Fischer: Diplomacy on Suspending Iranian Nuclear Program ’Running Out of Time’

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was involved in the early efforts to negotiate a suspension in Iran’s nuclear program, says the international community is running out of time to resolve the crisis.

October 5, 2006 2:05 pm (EST)

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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Joschka Fischer, who served as foreign minister in the previous German government and was involved in the early efforts to negotiate a suspension in Iran’s nuclear program, says “We Europeans failed to reach a minimum consensus with Iran in our negotiations.” The international community is now “running out of time” to reach a solution to the crisis, he says.

Fischer, CFR’s distinguished visiting diplomat, says Iran has calculated that “given the situation the United States is stuck in Iraq and in Afghanistan, given also the disunity of the international community and the high oil prices, they think they can move forward with their nuclear program.”

You were foreign minister of Germany when the British, French, and Germans began talks with Iran on halting its nuclear reprocessing activities. What was the atmosphere like when those talks began in 2003?

The effort was to try to reach a compromise which was acceptable, as an opening for Iran, but would bring about a long-term delay of closing down the uranium fuel cycle. Of course, the Iraq war had just started and we were very concerned about the next crisis. We knew that Iran had a very ambitious nuclear program relying mostly on uranium enrichment, but also had an intention to build a forty-megawatt heavy water research reactor and open the way to getting plutonium. This was more or less the pattern we knew from Pakistan and others.

Do you think Iran at that time was nervous about the United States encroaching or attacking because it had “won the war” militarily in Iraq? Was that a reason Iran was willing to consider suspending its reprocessing?

My impression was, from many talks, not only about the nuclear issue but also on bilateral issues, that Iran was very much in favor of the United States waging war on Saddam [Hussein].

They were not very much concerned about the American presence in Iraq because I think in their long-term strategy Saddam Hussein was enemy No. 1. Once the Americans were in Iraq, this would open more options for Iranian influence and pressure, and maybe they also thought, I don’t know for sure, that there could also be an opening of the political dialogue between the United States and Iran. There had been direct talks in the run-up of the Afghanistan invasion between the United States and Iran.

Of course, President [Mohammed] Khatami was in power then. Even though the ayatollahs were running the country, Khatami was viewed as a much more moderate leader.

Allow me to explain my views on the Iranian political system.

It would be very short-sighted to compare, for example, a dictatorship like Saddam’s with the political decision-making process in Iran. In Iran, the power rests on many shoulders and [with many] groups, sometimes with conflicting interests, and the decision-making process involves considerable analysis, discussion, and consent. And of course if you look to Iran today we see that there are two camps. The one camp I would define as a reasonable nationalistic position. It starts perhaps with the former presidents [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani and Khatami.  They follow a strategy of securing and guaranteeing the influence of Iran but that Iran should be a reasonable and pragmatic player. They follow a more international course. They want to open up Iran, not only in economic but also in technological and political terms, and they are concerned about possible confrontation.

And on the other side there is, traditionally, the revolutionary leader [the ayatollah], the top position in the Iranian system, and there is the president, the security services, the Pasdaran [the Revolutionary Guards], and they follow a more revolutionary strategy. Their idea is that Iran should be the leading Islamic power on the global stage, and they have a long-term strategy not only of securing the successes of the Islamic revolution and transforming it into a power, but also eroding the status quo in the Middle East. And this is, I think, a dangerous strategy, but final decisions are not made. My impression is that Iran calculates very carefully every step.

Well, of course it is interesting that after [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad took over as president in 2005, Iran stopped its suspension of uranium processing and announced with a lot of enthusiasm that it had launched “cascades” [connected series of machines crucial to enrichment] to reprocess uranium. So far he keeps insisting that Iran will never suspend the reprocessing. But do you think this is just politics, part of the bargaining that goes on in negotiations?

Yes and no. They have, as far as I know, a very detailed strategic assessment in their national security council and this assessment is that, given the situation the United States is stuck in Iraq and in Afghanistan, given also the disunity of the international community and the high oil price, they think they can move forward with their nuclear program. They always wanted our consent under strict limitations to their enrichment program, and we always tried to persuade them that they should agree to a long-term delay in enrichment because they don’t need fuel for the time being, because they have no reactor and the one reactor which is ready to start will get the fuel from Russia. So this raises, of course, very serious concerns. We Europeans failed to reach a minimum consensus with Iran in our negotiations. And now the international community is running out of time.

It doesn’t look possible that the Security Council will really invoke any meaningful sanctions, does it?

We will see. I think neither Russia nor China has a serious interest in a major confrontation in the region.

You’d think Russia would have considerable influence with the Iranians.

I think the country with the most influence would be the United States, because if someone talks with Iranians, within fifteen minutes, in all talks you will come to the part about the United States and Iranian relationship.

The talks seem to have gotten down to whether there would be a set time of suspension, a few months or something like that, but the talks are held very secretly so it’s hard to tell what the exact proposals are. Do you think a deal can be made?

If there would be a political will for a serious compromise, this wouldn’t be too complicated for experienced diplomats to construct a bridge.

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