Op-Ed: Beware Hidden Costs Of Nuclear Deal

Read Michael Singh's piece for Foreign Policy, "The Hidden Costs Of The Nuke Deal With Iran"

Michael Singh, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that the United States should be commended for its willingness to meet with Iran. But Singh is skeptical about the hidden costs of a prospective deal on Iran's nuclear fuel.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Time now for the opinion page. The Islamic Republic of Iran missed last Friday's deadline to respond to an offer made by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, to send the bulk of its nuclear material abroad for processing. An answer from Iran is expected this week. On Sunday, IAEA inspectors were guided for the first time into a nuclear enrichment plant near Qom, a facility whose existence was a closely guarded secret until it was disclosed in September.

As we wait to hear what Iran's response to the IAEA offer will be, Michael Singh - fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy - argues in an op-ed that the United States should be commended for its offer of engagement but that it will not come without a cost. And he joins us now by phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Michael Singh, good to have you with us today.

Mr. MICHAEL SINGH (Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Hello, Neal. Good to be with you.

CONAN: And this offer, basically, it's through the good offices of the IAEA but this is the Perm-five-Plus-One. That's the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, who've been negotiating with Iran for a long time. And this is, as I understand it, a perspective deal for Iran to send, basically, two-thirds of its nuclear materials to France and to Soviet - and to Russia to be reprocessed there. And, well, that would give everybody a lot more confidence that Iran's nuclear ambitions are for peaceful electricity and not for weapons.

Mr. SINGH: Well, I think that's right. And so far, you've seen this characterized as a way to buy time. But what I argued in my piece, is that really what we're trying to buy here is information. The Obama administration, like past administrations, is trying to find a way between a nuclear Iran and a war with Iran. And they've taken this sequential approach to doing this. They've - they're trying engagement first with, perhaps, the promise of sanctions or pressure later if Iran fails to play ball. And they find themselves at I - what I think is a critical juncture right now.

They have sort of two risky options. One is to continue with the engagement and hope that it'll work out. And second, is to sort of move into phase two of sanctions and confrontation. They're trying, I think, with this deal to reduce their uncertainty to reduce the risks involved in this choice by seeing if Iran will take what I think appears to most outsiders to be what - a reasonable deal to remove this LEU, that low-enriched uranium from Iran. And to return it to them at an enrichment level that they could use in their research reactor in Tehran to make medical isotopes.

If they accept, it suggests that they really might have some peaceable intent, that they might be open to negotiations going forward. And if they refuse, I think it exposes their aims as perhaps not peaceable and gives the U.S. a better to chance to gather support for sanctions going forward.

CONAN: Nevertheless, that previous such junctures, Iran has always managed to find a place between yes and no.

Mr. SINGH: That's right. And so, Iran is unlikely to put its answer neatly into one of our buckets, yes or no. They are likely to do something in between to drag their feet as we've seen recently, to offer answers that combined elements of yes and no. And so, one of the real diplomatic tricks, one of the real challenges in this type of situation is to recognize the yes or a no when we see it, and to make sure they're allies or partners in this, also recognize a yes or a no in the way that we would like them to.

CONAN: Well, this plant near Qom, it's right next to a revolutionary guards plant. It's closely protected by - well, it's inside of a mountain like the NORAD facility near Colorado Springs. It's closely protected by antiaircraft systems. The discovery of this - well, Iran sort of sent a letter to the IAEA, fessing up at the last minute, because they figured out the United States and its allies already knew about it.

Mr. SINGH: Well, I think that's right. And, you know, even more concerning than the location of this plant, you know, which Iran can certainly say is located next to a revolutionary guard base to prevent it from the sort of attacks that Israel or the United States have been threatening. The real concern is its size. It doesn't appear to be the right size or configuration for peaceful purposes. It's quite small, actually, compared to, say, the main enrichment plant at Natanz, which does suggests that, in fact, it's meant not for its civilian purposes but for military purposes.

When you combine this with the recent IAEA revelations about Iran's progress on weaponization, as well as the progress they made on their missile technology, it really does add up to a whole lot of concern for the United States.

CONAN: And that evidence about that plant seemed to be convincing. Well, more convincing at least to the Russians who've been, more or less, on Iran's side through a lot of these.

Mr. SINGH: And certainly, I think, it puts pressure on anyone who wants to claim that Iran may have peaceful intent. This sort of revelation suggests that, in fact, they don't. And so, it puts pressure on countries like Russia and China to get on board with a more forceful approach towards the Iranians.

CONAN: And while a lot of people thought this was an intelligence coup for the United States and whoever else may have found out about this. Nevertheless, the idea was, well, this is big facility at Natanz. Well, that's where we're creating the low-enriched uranium for our civilian nuclear power industry and - well, nobody was supposed to know about this other plant that may have been creating materials for a weapon.

Mr. SINGH: Well that's right. And, you know, whether it's a coup or not, I think, the question is, can we turn it to our advantage? And, I think, the way the Iranians probably see this is, look, they had a secret plant at Natanz that was revealed only in 2002, just seven years ago.

They had a secret plant at Qom, which was just recently revealed and is now being expected by the IAEA. And they've essentially not paid the price for these things unlike, say, the Iraqis or the Syrians who obviously had their facilities destroyed the military attacks.

So, I think, that the Iranians may see this as a coup for them, to be able to build these facilities, hope that they remain secret; but when they don't, they let in the inspectors and move on.

CONAN: And there's no guarantee that there isn't some other facility somewhere else in Iran that was designed to do the same thing.

Mr. SINGH: That's right. And I think that's something that the U.S. and the IAEA and all of their partners are acutely aware of. I think, that there've been some statements coming out of - some anonymous statements coming out of Vienna, which is where the IAEA is located, suggesting that the inspectors won't be satisfied with simply a cursory tour of the Qom facility, but will want to dig a little bit deeper to see if there might be additional facilities. And that's something we should certainly demand and expect of the IAEA if it's to play a useful role in the global nonproliferation regime.

CONAN: And as you go ahead with this, part of the reason - well, President Obama, for one thing, campaigned on engagement with states like Iran - but nevertheless, beyond that, the alternatives are now pleasant.

Mr. SING: The alternatives are pretty grim, and I think that's why President Obama has emphasized the engagement. That's why, frankly, every U.S. presidents since 1979 has tried in some way or another to engage with the Iranians. The question is, will we know when it's time to turn the corner, when it's time to - essentially, leave engagement behind - not necessarily close the door to talks, to take away the ladder for the Iranian regime to climb down - but to really turn that corner to a phase of sanctions and confrontation. Because, of course, while we talk to the Iranians, they continue to make progress towards a nuclear weapons capability.

CONAN: Nevertheless, I'm not sure there's too many people who hold much faith in sanctions.

Mr. SINGH: I think that there are no great options. You know, one of the things about walking into the Oval Office if you propose - if you're going to argue against something in the Oval Office, you better have an alternative that's superior. And I think that's, in part, has led to the current approach - is that all of the options right now carry significant costs. And so, this is the one they're going with.

They are clearly hoping that'll pay some dividends. But, if it doesn't, there are - there's other courses of action available to us that will also carry significant costs. The key is to avoid a nuclear-armed Iran, because I think that there'll be very little way to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. The consequence is the region could be really quite significant.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. If you'd like to join the conversation with Michael Singh, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former senior director for Middle East Affairs on the National Security Council in the Bush Administration, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Paccar(ph) is on the line from Charlottesville.

PACCAR (Caller): Hello. How are you doing, Neal?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

PACCAR: I do agree with your guest. It is very important for all to negotiate with Iran and find a peaceful environment where we'll be able to get a better result. But at the same time, the question that I want to ask is, how does, your guest feel about (unintelligible) statement about the fact that well, why do people keep jumping on Iran when other people have nuclear weapon out there? What do you think about it?

CONAN: And other people is generally a term for Israel, but - go ahead.

PACCAR: Hopefully, (unintelligible) Israel, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Michael Singh?

Mr. SINGH: Well, I think, the concern lies with the way that the Iranian regime has carried itself in the past. They do sponsor terrorism. They've been quite threatening to their neighbors, not just recently, but since 1979 in the Islamic revolution. And, I think, there's also broader concerns about how an Iranian nuclear weapon would affect the region. I think, many people believe you could expect to see a nuclear arms race in the region.

Many do believe you could expect to see increased terrorist activity by groups like Hezbollah and Hamas under some kind of Iranian nuclear umbrella. And there there's also the concern that Iran might transfer the technology with, frankly, most the nuclear powers have done. And so, I don't think there's a lot of fate that the nuclear armed run could be somehow contained in the way that we would like to. And that's why we have so much concern about Iran. You know, that's - you have to look at the specific case of Iran, I think, rather than trying to apply a blanket approach.

CONAN: You say, an arms raised in the region, some people would say, wait a minute, Israel has already got hundreds of nuclear weapons but they're not the only power in the region nor the only rival to Iran.

Mr. SINGH: Well, I think the fact is that Iran is not a status quo power. That's something that most of the states in the region believe that a nuclear armed run would not be, sort of, content to sit within its own borders and mind its business, but would seek to really cause some turmoil in the region. And that's what they're afraid of.

CONAN: It's interesting. You worked in the Bush administration on the National Security Council. And I wonder, there has been a difference in tactics in the approach to Iran. Before, the United States sat outside the talks while the other Perm-Five-Plus-One conducted negotiations with Iran, now the United States is part of those discussions. You have to think of that as a difference in tactics. The strategy with Iran doesn't seem to have changed much.

Mr. SINGH: I think that's right. I think the strategic approach is quite similar. I have great respect for the folks who were working on Iran in this administration. The basic difference, I believe, is that the tactical approach for the Obama administration is sequential. They're trying engagement first, holding off on sanctions with the suggestion by Hillary Clinton and by Secretary Gates and others that they could possibly move to a phase of sanctions if engagement does not pan out in the way that they hope.

President Obama had suggested that he'll review the policy at the end of the year. The Bush administration, we pursued, I think, a more parallel approach where we open the door to engagements, negotiations, and also pursued sanctions at the same time. So there is a tactical difference, and it's one that we'll see what effect it has on the ultimate outcome.

CONAN: Michael Singh is with us on the opinion page today.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And the international climate is crucial in this respect. If the United States and, well, France was certainly - and Britain, were right there with the United States as the president revealed the details of this nuclear facility at Qom at the United Nation's general assembly meeting in New York in September. The Russians and the Chinese, though, they're a little more difficult.

Mr. SINGH: That's right. And I think that it's going to be very difficult to get Russia and China on board with sanctions or with a tougher approach even if Iran ultimately declines this deal. And so it's crucial that we broaden our coalition on Iran to include countries like Japan, Australia and other allies who might have some leverage to bring to bear. In fact, that's what the Obama administration appears to be trying to do. The Treasury Department apparently held a sanctions planning meeting where there were far more countries than just the P-Five-Plus-One invited, and I think that's going to be essential going forward.

Ideally, you'd like to have Russia and China on board. You'd like to have that unanimity in the UN Security Council because it sends a strong message to Iran. At the end of the day, though, you might find yourself with more of an ad hoc coalition of countries.

CONAN: The Israel, which has, of course, a direct interest in all of this, has said thus far, at least publicly, that it is very hopeful that this set of negotiations will succeed.

Mr. SINGH: Well, I think it's right to hope that. I think that war should be the last possible consideration for any country, Israel or the US. And I'm sure that Israel, like the United States, is eager to exhaust every other possibility to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran before they consider that possibility.

CONAN: And what is the timetable, we keep hearing from different estimates, that Iran might be able to produce a single nuclear weapon within one to four years, is that your understanding?

Mr. SINGH: Well, the timetables do vary. Different countries' intelligence services will tell you different things. I don't claim to have any special knowledge in this respect, but it does appear to be quite urgent. You know, of course, because we can't be certain, we do need to act as though it's sooner rather than later, and that's another good argument for keeping open that military option to make the Iranians think twice before they cross critical thresholds in their program.

CONAN: Yet by burying this facility near Qom in the heart of a mountain -Natanz is also underground facility there - these would be difficult targets. They would not likely be taken out in one set of air strikes, if that was the option taken. And, again, we don't know if they're the only targets.

Mr. SINGH: Well, I mean, again, I'm not a military expert, but I do think that, you know, no war with Iran would be easy. No military option would be easy. I don't think there's anyone who doubts that.

The question is, you know, as far as the military option goes, do the Iranian leadership believe that it's a credible option for the United States. I think they do need to believe, you know, that that is a credible option. You know, as George Washington said, if we want peace, we do need to prepare for war.

CONAN: Another caller. Let's get John(ph) on the line from Denver.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Yes, I'd like to ask the gentleman whether or not he believes that sanctions have a realistic chance of working, because that never have been shown to work effectively, to modify the behavior of any nation. Most people have ways of avoiding the effects that we are trying to achieve with the sanction.

And the second part of my question is, I believe that a nuclear powered Iran is an inevitability; that they've already got the technology, they already have the centrifuges, they already have the low enriched uranium. And now, how do we deal with that in a larger context because I think Obama made a first task at it in trying to move towards the nuclear free world and I think that that's going to be the ultimate objective to get all of the, you know, and not the non-proliferation but actually the elimination of nuclear…

CONAN: I don't mean to cut you off, but we only have a minute left for…

JOHN: All right. I'm sorry.

CONAN: …our guest to answer these questions. And do note that people would give you an argument about South Africa and sanctions, though that had to take effect over a very long period of time. But anyway, Michael Singh.

Mr. SINGH: Well, I do hope that a nuclear on Iran is not an inevitability. I don't agree that it is. And I do think that sanctions, if they're targeted and if they're intelligent sanctions, can be one part of a successful strategy. I think that the other parts of a successful strategy are a sense of international isolation for Iran, which requires us to work with our partners. We do need to keep that military option somewhere in the background, so that Iran believes that it's credible. And, frankly, we do need to keep this door for engagement open so that the Iranian regime has a ladder to climb down. I think that all these things go together if we're to have success.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Singh, we appreciate your time today.

Mr. SINGH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Michael Singh's piece appeared in foreignpolicy.com. There's a link to it on our Web site. Just go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. He's a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and joined us by phone today from Cambridge in Massachusetts.

Tomorrow that inconvenient truth has gotten even less convenient. A new poll says concern about the climate change is waning. We'll be talking about that tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Join us then.

I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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