Ex-Ambassador Crocker Assesses Comments By Iran's President

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Steve Inskeep talks to Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and to Syria, about Iran's new president Hassan Rouhani. U.S. officials, including Crocker, have been meeting with Iranian officials at the U.N.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. This week's visit of Iran's president to the United Nations gives him a chance to engage with the United States. Hassan Rouhani did not shake President Obama's hand. He has given interviews and met a range of people. And Iran's foreign minister meets Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of other world powers today.

INSKEEP: Americans who have been meeting Iranian officials include Ryan Crocker, one of this country's most experienced diplomats.

RYAN CROCKER: You make peace with your adversaries, not with your friends. Iran has been an adversary, but I do believe it is possible to come to accommodations. It can be done.

INSKEEP: Crocker dealt with Iran for years as ambassador to its neighbors Afghanistan and Iraq. The ground rules for his latest meetings with Iranian officials do not allow him to quote anyone directly, but he came away with a clear sense of what Iranians are thinking.

CROCKER: Certainly they are saying significantly different things. For example, what I have heard up here from senior Iranian officials is that both countries over the last half a dozen years have been playing into lose-lose scenarios and both Iran and the United States are the worst off for it. We need a new track. They dealt with the nuclear issue head on. That is where this effort should begin and that solution can be found.

INSKEEP: There are so many issues, Ambassador, on which the United States could engage Iran. I was interested to read in an interview that President Rouhani gave David Ignatius of the Washington Post that he wants to do the hardest thing first. He said let's deal with the nuclear issue first. Let's do it quickly, three months, maybe six months, and then go on to other things. Is that a realistic approach?

CROCKER: Well, we'll find out. I heard last night the same kinds of statements and conviction. Let's do the big one first and get it out of the way and move on. On the nuclear issue, one thing I heard that I found interesting - I'm no nuclear expert - that don't get sidetracked on the number of centrifuges; that is not relevant. What is relevant is the level of enrichment. That is the key issue. And Iran is prepared and committed to abide by international norms in this regard.

Now, we'll have to see what that means, but identifying enrichment as the key problem - and of course it is - I found at least potentially significant.

INSKEEP: Just so I understand what Iran is saying. They're saying we need to enrich uranium. We have a right to it. So you can't get upset that we have enrichment equipment, but we will offer some manner that you can verify that we're never enriching it highly enough that we can make a bomb. Is that basically what Iran is putting on the table?

CROCKER: That is the impression I took away. Now we'll have to see what they actually do put on the table beginning today when serious talks start. But they were at great pains to say they do not need, do not want, are not seeking a nuclear weapons capability because of the actual damage it would do to their security in a region that would quickly proliferate.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Crocker, as you probably know, even as President Rouhani was in New York making a lot of positive impressions in many cases, there were critics of his being heard in Tehran, and Rouhani ended up not even shaking hands with the president of the United States because, we were told, that was politically a little complicated. Do you believe that this president will have the political leeway to make a deal with the United States?

CROCKER: Well, what I heard last night again from senior Iranian officials was, you know, a very firm commitment to that effort. And it was interesting how they described the non-encounter, which was to say something slightly different, that both sides had agreed on it, but then it became clear there would not be sufficient time for anything of substance to transpire and both sides decided it would be better to put it off until the ground can properly be prepared by the foreign ministers and business can actually be done and that both sides made the right call on this. I should add, Steve, though, that the Iranians did make clear that in their estimation there are adversaries to this approach on both sides of the water, people who would like it not to succeed. And it is therefore important to move quickly and to make progress.

INSKEEP: OK. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, thanks very much.

CROCKER: Thank you, Steve.

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