Luers: Possible Solution for U.S.-Iran Nuclear Standoff

William Luers, former U.S. envoy to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia, discusses his proposed multilateral nuclear-enrichment plan, which he believes could end the current Iranian nuclear crisis.

March 07, 2008

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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William Luers, former U.S. envoy to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia, has proposed a multilateral nuclear-enrichment plan that he believes could end the current Iranian nuclear crisis. The plan, which he developed with Thomas R. Pickering and Jim Walsh, would replace Iran’s own enrichment activities. Luers says the Bush administration is unlikely to accept it, and the Iranians are waiting for the United States to move first. Thus, any movement will have to await the next U.S. administration. “There’s no good approach to this, and we don’t claim that this is a great solution,” says Luers. “We claim it’s the best of a bad lot.”

You, Thomas R. Pickering, and Jim Walsh have published an article in the New York Review of Books offering what you call “a solution” for the U.S.-Iran nuclear standoff. Do you want to expound first on what the proposal actually consists of?

The proposal we have, which is subject to negotiation with Iranians if we ever get to that point, is that the United States would work with several countries—possibly France, Germany, possibly the United Kingdom—and work with Iran to negotiate a consortium, or what is called a “multilateral fuel-cycle facility,” on Iranian territory that would encompass the Iranians’ existing work with their centrifuges to enrich uranium. It would become a partnership with Iran to further develop their nuclear capacity for peaceful uses, and be accompanied by a very strict and thorough regime of inspections and monitoring that would make certain that Iran did not produce highly enriched uranium, which is what would be necessary for nuclear weapons. It would also bar a heavy-water reactor, which could develop plutonium for nuclear weapons, and would encompass other constraints on Iran’s ability to develop a nuclear-weapons capacity. Our group’s basic approach is that it’s too late to stop Iran’s enrichment—the goal of current U.S. policy. Every time we pass new sanctions in the UN Security Council, Iran increases its enrichment activities. So we have to find a way to get control of it. The most important thing for the international community is to have as much access as we can get to their nuclear program.

Have you tried this idea out privately with the U.S. administration?

Yes. We did not get a positive response. Some of the people we talked to thought it was interesting. Others thought it was time to have some new idea. But the administration is basically blocked on policy toward Iran, locked into where they are, justifying the history of the policy they’ve had, which we think has stuck, if not soured. And my sense is that there are people in the U.S. government who think something like this needs to be tried, but that the leadership of the government is not inclined to do anything right now with Iran.

And on the Iranian side, what kind of reaction have you got over there?

The Iranian leadership, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself, proposed this a couple of years ago. As they’ve progressed in their work on enrichment, the potential for having even tougher negotiations on this proposal has increased. On the other hand, my initial reactions from people we’ve been in touch with in Iran is that this is a very interesting proposal, and that they, at least privately, would be interested in hearing what the U.S. government would make of a proposal like this.

In other words, the Iranians are saying the United States would have to come forward first.

That’s a key element. They have a long history of distrust of our intentions. And a major aspect of Iranian behavior is that they perceive everything the U.S. government does as an effort to undermine the Iranian regime. The Iranians believe regime change is fundamentally still our objective, whatever we say. If we were to approach them directly and say, “We want to sit down with you directly and talk about the ways in which Iran and the United States, together with some other countries, can work out this nuclear problem,” that would give them the type of assurance they need that it’s worth a try.

But the Security Council proposal on the table is that if Iran suspends its nuclear enrichment for an unspecified time, then there could be direct negotiations on this whole question. Iran has refused to do this, and the Western powers have refused to go to direct talks without a suspension. That’s been the problem now for some time now. You don’t get any sense from the Iranians that they’re willing to suspend, even for a brief period?

I get from the Iranians two things. First, they suspended for about eighteen months in earlier negotiations with Europe. And during those discussions, they found that as long as they were suspended, the United States and the Western countries did not do anything seriously with regard to reaching an agreement. And they have concluded from that period of suspension that all we wanted was permanent suspension. And so they decided not to agree, again, to suspending while negotiating. On the other hand, we do have a sense that if there were agreement for nations, including the United States, to meet on a serious agenda about their peaceful nuclear program—as they call it—suspension would be one issue that might be on the table. So it’s one of those curious issues of who talks, when we talk, and how we talk, and that if talks were to begin they say that suspension is one of the things they would talk about. But they’re very clear it would be temporary. It would not be permanent suspension.

Now, on the multinational plan. Russia proposed something similar to that a couple years ago. And the United States even backed the Russian plan which called for the Russians to do the enrichment.

The Iranians now have increasingly made this enrichment issue a source of national pride and stature. And because of the difficulties of working this out with the United States and their perception that we’ve tried to stop them at every turn, [it] has turned it into a nationalist cry—we deserve our own enrichment!

The Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, when he came to the United Nations last fall, equated the Iranian commitment to having a peaceful nuclear program to the commitment they had to defeat Iraq during that eight-year war. When they’ve raised it to that level of national commitment, and it’s become hysterical as a political factor in the country, I don’t think there’s any rational way they can deal with this as anything other than a nationalist drive for recognition and acceptance.

There’s no good approach to this, and we don’t claim that this is a great solution. We claim it’s the best of a bad lot.

I am convinced the Iranian people are not out there clamoring for a nuclear weapon. That issue is hardly discussed in Iran. And often when the United States talks about a nuclear program, what immediately comes to mind is a nuclear-weapons program. When Iranian people talk about a nuclear program, they talk about a peaceful nuclear program. That’s not to say that there aren’t many people in the Iranian government who do not want the capacity to build nuclear weapons. I certainly think they want that capacity. Given the time it’s going to take them to get the enrichment facility that is going to get the highly enriched uranium, I’m not sure that they’re now anxiously waiting to get a weapons system.

We’re going to have a change of regime in the United States in a few months. Have you tried out these ideas on the various candidates?

We’ve talked to a number of senators about it. We’ve been around the political system. Frankly, we have not gone to the leading Democratic candidates yet because we don’t know who it’s going to be. And I guess I have the other concern that in an electoral campaign, Iran becomes one of those third rails, that it’s difficult to have a sensible discussion about this. And no candidate wants to be perceived as being a wimp toward somebody who’s really as outrageous as Ahmadinejad and given the perception of Iranian intentions in the Middle East. We will certainly get to the candidates before the elections, but once you have a new president, he or she is going to be faced immediately with this growing crisis of how to deal with this terrible problem. We say our approach is the least bad of all others. There’s no good approach to this, and we don’t claim that this is a great solution. We claim it’s the best of a bad lot.

You don’t think the latest Security Council measure just passed with additional sanctions is going to change the situation in Iran?

It will change the pain that is given to the people of Iran. It will reduce their capacity to get additional support for internal development. It will add to the frustration that the Iranian people have with their leadership. But it will not, I don’t think for a minute, change the Iranian government approach to its nuclear program. That is not going to change, unless we find some way to work with them on it.

So I guess the reality is, as other people have said also, any new negotiations on Iran will probably have to wait till next January?

I think so. You know you never can tell what might happen. Meanwhile, I guess I’m concerned not only about what’s happening with regard to their nuclear program, but the role of Iran in the region. [Ahmadinejad’s] recent trip to Iraq, their diplomatic efforts in the Persian Gulf, the tensions that are likely to arise in the Gulf if we have another incident like we did several months ago with the small boats [in which Iranian vessels harassed U.S. naval forces in the Strait of Hormuz].

All of these play into another environment for us and Iran in the region that needs to be managed, even more urgently than the nuclear question. Because we have placed the nuclear issue above everything else, it’s been very difficult for us to see the increasingly powerful role of Iran. And as we look at the frustrating developments in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and now in Pakistan, all countries that surround Iran, Iran emerges as the strongest, most powerful country in the region. And we should be dealing with them on all these other issues. Pakistan is a nightmare for Iran and it presents real problems for them.

And ironically, of all the countries in the region with which we have a common purpose in the region it is Iran. They want a stable Iraq. They want a Shiite government. They want a stable Afghanistan. They want to stop the narcotics trafficking. They’re violently opposed to the Taliban. And they’re terribly worried about the rise of Sunni extremists in northwestern Pakistan. So there are a lot of common interests that we can address as this region gets more and more chaotic.