful for the United States to threaten the use of force or to make illusions to it because it adds a risk premium to oil prices and that is Iran's salvation. The biggest sanction that you could have would be to calm the atmosphere regarding military force, which I think is what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is trying to do.

Today in the Wall Street Journal, Richard Holbrooke and others published an op-ed announcing the formation of a group called United against Nuclear Iran, which picks up on fears of Iran moving toward a nuclear weapons program and urging more united American and international public opposition. They are stressing the view that Iran must be moving toward a nuclear weapons program otherwise why spend the money on nuclear enrichment which isn't necessary and they don't need nuclear power.

I think if you talk to a lot of economists and energy specialists, they think that it's a little bit of a glib assumption that a country like Iran might not have need or use for nuclear energy. By the way, the United Arab Emirates is making preparations to buy, or have built, a nuclear reactor in the UAE and we don't say that makes no economic sense. The United States had lots of the world's oil and gas and we started building nuclear reactors too so I think that's an argument you can't win in any case. The issue is not uniting against nuclear-armed Iran; I think everyone agrees that's bad, its how do you achieve it. Again, I think the Iranian decision at this point is counterproductive, but so is running around the room throwing offers at the Iranians when you haven't established if they are going to try to negotiate.

The biggest point of pressure on Iran is that there is evidence that there was past experiments and activity related to making nuclear weapons. This was referred to in the U.S. intelligence estimate as kind of what they were doing before 2003. It's been taken up by the International Atomic Energy Agency. And people have not paid enough attention to this report that the IAEA released on September 15. On the second-to-last page, it documents Iran's refusal to provide answers, documents, access to individuals, to address this issue of activities that might have been related to creating nuclear weapons. [Coming from the] IAEA, it's sort of the bluntest, most dramatic warning of what Iran is up to, and an expression of Iran's non-cooperation. This is the issue on which Iran is and should be made very defensive, in which people haven't focused on enough, especially in the United States.

Everything you're advocating here in your report really is for the next president.

It is, except the problem of time. We are in September now; if we wait until January then the new administration has to get their team together and do a review. And then the Iranian elections are in May, so you're talking about another eight months in which Iran continues to enrich uranium. So the concern then is the next president gets the briefing and it says the former president had time, and you don't have time. So I think it needs to be quick and methodic, but a clear bipartisan agreement on a strategy now is not something to wait on.

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