Can Iran's New President Resolve Nuclear Program Dispute?

Many are wondering whether Iran's newly elected president Hassan Rowhani will be able to change his nation's posture on nuclear enrichment and convince the West to end crippling economic sanctions. To find out, Steve Inskeep talks to Gary Samore, a former White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's get another perspective, now, on Iran's new president and Iran's confrontation with the West. Hassan Rowhani was elected last week on a promise to improve relations with the outside world. A former aide to Rowhani told us, yesterday, the election marks a chance to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.

HOSSEIN MOUSAVIAN: I really believe this is the time. Now, there is a new era. Again, a moderate president. I hope there would be no more missed opportunities.

INSKEEP: Hossein Mousavian - like his former boss - insists Iran can have its right to peaceful nuclear power affirmed while the West gets such complete openness it can be assured Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons. That's one view of Iran's president elect.

Now, let's talk with an American who knows Iran's president-elect. Gary Samore was the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction in the Obama administration. He's now at Harvard. Welcome back to the program.

GARY SAMORE: Thank you very much, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Does this election create a possibility for change?

SAMORE: I think it does, but it's far too early to tell whether an agreement is possible. And in fact, so far, President-elect Rowhani has stated positions that are identical to the positions of the Ahmadinejad government.

INSKEEP: The former president, sure.

SAMORE: He rejected the idea of any direct talks between the United States and Iran without a full list of conditions. And secondly, he rejected the idea of any kind of suspension of enrichment. Now, any deal that the U.S. has pursued would involve significant physical constraints on Iran's enrichment program. And so far there's no indication that President Rowhani will be able to make those kinds of concessions.

INSKEEP: Well, let's just remind people when we talk about uranium enrichment, that's a process by which uranium is changed in ways that makes it more likely to be able to be used in a nuclear weapon, among other things. And Iran is saying we have a right to do that but we can do it so openly that you can never doubt our intentions. Is it possible to do it completely transparently?

SAMORE: Well, it's certainly possible to have a lot of transparency at facilities that are under international inspection. The problem is that Iran has a history of building or trying to build secret enrichment facilities. So, there's not very much confidence that Iran would honor transparency, based on the long track record of them cheating on their commitments.

INSKEEP: You've met Rowhani in the past, right?

SAMORE: I have, yes.

INSKEEP: What was he like?

SAMORE: You know, he's very engaging. He's sophisticated. He's worldly. He speaks English well. So, I think he's an easier interlocutor to deal with. But the question will be whether or not he can bring some new ideas to the table, and I think that's much less clear.

INSKEEP: In the end, I suppose, if there were going to be a deal it would be a compromise that is neither party's current position, right?

SAMORE: That's right. And I think there are compromises out there that would be available. But all of them, from an American standpoint, are going to involve physical limits on Iran's nuclear program, as well as enhanced transparency.

INSKEEP: Helping to understanding the political situation in each of these countries: first, Iran. You have this guy who's president-elect; he has this mandate from the people. He talked about better relations with the West. Do you think he would be in a position to drag the rest of Iran's governing establishment along with him to make some compromise?

SAMORE: This election illustrates very clearly public discontent with the policy of President Ahmadinejad, and in particular, the fact of the confrontational approach that President Ahmadinejad took has led to such economic hardship.

INSKEEP: Because of U.S. sanctions and other sanctions.

SAMORE: Correct. So, from that standpoint, he has a pretty strong argument that Iran should look for ways to improve relations with the U.S. and with other countries. And I think we'll find out pretty quickly, whether or not he's able to deliver.

INSKEEP: You're saying there might be an opportunity here. Let's put it to the test.

SAMORE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Now, what about on the American side? Do you think that the Obama administration really could make the difficult compromises that might be necessary to reach an agreement?

SAMORE: I think the Obama administration will find it very easy to meet with Iran to start discussing those issues. Whether or not the two sides can come to an agreement is hard to say, because they're starting from such different positions. So, I hope the administration makes it clear that it's still prepared to have those bilateral discussions and basically put the ball in Iran's court to figure out whether or not they can accept that.

INSKEEP: Gary Samore is executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School Belford Center. Thanks very much.

SAMORE: Thank you very much, Steve. Happy to talk.

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