Levi: More Pessimistic About Negotiated Settlement With Iran on Nuclear Issues

CFR Fellow Michael Levi, back from a visit to Iran, talks to Bernard Gwertzman about Iran’s nuclear program and the prospects for a negotiated solution.

April 28, 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 Levi, a CFR fellow for science and technology and an expert on nuclear issues, has just returned from several days of talks in Iran on regional and nuclear questions. He says, "I’m more pessimistic for a negotiated solution now than I was when I got there. And I was already quite pessimistic then." He says the Iranians do not take seriously the possibility of an eventual military attack by the United States, likening their attitude to Saddam Hussein’s nonchalance in advance of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Levi says the best approach would be direct talks between the United States and Iran on broader regional issues in parallel with the nuclear discussions. That would provide the opportunity "to explore Iran’s security concerns and ways to address them without explicitly talking about them in the context of the nuclear deal," he says.

You’ve just returned from two conferences in Iran. Did they deal with the nuclear questions which are on the front-burner?

We had two separate conferences. The first day dealt with regional security, but [was] very much focused on Iraq. The second day the conference focused on what they referred to as nuclear energy policies and prospects, but it was really a discussion on Western concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

And were there speakers pro and con on this issue?

There were speakers pro and con. The public sessions were to some extent managed. Each panel had an absurd number of people on it, and often there would be six Iranians and two [or so] foreigners. You had to accept that. But each panel did have some foreign content on it, whether American or British, and in a handful of cases, from the Arab world.

What were the conclusions you reached personally?

I’m more pessimistic for a negotiated solution now than I was when I got there. And I was already quite pessimistic then. There is a real disconnect between the two sides, and we’re not even in a position to be negotiating, because we don’t have any significant common interests on the nuclear issue that we’ve been able to identify. There are common interests on Iraq—but again, the Iranians feel quite triumphant after last week’s results [on a prime minister] in Iraq, and are not as interested in engaging as they were a few weeks ago.

Well, stop for a moment. The Iranians feel very triumphant over the results in Iraq of choosing a new prime minister?

The Iranians feel that Shiite power is being consolidated in Iraq. They feel they had a significant role in bringing an end to the impasse in Iraq, and so they feel in quite good control. One interesting thing people mention to me is that part of the strengthening of ties has been through pilgrimage visits, with a lot of Iranians visiting holy sites in Iraq. But as more Iraqis are visiting sites in Iran, they don’t necessarily like what they see in the way Iran is run. So there’s going to be something of a self-correction.

Before you left the United States you said you were pessimistic. Now you’re even more pessimistic about the chances for resolution of the nuclear issues. Why?

I’m pessimistic for a couple of reasons. First, the Iranians seem very confident, and do not act like they want to compromise. Some speak about openings for possible discussions, but they are interested, at most, in discussions about capping their enrichment program at some intermediate level for some time. That’s not even something the United States is willing to talk about. The other problem is the Iranians are unwilling to talk about the nuclear program as a security issue, when it fundamentally is one. And the United States can’t engage and try to find ways to solve the security problems—even if it wants to—if its counterparts on the other side aren’t willing to discuss them as a security issue.

They don’t see the possibility of an arrangement where they’re guaranteed the right to have nuclear power under very careful safeguards?

When you look at any proposed technical arrangement for keeping the Iranian nuclear program going—but safe—if Iran is interested in it, you have to ask, Why are they willing to accept this? If they want to preserve a nuclear weapons option and they are willing to accept a particular arrangement, that particular arrangement probably preserves a nuclear weapons option, and is then inherently unacceptable to the United States. And vice versa.

Until you change the security situation, if you can, these sorts of technical solutions will miss the mark. Now the particular one that’s got a lot of attention is this concept of guaranteed fuel supplies, where another country or consortium of countries would guarantee fuel supplies. That has an extra problem, which is that Iran trusts no one. Iranians, despite the fact these meetings were held a few days before possible Security Council action, had nothing good to say for Russia, nothing good to say for China. Actually, they went on at length about how Russia had double-crossed them in the past and how they couldn’t trust those sorts of countries.

On the whole question of U.S.-Iranian security arrangements, a number of experts have said what the two sides need to do is sit down and talk about the whole range of issues, not just Iraq, but all kinds of security issues. The United States has shown virtually no interest in this, or it has shown interest in talking only about Iraq. Do the Iranians have an interest in wide-ranging talks?

I think there is interest in talks, at least in the pragmatist camps. The fact that one day of these meetings was devoted to regional security issues reflects that. There are various varieties of the statement that there should be talks on the full range of issues. One says we’ll need those so we can solve all these things together. I think that is—I wouldn’t say over-optimistic—but at least it’s going to prevent us from finding a solution to the nuclear problem on the timeline we need to stick to. But having these discussions on broader regional issues in parallel with the nuclear discussions would be very useful, and would provide an opportunity to explore Iran’s security concerns and ways to address them without explicitly talking about theme in the context of the nuclear deal.

We’re expecting the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA,) to submit a report that the Security Council will take up. The United States is pressing for some kind of action under Article Seven short of military action, possibly even short of sanctions. What would be the Iranian reaction if the Security Council votes to do anything?

One of the most interesting questions I heard was asked of Ali Larijani, the chief negotiator, who has a certain amount of political independence. Larijani was asked, "How would you react if there were sanctions, short of economic sanctions? For example, political sanctions or travel restrictions." And Larijani avoided answering. He focused on their reaction to the harsher sanctions, but he did not articulate a response to milder sanctions. That either reflects the fact that they might not respond strongly, or it may mean there is no articulated or formulated policy on how to respond. Some parts of the Iranian government don’t care about being able to travel. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a man who enjoys traveling. But the pragmatic conservatives and the business community care. And to the extent this can help consolidate the conservative Iranian opposition—a combination of the business world, pragmatic politicians, and clerics—some of these restrictions could have a real effect by helping to realign the political scene in Iran.

To unify the forces opposed to the current policy?

Right. There’s a lot of talk about the possibility that the business community and the pragmatic conservatives are increasingly working together, because they both view engagement with the outside world as something important to do. This is in opposition to Ahmadinejad, who sees it as a badge of honor to reject the rest of the world. So even though sanctions short of economic ones might not directly affect Ahmadinejad, it may help push some of his opponents closer together.

On the nuclear question: it’s fascinating that everyone in the West assumes that no matter what Iran says about its goal of creating nuclear energy for strictly domestic nuclear production, it really wants this nuclear know-how to have at least the potential for making nuclear weapons. That’s a sort of given everywhere in the West. What do Iranians say about that? Are they careful to keep denying it at every turn?

The Iranians explicitly deny this is about having a weapons option, but they implicitly acknowledge it is creating precisely that option. When they hint or suggest that they could go nuclear in response to aggressive American actions, they acknowledge that they are creating that potential. They will not say that’s part of their strategy, but it clearly fits quite well into the strategy they’re articulating.

Now, you got to see some of the nuclear facilities?

We visited the uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan. Now, this is where they take the yellowcake uranium—which isn’t exactly what you mine out of the ground, but it’s quite close to it—and convert it to various forms, particularly to the gas, uranium hexafluoride, that’s shipped down to Natanz for enrichment. And we traveled along exactly that road. You could see the sign, "Turn right for Natanz," along the way from Tehran to Isfahan. While we were at Isfahan, the facility wasn’t operating. They had just finished what in the nuclear business is called a campaign of converting yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride and now they’re sort of cleaning up and consolidating things. There are some IAEA inspections. You notice that every vat, every pipe, has an English label on it, which presumably is to help the IAEA find their way around this facility. Now this is not a high-tech facility, this is a relatively easy one, but it is considered by many to be a choke point in the Iranian program: if that facility were to disappear, Iran wouldn’t be able to have the material to feed into the centrifuges. So it’s a key part of the Iranian program.

Iran is mining its own uranium?

Iran mines its own uranium. It’s also got stockpiled uranium that’s been imported. There is a question as to whether Iran could produce enough uranium to fuel the sort of nuclear power program that it talks about having. As with any resource, the question is not how much do you have, but how much you can extract at a given cost.

All right. You’re back. President Bush calls you into the White House and says, "Okay, Michael, what’s it look like there, what are my options, what should I do?"

Regardless of whether you think you can solve it through negotiations or force a solution through threats, it’s critical to be speaking directly with the Iranians. In the first approach, you can’t negotiate a solution without talking, but even if you think threats are critical, you need to be talking to the Iranians because they misunderstand your threats.

Clarify that.

Iranians across the spectrum are convinced there is no way the United States would attack them to deal with the nuclear problem. Now, set aside whether it’s wise to threaten or take military action. It’s very dangerous to threaten it if the other side doesn’t believe your threats. That’s roughly what happened in 2003 in Iraq with Saddam Hussein. Saddam was convinced there was no way the United States would act, so he had no incentive to make the concessions necessary to avert that action. I see a similar situation in Iran now, and a succession of people from my group tried to explain to Iranians that they should take this seriously -- and that arguing about whether it would be wise or not for the United States to do this, is, in many ways, beside the point.

Iranians have a very poor understanding of the political pressures that drive American policy. They do not understand the time lines involved -- associated with American elections, for example, and changes of administration. And so putting pressure on them can backfire. That’s not an argument for not putting pressure on them, but it’s an argument for being much more careful about articulating exactly what it is you may or may not do, and what it would take to change your position. There are two ways to do that. One is to talk. The other is to work through organizations like the Security Council. To the extent that the United States invests political capital for taking various actions, those threats become more credible. And it’s important for the administration, too -- they should not assume that Iran believes their threats.

The Iranians don’t think there will be any military attacks because they could respond in kind?

Iranians believe that the United States wouldn’t accomplish enough with military attacks; that the cost for the United States would be too high, particularly because of Iranian retaliation; and that the United States is overstretched militarily. And even if they’re right, that doesn’t necessarily mean a military action wouldn’t happen. At the level of economic sanctions, there seems to be a widespread belief that Ahmadinejad would cut a deal before the United States and its partners actually implemented heavy economic sanctions. But again, that’s based in part on a misunderstanding of the terms the United States would be willing to accept for a deal.

What would the United States accept, do you think?

Right now I don’t see the United States accepting anything other than a complete cessation of enrichment activities in Iran. They may be willing to let Iran maintain a facility that’s built but not operating.

Like Bushehr?

The United States is willing to accept Bushehr. That’s a done deal. That’s a policy shift that occurred a few years ago, and it’s a major policy shift from the Clinton administration. The United States is not, in principle, opposed to Bushehr anymore. But it may also be willing to accept a very small but non-operational enrichment facility.

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