Takeyh: Iranian-U.S. Relations at New Low Point

September 6, 2005

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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Ray Takeyh, the Council’s top expert on Iran, says the United States’ conviction that Iran is secretly planning to develop nuclear weapons, and Iran’s steadfast denial, have plunged relations between the two countries to its lowest state in about a decade.

“I guess there have been periods when their relationship has been worse. There’s a great degree of disquiet by the new Iranian president and the new Iranian administration. Some of it is legitimate,” says Takeyh, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies. He doubts the United States and the Europeans will be able to persuade the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] at its September 19 meeting to send Iran to the UN Security Council for its nuclear-related activities.

Takeyh was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 6, 2005.

The IAEA issued another report last week on Iran’s nuclear situation, and it seemed a bit vague. How would you describe the situation?

The IAEA’s report is similar to the previous IAEA reports—namely, it’s still somewhat ambiguous and its conclusions are still inconclusive. What the IAEA suggests is Iran still has much to account for in terms of its nuclear program, in terms of its nuclear intentions. However, there has been no evidence that Iran has misused its nuclear resources or technology for military purposes. The way forward, as far as the IAEA is concerned, is continuation of the examinations process. And that’s where [IAEA Director General Mohammed] ElBaradei and the IAEA inspection regime are; they’re restrained by their evidence and they’re trying to move forward on this issue in which many individuals’ and many countries’ conclusions are more politically drawn. The IAEA has to be constrained by its evidence. They have no option other than that as a political neutral body involved in monitoring nuclear activities.

What are the concerns of the United States and the European countries that are negotiating with Iran?

Well, there are two different issues. First, the United States is convinced Iran’s nuclear program is a cover for nuclear arms; that the civilian research program and its claims of energy production are mere fabrications as Iran seeks to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. That’s the American conclusion.

And that’s based on what?

That’s based on American intelligence, and what American intelligence is based on, I imagine, is very little. So essentially, what the United States is trying to do is calibrate Iran’s intentions. What the IAEA is trying to do is examine Iran’s technological procurement efforts. And those are two different things. The IAEA—given the pattern of Iran’s technology, given the pattern of Iran’s conduct—cannot validate the American conclusion at this particular point. And the Americans are confident in their conclusions and frustrated at the IAEA’s unwillingness to substantiate those conclusions. That’s the gap that remains as unresolved today as it was in October 2003 when this entire investigation process began.

And what about the European negotiators with Iran, the British, French, and Germans [the EU-3]?

They seem to have embraced critical aspects of American policy. Their position is that Iran has been in such systematic violation of this previous nuclear agreement—and here we’re talking about safeguard agreements, under which Iran did not declare to the IAEA some of its nuclear facilities and enrichment activities as it was supposed to under its [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] (http://www.un.org/Depts/dda/WMD/treaty/) obligations. They’re saying that Iran’s previous violations are so significant, the only way the international community can have confidence Iran is not determined to produce nuclear weapons is for Iran to cease all enrichment and reprocessing activities.

And the enrichment process has just begun again at Isfahan?

Yes, that’s right. That’s designed to produce yellow cake that will produce the necessary fuel for centrifuges that will in turn enrich uranium.

Talk about the Iranian government’s position.

The Iranian government position is, “Yes, we were in violation of our previous safeguard agreements. And the reason we did not declare our nuclear facilities is because we were worried about American sanctions against those facilities, military, covert, or otherwise. We accept the fact that we need to have a confidence-building measure. We have done so; we have signed the additional protocol. We have accepted a stringent inspection regime from the IAEA and these should constitute as objective guarantees to the international community. We should therefore be allowed to proceed with our enrichment activities—a right that we have under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.”

Does the IAEA agree Iran’s conceded to everything they’ve asked?

Well, again, there’s a tentativeness to it. The IAEA report says Iran’s cooperation is improving, but in some cases, there’ve been unnecessary delays. So again, even on the issue of the discharging of the inspection activities, there’s a level of ambiguity. The IAEA is not as unsatisfied with Iranian progress as the United States is, but it is also not as satisfied with the Iranian progress as the Iranians are. It’s somewhere in between the United States and Iran.

What has to happen next on this nuclear issue?

The IAEA board will meet September 19 to contemplate the IAEA report—this is a 35-country membership—and at that time, it will deal with the American and probably the European Union’s requests for the Iranian portfolio to be transferred to the United Nations Security Council for deliberation of more stringent, if not coercive measures.

You’ve said before that it would be “dead on arrival” at the Security Council because of the Russian and Chinese positions, right?

Actually, I have always said that the notion this portfolio could be easily deferred from [IAEA headquarters in] Vienna to [UN headquarters in] New York is a problematic one. I’m not quite sure if that’s going to happen. The way the IAEA board is dealing with it is there has to be a consensus among the thirty-five members. Now the word consensus, again, is ambiguous and in the past, it has denoted uniformity of opinion.

The United States is unlikely to garner such consensus, so it’s pushing for plurality. Namely, if you get eighteen out of thirty-five members to vote for this, then it can go to the Security Council in contravention of previous IAEA reporting behavior on such proliferation issues. Fine, that may be, legally, an acceptable definition. But it is a difficult case to make. Namely, the United States is suggesting not that Iran today is in violation of the safeguard agreements, but that previous violations of safeguard agreements, which came to an end in October 2003, are sufficient for Iran’s portfolio to be transferred to the United Nations for contemplation of sanctions and so on. So Iran would not be deferred to the Security Council because it today stands in violation of the safeguard agreements, but because in the past it has committed those violations and those past violations are sufficient legal grounds for transferring this portfolio to [the UN Security Council].

I have some problems with that, and the IAEA has some problems with that, because if you read the inspection report carefully, what Mr. ElBaradei says and what the report suggests is that the way you deal with previous Iranian safeguard violations is with the continuation of the inspection process. It doesn’t say anything about taking this file to the next level. That would imply that Iran is obdurate and is not complying with its contractual agreements—that doesn’t seem to be the case today. So this is where this issue becomes so much more complicated because, again, it’s the American perception of Iranian intentions that is driving much of this activity.

Let’s talk about the Iranians again. This has become a national issue in Iran, right? Everyone is for peaceful uses of nuclear energy?

Sure. I think that’s now the consensus position.

Is this new government under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad different on this issue from the previous one under Mohammed Khatami?

They’re more assertive in terms of their rights. Namely, they’re unwilling to continue the suspension of nuclear activities to placate the Europeans. And what they’re saying is, “We’re no longer going to negotiate just with the EU-3, but we’re going to negotiate with the international community.” The new chief negotiator of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, has been meeting with South African representatives; he was recently in India; he’s contemplating another trip to Pakistan. Namely, the Iranians say there is nothing intrinsically valuable in the EU-3 that negotiations on this issue should be limited to them. They are saying they are open to negotiate with the Europeans, the European-3, or the European-7, or whatever, but they are no longer going to continue the process of suspension just to placate the Europeans.

So in that sense, there is a subtle difference, but I should say that even the previous reformist government was suggesting that the process of negotiations and suspension has gone on too long. The Iranians claimed that whatever objective guarantees the Iranians had offered seemed to be insufficient and inadequate for the Europeans; therefore, this process cannot continue on perpetuity and we need to reconsider it.

I gather the various reports from the United States and Britain suggest that Iran is still quite far away from any nuclear-weapons production. Is that right?

Right. Ten years, I think, is the latest American intelligence assessment.

So there’s not a sense of great urgency about it?

On the surface you would think so, but again, there seems to be a division between the sense of urgency the American political class feels and the sense of urgency the American intelligence community feels. It’s like the Iraq scenario.

Do you have any sense about what has to happen at the end of September?

I don’t necessarily believe the IAEA board will transfer this file to the United Nations. I think it will, once again, perhaps admonish Iran and call for it to resume the suspension of its activities and revisit this issue at a later date. I could be dramatically wrong about this, but I think that’s where it’s going.

And is there any possibility Iran will agree to suspend activities?

Some of Iran’s enrichment activities continue to be suspended. But I think what Iranians are now doing is beginning the process of enrichment a step at a time—not all at once, but a step at a time, hand-in-hand with the IAEA. I think that trajectory is unlikely to be reversed.

So when you say, “hand-in-hand with the IAEA,” what do you mean?

It means just what they did in Isfahan. Namely they said, “We’re going to resume these particular reprocessing activities, but that resumption will take place under the auspices and monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency.”

And that’s happening now?

That’s in fact happening now in Isfahan, yes.

 Is there still concern there are secret facilities nobody knows about?

The United States government continues to insist there are secret facilities, undeclared sites, and I have no way of ascertaining that. Do I think there are activities that are taking place outside the purview of the international-inspection regime? I suspect there are. Can I offer you any evidence to prove that? No.

And I think that’s the dilemma that perhaps the United States is in. It has certain suspicions, but it is incapable or perhaps unwilling to offer evidence that would convince the international community.

And relations between the United States and Iran?

They’ve never been worse.

Why has it never been worse?

Well, it has never been worse in the past ten years or so. I guess there have been periods when their relationship has been worse. There’s a great degree of disquiet by the new Iranian president and the new Iranian administration. Some of it is legitimate.

How would you sum up this new government?

It’s a younger government. It’s a government comprised of hardliners, who have been largely isolated from the international community. It is an experienced government in a sense that most of these individuals are in their mid-forties and they seem to have been selected more for their ideological reliability as opposed to their technical competence. It is an assertive government about its national rights and prerogatives. It is a hawkish government in terms of its embrace of Islamic tenets of the revolutions.

And have they cracked down on social freedoms in Iran?

Not yet. That hasn’t happened yet, but they’re still getting their bearings.

What do you think, is President Ahmadinejad actually one of the captors during the 1979 hostage-taking at the U.S. embassy in Tehran?

There is no evidence to suggest that; the CIA itself has suggested he was not part of it. But here you get into a tricky position because the Bush administration is unwilling to contradict the American hostages.

It’s the hostages who’ve claimed it?

Five of the hostages have claimed that Ahmadinejad was one of their captors. The CIA, after a laborious investigation, has not accepted that claim. But politically, it’s difficult for the Bush administration to take a position different from those who suffered 444 days of captivity.

So I take it there’s no initiative on either side to improve these relations.

I don’t hear a giant sucking sound from either capital.

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