What's Ahead For Iran After 'Last Chance' Talks

Guests

Mike Shuster, foreign correspondent, NPR
Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former Iran nuclear negotiator

The latest round of high-level negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions ended Tuesday without an agreement. After the failure of talks that President Obama called Iran's "last chance," some wonder whether or not Israel or the United States may now opt for military force.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The latest level of high-level negotiations over Iran's nuclear ambitions ended yesterday with no apparent progress and with tough new sanctions set to take effect against Tehran in the coming weeks.

Iran insists on the right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany insist that Iran comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions to stop enrichment and ship existing stocks out of the country.

This set of negotiations has not quite collapsed, but we may have taken more steps toward the brink. If you have questions about where we go next on Iran, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org.

Later on the program, as the defense rests in the Jerry Sandusky trial, we want to hear from lawyers about the decision to put their clients on the witness stand - or not. You can email us now, talk@npr.org. But first Iran, and we begin, as we often do on this subject, with NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, who joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Mike, always good to have you with us.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: Yes, hi, Neal.

CONAN: Two days of talks in Moscow appear to have lived down to low expectations.

SHUSTER: Well, I don't think there were really high expectations to begin with. This is the third round of talks, and maybe what you could say is after a lot of hours of negotiating on Monday and Tuesday, the initial positions of both sides, Iran on the one hand and the international contingent on the other, the initial positions are I think perhaps a bit more clear now than they had been before.

But there doesn't seem to be any movement on either side to compromise or make concessions.

CONAN: No concessions offered by either side?

SHUSTER: Not really. The Iranians insist that the West recognized their right to enrich uranium. They say that they may stop the production of what's known as 20 percent enriched uranium, which is a demand that the United States and Europe is making, stop the 20 percent enriched uranium, close the Fordo facility, which is the place where 20 percent enriched uranium is being made, export their stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium out of the country and then the Western side said, and maybe we'll provide some fuel for you that you say you need in a research reactor in Tehran.

The Iranians want to be recognized as legal, that they're establishing their legal rights to enrich uranium, and under those circumstances, they say they may stop 20 percent, stop making 20 percent enriched uranium. So you can see there is - maybe you can say there is a little head-nodding from either side about what they're talking about, but no concessions.

CONAN: The Iranians also want the sanctions imposed, some by the United Nations Security Council but most unilaterally by the United States and various other countries, including the European Union, they want those lifted. Any offer to lift concessions, lift sanctions or some sanctions in response to Iranian concessions?

SHUSTER: No, not at all. I think it's quite clear that the United States and Europe have no intention at this stage in this diplomatic dance to offer an easing of sanctions. I think that both the United States and Europe want to see what's going to happen once even tougher sanctions come into play. On July 1st, the European Union is going to impose a total oil embargo against Iran's oil, and there will be further financial and banking sanctions that the United States will impose that will make it even more difficult for Iran's central bank to operate.

And I think that that's one - that's the primary reason that the West took the stance that it did in Moscow this week, because they know that some tough measures are coming, and they want to see how Iran reacts.

CONAN: And the theory being that if Iran's economy is further damaged, and already we see the value of the currency diminishing, oil exports sharply reduced, if that could persuade the Iranians to come back to the table.

SHUSTER: Well, I think it's quite clear that the United States and the Europeans believe that the only reason that Iran is at the table now and has been negotiating now for the last two months, is because of the restrictions on purchasing Iran's oil that have been taking place globally already and some very serious banking sanctions.

I think that the United States, particularly the Obama administration, thinks that that's the reason why this diplomacy is underway, and there doesn't seem to be any rush to come to an agreement until the even tougher sanctions come into play.

CONAN: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation, Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he joins us from a studio in their offices here in Washington, D.C. Nice to have you back on the program.

RAY TAKEYH: Thanks very much for having me.

CONAN: And will the Iranians, do you think, respond well to pressure?

TAKEYH: I think if you look at Iran's nuclear strategy or nuclear ambitions over the past couple of years, they have remained fairly constant. Namely, they continue to enrich uranium, and they insist on their right to do so to be recognized by the international community, and they reject the U.N. Security Council resolutions - six of them so far - that calls for Iran to suspend as activities as largely illegal and politically motivated.

That hasn't actually changed over the past couple of years as the sanctions regime has become more intensified. Now, whether it will be, in the aftermath of the forthcoming European sanctions, remains to be seen. But the history of this suggests that this particular regime has made a certain decision and certain commitments to existing nuclear empowerment.

CONAN: And that decision, we keep hearing conflicting claims on it. Iran, of course, insists the program, its nuclear enrichment program, is perfectly: A, legal, as you pointed out; and B, that it's intended for peaceful purposes only, to fuel nuclear reactors for electricity and that 20 percent uranium for medical isotopes and that sort of thing.

But also we hear that the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has said nuclear weapons, possession of that would be a sin.

TAKEYH: Well, that's right. That's another difference between Islamic Republic and international detractors is the Iranians suggest their activities are for peaceful nuclear energy purposes, and there's a religious prohibition against weapons of mass destruction and so on and so forth, while the international community suspect there's weapons motivations.

In the past, at least, there has been evidence of weaponization(ph) research. And the IAEA that monitors Iran's nuclear program has expressed unsatisfaction with Iran in terms of access to facilities in order for it to be able to conclusively verify Iran's motivations.

CONAN: We're talking with Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations, also with us, NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster. Where do we go next on Iran? 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. And let's begin with Colin(ph), Colin calling us from Fresno.

COLIN: Good afternoon.

CONAN: Hi.

COLIN: My question is: Isn't all of this rhetoric about all options being on the table really just posturing? I can't see that Obama can make a really credible threat to go to war with Iran over its nuclear program so soon after the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, the president did say these negotiations were the last chance. We've seen a series of former U.S. officials recently in Israel saying wait a minute, don't attack unilaterally. If it's necessary, we will. I have seen those - we had the former - Michelle Flournoy, the former Defense Department senior official, saying I've seen those plans, and they are credible and viable.

SHUSTER: Yeah, I think that there's still a lot of talk about this, Neal, but I think that the Obama administration, one, wants to see tougher sanctions come into place at the beginning of July and then it give it them some time to work. That should take us probably through the November election.

After that, I think there may be some rethinking about all of this if Iran hasn't come around, or there hasn't been real progress at the negotiating table. But as far as military action is concerned, we heard a lot about that a few months ago. There was a great deal of talk in the United States, Europe and Israel about it.

But after President Obama met with the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, it has quieted, and clearly contrary voices have emerged in Israel, as well. So I don't think that it's a realistic possibility that there could be war between now and the November election in the United States.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, Aaron David Miller has described President Obama as the not-now foreign policy: He might deal with Iran, but not now, meaning not until after the elections. Is that something you would agree with?

TAKEYH: Well, I think there is an ongoing diplomatic process, even though it's been downgraded, and even though at this point it has not been fruitful. And as was suggested, there is anticipation that new sanctions measures are going to kick in and deprive Iran of sufficient revenue. That may in fact make it a more pliable interlocutor.

Those are untested propositions, and they remain to be seen, but I think so long as that perception is in existence, and so long as there's a process ongoing, I'm not quite sure if there's a need or an inclination toward a military solution.

CONAN: Well, the other side of that coin is that Mr. Obama is attacked by his GOP rival, Mitt Romney, as weak on Iran. And they will say that Iran is just playing this for time, as they have in previous negotiations, spinning it out as long as they can to continue to develop a nuclear weapon.

TAKEYH: Well, it'll take Iran some time to be able to actually develop a nuclear weapon because these facilities are still under inspection. It is still behind in terms of actually being able to manufacture a weapon in terms of actually enriching uranium to that level and do it without detection, and being able to actually put it on a missile or some sort of a projectile. So there is still some gap and some distance between now and the time when Iran's weaponization may become more eminent.

SHUSTER: If I could add just one small point here, Neal. At the same time, there is this ongoing action - covert operations in cyberspace that President Obama has authorized, that has hurt some of these - some of this malware and spyware, has hurt Iran's efforts to continue making enriched uranium. And there's no indication that those kind of operations are going to stop.

I think that there's every reason to think that we may learn more about additional cyber operations in the months to come.

CONAN: Indeed, the Washington Post reported today on the so-called Flame weapon, they say developed jointly by Israel and the United States. We were talking yesterday with David Sanger and Ted Koppel about Stuxnet, the subsequent development, which actually damaged some of those Iranian centrifuges.

In any case, stay with us. We're talking about what's next with Iran. The latest round of negotiations failed to reach agreement. In a moment, we'll be joined by a former Iranian diplomat about what that country wants, their negotiating tactics and what might convince Tehran to compromise.

If you have questions about where we go next, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News; I'm Neal Conan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travels to Russia next week for talks with the Russian foreign minister on, among other likely topics, the question of Iran and continued efforts to get Tehran to comply with U.N. demands to stop enriching uranium.

After the latest round of negotiations with Iran ended yesterday with no deal and with even tougher economic sanctions set to take effect at the end of the month, we're talking about what's next. If you have questions about where we go next on Iran, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org.

Our guests are NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster; and Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. And joining us now is Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former nuclear negotiator for the Iranian government. He's currently a research professor at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University and joins us now by phone from Princeton. And nice to have you with us today.

SEYED HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And what does Iran need to hear in order to come to an agreement?

MOUSAVIAN: Iran is looking just for its legitimate rights on their NPT. Iranians, the most important issue for Iran since 2003 is to respect the rights of Iran on their non-nuclear proliferation treaty, which permits every member of NPT to have enrichment.

CONAN: Yet as you know, the Security Council has issued declarations saying you must stop.

MOUSAVIAN: That's why Iran considers the United Nations Security Council a clear violation of NPT because on the NPT, all member states, they can have enrichment. Many member states, they have enrichment.

CONAN: I wonder, here's an email question that we have from one of our listeners named Russell(ph), who's writing us from Tulsa, Oklahoma: What exactly could Iran do to conclusively prove their nuclear ambitions are for civil purposes, outside of inspectors?

MOUSAVIAN: Since 2003, more than 4,000 inspections has been done through IAEA, and IAEA frequently has confirmed neither Iran has nuclear bomb nor there has been evidence about diversion of Iranian nuclear program toward military purposes. Therefore, already even by the IAEA reports, it's completely clear that not only Iran doesn't have nuclear weapon, there is no evidence of diversion toward military purposes.

The question is about some ambiguities and technical questions left by the IAEA. In Moscow talks just two days ago, Iran very clearly told the P5 plus one that Iran is prepared to go to the maximum level of transparency and cooperation with the IAEA, the level of cooperation by the IAEA to remove all technical questions, all ambiguities.

Iran informed the P5 plus One that Iran is prepared to address the possible military dimension issues. The possible military dimension issues for Iran, if Iran is going to address, Iran would have to implement additional protocol. Iran would have to give access to the IAEA beyond additional protocol.

This means unlimited access. In Moscow, the Iranian delegations, they told the P5 plus one members that Iran is prepared for such a level of cooperation with the IAEA. In case the P5 plus one is ready to respect the rights of Iran on their NPT.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, I think that everybody does agree that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, but they look at those IAEA reports and come to different conclusions.

MOUSAVIAN: The IAEA...

CONAN: Hold on, Mr. Mousavian, I was asking Ray Takeyh. We'll get back to you in just a moment, thank you.

MOUSAVIAN: OK.

TAKEYH: The IAEA has come to a different conclusion. It's - Mr. Amano has suggested that there are certain ambiguities that need to be clarified in terms of access to Iranian scientists and installations, and he has not been granted that access, most recently about the Parchin facility that Iranians are busy cleansing.

So there is unsatisfactory progress in terms of Iran's cooperation with the IAEA. A variety of work plans have been negotiated over the years between the Iranian authorities and the IAEA, and they have all remained incomplete.

Second of all, the United States - and the president of the United States does not have the authority to recognize Iran's right to enrich, and nor do five plus one. That authority rests with the United Nations Security Council, and the Security Council has suggested that Iran has to take a number of steps before it can come into compliance with the NPT and before it can ensure the rights of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Among those is a suspension of all activities. Among those are essentially meeting the requirements of the IAEA to the satisfaction of Mr. Amano, and then Iran can come back to compliance with the treaty.

So long as that happens, Iran does not have the right to enrich, and even NPT does not grant enrichment rights. It is ambiguous in that sense. But there'll be, then, different interpretations, and Iran and the international community can settle that issue. But this is a question of sequencing. First, Iran has to come and meet all its obligations under the United Nations Security Council, six of them, and then it can essentially discuss what rights it does and does not have under the NPT.

CONAN: Let's get another caller involved in the conversation. This is Ali(ph), Ali with us from Boulder.

ALI: Yes, sir. I have two comments to make. First of all is about the idea of how many (unintelligible) that we are not going to, or we will not have the nuclear bomb because it's against Islam. I think that's totally false. You cannot trust the words. I am myself from Iran. I've been in this country for 20 years, but I lived there for 20 years, as well.

I know that as soon as there is a need to change that idea, they will do that easily. They can say that Islam is, you know, under pressure and is threatened by Western, we have to have nuclear bomb, and that's - overnight they can change that. That's my first comment.

The second one is about sanctions. You mentioned that more sanctions will be implicated by the end of this month. I think that will not get us anywhere because as you know, the Iranians have been under pressure for 30-something years, and the sanction is going to only make the Iranian people suffer more. And they will make an idealistic Islamic thing out of it that these are the prices we have to pay for Islam, and we will survive and all that - the things that they have been telling people for past, God knows, 32 years. So I just want to mention that.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much for the call, Ali. A couple of points there, so Seyed Hossein Mousavian, should we put trust in the fatwah issued by Iran's supreme leader?

MOUSAVIAN: First of all about questioning the rights of enrichment under NPT, if this is not legal to have enrichment under NPT, why many members of NPT, already they have enrichment, including many Western countries. If this is illegal, everybody should stop.

Second, fatwah, I believe during the war with Iran, the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein in 1980 to 1988, remember very well that Iraq used chemical weapon at thousands of Iranians. They were victim of chemical weapon. That time, the military of Iran was asking the then-Iranian religious leader to reciprocate, and Ayatollah Khomeini rejected reciprocation and gave the same fatwah: The use of weapons of mass destruction is forbidden religiously.

I believe the time when a country is invaded, and the weapons of mass destruction is used by aggressor, and the religious leaders, they prevent their own army to reciprocate, this is the best evidence of legitimacy of such a fatwah.

CONAN: Mike?

SHUSTER: Yeah, I have a question for Mr. Mousavian. He made a good point a little while ago when he said that in Moscow, the Iranian side pledged complete cooperation with the IAEA, even going beyond what's known as the additional protocol, which would allow snap inspections in a lot of places. And the IAEA, if it had that, would learn a great deal about - more about Iran's nuclear program.

Obviously, Iran would want some kind of sanctions relief in exchange for that. But there's such a powerful abyss of distrust between the two sides, that the question is: How can something like that be implemented? And I think that's one of the problems that the two sides keep talking about: the sequencing of events, how can you establish trust, confidence-building measures. And I wonder if Mr. Mousavian has some thoughts on getting there.

MOUSAVIAN: Yeah. This is a very good question. There was four major demands from the P5+1 in Moscow talks. First of all, they wanted Iran to stop 20 percent enrichment, which Iran responded positively. They said, we are ready. Second, they wanted some confidence-building measures on the stockpile of 20 percent. Already, Iran has about 150 kilogram of stockpile. Iran responded positively. Iranian delegation, they said, we are ready for the lease on the stockpile of the 20 percent.

Third, the P5+1 was emphasizing on the cooperation and transparency with the IAEA, which Iran responded positively. And fourth, they wanted Iran to address their possible military dimension issues, which practically requires Iran to go beyond NPT. Even on the fourth issue, Iran responded positively. On all four major demands of the P5+1 in Moscow, the Iranian delegation, they responded positively.

But unfortunately, the P5+1 was not in position to offer anything on sanctions and recognition of the rights. Iranians, they had two demands, which the P5+1 totally rejected to go forward. And the P5+1, they had four demands, which Iranians, they showed positive gesture toward all the four demands.

Your question, I believe, is the key. That's why in Istanbul, they agreed to have a step-by-step plan with mutual reciprocation, and reciprocations to be appropriate. Mistrust is mutual, definitely. They agreed in Istanbul that there is a mutual distrust. The sequence should come the same as step-by-step plan.

It means if Iran is going to take the first step to stop 20 percent, one of the major demands of the P5+1, the P5+1 should have simultaneously, in parallel, an appropriate step. If Iran is going to accept confidence-building measures on the stockpile of the 20 percent in the second phase, the P5+1 also should have something proportionate.

The problem is that Iranians, they are ready to come forward with all four major demands of the P5+1, and the P5+1 is not going to move at all on the two major demands of the Iranian, which is the recognition of the right and gradual removal of the sanctions. This should be done through a step-by-step plan. This is the way. There would be no other solution for the issue.

CONAN: Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former Iranian nuclear negotiator, now a research professor at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton. Also with us, Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And, Ray Takeyh, the P5+1, that's the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. They see the step-by-step procedures, they see this very differently. They think Iran has to begin this process.

TAKEYH: Well, the 5+1 had three demands. Number one is for Iran to stop production of 20 percent. Number two is to ship out its existing stockpile of 20 percent. Number three is the closure of Fordu facility, which is actually where much of the 20 percent enrichment is taking place. On all those issues, the Iranian delegation, they have rejected the closure of Fordu, and they're fairly ambiguous on secession of 20 percent or what to do in terms of disposition of the stockpile.

Mr. Saeed Jalili has, in his press conference, suggested that Iran has a right to enrich to whatever level it wishes, and that's essentially one of its inalienable rights that cannot be infringed upon. Second of all, there was a package of incentives that was offered to Iran. The Iranians found that package unsatisfactory.

But even secession and stopping and suspending enrichment is Iran's legal right, is Iran's legal obligations. Frankly, I'm not even sure if the - if it's necessary to provide incentives for them to execute their legal obligations. It's like me saying, I will abide by traffic laws in Washington, D.C. only if the city of Washington offers me incentives. No, that's my legal obligation to stop at red lights.

As I mentioned before, on the issue of recognition of Iran's right to enrich, the 5+1 do not have the authority to do so. The United Nations Security Council does, and it has laid out a number of steps that Iran has to take before it can come back in compliance with the NPT, and then its rights or whatever perceived rights it has under the NPT can be subject to adjudication.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, we are not quite at an impasse, but where do we go next?

SHUSTER: Well, there is going to be another meeting of lower-level officials in the first week in July in Istanbul. And as we've said throughout this conversation, there are more tougher sanctions that come into play on July 1st and after that.

The situation is not static. It's in flux. And that's not to say that I expect concessions or a breakthrough. But it's never the same, and it does seem that both sides are - they have some stake in continuing to have intermittent talks and can keep this process going. Exactly how it will go and where might there be turning points and what the outcome might be and when, it's impossible to predict.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, as always, thanks very much for your time.

SHUSTER: As always, Neal. Thanks.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, with us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Our thanks to Seyed Hossein Mousavian, former Iranian nuclear negotiator, at Princeton University now. Thank you, sir.

MOUSAVIAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And, Ray Takeyh, nice to have you back on the program.

TAKEYH: Thanks very much for having me back.

CONAN: Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, with us from a studio at their offices here in Washington, D.C.

Coming up, the trial of Jerry Sandusky is wrapping up. We'll talk about the tough call that many lawyers have to face about whether or not to put their client on the witness stand. Lawyers, get in touch and tell us about a time you had to make that decision: 800-989-8255. You can also email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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