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Takeyh: New Talks Unlikely to Produce Agreement to Curtail Iranís Nuclear Program

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 21, 2005

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Ray Takeyh, the Council's top expert on Iran, says that the latest round of diplomatic talks between Iran and Britain, France and Germany—representing the European Union—are unlikely to produce any agreement on curtailing Iran's nuclear program. In fact, Takeyh says the EU side, backed by the United States, is hoping "the Iranians would reject" any proposals such as having uranium reprocessing work done in Russia. If Iran does, he says the hope is "perhaps the Russians would support a referral of Iran's portfolio to the Security Council for some kind of punitive pressure. So these negotiations are more aimed at Russia than they are at Iran, from the perspective of the Europeans and the Americans."

He says that from Iran's perspective, "These are negotiations designed not so much to resolve the issue in a conclusive manner, but perhaps to once again cause some degree of division within the international community and prevent a referral of Iran's portfolio to the Security Council, because you can say that Iran is in the process of negotiations and discussions, and therefore referral is no longer necessary at this time."

As to Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose nationalist comments have aroused concern at home and abroad, Takeyh says the luster is already off his image at home. He says Ahmadinejad is in the tradition of all of Iran's post-revolutionary presidents, whose powers are so limited that each has disappointed.

Takeyh was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on December 21, 2005.

The latest round of diplomatic talks between Britain, France and Germany, representing the European Union, and Iran are beginning today, and they will probably go on for a while. What is the general atmosphere? Is there much likelihood of progress in getting Iran to agree to curtail its nuclear program in any way?

No, not particularly. The atmosphere is chilly and these are not necessarily negotiations. They're negotiations about negotiations for a framework and the issues that would be discussed in any forthcoming rounds. But it's interesting from the perspective of both sides, I think, that these negotiations are designed not necessarily to resolve Iran's nuclear issue, but to garner a consensus among the international community for other measures. I think the Europeans and the Americans, behind the scenes, are engaging in these negotiations in the hope that the Iranians would reject them and, in effect, reject the Russian offer that accompanies them. Therefore in subsequent rounds of International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] meetings perhaps the Russians would support a referral of Iran's portfolio to the Security Council for some kind of punitive pressure. So these negotiations are more aimed at Russia than they are at Iran, from the perspective of the Europeans and the Americans.

From the perspective of Iranians, these are negotiations designed not so much to resolve the issue in a conclusive manner, but perhaps to once again cause some degree of division within the international community, and prevent a referral of Iran's portfolio to the Security Council, because you can say that Iran is in the process of negotiations and discussions and therefore referral is no longer necessary at this time. The important point is neither side is going into these negotiations with the hope of resolving the issue actually on the table.

The important point is neither side is going into these negotiations with the hope of resolving the issue actually on the table.

I understand. When we talked last in November, the Russian proposal was just surfacing. Could you discuss the details of that again, and what Iran's objections have been to it so far?

Well, there are some ambiguities about it. I'm not quite sure if there is a Russian proposal per se. I think there is a set of Russian ideas. They essentially entail conducting part of Iran's more sensitive fuel cycle activities on Russian territory. Mainly, Iran can mine for uranium and even produce yellowcake, but then that would be transferred to Russian plants partly owned by Iran in Russia, where it would be enriched into uranium and brought back to Iran for use for energy purposes. So the essential enrichment of the uranium would take place outside the territory of Iran.

And then the fuel rods that are produced would be sent back to Russia?

Yes, that's right.

I see. And Iran's objections to this are that they don't want to depend on some other country?

Well, Iran's objections are twofold. First, as you mentioned, this is a sensitive national issue and they're not going to be dependent on external powers for their domestic energy purposes. Second of all, they suggest that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] does grant countries—at least implicitly—the right to conduct uranium enrichment activities on their territory, to complete a fuel cycle, and to do so under the safeguards and the inspection processes of the IAEA. This essentially constitutes a relinquishment of the treaty rights, which they're unprepared to do.

Well, now what are the IAEA's problems with Iran? Are they not getting the access they say they're entitled to?

The IAEA is in a very difficult position because all the IAEA is, is an inspection arm of the United Nations. It conducts inspections. It visits facilities to make sure a member state is in compliance with its nuclear non-proliferation obligation. The IAEA complains Iran has had a lack of transparency, a lack of timely response by Iran to IAEA queries, and has prevented the inspectors from visiting various facilities.

Yet at the same time, the IAEA has suggested that although the level of cooperation should be improved, there is a level of cooperation and the inspectors are going about their business. At this point, the IAEA satisfies neither party. For the United States and others who want to see Iran referred to the Security Council, the IAEA is suggesting that, at this particular point, there is no evidence Iran has misused its nuclear resources for military purposes. Yet at the same time, the IAEA doesn't satisfy the Iranians, because the Iranians are saying after two and a half years of inspections the IAEA should conclude its inspections and once and for all suggest conclusively that Iran is in compliance with its obligations and therefore should be given a clean bill. So the IAEA is in the middle, satisfying neither side.

Now, since the middle of the year, we've had a new president in Iran [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] and he has come into power with a very nationalistic, I guess you'd have to say, extremely conservative ideology similar to that of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979, of whom he was a young follower. Do you get the impression that he and his associates feel that Iran really needs to have nuclear weapons to protect itself?

I can't say with any conclusive determination that that is what is happening. I think you can try to piece together circumstantial evidence. As I have said, the background of the new president and his supporters lay in the war with Iraq in the 1980s, and that war has conditioned their ideology, their strategic perspective, and their perception of national requirements. Among the lessons learned during the war were: Iran requires a credible deterrent capability and a credibility retaliatory capability, and Iran cannot rely on international opinion and international treaties to safeguard its essential national interests. It has to be self-reliant; it has to be self-sufficient. That particular philosophy makes acquisition of nuclear arms more plausible than not.

And I guess the rash statements he's been making lately have added a sense of urgency in the West to finding a way to deal with this question.

Sure. Now, why are those statements being made at this point? Again, this is Iran, so everything you say is speculative and tentative. Number one, he always said during his campaign and subsequently, that we should go back to the roots of the revolution, and among the ideological pillars of the revolution is a rejection of Israel, asserting it is "an illegitimate state" that should not exist. But beyond that there are some domestic political calculations as well. I think one of the things that happened during the past several months is an attempt by the elders of the revolution to restrain Ahmadinejad, and this is his way of actually trying to put them on the defensive by invoking themes that the Ayatollah Khomeini pursued. Perhaps the third set of reasons why he's making the statements that he's making is to actually scuttle the negotiations that are resuming in Vienna. So it's a combination of ideological predilection for domestic political considerations that tends to guide him, I suspect.

Well, I noticed just the other day he ordered that state radio and television stop playing western music. That was one of those irritants that have no real bite in them, since I gather Iranian youth play western music all the time.

Yes, I think state radio has played western music as instrumentals like elevator music, not so much in regular programming.

But that's part of the old ideology, yes?

Yes, that's going back to the roots of the revolution.

You know, it seems to many people that everything he says seems consistent with a sense of "revanchism" in Iran, that they want to make up for what happened in the Iraq-Iran war and create a much tougher military including a nuclear component.

Yes. If your defining experience was eight years in a warfront, that will do that to you. If you perceived that the country as a whole has moved on in unimportant ways since the war, and [has forgotten] its memories and symbolism, and if you think in national security planning there is a lack of sufficient attention paid to the lessons of the war, then that's not an unusual development. Everything Ahmadinejad has said would tend to be viewed as sort of a religious orthodoxy, but when you read his speeches in a consistent way, it's not so much religious, it's very strident nationalism: Iran's rights, Iran's national obligations, Iran's national prestige are all defended, not so much in a religiously guided manner. There is a lot of nationalism, there is a lot of north-south divide with the capitalists transgressing against the developing world.

At one time before these elections you thought it would be very useful for the United States to have a general dialogue with Iran on all the questions before the two countries, but I guess there is really no chance of that now, is there?

No. I don't think there is an inclination on the part of the United States or the Iranian regime. I thought then, as I do now, that probably the only manner of addressing Iran's nuclear portfolio in a significant way would be to have the same sort of negotiating framework the United States has with the North Koreans, a sort of six-party talk framework, which in this case I guess, would be seven: the United States, China, Russia, the EU three, and Iran, and sort of approach Iran as a unified group, but also with a greater degree of concessions and compromises from the United States. That might make an impression on Iran's nuclear deliberations, it might not. But the current round of diplomacy with its set of incentives, which from the Iranian perspective are inadequate, and its set of threats, which from Iranian perspective are insignificant, is unlikely to do the trick.

What about Iran's attitude toward Iraq right now? I guess Iran's been very involved with what is going on in southern Iraq right now.

Sure, and elsewhere in Iraq.

I see U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was authorized to meet with Iranians on this subject. I don't know if he has or not.

I'm not sure what is happening with that. Iranians rejected that offer. But that doesn't necessarily mean negotiations and discussions won't take place. Whenever there is an offer of discussions and negotiations, there is a reflexive Iranian rejection of it, and then [there are] negotiations about negotiations and then maybe negotiations.

How do you gauge Ahmadinejad's popularity in Iran now, six months after his election?

I think he's experiencing what every Iranian president in the postwar period -- Rafsanjani, Mohammed Khatami -- has experienced. There is great anticipation and hope when a new president is elected, but then when the reality sets in and he's incapable of realizing his promises, then the luster comes off and the popularity begins to wane. It happened to Hashemi Rafsanjani when he came into power in 1989 pledging reconstruction, which led to a great degree of corruption and mismanagement. It happened to Khatami when he came in calling for political reform and democratic rights, and once again you saw the process of reforms stalled and eventually collapsed. It's happening to Ahmadinejad: he came in calling for economic justice and redistribution of wealth, and once again you begin to see the poor are not as rewarded and the middle class remains hard-pressed.

In a sense, what is happening to him is not that unique compared to the fate of presidents Iran has had, at least since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, when internal concerns, as opposed to external aggression, became the principal area of concern for the electorate. That, to me, seems to suggest that no Iranian president can break through a system designed to produce a stalemate.

And that's because of the veto power of the clerics?

Well, there is veto power, there are so many checks and balances, the system is so disorganized, so messy, that it's just hard to get things done. It was constitutionally designed to produce a lack of results.

This is the Khomeini constitution?

Yes, the system has to be streamlined [and] rationalized. There are too many competing centers of power and so on and so forth, and some of it is [Ahmedinejad's] own failings, his lack of economic planning, his lack of understanding that his rhetoric does have an impact in terms of international investors' confidence in his country. Some of the problems Iran is having in terms of its nuclear portfolio have scared off investors, particularly investment that Iran requires in order to rehabilitate its oil infrastructure and so on. So it's a combination of his own activities, and of just what generally happens to Iranian presidents when they actually assume power and begin to realize that they're incapable of achieving some of their campaign promises.

Did he ever get an oil minister approved after several were rejected as incompetent?

Yes, he did. He got an oil minister approved. The parliament approved him with a pretty good margin, as well. The individual, Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, seems to more of a technocrat and more competent, but you know, we'll see.

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