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Why Iran Talks Will Continue

Interviewee: Richard A. Falkenrath, Shelby Cullom and Kathryn W. Davis Adjunct Senior Fellow for Counterterrorism and Homeland Security
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
June 1, 2012

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After two rounds of talks with Iran--in Istanbul in April and in Baghdad in May--the major world powers are set for a third round of negotiations in Moscow in mid-June to curtail Tehran's nuclear program. But "the most that can be said about this exercise is that the two sides are talking at all," says CFR's Richard A. Falkenrath. "In the eyes of many, that itself is an achievement and a good thing, but there are dissenting views." Negotiations--even if they aren't yielding an agreement--defuse international tensions, lower the price of oil, and make less likely a military engagement with Iran, says Falkenrath, who adds that the Obama administration is keen to avoid such an engagement, especially in the midst of a reelection campaign.

Can you sum up the results of these talks between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany?

The results from each round of talks have been to hold another round of talks, and that is about it. There is really no convergence on the substance, and the most that can be said about this exercise is that the two sides are talking at all. And in the eyes of many, that itself is an achievement and a good thing, but there are dissenting views. So, the essential achievement is that they are talking. There have been years when they haven't talked at all while the Iranian nuclear program proceeded apace; now, at least they are having a dialogue about it.

After the first round, some people were somewhat hopeful, I guess just because, as you said, they agreed to have a second round.

That's right. There was a fear that the Iranians would just push away from the table again, as they had in the past. They had threatened to do so, and let it be known that they might, but they didn't, and they showed up for the second round in Baghdad. Now they'll have a third round in Moscow in the middle of June.

What are the major powers seeking?

The major powers are on record, via UN Security Council Resolution 1696 of 2006, demanding that Iran cease all enrichment operations for uranium. That policy, embodied in the Security Council resolution, has been rejected by Iran. Short of a cessation of enrichment operations entirely, there are a number of scenarios being talked about in Western diplomatic circles that could be considered. The one that reportedly was proposed to the Iranian negotiators in Baghdad was that Iran would be permitted to continue some enrichment operations, but that the low-enriched and medium-enriched uranium that they produce would be removed from Iran and taken to other countries. The Iranians in Baghdad rejected that proposal categorically.

What about this idea that's been kicked around that Iran just had to give up producing 20 percent enriched uranium, that as long as they kept at 3 or 5 percent enrichment, that would be okay?

"Given the current differences of political opinion among the major powers of the United Nations Security Council, it's quite a feat that Russia and China and France, Britain, and the United States and the European Union actually agree on the basic premise, and have been willing to sign up to Security Council resolutions calling for a cessation of enrichment."

To the best of our knowledge, this was not actually proposed by the international community in its talks with Iran. But the idea here is that enrichment of uranium is a sort of sliding scale. In order to get to the material necessary to produce a nuclear weapon, you have to get to about 90 percent enrichment levels--which means that for a given quantity of uranium, 90 percent of it is the U-235 isotope. Iran is currently producing medium-enriched uranium, that is, uranium enriched up to the level of 20 percent, which is not useful for making bombs; it's not highly enriched enough. And so one thought would be: Let's just cap the enrichment level that Iran is permitted to enrich to, and that would be an achievement. That is a controversial idea. In my personal opinion, it would not, in fact, delay Iran's eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons by a significant degree.

In a recent interview, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is quoted saying he does not expect the Moscow talks to produce any major breakthroughs. He said, "We are not expecting miracles at the next meeting." He said Tehran had good proposals but would only announce them when the time was right, and that both sides had to work to restore confidence. What is he talking about?

His basic point, which is that he is not expecting any major breakthrough at the Moscow round of talks, is widely shared; no one expects a breakthrough, which is defined as Iranian convergence to the position of the United Nations Security Council. That's just not going to happen. By having talks at all, there is a certain defusing of international tension. It feels like the possibility of an Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear complex is reduced; there's a calming effect on the oil market; it's not an issue that's front-and-center in the U.S. presidential race to the same degree that it would be if there were an active military conflict, and the talks themselves have a sort of distracting, calming effect. There is no doubt that Iranian negotiators will seek that, and they will make a variety of different proposals that will avoid meeting the Western demand of a cessation of enrichment operations. [They] will seek to put their agenda forward, which is regional disarmament, security guarantees, and an alleviation of sanctions. And that is something the international community is quite unlikely to agree to.

Because Iran is not willing to cease its uranium work?

Any commitment, any agreement to cease or constrain enrichment operations by an Iranian government would be perceived as an affront to Iranian sovereignty. That rhetorical posturing is very consistent and very deeply ingrained in the Iranian government and the Iranian elite, making it difficult for any Iranian leadership--the current or some future leadership--to ever commit to a cessation of enrichment.

Many countries enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. Iran officially says it wants to enrich uranium for power production. Everyone doubts that because Iran is such a big oil producer.

"If there was one fact really propelling these negotiations along, it is on the one hand an American desire to avoid a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, which would embroil the United States in the conflict necessarily, and an Iranian desire to alleviate the economic sanctions."

That's not the only reason people doubt it. The other reason is that they lied and deceived the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the international community as they secretly acquired the centrifuges, which they are currently operating to enrich the uranium. It's that decade-long record of deception, which is now extremely well documented, that has really transformed this issue and unified the international community against Iran, leaving Iran quite isolated diplomatically. Given the current differences of political opinion among the major powers of the United Nations Security Council, it's quite a feat that Russia and China and France, Britain, and the United States and the European Union actually agree on the basic premise, and have been willing to sign up to Security Council resolutions calling for a cessation of enrichment. And the only reason they were willing to do that is because of this incontrovertible record of Iranian deception with respect to its operations of enrichment capabilities.

To your second question, though-- is there any way to stop it--there is only one absolute physical barrier to the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, and that is possession of fissile material, namely, highly enriched uranium or separated plutonium. The only way to say with confidence that a country cannot acquire a nuclear weapon in a very short period of time is to say with confidence that they do not have fissile material.

As you point out, it is unusual, given the tensions between Russia and the United States over Syria, to have them in agreement on Iran, which is of course Syria's closest ally in the Middle East.

That's correct. It is a fragile consensus among France, Britain, Germany, the United States, and Russia and China, but it is nonetheless a consensus.

The sanctions Iran seems most concerned about are oil sanctions, which the European Union is supposed to put in effect in July. Is there any sign that China, a big importer of Iranian oil, will also go along with these sanctions?

Not really. And it isn't just the sanctions on the oil industry, it's also the sanctions on Iran's Central Bank that matter a great deal. But China's enthusiasm for these sanctions has diminished a bit, and there's some evidence that China and Chinese companies are assisting Iranian companies in circumventing the European Union and the United States' unilateral sanctions. In this fragile coalition of states negotiating with Iran at the current time, there are varying degrees of willingness to become coercive in their diplomatic approach to Iran. The United States and several of the European countries are much more willing to be coercive and to use a lot of sanctions as an instrument of diplomacy--Russia and China less so. The Syrian crisis complicates it even further.

Israel has been closely watching these negotiations, and I'm sure they've been briefed solidly by the United States. The U.S. ambassador to Israel is a former member of the national security team in the United States, Dan Shapiro, and he says the window for Iran nuclear talks is closing. Do you think he's speaking for the United States or just for himself right now?

I don't know. People have been saying that this window is closing for a very long time. At the end of the day, whether Israel decides to strike unilaterally, militarily, the Iranian nuclear complex is up to Israel, and in fact up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and almost no one else. I have no particular insight into what's going on in his mind. The state of Israel has done this twice before, which is launch unprovoked air strikes against nuclear complexes in neighboring states--first against Iraq in 1981 and then against the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007--so they can do it again, there's no question. But there's also no question the international community would condemn that, does not want that to happen, and in fact, the Obama administration has been quite clear in multiple settings to say to the Israel government: Do not do this. If there was one fact really propelling these negotiations along, it is on the one hand an American desire to avoid a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran, which would embroil the United States in the conflict necessarily, and an Iranian desire to alleviate the economic sanctions. Those are the two factors that are driving these negotiations, despite the fact that the possibility of a deal is remote.

So you think there'll be yet another round after Moscow?

Yes. Unless someone really decides to draw a line in the sand, it's in their interest to keep going. The United States government and the Obama administration don't want a crisis on their hands in the run-up to a presidential election. They don't want an Israeli military strike against Iran--they've made that really clear to Israel--and on the Iranian side, they don't want to be attacked, and these sanctions are hurting and they'd like to see them lifted. [The Iranians] are really quite isolated in the diplomatic sense, and by talking, they maximize their chances of splitting off Russia and China from the United States and the European Union.

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