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Shifting Tactics in Talks With Tehran

Interviewee: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, Arms Control Association
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
March 1, 2013

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Having just concluded two days of negotiations in Kazakhstan, Iran, and the P5+1 powers--the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China, and Germany--have agreed to resume negotiations in Almaty this April. Daryl G. Kimball, a leading arms control expert, says that the agreement to resume talks so quickly is "very positive" but that the "process will become a success when and if Iran agrees to commit its nuclear program in a meaningful, verifiable way, ruling out nuclear weapons." One of the problems, he says, is that "the Iranians don't want to make concessions first. They want to see sanctions relief before they compromise on their program." The major powers "justifiably are not going to ease up on the very tough sanctions that are now in place, which are hurting Iran, until it takes tangible, concrete measures to commit to limits on the 20 percent enrichment of uranium."

The P5+1 group concluded two days of talks in Almaty with the Iranians, trying to curtail its nuclear program. The Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili, called the meeting "a positive step," but the Western spokesmen were more reserved. What's your impression about these negotiations?

I think the Almaty round produced what we might expect, which is revised offers and exchanges of ideas. No one would have expected a breakthrough in these talks. It's been almost eight months since the last round; we've been negotiating about the Iranian nuclear crisis for ten years. So knowledgeable people understand that progress is only going to be achieved through serious, sustained negotiations, and it's very positive that the two sides agreed to an expert-level round of discussions in Istanbul on March 18 and another political-level round in Almaty on April 5-6. The Iranians summarized the talks as "positive," while the P5+1 said they were "useful." I would agree that they're only useful because we still don't have a tangible outcome. This process will become a success when and if Iran agrees to commit its nuclear program in a meaningful, verifiable way, ruling out nuclear weapons.

Iran keeps insisting it doesn't want nuclear weapons, so why doesn't it agree to the major powers' proposals, which are aimed at allowing Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program but limiting the amount of enriched uranium they can produce that might be used for a bomb?

That's a good question. What we have here is a situation in which the Iranians don't want to make concessions first. They want to see sanctions relief before they compromise on their program. The P5+1 justifiably isn't going to ease up on the very tough sanctions that are now in place, which are hurting Iran, until it takes tangible, concrete measures to commit to limits on the 20 percent enrichment of uranium. So what the two sides need is a combination of step-by-step measures that gives each side what you can call a step forward.

There are two upcoming dates that interest me: One is the next negotiating round in Almaty this April, soon after Nowruz, the Iranian New Year [March 21], and then the Iranian presidential elections that are scheduled for June 14. Do these factor into the negotiations?

It's significant that the Iranians agreed to another round of talks even though they do have this complicated domestic political situation with the elections coming up, which overlaps with their religious holiday season. But beyond that, I'm not quite sure what kind of meaning it carries. What's important from our perspective is that the process is continuing at a relatively fast clip. We're not waiting another eight months before the next meeting.

How would the P5+1 group like to see the negotiation evolve?

What the P5+1 is aiming for right now is to achieve limits on the most urgent proliferation-sensitive activities, which are the continuing production of 20 percent enriched uranium and the storage of that material taking place at the underground Fordow enrichment plant. They see limiting that enrichment as a step toward a broader, more comprehensive deal that limits Iran to enrichment at the 5 percent level.

The P5+1 is also looking for extensive verification measures to make sure Iran is not pursuing a clandestine program. And they're willing to offer certain inducements, including the provision of fuel for the Tehran medical research reactor, which is the ostensible reason why Iran is producing 20 percent material. The major powers are willing to ease some sanctions to encourage the Iranians to take this step of suspending 20 percent enrichment. So that's the focus right now. We're in a situation today that is very different than the situation in Iran even five years ago.

Why is that?

We're no longer seeking a complete and permanent suspension of all Iranian enrichment activities. And the reason is that that is not a realistic or practical option anymore. Iran, unfortunately, has too many centrifuges in place. They've made a big political, economic, and financial investment in them, and they're no longer willing to negotiate that away. Now it's vital that we prevent Iran from pursuing the most dangerous activity, which is enrichment at higher levels so that it could achieve a breakout capacity if it were to pursue the bomb.

One of the criticisms of the administration's position is that this is the sort of policy that it pursued with North Korea, and North Korea now has tested nuclear devices. It has not been deterred. And the fear is that all this negotiation will end up with a nuclear explosion in Iran. Do you think this is far-fetched, or do you think there is some legitimacy to this criticism?

"We have to face reality that sanctions can slow the Iranian nuclear program, but they cannot and will not stop it."

There are some parallels, but there are certain truths that are self-evident, that we all need to keep in mind, which the critics of a diplomatic solution often ignore. The first is that sanctions alone cannot and have not completely stopped Iran's nuclear pursuits. We have in place the most extensive, painful, most widely supported sanctions in place against Iran, and yet Iran is still unfortunately making progress with respect to its centrifuges. We have to face reality that sanctions can slow the Iranian nuclear program, but they cannot and will not stop it. Second, the other reality is that military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities are certainly an option, but not a good option, mainly because that can only delay Iran's nuclear program by maybe three or four years, and it would certainly lead Iran to openly pursue nuclear weapons. And it would solidify the support of the people of Iran around the otherwise unpopular, corrupt regime.

"This is the year in which the United States needs to use all the elements of national power and diplomacy to try to affect an arrangement that holds back Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons line."

So diplomacy is extremely difficult, but it's the best option on the table. And it's clear that a deal is within reach if the two sides can see the benefits of reaching one. The other criticism that you didn't mention about talks is that, somehow, talking with the Iranians in the P5+1 context gives Iran a rationale to pursue the bomb. The reality is that Iran is doing what is doing: It's putting more centrifuges at Natanz; it's putting more sophisticated centrifuges in place; it's building a heavy water reactor--whether or not we sit down and talk with the Iranians. The sanctions that are currently in place will remain in place and will have an effect on the Iranian calculation until and unless the Iranians take concrete steps to curtail those activities. So this is the year in which the United States needs to use all the elements of national power and diplomacy to try to effect an arrangement that holds back Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons line.

Last year, many Israelis were constantly warning about the imminence of a nuclear weapon in Iran and a possible military strike. Prime Minister Netanyahu was critical of the talks in Almaty yesterday. And President Obama is making his first visit as president to Israel later in March. How important do you think these talks will be between the Israeli and American leaders?

"The reality is that, from the U.S. perspective, having enough enriched material for one bomb is not necessarily a good automatic trigger for going to war."

It's very important that the United States and Israel are more closely aligned in their efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been out of step with most of the international community about how urgent the Iranian threat is. The so-called "red line" that Netanyahu laid out last fall in his UN General Assembly speech seemed to identify the accumulation of enough 20 percent enriched material, if further enriched, for one bomb to be a red line that should prompt military action. The reality is that, from the U.S. perspective, having enough enriched material for one bomb is not necessarily a good automatic trigger for going to war.

What has happened in the last few weeks and months is that the Israelis have come to recognize that the U.S. approach to evaluating the Iranian threat is perhaps more pragmatic. The Israelis are also recognizing that Iran has, for reasons that are not entirely clear, not continued to accumulate that 20 percent enriched material to the point that they have enough for even one bomb. That's one reason why we've seen a scaling back of some of the rhetoric from Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Israel will continue to try to make this threat of military action credible. They believe that can help change Iran's calculations and make it more inclined to agree to some of the rules on the table from the P5+1. But we do have to be aware that if threats are coming from Israel, it may in fact embolden Iran's leaders to defy the P5+1. It's hard to calculate and it's hard to understand how some of these public threats affect the thinking of the Supreme Leader and those inside Iran, especially as they move through this election season.

How close is Iran to having enough enriched uranium to make a bomb?

"The Iranians are still years away from having a deliverable, effective nuclear arsenal if they choose to go in that direction."

They have a large quantity of low-enriched material that they have been accumulating for some time; they also have about half the amount they need of 20 percent material that could, if enriched to bomb-grade, be enough to produce one nuclear device. That amount is generally considered to be 250 kilograms of material. They have now 167 kilograms. And we also have to remember that one nuclear device does not an arsenal make.

The Iranians are still years away from having a deliverable, effective nuclear arsenal if they choose to go in that direction.

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