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Takeyh: Security Council Unlikely to Take Strong Action Against Iran

Interviewee: Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 31, 2006

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Ray Takeyh, the CFR's top Iranian expert, says the latest spurt of diplomacy will lead to a discussion in the UN Security Council and more diplomacy, but he doubts that the Security Council will take any action that will lead Iran to pull back from its nuclear program. "The only thing I can say, with some degree of confidence, is that the process the United States has embarked on, the IAEA/Security Council process, is unlikely to generate a significant degree of pressure to fundamentally alter the direction of Iran's nuclear ambitions," Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, says.

Complicating the problem, he says, is what Takeyh calls the "irresponsible" policies followed by the current President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The United States, Britain, France, Russia and China have agreed to report the standoff with Iran to the Security Council for possible action in March. Takeyh says "I think their reaction right now is a typical reaction of Iran, a belligerent, bellicose rhetoric to be followed by more tempered behavior. Today they're talking about the end of diplomacy and so forth, but I suspect they'll come back to negotiations. That doesn't necessarily mean that those negotiations will result in acquiescence, but Iranians will always negotiate."

After a sudden burst of diplomacy, the United States, the European Union-3 [Britain, France, and Germany], Russia, and China have agreed on having a report on Iran's nuclear activity sent to the UN Security Council but no action is likely until March at least, and Iran is very angry about this. What do you make of the situation?

On the one hand it's a success for the United States to get this portfolio transferred. As early as September 2005, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolution stipulated that this issue was in the purview of the Security Council but it didn't specify when it should go to New York. So, this was a further addition to the IAEA process that began in September. It will likely now go to the Security Council and it will sit there for a month while there will be additional diplomacy to try to get everyone back from the precipice.

Discuss the Iranian reaction today.

The Iranians had already said that if this goes to the Security Council, they see no further reason for some of their voluntary cooperation in terms of adherence to additional protocols and so forth. I think their reaction right now is a typical reaction of Iran -- a belligerent, bellicose rhetoric to be followed by more tempered behavior. Today they're talking about the end of diplomacy and so forth, but I suspect they'll come back to negotiations. That doesn't necessarily mean that those negotiations will result in acquiescence, but Iranians will always negotiate.

The Iranians themselves have been negotiating with the Russians on the Russian proposal, which has everyone's approval except the Iranians right now, to have the processing work on uranium done in Russia and perhaps some other countries. Then the processed uranium would be sent back to Iran for work on fuel production. But, why is Iran not agreeing to this offer?

They have had different types of reactions to the Russian deal. Initially, when the Russian deal was proposed they rejected it. Then they agreed to negotiate about it; then they said it was inadequate and put it aside. In the last few days they opportunistically thought it was a good idea and they might like to considerate it. Then [Iran's National Security Council Secretary Ali] Larijani comes back from Moscow and it was inadequate again. So they have had an opportunistic, cynical approach to the Russian deal, much as the Russians did to Iran. The Iranians have always said that all indigenous and nuclear research and processing activities have to take place within the country -- that has been their baseline position. I'm not sure if the Russian deal of outsourcing critical portions of the nuclear program is acceptable to them. But, they have dealt with this in a transparently opportunistic manner.

Let me just cut to the quick here before we go too far along. What is your view today on whether you think Iran really wants a nuclear weapon or not.

Well I always say that it is my view based on the evidence that is at my disposal that Iran intends to have a very sophisticated and advanced nuclear infrastructure that would avail it of the option to assemble a weapon or not. That's as far as you can go. I realize there is a lot of facile speculation and uninformed analysis out there, based more on individual assumptions as opposed to concrete data. But that's as far as you can go. And I suspect that that determination is intact.

Do you think the Iranians at the highest levels know what they want to do down the road?

Iran's diplomacy has always been very good at tactics but not so much on an overall strategic conception. I think like everybody else in this melodrama, whether it's the United States, or Russia, or Britain, Iran is also engaged in a level of improvised theater. Everybody is sort of making it up as they go along, reacting to each other's moves. There does seem to be apparently irreconcilable objectives from the two sides. Iranians are determined to have a domestic enrichment capability and the international community, particularly the United States and the Europeans, are determined to deny them that capability. Those two positions have not come close together as a result of all the diplomacy and the EU-3 negotiations, all the threats of referrals and sanctions, and all the Russian proposals and so on. So although both sides are engaging in a level of improvisation in terms of their diplomacy, their core stated objectives have been surprisingly unaltered.

Even President Bush the other day said Iran is entitled to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, but not weapons. In fact, that's the first time I even heard Bush say that.

I think he said it before.

Why do you think the Europeans have joined with the United States on this issue? What's gotten them so upset at Iran?

Well for one thing, when Iran began negotiating with the EU-3 about two and a half years ago, many within Iran suggested that was a mistake. Because, what happened was it put EU-3's credibility on the line. The one reason why the EU-3 is so animated by this issue -- and frankly the larger European community is as well -- is because of their credibility. The Europeans essentially said to the Americans in October 2003, "Let us handle this our way." And the Americans said, "OK fine. You can handle this issue. We think your diplomatic approach is a flawed one, is a deficient one, but go ahead. See what you can do with it." So Europeans cannot be seen as failing that fundamental test of credibility on a critical disarmament issue. That's one reason why they have been more steadfast and resolute than many had anticipated. Second of all may be the most obvious one: The Europeans are as concerned about Iran's proliferation tendencies as anybody else is. There's a genuine concern regarding proliferation of nuclear technologies for a government whose stance has become much harder in the last couple of months and whose leadership apparently has become much more belligerent and bellicose. So there's a genuine concern regarding a potential threat that this Iranian government poses with such weapons.

I guess if the Iranians were strictly interested in peaceful uses there were many things they could have done differently, right?

Sure. They could have accepted the Russian deal; they could have accepted the European bargains, and so forth. They seem to want not just nuclear energy, but a very advanced, sophisticated capability that could give them nuclear energy and other options. Secondly, the Iranians always say that people always ask them to rely on Russians for this fundamental source of energy -- and they say, "Well, you tell that the Ukrainians." So they don't want to be dependent on anybody.

I see. So that has some intrinsic sense to it. What about on the broader picture. You wrote an op-ed the other day with Charles Kupchan, another CFR Fellow, suggesting that essentially the United States and Iran should talk about Iraq...

What we were trying to suggest, perhaps imperfectly, is that the nuclear issue cannot be resolved by itself. It has to be discussed in a broader context of U.S.-Iran disagreements and relations. And once you begin in an area of a potential agreement between the two sides, namely the future of Iraq, that could essentially alleviate an Iranian security concern and the unintended result of that, would be to diminish its nuclear appetite. So what we're saying is you can't really solve the nuclear issue without discussing the larger set of Iranian security concerns and the larger set of problems between the United States and Iran.

Of course this Iranian government does not seem to be knocking itself out to negotiate with the American government on anything, as far as I can tell.

Well, essentially what we were trying to suggest in the piece as well is that U.S. diplomacy, whatever it is, whether it's coercive or incentive based and engagement based, can not be targeted toward [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. His pathologies are immutable. But by having that broad based comprehensive diplomacy, perhaps you can peel off significant components of the regime and press Iran in the right direction and therefore isolate its rather irresponsible president.

What is going on internally in Iran as far as you can tell right now? The common wisdom from reporters etc. is a national consensus behind this vigorous nuclear program.

The government in Iran has done something quite clever. They essentially have tried to -- with some degree of success -- mobilize national support behind this program. And what they have done is in two segments. One, is a persistent claim by the Iranian government that the United States really doesn't object to our nuclear technology and nuclear infrastructure, they object to the regime. That's what they're upset about. And all this talk about nuclear arms and so forth is just another means of Americans applying pressure on us.

If Americans were so concerned about the spread of nuclear technologies, why aren't they doing anything about Pakistan, India, and so forth? This is not an administration that is concerned about proliferation about nuclear technologies. It's more about the character of our regime. Second, they are saying that -- and it's related to the first position -- no amount of concessions that we make is going to satisfy the United States. My favorite Ahmadinejad quote is, "If you give in on nuclear weapons program, they'll ask about human rights. If you give in on human rights, they'll ask about animal rights." So what he is saying is that there is no end to American demands because the Americans are using the nuclear program as a clever means of multilaterlising their longstanding policy of isolating, pressuring, and undermining Iran. And if that's the intentions of the Americans, why should we make any concessions to begin with? The third point is they have portrayed the demands of the Europeans and the Americans similar to the "capitulation" treaties that were imposed on Iran throughout the twentieth century by the Russians, the British, and to some extent, the Americans. So they're saying this is yet another capitulation treaty imposed on us that denies and tarnishes our national dignity. And that's how they have cleverly tapped into a historical sentiment by the Iranian people that they've often been mistreated by great powers.

Remind me what a capitulation treaty is.

The capitulation treaties were the sort of treaties that were imposed on China; namely that the great powers impose agreements on a country that is beneficial strictly to them and tends to be exploitive and abusive of that country.

And there's a history of this with Iran?

Yes, there certainly is. Certainly it was during the British times in the early twentieth century when the British were an exploitive, semi-colonial power expropriating Iran's oil wealth for their own national industrial benefit. And even once the United States displaced Britain as a great power, it imposed certain demand on Iran such as the fact that American military personal living in Iran would not be subject to Iranian law should they engage in any sort of illegal activities or malfeasance of sorts.

Because that's universal for the U.S.?

And it's universally objectionable.

On Iraq, of course that's a very sensitive issue right now. It's not clear to me whether Iran is helpful or is really working hard to undercut the United States in Iraq. What do you sense?

It's a complicated and most likely, mixed picture. To some extent Iranian and American objectives in Iraq have coincided despite the two powers; in a sense that the Americans want the democratic process to move forward and so do Iranians because they recognize such a process benefits the Shiite majority. The Americans want Iraq to remain territorially in tact and so do Iranians because they don't want fragmentation of Iraq which could lead to instability through out the region. The Americans want to prevent any sort of a restoration of Baathist power or Sunni monopoly of power; Iranians certainly share that given the fact that they have had tense relationships with Sunni governments of Iraq dating back to Iraq's independence, certainly after the 1958 Iraqi revolution that brought the republicans and Baathists to power. So there's sort of a peculiar coincidence of interests, maybe for a different set of reasons, but the two powers have shared some objectives. And Iranians have actually been urging and assisting the process of reconstruction in Iraq in a sense that the success and stability of the Shiite government is in their own parochial interests.

Which segment of the Shiites do they tend to support? Because the Shiites in Iraq are divided themselves?

They tend to support the more religious based parties like the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution and the Dawa party and those tend to be the most organized within the Shiite community and they have a dominant seat in the new Iraqi government. So again they have benefited from the fact that those they have affiliated with are the best organized and best mobilized segment of the Shiite community to the point of actually dominating it. That may change over time, but at this stage it's where it stands.

Let's conclude by giving you the opportunity to predict what's going to happen by the end of March.

The only thing I can say, with some degree of confidence, is that the process the United States has embarked on -- the IAEA /Security Council process -- is unlikely to generate a significant degree of pressure to fundamentally alter the direction of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

That gives the U.S. the choice of just living with it or doing something about it. And I guess that's a very tough decision in Washington.

It's not a decision they have to make now, but they will get to that point.

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