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Perkovich: Pressures and Benefits Must Be Made Clearer to Iran

Interviewee: George Perkovich, Vice President for Studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 16, 2007

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George Perkovich, a leading expert on Iranian nuclear issues, says the latest IAEA report on Iran written by Director General Mohamed ElBaradei only underscores the importance of increasing efforts to resolve the nuclear enrichment dispute diplomatically. He favors increasing the pressure from the UN Security Council and others, and suggests the possible benefits to Iran if they engage in negotiations should be better defined. “It’s the only strategy to be pursued,” he says. “The Iranians haven’t felt the need to negotiate yet because they haven’t felt enough pressure. And they also haven’t seen any kind of potential reward, so they are holding back. I think that the challenge all along has been to bring both increased pressure on Iran and to be much clearer on what the potential benefits to Iran would be.”

Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has delivered his report on Iran’s compliance or non-compliance with the demands or requests on its nuclear enrichment program (PDF). It seems to me to be the classic “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?” report, depending on your point of view. How did you find the report?

Well, as I was getting ready for the interview, I couldn’t get off the “half- full, half-empty” metaphor myself, and I think it is the way it reads. It has a kind of very neutral language, “the Iranians did some things but they haven’t done other things.” I think the report in the end really depends on the eye of the beholder.

So for the readers who aren’t going to read the whole report, can you sum up first what Mr. ElBaradei was pleased with, what were the good things that Iran did?

You have to understand that there was an agreement that Iran made with the IAEA in August, and the Iranians said: “Okay, look, we’ve had these outstanding questions for a number of years, and now we are going to answer your questions, and we’re going to do it over a schedule over the next few months.” So this was the first installment of the reporting on the first half of the answers. Where it was positive was on the issue of the centrifuges for enriching uranium which Iran had bought from Pakistan on the black market, after having denied years ago that it had done any such thing. The Iranians provided additional information, letters, and files that allowed the IAEA to establish a consistent chronology of how those transactions took place. So that the IAEA said: “Yes, this story basically adds up, it happened when Iran said it happened.”

The more sensitive issue is with a second generation of centrifuges known as P-2’s. What happened is that the P-1, the first generation that Iran bought from Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan network [named after the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program who later launched a worldwide black market in nuclear materials and expertise], didn’t work well. The Iranians couldn’t get them to work. So if you read between the lines, the Iranians went back to the Pakistanis and said: “Hey, you sold us junk,” and the Pakistanis said: “We’ll give you or sell you designs for the next generation.” The big mystery was that the IAEA found out several years ago that Iran had received these designs but didn’t do anything with them for six years. That was something people didn’t believe. Iran said: “They basically sat in a drawer for six years, and we didn’t do anything with them.” And, it has long been a suspicion that in fact Iran did do something with those blueprints, probably in secret military facilities, which would have been a major violation of the agreement with the IAEA.

What the report explains, not completely, is the process by which Iran did get the blueprints, and it explains that Iran didn’t do anything with them because it had trouble with the P-1’s and it couldn’t manufacture components to get the P-1’s to work, so it didn’t think it would make any sense to manufacture more advanced P-2 centrifuges. So the plans basically sat there until, I think, 2002 and then Iran went to a private machine shop in Iran and got a head start on working on this design, and then Iran totally stopped in 2003. The Iranians in effect said: “We got caught in the overall program and the spotlight shone, we told the guy to stop but he kept on working on it on his own.” Now, the IAEA report says that that theory is consistent and checks out.  

Anything missing from the history?

What we can absolutely say is missing is that Iran has not allowed the IAEA to interview the two people they really want to interview who are the people who direct the P-2 work. Iran has not made them available for interviews and interviews are very important because what the IAEA is reporting on is Iran’s past activities and whether they have been explained and put to rest.

What about the Security Council resolutions?

The whole bigger context surrounds the Security Council resolutions that are legally binding and require Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment and plutonium related activities. Here there is no question of half-empty, half-full. Iran has “broken the glass; the glass isn’t even in the room.” They have said, emphatically, that they are not going to suspend and they continue to do the enrichment work. ElBaradei is trying not to focus on that and just focus on the answers to the past questions.

In other words, his report is a kind of a historical document and not really a germane political document, because it doesn’t grapple with the question of ‘Why doesn’t Iran stop its nuclear enrichment program?’ 

Right. And this is part of the context of what the situation has become for reasons that one can understand. In other words, the IAEA’s formal job is just to deal with questions of the past because it’s sole job is just to monitor the people, reporting that they’re doing as they say, and managing nuclear material. What happened was when Iran got caught in violations, negotiations started because Iran wasn’t cooperating and so on. The IAEA emphatically didn’t want the issue to go to the Security Council, so a deal was made: “You negotiate with the EU, work through the IAEA, to sort this out.” So, uncovering the past got mixed with the diplomacy of dealing with the future. And that has continued. You have these two actors. On the one hand, you have the Security Council passing binding resolutions, which it should do since that’s its job, and you have the IAEA that’s an investigatory agency but has already put itself in the middle as a big negotiator as well, and the Iranians keep saying: “We’ll only deal with the IAEA, we won’t deal with the Security Council.”

Clearly, ElBaradei is afraid that the Security Council actions will escalate into military actions.

Yes, he has said, and his actions demonstrate, that he thinks the biggest problem that he must deal with, is his concern that the United States might go to war with Iran. Everything he says and does is through that prism of waiting on a U.S. military action on Iran, which he thinks, after Iraq, is the predilection of the Bush administration. There are many of us, however, who think that whatever possibility there was of that before, the administration now wants a diplomatic solution and doesn’t want to go to war. So the big problem is to get Iran to actually negotiate and to take this seriously.

Iran hasn’t been negotiating. When Ali Larijani was dismissed as a negotiator not long ago, there was a lot of press speculation that this was a step back from negotiations. But what was missed was that he wasn’t able to negotiate for some time. If you talk to [the EU’s top foreign policy official] Javier Solana’s people and others who were in the room ostensibly negotiating, he didn’t do any negotiating, he just looked over his shoulder at the minders behind him and there was no negotiation. So Iran has not negotiated in years actually.

You have been immersed in this subject for a long time now. You’ve written about it, and you’ve been critical of Iran’s continuing to enrich, without taking heed of the Security Council resolutions. Do you think the diplomatic strategy is a sound one, or should there be any alterations in it, or are we on a kind of slippery slope here?

I really believe that there is no alternative to a diplomatic strategy, and no one can say if it would be successful. But it’s the only strategy to be pursued. The Iranians haven’t felt the need to negotiate yet because they haven’t felt enough pressure. And they also haven’t seen any kind of potential reward, so they are holding back. I think that the challenge all along has been to bring both increased pressure on Iran and to be much clearer on what the potential benefits to Iran would be.

What do you expect from the Council?

Increasing the pressure would ideally follow from the next round of Security Council resolutions because they bind everybody and are most powerful politically with Iranians who don’t like being looked down upon by the entire Security Council. If that’s not possible, as China is now seen as the major blocker there, then at least it is important to get the European Union as a whole to agree on more sanctions. That would have an effect on the Iranian community in the long term, and would help generate more of a debate in Iran over whether they should continue to not negotiate or to actually get into a negotiation.

I read press statements and commentaries out of Iran and there seems to be a school of thought critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that says Iran is in big trouble and is facing a big security threat and it needs to do something to improve its standing in the world. Others like Ahmadinejad say, “Well, the IAEA report shows that we are completely right and we should just keep on doing what we are doing.” How do you think it’s going to play out?

I think what’s important is how the international community responds and interprets the report. Even on Ahmadinejad’s claims of being vindicated it’s not true, and that should be said. ElBaradei should be clearer because people really, politically, follow his view around the world. But there is a debate in Iran. Just the other day you had the very conservative but highly regarded mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, pound Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue. He was saying: “Of course we should hold the line, of course we should continue enrichment, but we could do this in a way that is much less offensive and would bring much less pain to Iran.” The more pressure that comes on diplomatically, the more people in Iran will step up. Now no one will come out and say, “we should stop enriching forever.” They’re never going to agree to that, but you could at least get into negotiation, and this point seems to be not well made. There hasn’t been a real negotiation for a couple of years now.

Now, the Western powers want a suspension before negotiating with Iran. Should they drop that and just negotiate without a suspension first?

I think that it’s proper to continue to insist on the temporary suspension. But in any case, there are already de facto negotiations that are going on through the EU, through Solana’s office, with other powers. Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone to negotiate with both Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei so there are plenty of opportunities to negotiate if Iran is actually interested. So far, obviously they have been playing it tough, and you’d have to say that in the short term the Iranians feel like they’re playing it well.

Do you think Iran really wants the potential for nuclear weapons?

I think they want the capability to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. I am still not convinced that they have made a decision or have decided that they must make nuclear weapons. I don’t think that’s a foregone conclusion, but I think that they will not give up, in any formal way, their maneuver room over the long term.

Do you think that the United States has overreacted?

No, I don’t think the United States overreacted. I think the United States has practiced very, very ineffective diplomacy with Iran going back to the Clinton administration, and especially in the Bush administration up until about 2005 when it started to improve. Now the big problem is that the administration is trying to clarify that we actually don’t want to go to war, and that we are not making plans, but people do not believe the administration. I know Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael G. Mullen did an interview on that that was about as clear as you can get. He gave this interview a couple of weeks ago that was really stark, talking about there being no military plans and no interest. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made that clear, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was unequivocal. They are really trying to clarify this because it’s really important to get ElBaradei to shift. We have to convince him that we don’t want to go to war and for him to be more constructive, and then to get many of the Europeans and others who don’t trust the United States to work more closely. We have to convince them that this is not a prelude to war, and the administration officials are trying to do that. I believe them. They have a problem that the Vice President every once in a while says something to contradict that.

Do you think Iran would have a better opportunity with a new President in 2009?

They may but I think that’s a really big mistake for a variety of reasons. I try to tell Iranian counterparts when I meet them: “If you look at history for the last 50 years from the Kennedy administration on, new administrations make a big foreign policy blunder early on that usually involves the use of force: Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs, Clinton with Haiti and Somalia, Bush with Iraq.” I say: “You don’t want to be the first big mistake of the next administration. You’re better off dealing with an administration that has already made it’s catastrophic mistake and is trying to do things differently and basically deliver the Republican party.” Whether Iranians think that they are going to have a better opportunity in the future or not, I think it’s a mistake for them to act on that belief.

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