Takeyh: U.S. Can Only Stop Iranian Nuclear Program by Offering Broad Concessions

Ray Takeyh, CFR’s top Iran expert, says the only way Tehran might slow down or halt its nuclear program is for the United States to become more directly engaged in negotiations with the Iranians and offer some broad concessions.

April 13, 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.

More on:

Defense and Security


Ray Takeyh, CFR’s top Iran expert, says Iran’s latest uranium enrichment steps will not lead to UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran. The only way Iran might slow down or halt its nuclear program, he says, "is for the United States to become more directly engaged in negotiations with Iranians and also make an offer of some corresponding concessions." These should include economic, security, and diplomatic concessions, says Takeyh.

Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, does not take seriously the press reports about Bush-administration plans for military pressure on Iran as a last resort. "The administration had long hoped that pressure could get Iranians to acquiesce and suspend the program. It had hoped that the Security Council process would get them to blink. Now I think they’re hoping that invocations of military threat can get them to blink." But he doubts the administration has a military plan of action.

On a scale of one to ten, with ten being most surprised, how surprised were you by the announcement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about Iran’s success in enriching uranium and it’s now being in the world’s "nuclear club."

Oh, no, not terribly surprised. They’ve been working on a program since January, on getting their centrifuges working, and having that 164-centrifuge process completed. So in that sense, it’s not surprising that they have reached the stage that they have.

Now, what they did was by all accounts miniscule -- 164 centrifuges, a little bit of enrichment, 3.5 percent. Do you think Iran has the ability to go to a full production level by the end of the year?

Well, the physics of this program somewhat eludes me. I’m not a scientist. But people tell me that if they keep building up, maybe in a year or two years, they could have a sufficient number of centrifuges to have bomb-grade material. So this is a significant step in the sense that a very critical process of nuclear enrichment has been mastered by them. From here on they can build on this success, and achieve more accomplishments, I suppose.

By doing this the Iranians increase the irritation of the countries that have been negotiating with them, that is France, Germany, and England [as a proxy for the United States], and Russia and China, with Russia being more involved than China. Do you think this will unite these Security Council veto-wielding powers in any way?

I suspect not. The Iranians haven’t really been negotiating with the Europeans, but I think there are some negotiations with the Russians. I think you might see the Europeans come back to the United States and suggest that the only way of arresting or slowing down Iran’s nuclear path is for the United States to become more directly engaged in negotiations with Iranians, and also make an offer of some corresponding concessions. I think, in a perverse way, the pressure can go the other way. Everyone really has an interest in avoiding a confrontation, and they may think the only way you can avert such a development is to agree on the diplomatic and perhaps economic concessions to Iran.

I suspect that the Russians are very concerned, as are the Chinese and many others, that the United States is once more abusing the Security Council process as a means of giving itself the fig leaf for military intervention, as it did in Iraq. There’s a reluctance on their part to have the U.S. resolutions or proclamations be easily validated by the United Nations.

Well, would that then push the Russians to agree to some kind of sanctions?

They haven’t been prone to do so in the past, and I’m not sure if they will be willing to do it now. I don’t think the latest development in Iran is going to unify the international community. And the unity that the international community had was largely predicated on the United States asking them for procedural concessions: "Would you please help us take this file from Vienna, to New York, to the Security Council?" It didn’t ask these countries to give up anything. It didn’t impose any burdens on them. Once the United States asks them to embrace a policy of sanctions, not just the Chinese and Russians, but I suspect also the Europeans are going to buck that trend. So I don’t anticipate the latest Iranian act will convince the others that it is time to put aside their commercial interests -- and, in the case of Russia, their strategic interests -- and embrace U.S. punitive policy, particularly given this administration’s reputation and lack of credibility abroad.

Do you think the Europeans want the United States to deal directly with Iran?

Well, if I understand correctly, last week the German foreign minister came here and informed his counterparts in the administration that they should become more directly involved in this process. That’s something I read in the Financial Times, which is a very credible paper so I’m prone to believe it. There might be some wavering in U.S.-European solidarity.

I thought the United States was involved in sort of vetting the proposals?

Right. But this is not just the United States being involved in negotiations, but the United States offering Iran concessions.

Like what? What kind of concessions would we offer?

Economic concessions, security concessions, diplomatic concessions.

Well, that’s interesting. But this administration doesn’t seem to have any interest in concessions to Iran, does it?

It doesn’t seem to have any interest in that, as of yet. But, you know, the other alternative is for the Russians, the Europeans, and the Chinese, to cut their own deal with the Iranians, whereby they accept Iran having some kind of enrichment capability, but that enrichment capability will be limited and experimental. In that sense, the United States would not be party to those negotiations but would have the opportunity to acquiesce to them.

Well, the idea of Iran having a small enrichment capability, that flies in the face of what the Iranians are saying the last couple of days, right?

Yes, but the question is whether there’s a deal out there whereby they would be willing to limit their enrichment program. It depends what countervailing benefits they get from it.

Do you have any doubts that Iran wants to have the capability to make nuclear weapons?

I always respond to that by saying that, in my view, Iran would like to have a sophisticated nuclear infrastructure that would give it the weapons option at some point in the future, but I don’t think they’ve made up their mind yet to cross the threshold and actually weaponize [nuclear power].

Well, you’re in a minority, I think. The Council [on Foreign Relations] had a conference on Iran last week, and I don’t think there was any speaker who thought Iran was just interested in nuclear energy.

Well, as I said, there’s no reason to believe that a nuclear energy program cannot, at some point, be transformed into a nuclear weapons program. But to suggest that they have made the conclusive determination to have nuclear weapons irrespective of cost, international opinion, and the possibility of multilateral sanctions, seems to me to be going too far. And for those who suggest that it is absolutely conclusively determined that Iran wants to have nuclear weapons, I think it behooves them to provide some kind of evidence for that claim.

The current Iranian government speaks in very confrontational tones. What kind of reception, do you think Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will receive when he gets to Iran? [ElBaradei arrived April 12]

I think he’ll probably find a country that is both determined and somewhat flexible in their approach to him and his agency, in the sense that they’re willing to continue with the inspection process, they’re willing to continue with their membership at the IAEA, and they’re willing to adhere to their NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] obligations. So he’ll find a country that is both determined to achieve an advanced nuclear capability, yet is willing to, at least for now, continue to have that program regulated by its treaty obligations.

Well, now what is it that Iran is doing, specifically, that western countries want it to stop?

Enrichment of uranium.

All enrichment. That’s because they think Iran wants to make nuclear weapons.

Yes. In other words, what they did last week.

Even though it was such a small amount of uranium?

Well the U.S. position, as I understand it, is not the number of centrifuges but the mastery of the process. So the genie’s out of the bottle.

And the Iranians have at least publicly indicated that they have no intention whatsoever of putting it back in the bottle?

Yes, they have always said that the NPT grants member states the right to enrich uranium for peaceful energy purposes, and they are members of the NPT, and if they are willing to adhere to its obligations, then they should enjoy its benefits. That’s the official position.

So when they had suspended enrichment, what was the purpose of that?

Iranians had always said they had the right to enrich uranium, but they would suspend that right during the process of negotiations with the Europeans. The purpose of those negotiations, from the Iranian perspective, was to take confidence-building measures and inspection processes whereby the Europeans could be assured that their enrichment process was not a military activity. They never said they would relinquish that right. They were hoping to develop mechanisms and modalities to assure the Europeans that their enrichment program was peaceful, and not one designed for military purposes.

The United States, in particular, thinks that the Iranians have secret nuclear work going on?

Yes, there’s a suspicion that there’s a parallel program. The IAEA, thus far, has not found evidence of that.

Is there anything you think the United States could do that would get Iran to stop its nuclear development?

I think with a more comprehensive U.S. diplomacy, they can regulate and constrain the growth of Iran’s nuclear program, but I think the reversal of existing steps is going to be very difficult to bring about. In other words, the United States can negotiate nuclear restraint, but not an Iran without a mature nuclear capability, not at this late date. In 2002 or 2001, if they had had more engaged negotiations, they could have perhaps gotten the more favorable deal. But that’s the way nuclear programs go. As they develop, as they mature, it will be difficult to go back to point zero.

What do you make of these various reports about possible military action against Iran?

The administration had long hoped that pressure could get Iranians to acquiesce and suspend the program. It had hoped that the Security Council process would get them to blink. Now I think they’re hoping that invocations of military threat can get them to blink. I think these are what, ironically, Iranians said they are: psychological pressure. What happens when Iranians don’t blink? What’s Plan B? And I don’t think there is one.

You don’t think there’s a military plan ready to go.

I think the intellectual poverty of the administration’s approach to Iran is only mirrored by the intellectual poverty in their planning of the war in Iraq.