Iran Is Unlikely to Give Up Its Nuclear Enrichment Program

Leslie H. Gelb, CFR’s president emeritus, says the United States should focus on "attainable objectives" in talks with Iran and plan a "power extrication strategy" for Afghanistan.

March 16, 2009 12:00 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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Leslie H. Gelb, who worked as a high official in two administrations before serving as CFR’s president for ten years, says the United States should focus on "attainable objectives" in talks with Iran. In order to prevent Tehran from building nuclear weapons, Washington must accept that the country’s uranium enrichment program is not reversible. Gelb, now CFR’s president emeritus, says "Within ten years, if we take our time and do these negotiations right, Iran will be our closest ally in that part of the world." Gelb also notes that the United States should develop a "power extrication strategy" for Afghanistan based on containment and deterrence.

In your new book, Power Rules, you talk about how common sense can rescue American foreign policy. A key issue right now is how to deal with Iran. What would common sense tell you is the best approach to dealing with Iran?

Common sense would tell you two things overall about dealing with Iran. The first is to set attainable objectives for meeting our basic concerns. Secondly, that the negotiation process is going to be long and difficult and we need to explain that to people.

What do I mean by "attainable objectives?" Would I like to see Iran eliminate its uranium-enrichment program? Sure. Do I think it’s at all conceivable they would do that? Not a chance. They’re portraying the uranium-enrichment program as part of the development of a peaceful, public nuclear energy program. We have evidence that it goes beyond that; we have evidence that they’ve lied to us about the nuclear program. But look at it from Iran’s point of view for a moment, just to be practical. They see the deal we made with North Korea, one of the other devils of the "axis of evil,"where we’ve agreed to sell a couple of light-water reactor plants for peaceful nuclear energy.

Would I like to see Iran eliminate its uranium enrichment program? Sure. Do I think it’s at all conceivable they would do that? Not a chance.

But only in return for North Korea destroying its nuclear capability, right?

Yes, if they do that. But that’s also something that can be circumvented by the materials you can get from a light-water reactor plant. You can develop nuclear-bomb grade materials from those plants. And we’ve said we’re going to inspect and everything, but there are risks, and we’re willing to give them peaceful nuclear energy. As far as India is concerned, we’ve accepted their having nuclear weapons, and beyond that we agreed that we wouldn’t insist on international inspections of Indian nuclear plants controlled by the Indian military. They’re exempt. Finally, Pakistan went nuclear, and we reward them with billions of dollars in aid. From Iran’s point of view that means they are not going to give up the nuclear-enrichment capability or the potential to go nuclear given those in the neighborhood who have nuclear weapons. The best we can do with Iran is to keep the nuclear effort just as an enrichment program that’s carefully verified to make sure that the spent fuel is returned to its senders, mainly Russia. That’s an attainable objective. If we say, "Iran’s got to get rid of this whole program and they can’t do anything that could in any way lead to the development of nuclear weapons," these negotiations will fail.

And that will be a travesty because if you look at it, practically, in terms of common sense, Iranian society is more middle class than you’d find anywhere else in that region of the world. Even today, with some of the horrible leaders they have, they have democratic processes, and we have no fundamental conflicts of interest with that country. I believe that within ten years, if we take our time and do these negotiations right, Iran will be our closest ally in that part of the world.

That’s an interesting prediction, but aren’t these negotiations, between Iran and what are called the 5 plus 1 [the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany], based on allowing Iran to have a peaceful nuclear energy program if they agree to strict enforcement?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It’s not clear to all the parties exactly what the negotiating position really is!

It came out the other day that the United States wanted to have a conference on Afghanistan to which Iran would be invited. Of course, Iran was quite helpful to the United States back in 2001 and 2002 when the United States launched its invasion of Afghanistan. Do you think this is a way of getting Iran into a real dialogue with the United States?

I don’t know. My instinct is, again, that’s not common sense. I don’t want to throw anything out on the table that Iran’s likely to refuse at this point. I’d want to get engaged with them across the board so we could bring up anything we wanted and they could bring up anything they wanted because I want this negotiating process to succeed. The best way to do that is to put everything on the table and then let each side say where we have common interests. When we pick out a cherry, like Afghanistan, it’s possible the Iranians will react by saying, "Look, the Americans want to discuss something that’s really a primary interest to them and only a tertiary interest to us, they’re trying to hoodwink us." And so you get some resistance. There’s no reason to do that. If we engage across the board, we can bring up the Afghan point, and if the Iranians are ready, that can and should be developed.

Within ten years, if we take our time and do these negotiations right, Iran will be our closest ally in that part of the world.

Do you think this administration has too much public diplomacy right now?

Much too much. They think they have to convince the world that they aren’t George W. Bush, but everyone knows that. They don’t have to convince the world. Barack Obama is significantly different from George Bush, and people understand that. They don’t have to prove it every day. Sometimes they do quirky things too, in making major public announcements almost every day. [Secretary Clinton] says things, to China, for instance, like "We’re not going to let human rights get in the way of our economic relationship." That demeans our position on human rights and also weakens our hand in the economic bargaining. There’s no reason to say all these things publicly, and there is especially no good reason to do so when you haven’t worked out your overall strategy for these countries. Do that first. The best way to send a message that there’s a new leader in America is to do things that succeed, that accomplish something, that help others as well as ourselves solve problems.

Vice President Joe Biden said publicly the other day that we’re looking for moderate Taliban to deal with. This has become a kind of myth almost, that there’s this moderate Taliban to negotiate with. Afghan President Hamid Karzai says the same thing.

I’ve talked to a lot of Afghan experts, and almost all of them believe that there are gradations of extremism among the Taliban. There are a lot of Taliban who are just paid fighters and a lot of Taliban who are in there just because the Taliban is the major force in certain regions. They are splittable. But we won’t be able to tell until we put offers on the table and try to engage them. You have to have the carrots and sticks on the table before you really know. Just to say we’re going to do this or that is not going to make it happen. By the way, the British operated an empire for almost two hundred years on the principle of divide and conquer, and it worked. The premise of that political operation was that no group is homogeneous. There are always differences of views, and we ought to explore that. Let’s find out.

Then do you have to have secret emissaries going into Pakistan to try to talk? How do you do that?

It could happen in lots of ways. First you have to put together, in my view, a whole strategy. You don’t just lay out one piece of it in public because it doesn’t include the necessary pressures or incentives for the Taliban itself. You’ve got to say all the other things you intend to do over the course of the next two or three years. And then this should be one piece of it.

It is really past time to look at what I call power extrication strategy from Afghanistan. We have to begin looking at the strong likelihood that this thing is going to be another quagmire and that we need a policy alternative. The alternative is to base a policy on containment and deterrence, on building up non-Taliban powers within Afghanistan and on playing carrots and sticks with the Taliban itself. But essentially, the United States is not going to be able to pacify that country any more than Britain did or the Soviet Union did or any other country did.

What should our policy be then toward Pakistan, where the Taliban has its headquarters now?

To the extent that we begin to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan and try to convince the Taliban in the process that they should tend to their own garden and not get involved in international terrorism, that will allow us to focus more of our power and resources on Pakistan, which is a far more important country and far more dangerous to American security because they have nuclear weapons and they have a growing extremist group in that country. I don’t know what the answer is outside of the moderate leadership of Pakistan realizing that the future of their country is really at stake. They’ve got to provide better and more legitimate government, less corrupt government, in order to stave off the growth of extremist power, and we’ve got to help the moderates with that process.

But you’re not against reinforcing the American force levels in Afghanistan, are you?

I’m not against it, but it isn’t going to work! I’m not big on putting our power behind efforts that fail. The NATO allies have already come to the conclusion that we’re not going to be able to win in Afghanistan at any reasonable cost in any reasonable time.

And in fact the president of the United States says we’re losing in Afghanistan.

He says we’re losing too, but he’s not saying it’s hopeless by any means. But the European allies are close to saying it’s hopeless, and they’re not about to put any significant number of troops on the line in what they believe is fundamentally a losing course. The problem is that neither they nor we have come up with a plausible alternative, which is why I’m putting on the table at this point a first effort at a different strategy, one to contain and deter the Taliban rather than to try to conquer Afghanistan.

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