Levi: Iranian Nuclear Response Seems ‘Compromise’ among Factions

Michael A. Levi, a CFR expert on nuclear issues, says Iran’s response to the Security Council’s demand to halt its nuclear processing in return for concessions appears to be a compromise between hard-liners and those who want greater engagement with the West.

August 23, 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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Michael A. Levi, a CFR fellow for science and technology who is an expert on nuclear issues, says Iran’s response to the Security Council’s demand to halt its nuclear processing in return for concessions appears to be "a compromise between different factions." Levi, who visited Iran in April, says: "There are some who want greater engagement, who want to leave the door open, and there are some who want to take a strictly defiant stance, and don’t particularly care about keeping the door open."

Levi says Iran appears to be angling for approval for a limited uranium-enrichment process. The concern among Western states, he says, "is that even low-level enrichment activities can teach Iran how to hide larger enrichment activities by allowing it to perfect the process."

Iran has responded to the June 1 Security Council resolution with a twenty-one-page démarche which reportedly doesn’t accept the demand that it stop its uranium-enrichment proceedings first. Instead, Iran apparently wants to talk about the whole proposal, and this could possibly lead to a cessation of the enrichment process. What does this sound like to you?

I don’t see that Iran has put out any reasonable hope, at least not explicitly, of a cessation of uranium enrichment. What they appear to think a reasonable end point might be is a very limited-scope enrichment process. That is probably part of the focus of the twenty-one-page response they’ve sent—trying to lay out some sort of process of inspections they think might convince others that there is a way to have Iran continue its enrichment activities at some level in a responsible, dependable way. The problem is that they are essentially targeting Russia and China with that message, trying to split the Security Council plus Germany in half.

I saw the French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told a press conference today that Iran had to first stop the enrichment before there could be negotiations.

The concern is that even low-level enrichment activities can teach Iran how to hide larger enrichment activities by allowing it to perfect the process, avoid accidents in a hidden facility, and control emissions from a hidden facility. The constant refrain you get is that Britain perfected its enrichment process with seventeen centrifuges. Iran wants 164 and says that number wouldn’t enable them to make a big jump to a larger facility. That’s not believed, especially amongst the United States, Britain, and France. The technical measures to supervise Iran’s program are focused mainly on monitoring for diversion while inspectors are there. The concern amongst the United States and Europe in particular is not that diversion would occur while inspectors are there, but that inspectors would be kicked out once Iran was close enough, and then diversion would be an issue.

Do we have any idea how close they are to weapons-grade uranium or plutonium?

Plutonium is a long way away at best, from an Iranian perspective. Weapons-grade uranium is probably at least four or five years away if Iran doesn’t slow down at all, and if it doesn’t have any hidden facilities that we don’t know about. With the existing infrastructure we know about, Iran would take probably a decade to make enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb. Now, it can expand its infrastructure, but that takes time as well. So there’s a trade-off. If you expand the infrastructure that takes more time, but then it takes you less time to actually produce weapons-grade uranium using that expanded infrastructure. Over a period of about five years, that trade-off roughly balances out. After that, of course, if Iran does have a larger infrastructure, it can continue to produce more weapons at a much higher pace.

What do you think the dimensions of the internal discussion were in Iran? Clearly the chance of having broadened economic ties with the West, including the United States, must have been rather enticing to some people.

To some people—and that’s the key, I think. Of course we don’t have the specific content of the response, but what it appears to be, in part, is a compromise between different factions. In Iran there are some who want greater engagement, who want to leave the door open, and there are some who want to take a strictly defiant stance, and don’t particularly care about keeping the door open. It looks like each got something. The question is, fundamentally, how does this turn out? Is the offer for engagement strictly superficial? Is it designed to fail, in which case the hard-liners are winning out? Or is it a genuine alternative opportunity, in which case the pragmatists and the moderates are possibly holding a little bit more sway? To some extent, the response of the United States and the Europeans may be able to determine which of those two wins out. That’s probably why the United States is being very deliberate. This is quite different from past responses from the United States. They are not focusing on the most negative aspects of what Iran has said. They are leaving room open to take a look at this and to possibly come back and focus on the more positive elements. I imagine there’s a debate within the administration about which of these approaches to take.

The administration seems to be very determined to consult with its allies at every step on this. So the United States can’t just unilaterally condemn Iran. Even United Nations Ambassador John Bolton talked about discussions having to take place. I guess they’re taking place right now.

When you listen to John Bolton, you still have to ask the question: Is this John Bolton speaking or is he under some control from the State Department? The United States is talking about working with allies for a couple of different reasons. One is there is some recognition the United States doesn’t have all that many cards to play, especially in terms of potential punitive action. So if the United States doesn’t want to offer too much, it’s going to need to depend on others for threats and for incentives. The other part is the United States has a lot of different things on its plate. At a minimum, working through the Europeans allows the president to show he’s still somehow engaged on this issue without having to actually invest much time in it.

At the time of the Hezbollah-Israeli fighting, there was a lot of speculation Iran was doing this to divert attention away from the nuclear issue, but that doesn’t seem to hold does it?

Well, the Israelis have been pushing the idea that Iran was involved at some level to divert attention from the nuclear issue. They will contend Iran didn’t give explicit orders to Hezbollah to start this conflict, but in a meeting earlier this year they told Hezbollah if the nuclear file was heating up, they expected them to take a bit of the attention away. That’s not an implausible contention, but it’s far from clear that is actually what happened. And it doesn’t appear to [have been] particularly successful. What it may have done, and it appears to have done, is emboldened Iran. No matter what anyone else thinks about what the outcome of the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah means for the balance of power in the Middle East, it’s quite likely the Iranians have read the whole outcome as showing they have greater strength, and as putting them in a stronger position for some sort of resolution of the nuclear file.

Okay, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is sitting there in her office. She calls you up and says "Michael, how should we act now, what should we do?"

The United States ultimately does have to enter into discussions with Iran. I am reticent to use the word "negotiations" right now. I don’t know that there is the right basis for negotiations, but discussions would be good for both sides to understand something about where the other side is coming from. Responding right away to Iran’s demand is probably not something that would be all that wise. It might encourage Iran to think these sorts of tactics will help it in the future. If I were advising her, I would say, "Take a little time, create a little space, and then try to engage Iran in some way." Give some space for Iran to act like it’s voluntarily suspending its enrichment, and the United States is voluntarily entering into negotiations. We have two proud countries. Neither wants to look like they’re giving in to pressure, neither wants to look like they’re encouraging the other. They both need some space.

The European Union Foreign Minister Javier Solana is supposed to discuss all this with Ali Larijani, the top Iranian negotiator, so I suppose this could be the occasion to suggest a sort of preliminary discussion about the Iranian response.

There have been ongoing discussions between the Europeans and the Iranians. The key player that’s been missing all along is the United States, and that’s still the issue. We have to figure out a way to get the United States back into the game.

The United States has said it won’t talk to Iran until Iran stops its uranium enrichment.

Until Iran temporarily suspends its uranium enrichment. And that’s very important. There’s been a characterization in the press that the United States is asking for Iran to essentially concede everything before the United States talks about anything it will concede. The American and European goal is not a temporary suspension of Iranian enrichment, but a permanent suspension and possible dismantling of the enrichment infrastructure. So the United States and Europe are not asking for everything they want. They are asking for essentially a pause on the Iranian side to show in good faith the negotiations are not a stalling tactic. The Iranians had bragged in the past that negotiations had been used as a stalling tactic, so it’s quite reasonable for the West to think they might be doing this again.