Feinstein: Russian Offer to Iran Best Hope Out of Current Nuclear Crisis

January 19, 2006

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


Lee Feinstein, an expert on U.S. foreign policy, expresses concern about what would be achieved by getting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to send the issue of Iran’s nuclear activities to the UN Security Council, given the lack of unanimity on what to do at the Council. “What is the benefit of bringing this to the Security Council, other than threatening to do so?” he asks. “Presumably the Security Council could reinforce the statement of the IAEA, criticizing Iran’s actions and calling on it to come back into compliance with its obligations both the to the NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty] and to the IAEA. Beyond that, though, it is hard to see what kind of consensus could emerge from the Security Council.”

He says that Russia’s offer to do uranium reprocessing in Russia and sending the material back to Iran, without weapons-grade material, is still the best option, even though it has not been accepted so far by Iran. “If there’s a good outcome here, that’s it. It seems that the United States and Europe should be pressing the Russians to play the kind of role the Chinese played with North Korea.”

Feinstein, the executive director of CFR’s Task Force program, deputy director for studies, and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy and international law, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 18, 2006.

It’s been announced that there will be an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors on February 2 to listen to complaints about Iran’s nuclear activities. This meeting was called by the three European Union countries (EU-3)—Britain, France, and Germany—that have been negotiating with Iran. The move was strongly backed by the United States. What do you think the ultimate goal in the short term is of this effort?

Iran has been found already by the IAEA to have violated its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). That was stated in the September meeting. In addition, it is in violation of its obligations as undertaken voluntarily with the EU-3, and then codified last September. So in the first instance, this is an opportunity for the IAEA 35-member board of governors to address developments.

By “addressing developments,” I suppose the goal is to get Iran to stop its reprocessing work that it has just resumed, right?

Correct. And remember that at the last meeting, the IAEA had already decided to refer the matter to the Security Council.

But there was no date set.

Right, but in a vintage case of slicing the salami thinly, the IAEA did not set a date for when that referral would take place. Presumably the goal of this next IAEA meeting is to refer the issue to the Security Council.

Does the IAEA need a majority, or is it a consensus?  How does it work there?

Normally the IAEA operates on consensus. Consensus is always preferred. But it is also possible to do it on a majority basis, and that’s probably what will happen.

And there’s no veto at the IAEA, right?


So I guess the idea is to make sure you have a suitable majority to bring it to the Security Council?

That is correct, and it’s not only the numbers that matter. Who votes how is significant. This is important in two respects. First, it’s important that the trans-Atlantic partners are in agreement, and so far that seems to be the case. Then it’s important that Security Council members are in agreement. Here, of course, I’m talking primarily about Russia and China. Their position on Security Council referral is up in the air. Privately, Russians are saying that they won’t oppose. But publicly, Russia and China together have said that they believe that there should be more time before the matter is taken up before the Security Council.

I’m assuming the IAEA will talk a lot and then send it to the Security Council. At the Security Council itself, to avoid a possible veto, I suppose the effort will be to get negotiations going again.

Well, this is the question that many of us are asking. What is the benefit of bringing this to the Security Council, other than threatening to do so?  Presumably, the Security Council could reinforce the statement of the IAEA criticizing Iran’s actions and calling on it to come back into compliance with its obligations both the to the NPT and to the IAEA. Beyond that, though, it is hard to see what kind of consensus could emerge from the Security Council.

One of the problems with things like sanctions, as we’ve seen now with oil prices skyrocketing, is you can’t even talk about oil sanctions without causing a great disruption of the energy market. So oil sanctions don’t seem to be on the table, right?

The Europeans, first of all, have indicated they are opposed to trade sanctions. There is no scenario I can imagine in which the Europeans would agree not to buy Iranian oil. It’s conceivable that there might be some limited sanctions in the economic area, perhaps with respect to certain technology investments or technology sharing. Outside the economic sphere, possible sanctions might include travel restrictions on the Iranian leadership, and maybe certain financial restrictions on overseas holdings of the Iranian leadership. A couple of points here include the fact that it is a crime, in several European countries, to deny the Holocaust ever happened, as the Iranian President Ahmadinejad has done. One could imagine that he could be excluded, or not granted visas, if he requested to travel to certain European capitals. Then there’s a question of whether a person who has called for wiping a UN member state off the map, as he did with Israel, should be invited to join the UN General Assembly.

Now at one point, the Bush administration was very belligerent toward Iran, talking about it as one of the members of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea. Since Condoleezza Rice has been secretary of state, the United States has seemed to go out of its way to follow the European negotiating approach, which at one time had been ridiculed in Washington. Do you think this is beneficial for the administration, even though nothing tangible has resulted so far?

Well, time is the enemy of progress in these negotiations, and the odds of getting the Iranians to give up certain of their NPT rights have always been long. The fact that the United States was not directly involved earlier lengthened these odds even more. The question of whether the United States, working with Europe, can produce results hinges on the following issues: First, can the United States and Europe continue to maintain solidarity on these issues? After all, they have broad differences of opinion about the nature of the threat, including its imminence; they have broad difference of opinion about the utility of sanctions; and if they’re not successful in getting Security Council agreements, they have broad differences of opinion about the advisability and even the legality of actions outside the Security Council. So there are real questions about whether the United States and Europe will stay on the same page.

I see, so you think it’s possible that if nothing much really happens as a result of Security Council negations, the United States might go its own way?

I’d say it’s a possibility, if the Security Council option does not produce results, that the Europeans might part company with the United States. Iran may exploit those differences.

I’ve noticed that Iran has already said, “Let’s go back to the negotiating table,” but the Europeans have rejected this saying, “You have to stop what you’re doing first,” namely uranium enrichment.

Correct, the Europeans have rejected the Iranian effort to create new facts on the ground. They are prepared to return to the table if and only if Iran returns to the terms of the agreement between the EU-3, as codified by the IAEA.

And that’s to stop reprocessing and put the seals back on the equipment?

It’s to come into compliance with its NPT obligations and its obligations to the IAEA. Now I said earlier that there are two things that this hinged on.

The second is, even if you are successful at the Security Council, the question is whether Iran cares. Ahmadinejad might very well see this as a Clint Eastwood moment.

Talk a bit about Israel. The Israeli press has occasional articles saying how Israel needs to be ready to take out these nuclear facilities, as it did against Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981. On the other hand, Ehud Olmert, who’s now the acting prime minister, says Israelis on its own and is not going to do anything like that. What do you think?

Well, President Bush has said we don’t take military options off the table. That’s what presidents say. [British Foreign Secretary] Jack Straw, however, has said there is no military option and now the Israelis are indicating the same thing. So I think military strikes at this point are not under any serious consideration, and judged generally could be ineffective whether carried out by Israel or anybody else.

One thing that’s been missing is that there’s been no U.S.-Iran dialogue of any consequence, and of course there really hasn’t been much dialogue since the hostage crisis of 1979-81, except for an occasional conversation on some specific issue. The way the president of Iran talks, these days, he doesn’t seem interested in talking to the United States anyway. Do you think a direct dialogue would have any impact one way or the other?

Well, there have been direct talks between the United States and Iran in the context of the Bonn Accord on Afghanistan in 2001 [detailing the peace process there], and in connection to the Iraq war, so there have been contacts. I don’t think that it’s an issue now of whether the United States makes another offer to reestablish contacts. I think right now, the key issue is building international solidarity between the United States and Europe and Russia.

And I guess the Russians still have their offer on the table to do the reprocessing work in Russia and send it back to Iran?

If there’s a good outcome here, that’s it. It seems the United States and Europe should be pressing the Russians to play the kind of role the Chinese played with North Korea.