Media Conference Call: Ray Takeyh and James Lindsay Discuss Iran, Nonproliferation (Audio)

Media Conference Call: Ray Takeyh and James Lindsay Discuss Iran, Nonproliferation (Audio)

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


BERNARD GWERTZMAN:  Welcome, all, to the latest call-in show.  And we have as guests today James M. Lindsay, who's director of studies for the Council on Foreign Relations, and Ray Takeyh, who is the sort of reigning Iranian expert in the council.  In fact, Ray briefly was in the State Department working on Iranian affairs recently.

And I'd like to -- we're going to talk about this whole dilemma of Iran's nuclear potential.  Clearly Iran has been enriching uranium, it says for peaceful uses only.  The Western countries have been concerned that this enrichment could easily be turned into a nuclear bomb.  And as a result, the group of nations that have been negotiating with Iran on and off -- that is, the Security Council veto powers plus Germany -- are going to meet this week at the -- on the  sidelines of the General Assembly to discuss what to do when they meet with Iran on October 1st.

And meanwhile, President Obama is in the chair because the U.S. is the head of the Security Council the month of September, and he's going to have a special meeting on Thursday to discuss nuclear disarmament.

I'd like to start by posing a question to Ray.  How likely is it that -- how likely do you think it is that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon?  Or is it inclined to produce a nuclear weapon?

RAY TAKEYH:  I mean, technically, if they take the existing accumulated enriched uranium that they have, which is low enriched, they would have to put that into several processes in order to make it a highly enriched uranium suitable for weapon use.  That's a process that will take (six to eight ?) months.  And in a safeguarded facility, that's a process that will be detected.  So it's not sufficient for a sort of a sneak-out capability.  And so that's not the avenue they're likely to go if they're going to try to manufacture a bomb.  I suspect they will want to enlarge their facilities and accumulate much more so you can gradually kind of divert fuel from safeguarded facilities, even if that's possible.

Now, this is not to talk about any potential sort of covert facilities, and the size and scope of those, of course, is unknown.

Does the country have motivation for weapon use?  I mean, there's some -- supposedly some annex of an IAEA report that suggests there's evidence in terms of weaponization testing, in terms of missile development, that suggests there is a nuclear weapons motivation to this particular program.

GWERTZMAN:  And yet the U.S. intelligence agencies have been saying now for the last three years that Iran, to their knowledge, stopped working on military development back in 2003.

TAKEYH:  I think what they're talking about is it has stopped doing research on weaponization since 2003.  And frankly, there was no reason for them to conduct that research, given the fact that they don't have sufficient infrastructure to produce the necessary wherewithal for a nuclear weapon.

The toughest thing to do, in terms of getting a nuclear weapon, would be to have sort of an infrastructure for enriching uranium, at high levels, at sort of an expeditious speed.  And then there's the engineering aspect of it, of actually putting this material on a warhead.

I think it's that aspect of the program that has been suspended since 2003.


Jim, you know, would you like to talk?  I'm a little fuzzy myself.  And I'd really like some enlightenment what it is that President Obama wants to really talk about, in this one-day meeting on Thursday at the Security Council.

JAMES M. LINDSAY:  Certainly, Bernie.

The purpose of this meeting is to do some high-level prep work for the upcoming meeting, on October 1st, with the United States and the entire P-5 plus one, the one being Germany, the one non-permanent member of the Security Council.

GWERTZMAN:  Is that right?  I thought this was going to be on a higher level, just about nuclear nonproliferation.

(Cross talk.)

LINDSAY:  I'm sorry.

GWERTZMAN:  Are we talking about different meetings?  I think so.

LINDSAY:  I thought you were tying this to the Iran case.

No.  I mean, are you referring to Thursday with the --

GWERTZMAN:  I was talking about Thursday with the Security Council.

LINDSAY:  Okay, Thursday with the U.N. Security Council.

GWERTZMAN:  Yeah, right.


President Obama is going to become the first American president to chair a meeting of the Security Council.  They're going to talk about disarmament writ large.  The desire is to pass a resolution that lays down some markers for strengthening the international nonproliferation regime.

This is part of President Obama's long-standing desire to want to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and really jumpstart once again the disarmament process.  The president spoke about this in the campaign. He gave a very eloquent speech, in Prague back in April, in which he once again outlined his vision of a world without nuclear weapons.

And in the short term, what the administration is trying to do is to reinvigorate the bargain that had existed at the heart of the NPT, Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is that countries that don't have nuclear weapons pledge not to obtain them and countries that do have nuclear weapons pledge to reduce and eventually get rid of their nuclear weapons.

And in many ways, the pronouncements by the Obama administration are unremarkable.  What makes them remarkable is because of the very different approach that the George W. Bush administration took, to these issues, between 2001 and 2008.

One of the key things in the resolution that everyone expects will pass on Thursday from the U.N. Security Council is a provision that says that countries that belong to the NPT cannot opt out; that is, they cannot abide by NPT regulations during the pursuit of peaceful uses of nuclear weapons (sic) and then, when they get well down the nuclear road, opt out and develop their weapons programs. This is clearly aimed at Iran.

Looking further down the road, as you know, Washington is going to host the NPT review conference next spring, and the president's hoping to gain some momentum toward that conference, hoping it will be successful.  And lurking in the background is the question of eventually whether his administration is going to seek to persuade Congress -- or ask Congress to reconsider providing its advice and consent to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Clinton administration brought to the floor of the Senate in the late 1990s and the Senate voted down.

GWERTZMAN:  Yeah, I know -- that Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, of course, all arms control specialists want to see passed -- or ratified by the Senate.  But it's going to take a lot of arm- twisting, I suspect.

LINDSAY:  Yeah.  Well, actually, one of the opening questions is how much political capital President Obama wants to invest in his disarmament agenda.  I mean, he has -- sort of one big question is how successful he's going to be on the domestic front, and can he do well enough there to sustain the sort of losses in public support we have seen in the opinion polls.

But even within the area of foreign policy, one of the, you know, rules of thumb in the White House is you can only do so many issues at a time.  And disarmament is one -- an issue I think is close to the president's heart, but right now, he faces very difficult decisions about Afghanistan, about Pakistan --

GWERTZMAN:  The Middle East, yeah.  Yeah.

LINDSAY:  The Middle East.  And you know, it's -- you know, you're tempted to say, well, they're all important problems; you should try to do them all at once.  But the reality of life in Washington is that, if you don't pick priorities, you end up in a great deal of trouble.

GWERTZMAN:  Before we turn it over to our people on line, Ray, what do you think the Five-plus-one nations will decide as far as sanctions go?  I realize it's a way to go, because they still have to meet with Iran on October 1st.

But if nothing much happens, which I expect you probably think won't happen -- what -- let me not put words in your mouth.  What do you think will happen on October 1st?

TAKEYH:  I suspect it will be a rather -- an inconclusive meeting in the sense that the two sides are unlikely to make significant progress, or perhaps any progress.


TAKEYH:  After that, I think the plan is to try to move toward some sort of a multilateral sanctions regime.  There's been all the preparation work done on that.  I'm sort of skeptical whether that sort of a robust multilateral regime can come into existence.  I mean, you saw the comments by the French foreign minister today.

GWERTZMAN:  Yes, that he doesn't want to have a ban on gasoline imports.

TAKEYH:  On gasoline imports.  And you know, so there'd be some considerable degree of disagreement among the five plus one about what kind of a sanctions regime to contemplate, much less to devise. And I suspect at the end of that you may end up with a fairly weak regime through United Nations and through the five-plus-one process.

Now, there's two types of sanctions:  those who are considered within the context of the Security Council and those who are sort of a coalition of willing, namely the United States and principally the Europeans.  And they tend to be more for financial prohibitions, namely kind of restricting Iran's access to the European financial markets, credits and even perhaps technologies.

I suspect that track is going to get moving in a more aggressive way, but I don't know if you can get -- I think the Security Council process in terms of sanctions has probably run out its course.  They may engage in some symbolic acts here and there, but the main arena of economic sanctions is likely to be outside the Perm 5 -- and five-one (sic) format.

LINDSAY:  Just to jump in on that point, Bernie.


LINDSAY:  It's -- because I don't want to leave our French allies hanging out there alone.  Even if Washington could persuade  Paris to follow its lead on gasoline sanctions, I think the signals coming out of Moscow have been very clear that the Russians have very little interest in sanctioning Tehran.  And my guess is, while Beijing has been relatively quiet on this issue, that the enthusiasm in Beijing for sanctions on Iran is very low well.

So I think Ray's right for a lot of reasons.

And that raises, I think, two issues for the Obama administration.  That is, are there really coalition-of-the-willing type sanctions that are going to be strong enough to produce any particular costs for Iran, or certainly costs sufficient to force Tehran to recalculate its nuclear policy?  And second, what are the domestic political fall-outs for Mr. Obama if his engagement policy doesn't produce movement either by Tehran or a greater willingness by our allies and quasi-allies to want to work with us on this issue?

GWERTZMAN:  Interesting.

All right, Operator, I think we're ready to hear questions from the audience.

OPERATOR:  At this time we will open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question, press the star key followed by the "1" key on your touchtone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they're received.  If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star-2.  Again, that is the star key followed by the "1" key to ask a question.

Our first question comes from Shin Shinji (ph) from NHK Broadcasting Corporation.

QUESTIONER:  I have a question about Iran's purpose in uranium enrichment.  They always said that they were interested in peaceful purposes, but I also read an article stating that they don't have enough infrastructure to, you know, spread or propagate electricity. So have they ever explained why they don't have -- why they haven't started building these electricity -- like power plants and while they are still continuing their uranium enrichment at a faster pace?


TAKEYH:  Yeah.  I mean, there are lots of ways Iran can address its energy issues beyond this sort of an electric grid issue that you're talking about, is it could spend some resources on development of its natural gas fields.  Iran has the second or perhaps third-largest natural gas repositories in the globe, and it's largely under-developed, unlike its oil fields, which are somewhat developed. If Iran wanted to actually become energy independent, and even use natural gas for export purposes, it really should invest in that particular infrastructure.

And our national -- the natural gases, with extraction and export, is difficult because, in the absence of pipelines, you have to rely on some of the LNG.  So it would be more difficult,

But one way out of this dilemma would be for Iran to focus on other sources of energy.  But that's another reason why its nuclear ambitions and motivations have always been viewed as suspect, also because if you do a sort of a mining survey of Iran, you realize it doesn't have enough indigenous uranium to be able to sustain elaborate nuclear infrastructure designed for meeting its domestic purposes.

GWERTZMAN:  Yeah, I mean, it would have to import uranium --

TAKEYH:  Yeah.

GWERTZMAN:  -- and that would lead it -- you'd think it would lead Iran to want to work out a deal to ensure its peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

TAKEYH:  Right.  Right.

GWERTZMAN:  Just they're -- okay.

Next question.  I'm sorry.

OPERATOR:  Again, if you would like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phone now.  (Pause.)

We have no further questions at this time.

GWERTZMAN:  (Chuckles.)  Well, let's continue the discussion. Jim, you've been watching the Iranian domestic situation, which to say the least is chaotic and brutal since the June 12th elections.  What impact is that going to have on nations trying to deal with Iran?

LINDSAY:  Well, the events in Iran since the elections, I guess, of June 12th are going to have a different impact, depending upon what countries we're talking about.  Obviously in the United States the outcome of the Iranian elections has greatly complicated President Obama's diplomacy on that front.  I mean, the administration has obviously talked a lot about engagement or desire to want to find a way to open a dialogue with Tehran, and we can argue back and forth whether the Obama administration has been sufficiently forward-leaning  in trying to entice the Iranians into this discussion.  But clearly the idea was, we would be able to talk with them, and some benefits would result.  And obviously it's a lot harder for the Obama administration to conduct those kind of negotiations in this particular climate, because it raises questions about whether the administration is effectively just aiding and abetting a tyrannical government.

On the flip side, there are a lot of other major powers out there in the world for whom the domestic upheaval in Iran is neither here nor there.  They're out to do deals, and what happens in Tehran is the business of the Iranians.  And so it's going to depend upon what country you're talking about.

And clearly, you know, just to take one particular case, and this is the issue between the United States and Russia:  very, very different assessments of what the Iranians are likely to do. Americans have argued repeatedly to Russians that they should be worried about the Iranian pursuit of nuclear -- the nuclear fuel cycle and -- because the Russians could be one of the countries at risk if Iran succeeds in getting a nuclear weapon.  And the Russians have never agreed with the American assessment of Russian national security interests, and have continued both to sell relevant technology to the Iranians and to protect the Iranians, to some extent, from international pressure.

GWERTZMAN:  Operator, is there any questions?  Or I'll keep going.

OPERATOR:  There are no questions at this time.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Ray, what's your sense of President Ahmadinejad, who will be in New York tonight or tomorrow?  He's speaking to the General Assembly tomorrow.  In the past, he's given some -- some bombastic speeches, and he certainly has given some in Tehran before he's left.  Do you think he'll be at all different this time?

TAKEYH:  I suspect he'll touch on the themes that were in Iran's proposal -- counterproposal, I should say, submitted to Five- plus-one on -- I believe it was September the 9th; were namely the issues of global justice, you know, how to deal with proliferation, but in terms of designing a more equitable means of -- equitable nonproliferation regime; might call for abolishing of all nuclear weapons.

Within that, I think there will be usual themes of North-South, and the sense that industrial countries are exploiting the developing countries, and maybe even some aspect of external interferences in Iran's own internal affairs.  You know, I think maybe he'll use incendiary phrases such as "nuclear apartheid" and so forth.

A criticism, I think, of United Nations:  namely, Iran -- and to be fair, like many countries -- has called for a restructuring of the Security Council and incorporation of some other countries in there, expansion of its membership.

So it will be that sort of a -- that sort of a theme, I suppose.

GWERTZMAN:  He's going to be greeted by all kinds of protesters outside, largely Iranian-Americans, I suspect.

TAKEYH:  Yeah, more -- there'll be more protest than usual, I think, because now you have the human-rights groups, the Iranian- American community added to the usual category of protesters who ordinarily greet President Ahmadinejad.  So it's -- it'll be a -- much more of a boisterous scene than even in the past.


LINDSAY:  Bernie -- Bernie, can I ask Ray a question, just to follow up in this?

GWERTZMAN:  Yeah.  Sure.

LINDSAY:  Ray, what is your sense of the likelihood that Mr. Ahmadinejad would seek to sort of emulate Mr. Chavez of Venezuela and try to work his way into shaking a -- the hands of President Obama? Is that something that's likely?  My understanding is that there's at least one venue in which they will both be present at the same time.

TAKEYH:  I mean, he does seek an international stage, an acknowledgment of his status as the president of the country, an acknowledgment of his status as one of the leading representatives of the third world, if you would, and the Muslim community.

So in that sense, he sees himself not just as a chief executive of a nation-state, but as a sort of a representative of the new generation of leader -- the -- sort of a new Bandung generation -- Chavez, Morales, also.  In that sense, I think it's entirely possible that he would try to have some sort of a chance encounter -- or, barring that, I think he will probably be present when President Obama gives his speech.

I should note that I believe he was actually present when President Bush gave his speech.  So in that -- I could see that happening, but I'm not quite sure if that's logistically feasible.

LINDSAY:  Is there a downside to Ahmadinejad trying to have a face-to-face encounter with Obama because he's the president of the great Satan?

TAKEYH:  Well, I should say --

LINDSAY:  I mean, for --

TAKEYH:  I should say that he has called in the past for actually debating President Obama.

LINDSAY:  Right.

TAKEYH:  And he has, of course, made the similar offer to President Bush, and wrote letters to President Bush -- at least one.

This handshake or some sort of an encounter; actually I can see why that would be good for President Ahmadinejad.  I'm not quite sure why it's good for President Obama.

GWERTZMAN:  Well, Obama has said he wanted to have a dialogue with the Iranians.

TAKEYH:  Yeah, I -- a dialogue is sort of different, I think, than having that sort of a meeting or that sort of an encounter.  I suspect the U.S. government is going to try hard to avoid that.

GWERTZMAN:  Well, I mean, politically given the domestic situation in Iran, I think, it's hard.  It would be hard to deal --

TAKEYH:  Right, exactly.

GWERTZMAN:  The -- I forget.  Recall for me.

When Ahmadinejad has been in New York before talking to the General Assembly, did he launch into the Holocaust spiel that --

TAKEYH:  No.  I think -- no, he didn't do that.  But I think he may have made references to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the sort of inequity of that conflict and the plight of the Palestinians.  But I'm not quite sure if he discussed the Holocaust.

LINDSAY:  Yeah.  I don't recall him doing it at the General Assembly speech.  But he did it in public venues, in private venues, when members of the audience raised it.

GWERTZMAN:  Yeah, right.

Operator, anybody online?

OPERATOR:  Yes, there are individuals online.  But we don't have any questions at the moment.

Again if you would like to ask a question, please press star-one on your touchtone phone now.

GWERTZMAN:  No.  Okay.

OPERATOR:  There are no questions at this time.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.  In the -- I'm going to try to move this into a little broader sphere: the concern of Israel with Iran.

Now, you get various statements, from various Israelis, whether they fear a dire threat or a long-term threat or even a threat at all. Do you think that situation has eased a bit?

There was a time a year ago when people were expecting some kind of military attack from Israel, either of you.

TAKEYH:  I would -- let me just start out.

I think the time when Israelis have to make a decision, on this particular issue, is likely to be in summer/spring, late-spring/summer actually.

And they'll be based on a number of calculations.

Number one is whether either the diplomatic track or the sanctions track have had any sort of an impact on Iran's nuclear calculations, if there's any sort of a restraint imposed on that, for whatever -- for reasons of alleviating pressure as part of a process of dialogue.

Number two is how fast is the Iranian program advancing, particularly in terms of a combination of accumulation of low-enriched uranium and introduction of new generation of centrifuges, which shortens the time of snort of a sneak-out capability.  And Iranian -- head of the Atomic Energy Organization announced today that they are going to begin installing a new generation of centrifuges, which actually sort of process uranium much faster.  How hard are the facilities and how fortified they're becoming, and the nature of U.S.- Israeli relations and how that would be affected by a prospective Israeli strike that's not sanctioned by the United States.

The prime minister and four or five people in the Israeli political -- the Israeli polity that make this decision would have to take all these issues into consideration and decide what they want to do.  I really don't know where they are on this, because I don't think they know where they are on this.


TAKEYH:  And also, of course, they have to consider their own logistical capabilities in terms of actually carrying out and executing operations efficiently.  And all these factors are going to go into the metrics, and they're going to make a decision, which is likely to be one of the most momentous decisions the Israeli government has made since the 1967 war, because it will have potentially -- certainly unpredictable, hut potentially very difficult situation in the region.


And Jim, if there was an Israeli attack on Iran, what would be the Obama administration's response?

LINDSAY:  Well, that's a very good question.  And a lot would depend upon how the attack played out.

And I think that Ray raises a very important point, which is that the Israelis are finding themselves in the position of making a decision that could have tremendous consequences, and it's very difficult to judge what those consequences are.  And the Israelis could end up in a situation in which they decide to launch a military attack.  It could be successful in terms of its objectives to delay the Iranian nuclear program, and still be a political catastrophe in terms of what it could do in the region and elsewhere.

Or, for the Israelis, it could be that they attempt it -- and Ray alluded to the logistical difficulties of carrying out this attack. It's very different than their attack on Osirak back in 1981 in Iraq, or the recent attack on a --


LINDSAY:  -- a facility in Syria.  But that they could try it, and fail.  So it's -- it's a problematic decision for the Israeli government.

I think for the Obama administration, it's going to find itself sort of caught between sort of three different communities.  One is the desire to want to reaffirm its support for Israel and indicate that the United States understands when other countries take decisions that they believe are in their own self-interest in response particularly to an existential threat, which is -- we've heard the administration say that -- I think most notably, Vice President Biden.

Secondly, trying to assure the Arab/Muslim world, which will be, one would imagine, at least publicly, quite critical of what the Israelis do; even though privately some Arab heads of state may applaud it, at least if it succeeds.

And third, the complaints from the rest of the international community about the Israelis taking matters into their own hands.  And that will be a very, very difficult diplomatic space to navigate successfully, because you're likely to be unable to make everybody happy.  And I think that's why the Obama administration would very much hope that it can avoid having to find out what it would have to do.

GWERTZMAN:  Right.  And so that comes back to the negotiations with Iran.

Do either of you have any advice for the negotiating team when they meet with the Iranians?  Is there any particular way to do it except to make your -- I mean, how hard should the Western team be -- not the Western, the five plus one -- be pressing the Iranians on the nuclear issue, or can they go into a leisurely discussion over a couple weeks?

TAKEYH:  I mean, first of all, negotiations have to -- if they're going to have any degree of viability, you can make the case, a perfectly plausible case, that it would be nearly impossible to have a negotiated settlement with the current Iranian regime given its fixation on its nuclear program and its reluctance to agree to any sort of a transparency measure beyond the very basic of the NPT.  so that's a perfectly plausible case.

However, if negotiations, I think, are going to work, you have to actually look at them as a sort of a long-term process, you know, sort of a gradually chipping at the ice and, you know, just basically thinking about how you want to approach this over a long term, building confidence, incrementalism and so on and so forth.

At this particular point, given the administration's own time constraints, and given the fact that the five-plus-one structure is not structurally -- it has structural limitations in the sense there is a meeting, there are set speeches, there's proposals, five months later there is another meeting -- I mean, we don't have a bilateral set of negotiations, nor is the five-plus-one at this point similar to the six-party talks in North Korea -- with North Korea -- I'm sorry -- where there was considerable degree of movement.

So on the one hand, the forum that you have available to you has profound structural limitations.  You have a degree of intransigence on the Iranian side, compressed deadlines on the American side, and that's very difficult to see how as a process this can work.

Now, you know, the United States is presented at these talks by a very able person, Bill Burns, so he'll have his hands full; but it's tough, given all these things.


LINDSAY:  Bernie, just on that, I think Ray put his finger on the main issue, which is, if the government in Tehran really wants to acquire a nuclear capability, it is hard to see how these negotiations are going to persuade them to change their minds, in part because, for reasons we've already discussed, it is difficult to see how the United States and its allies are going to be able to put on the table enough sticks to be able to persuade Tehran that the pursuit of nuclear capability isn't worth the cost.

Conversely, the United States, even under President Obama, hasn't been inclined to put enough carrots on the table to try to lure them away from a nuclear capability.  So it's hard to be optimistic that these talks are going to lead to the kind of breakthrough that many people are hoping or expecting President Obama to orchestrate.  Even beyond that, it's not clear that a different regime in Tehran would be willing to easily or quickly give up an Iranian nuclear program.

GWERTZMAN:  But yet the West -- the five plus Germany are not asking them to give up their nuclear program, just have better safeguards to ensure no nuclear weapons are produced; isn't that right?

TAKEYH:  At this particular point, the negotiations are predicated on a document that was given to Iran on April the 8th. That document still calls for a double freeze, whereby Iran stops working on this program, building up additions to it, and the international community suspends additional sanctions.

Double freeze is designed to lead to a more fuller suspension. And then you begin the discussion of what kind of a nuclear program Iran is allowed to have and what kind of safeguards are installed on it.  And the international community, the Bush administration even before that have acknowledged that Iran has a right to a civilian program.

But it has to essentially come to terms with some of the problems that have been noticed.  These problems are, it hasn't been fully accountable to IAEA about its program, about its previous activities, about its clandestine activities.

And so there's a lot of transparency and accountability that Iran has to do, to build the confidence of the international community. And it's also important to suggest that Iran's nuclear program has been censured by, I believe, four to five U.N. Security Council resolutions.  So it is a program that operates at this point outside the confines of sort of legal permission.


Operator, any questions?  If not, I'm willing to sort of thank everybody.  And we'll all go home.

OPERATOR:  There are no questions at this time.

GWERTZMAN:  All right.

Well, look, anybody else have something they're dying to say?

LINDSAY:  Thank you, Bernie.

GWERTZMAN:  Thank you.

Thank you, Ray.

LINDSAY:  Thank you, Ray.

TAKEYH:  Thank you.  Sure, thanks.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay, so long.

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