Year-End Nuclear Deadline Looms For Iran

Guests

Mike Shuster, foreign correspondent, NPR
Ahmad Sadri, chair of Islamic world studies at Lake Forest College in Chicago

Admiral Mike Mullen has warned Iran the clock is ticking over its disputed nuclear program. Guests discuss how Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is handling turmoil inside and outside his country, and what options remain for President Barack Obama.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

The international community can give Iran as many deadlines as they want, we don't care. Last night, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to leave little hope that Iran will meet the year-end deadline for the nuclear fuel swap proposed by the United States and five other major powers. Today, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the deadline is very real and warned of new and tougher sanctions in the new year.

The heart of the dispute lies in Iran's nuclear ambitions. Tehran insists its uranium-enrichment facilities will provide fuel only for peaceful, civilian power plants. Many others worry that Iran plans to build nuclear weapons and point to a growing body of evidence. At the same time, political unrest continues after the disputed presidential election last June. Just yesterday, some of the tens of thousands who took to the streets to mourn the death of the leading dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, shouted anti-government slogans.

Later, economist Dean Baker on why trillions in government debt is different from the thousands you or I might owe on MasterCard, but first, if you have questions about the evidence, the implication or the way ahead with Iran, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mike Shuster has been covering this story for NPR, has been to Iran many times and was there during the election and joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Mike, always nice to have you on the program.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: And does anybody think Iran is going to meet this deadline?

SHUSTER: That's a good question. The problem is that the deadline is a little squishy, or at least it feels that way. It's not as if the Obama administration has said that at midnight on December 31st, if you haven't accepted our proposals to dispose of your low-enriched uranium, something else will happen.

The Obama administration has been working on looking at new sanctions and that they haven't made any secret of it. And the Iranians have offered counterproposals that don't really address all of the issues that the United States and the Europeans would like to see addressed on this issue. It's likely that - what the Iranians often do is wait until the last minute and then make some kind of a proposal that looks like they want to continue the process, and they may very well do that this time. And I think that what's going to happen is the Obama administration is going to continue what they've called a two-track policy.

They'll continue to try to talk to Iran and at the same time look at economic sanctions and what might be good targets for sanctions in Iran and how to get that through the Security Council. That is - it won't be much different from December 31st to January 1st, but it'll gradually shift in favor of what the Obama administration is calling more-punitive actions.

CONAN: And getting that through the Security Council involves getting the votes of China and Russia, which will not be easy.

SHUSTER: No, not easy at all. The Russians in particular have been saying there's no need for additional sanctions. But I think the Russians were perplexed, to say the least, about Iran's response to the most recent proposal to dispose of their low-enriched uranium, which the Russians, I think, thought was a good idea, and they thought they had Iran on board, and they thought that Iran had committed to this - but this is back in October - and then it turned out that that wasn't true.

CONAN: And there has also been mounting evidence of Iran's, well, some would say intentions to build a nuclear weapon, the discovery most recently of a document that was published in the Times of London last Sunday, and you did a piece on that last week.

SHUSTER: Yes, there have been numerous developments since the summer that raise more and more suspicions and difficult questions about whether Iran is still working on aspects of a nuclear weapon or at least working toward a capability that they could put into motion quickly at some time in the future. That document wasn't authenticated thoroughly, but it raises some serious questions. I think more importantly, we learned of a secret, second uranium-enrichment facility that the Iranians were putting together in the mountains near the town of Qom. This was of grave concern because it certainly looked like this was a secret, covert effort to enrich uranium.

CONAN: And then the Iranian parliament said: We're going to build 10, 20 more of these plants - whether that's bluster or not, it certainly doesn't look good.

SHUSTER: No, it doesn't look good, but it does feel like bluster.

CONAN: Now given all of this, the point - the Obama - President Obama said he would basically give engagement with Iran a year, again a very squishy deadline - and that's not January 1st, it's January 20th if he holds still to the calendar - but nevertheless, it's coming up. And it does not look like engagement's getting much...

SHUSTER: No, it doesn't look like it, and in part that has to do with internal, domestic political crisis that Iran has been living through since the June 12th election, which as you know was highly disputed and gave rise to enormous demonstrations. And it just feels like gaining Iranian government consensus on any issue was very difficult before June 12th. It seems to have become almost impossible after June 12th.

CONAN: And in terms of Iranian politics, this nuclear issue is something that just about all the factions agree on.

SHUSTER: Yes, you can say that to start with. You can say that all the factions, including the opposition, believe it's Iran's right to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes. When you go a little bit deeper than that, Neal, there are - differences begin to show their face. It's not as if the opposition and the leaders of the opposition believe that Iran should gain nuclear-weapons capability, and they have been critical of Ahmadinejad and others who seem to have pushed this nuclear program in secret as far as they could go.

So I think that there are differences, but those differences don't come out so much as more domestic, political differences around politics in Iran.

CONAN: And on the latest on those domestic political differences, it's difficult to get news out of Iran sometimes. Not a lot of foreign correspondents are allowed in there, or if they are not for very long. Nevertheless, we heard about this big demonstration yesterday, this mourning for this dissident cleric, a very important man, and today, word of yet another dissident cleric who's apparently been bullied himself.

SHUSTER: Yeah, there have been - what's really interesting is that since the height of the opposition burst out with millions of people in the streets last June, they've tailed off, the demonstrations have, but they still - the opposition is still able to get tens of thousands, perhaps even more. We don't have great eyewitness accounts that have good antennae to estimate the crowd size, but there have been some very large demonstrations. And the one yesterday in Qom, which is after all a small city, it's not 12 million people that live in Tehran. To get tens of thousands of people into the streets in Qom to mourn the loss of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri was quite something in this kind of town.

CONAN: And thanks for correcting my pronunciation.

SHUSTER: Well, there are various pronunciations.

CONAN: OK, well, I speak from the Western Iranian accent. So it's a little different.

Joining us now is Ahmad Sadri. He's professor of sociology and chair of Islamic world studies at Lake Forest College. He's with us today from the studios at Chicago Public Radio. Nice to have you with us on the program today.

Mr. AHMAD SADRI (Chair, Islamic World Studies, Lake Forest College): I'm delighted to be here.

CONAN: And the importance of this year-end deadline to Iranians, is this something that's going to be significant?

Mr. SADRI: Yeah, this is the area in which Ahmadinejad really excels. You called it bluster. He really loves when he's at the point in the international community, in the eye of the world, in the limelight, blustering and standing up for what he considers to be Iranian national rights. And he's - as you also mentioned, he is really right in thinking that he has a great audience. This is the only unifying issue in Iran. And he loves when this is the subject, rather than the human rights in Iran, rather than the stolen election. When it is about nuclear - Iranian nuclear rights, he really thrives.

CONAN: And so this is something that he is prepared to continue defiance on?

Mr. SADRI: It is partly that. It is partly the fact that really, the sanctions will bring some hardness on Iranian people, but the government and especially the IRGC, the Revolutionary Guards who have great economic stake in Iran, they are not hurt by these kinds of actions in these - indeed, these kinds of international pressure are a boon to their people who are involved in Iranian black economy.

So partly there is bluster and their capacity and aptitude to go in this direction of defying the West, but partly also it is true that, as Mike said, even in the best of times, the Islamic Republic of Iran is not constructed as a polity that can make compromises and move ahead. This is really a kind of a system that is paralyzed when it comes to this kind of decision-making because of the way in which it is constructed, because of its constitution.

And when things are in a state of crisis, as they are right now, when there are various elements within the government competing with each other, it becomes nearly impossible for Iranians to move and make a compromise. So for those two main reasons, I don't think there is going to be any diplomatic movement at this juncture.

CONAN: Let's get some callers involved in the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And James is on the line from San Antonio.

JAMES (Caller): Yes, my main question was: During the buildup in Iraq, after the first Gulf war, I know we had sanctions on stuff like ambulances, medical supplies, even pencils. I remember doing a report and reading that. What kind of additional sanctions are on the table for Iran compared to what we're already doing now? That would be my question.

CONAN: Mike Shuster, can you help us out?

SHUSTER: Well, my understanding is that there are two different sets of ideas on the table. One, and this is actually adopted in a resolution just a few days ago by the House of Representatives, would be to slap a sanction on selling gasoline to Iran because Iran must import about 40 percent of its gasoline needs. So it's very vulnerable on that. But there are those in the Obama administration who think that that would hurt the poor in Iran more than anyone because it would lead to a rise in prices for gasoline, and the poor could least afford it.

On the other hand, in the Obama administration, they are looking at ways to target the Revolutionary Guards with sanctions. This is a difficult matter, but as Ahmad said, the Revolutionary Guards are deeper and deeper into the economy of Iran all the time, and this, the Obama administration and its allies in Europe hope, will make it vulnerable to more-targeted sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards.

CONAN: James, thanks very much.

JAMES: Appreciate it, thank you.

CONAN: It's not getting down to the level of ambulances and pencils, though.

SHUSTER: No, it's not, and in fact, we went through more than a decade of U.N.-imposed sanctions on Iraq. And eventually, in the middle of that decade, in the middle of the 1990s, the U.N. changed for more-targeted sanctions, as well, smart sanctions they called them, that wouldn't hurt the population as much.

CONAN: We'll talk more with NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster in a moment and with Ahmad Sadri, chair of Islamic world studies at Lake Forest College in Chicago. What's next for the U.S. and Iran? 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. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Iran faces a series of pressing challenges from the U.S. and the U.N. over its nuclear ambitions and from many of its own citizens - another large protest yesterday with chants of death to the dictator.

Our focus today: The way ahead for Iran and the tough choices for the United States. If you have questions about Tehran's nuclear ambitions, the evidence and the implications or the options available to the U.S., give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, and Ahmad Sadri, who serves as chair of Islamic world studies at Lake Forest College in Chicago. And let's get another caller on the line, and this is - well, when we do shows on Iran, Amir(ph) calls us from Tehran. Amir, nice to hear from you.

AMIR (Caller): Hello, Mike. Hi, Neal.

SHUSTER: Hi, Mike.

CONAN: How are you doing?

AMIR: It's really nice to hear your voice. Well, I had a comment rather than a question, and I guess all Iranians are now accustomed to hearing the vociferous style of President Ahmadinejad. So when he talks about just missing the deadline, no Iranians buy that. So, I'm wondering why the international community should just pay attention to what he says. I guess Iranians are in a position to accept these lies over the past couple of decades, so just going ahead with these sanctions shouldn't hurt them as much. I guess we have suffered a lot over these 30 years, so if I were in a decision-making position, I would have gone ahead with the sanctions sooner.

CONAN: Amir, we should point out, has met Mike Shuster in Iran, as well, so they have spoken in person in the past. And let me turn that comment to you, Ahmad Sadri. Is there any prospect that these sanctions, even if they are smart sanctions, that they're going to work, that they would modify Iran's behavior?

Mr. SADRI: I very much doubt that. On the one hand, they are really not in any position to make any compromises. On the other, I would be very much for smart sanctions. The difficult part about that kind of policy is that what kinds of sanctions are smart enough to hurt Islamic Revolutionary Guards and not the people?

Indeed, these sanctions usually strengthen the Revolutionary Guards and the black economy, and they hurt independent forces in the Iranian market. The example of selling gas - stopping the sale of gasoline to Iran, that also doesn't seem to be a really smart thing to do. Ahmadinejad really tried even once to cut all of the subsidies and float to the market price the price of gasoline in order to bring down the consumption in the Iranian market. And this was a very bold action, and it met a great deal of resistance, and he had to retrench. Now, if the West imposes this on Ahmadinejad, he will have achieved what he wanted to do to begin with, that is stop these subsidies on the gasoline, and then blame it on the West. So this I don't think is going to work.

CONAN: Amir, nice to hear from you. Thanks very much for the phone call.

AMIR: Oh, take care, and merry Christmas by the way.

CONAN: Oh, thank you, Amir, appreciate that, too. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jason(ph), Jason with us from Blue Earth in Minnesota.

JASON (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JASON: My question is: Given Ahmadinejad's past aggressive commentary towards Israel, how likely is it that Israel could make a unilateral move? And if so, what would the timing of that - your best guess - what would that timing be?

CONAN: That's I guess to you, Mike Shuster.

SHUSTER: Well, those questions are almost impossible to answer. You could have asked those questions any time over the past three years, let's say. Just speaking - my gut feeling is that Israel won't do anything that it can't persuade the United States to support. Any kind of air attack on Iranian nuclear sites would probably have to go over Iraqi airspace. The United States has made it clear that - in the past, even during the late Bush administration - that it wouldn't support that.

So it's - we constantly hear this, and there's no question that this is part of the international discussion about what to do about Iran's nuclear program, but I think that there are very difficult hurdles to overcome if something like that were to take place.

CONAN: Of all the options, none of which are good, many say that is the least-good option.

SHUSTER: That's what many say. There are some, certainly, who have been urging an Israeli attack on Iran for some time, but I think they're in the minority.

CONAN: Before it's too late, they say, before Iran is already in possession of a nuclear weapon�

SHUSTER: That's right.

CONAN: �and joins the club. And it also could have the effect, Mike, of many say, triggering an arms race in the region, that if Iran - the Shiites in Iran have a nuclear weapon, that will lead many in Saudi Arabia to say wait a minute, we're going to have to recalculate.

SHUSTER: Those in Saudi Arabia have talked about that. Even in Egypt, some Egyptian analysts and politicians have expressed uneasiness about the possibility that Iran might eventually get a nuclear-weapons capability, and some Egyptians have said Egypt has to look into that itself.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call.

JASON: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Hugh(ph). Hugh is with us from Oakland.

HUGH (Caller): Yes, hi. I'd like to get your guests' opinions of what we can do to convince China to side with us instead of Iran on this issue, either gently by engagement in persuasion or, if not, to use the same realpolitik that China is using to funnel the trade deficits - the cash that we funnel them - to Iran so that they can get gas, just like they do with Sudan. Our relationship in engagement with China doesn't seem to be paying us dividends or friendship with regards to policy in Iran, Sudan or North Korea.

CONAN: Ahmad Sadri, how much is China's relationship with Iran based on oil?

Mr. SADRI: Well, Iran has a great deal of conduits, economic connections, with the non-Western world, and it has been strengthening those. So this is not the time that the West, the United States, the EU, can really dictate what happens in Iran or in any country by these sanctions. There are - the system is too much diversified. And all these nations, including China, they have their own national interests, and they are pushing for what is good for them. So that is really one of the ways in which this is going to turn out to be a dead end. And I would like to add that in my view, really, the international community, United States and EU, should put their emphasis much more on the real story in Iran.

I really think the nuclear issue is a red herring. The real issue is the uprising in Iran, the mass uprising in a state that is going from Islamism to post-Islamism, and you don't have this in anywhere else in the Islamic world. That is the real story. Extracting these advantages from Iran on this nuclear issue, I really think it is quite minor in the scheme of things.

CONAN: You don't take - and thanks very much for the question, Hugh. You don't take that seriously, the claims by Israel and others of Iran's neighbors, that they would take this very, very seriously and consider this very dangerous if Iran gets nuclear weapons?

Mr. SADRI: I think the answer was already in what was discussed. We already know that Iran is going towards nuclear use of nuclear energy, the peaceful use. And of course, once they get the peaceful use, anybody who has the peaceful use, including, you know, South Korea or Japan, they can weaponize.

But I don't think Iran is going to weaponize for the exact same reason, that it is going to create an arms race in the region. Israel is very concerned because they are going to lose their nuclear monopoly in the region. And that monopoly, of course, is going to come to an end sooner or later.

So I don't think there is really existential threat to Israel regardless of Ahmadinejad's bluster because the Israeli capability to hit back is very serious. Everybody knows this. But the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the region is going to come to an end if not by Iran then maybe by somebody else. But that is not going to last.

CONAN: And Mike, that raises a question that you put to a lot of people about Iran, which is: If indeed they do go ahead and develop a nuclear capability, why would deterrence not work?

SHUSTER: I think that's a good question, and I think it hasn't had - it hasn't sparked enough discussion and debate, but it should be part of the conversation. And there are plenty of analysts who essentially understand that Iran getting one or two bombs, on the order of what the North Koreans have now, is not going to change the face of politics immediately in the Middle East. There are those who say that the clerical and political leadership in Iran are irrational, and they might be tempted to use nuclear weapons, but there are others, and I'm inclined to think that they're right, that this is not a suicidal regime. In fact, everything that we see the Iranian government doing is in the service of preserving its power in Tehran, and it's likely that even with a potential nuclear weapons capability, that would be the primary motivating factor for those who remained in power. if they were this hard right - these hardliners defending the Islamic Revolution, if they still were those.

CONAN: Let's go to Jordan, Jordan with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

JORDAN (Caller): Hi, there. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

JORDAN: Good. My question for your guest sparked when I heard the phrase death to the dictator. And hearing that kind of language, I was wondering what percent of the emerging post-Islamic society in Iran, I guess, you - if you could take a guess, what percentage feels like that? And then as a caveat to that question, isn't that just kind of some Neolithic or French Revolution-style language, that we'd be(ph) promoting that the dictator works a minimum wage job at McDonald's or something along those lines. I mean, are we talking about...

CONAN: How serious is the slogan. Is that what you mean?

JORDAN: Yes.

CONAN: OK. Ahmad Sadri, any idea of what percentage of the Iranian population is opposed to the regime?

Prof. SADRI: I heard, actually, two questions. Number one...

JORDAN: Yes.

Prof. SADRI: ...about the seriousness of this idea, this slogan of death to the dictator. Alongside that slogan, there has been another other slogan: death to nobody. And actually, this Green Movement is really not based on the hatred of anybody, including Ahmadinejad and the supreme leader. It is for this established secular government. It is really not based on this kind of hatred. Or - yes, this is one of their slogans. But, indeed, this is not going towards kind of expelling these people to the desert and making the - then make the desert loom or hang them from lamp posts. This is really not that kind of movement. So that slogan should not be taken seriously - I mean, literally. It is serious, but not literally. It's not meant literally.

Insofar as what percentage of the people, it is my estimation that somewhere - Ahmadinejad's base is somewhere between eight to 12 percent of the population, and the rest of the population is against the Islamic Republic the way it exists. So - and we have seen this in the voting patterns and even in these demonstrations. We really see that the majority of the Iranians are very actively and very passionately secularists. And that is why I was saying that that is the real story in Iran, and I think it's a mistake to focus on the nuclear issue.

CONAN: Thanks�

SHUSTER: Neal, can I add something here?

CONAN: Just go ahead, Mike.

SHUSTER: Unfortunately, there aren't polls in Iran where we could get a real good take on the political sentiments across the board in Iranian society. But there was one poll that did exist. It was the presidential election on June 12th. And we don't have any of the real, accurate figures for who won and what the voting patterns were.

I think because the Iranian government never gave a full accounting for their claims that Ahmadinejad won that election by an overwhelming margin, I think that it's reasonable to think that Mousavi did win that election, and he won it by a very large margin. And for that very reason, the Iranian government couldn't come forth with accurate vote tallies.

CONAN: Jordan, thanks very much for the call.

JORDAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Mike Shuster and with Ahmad Sadri about the way ahead in Iran.

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

And let's go to Chuck, Chuck with us from San Francisco.

CHUCK (Caller): Hi. Thank you very much. As near as I can tell, the nuclear issue is a real issue in as far as they do seem to be developing the capability. And inasmuch as the sanction that don't seem to be work - going to be working and the military option is pretty much unthinkable, I'm wondering about the efficacy of moral suasion.

I mean, there are signatories to the nonproliferation treaty. So - and I believe some prominent Iranian leaders have commented that they are in favor of the principles of the nonproliferation treaty. If our - that is to say the United States' moral authority weren't in a bit of a state of disrepair after the last 10 years - though, hopefully, we're trending upward these days. If we were to strengthen the non-proliferation regime, if we were to take steps, if the nuclear nations were to take steps to - towards the disarmament...

CONAN: Then we'd have to wait the new treaty that is on the - in the discussion with Russia to reduce the stockpiles of both countries. But, Chuck, your question.

CHUCK: My question is since sanctions in the military aren't doing the trick as far as getting them to quit developing nuclear weapons possibly, what about strengthening the NPT regime and just the power of moral suasion?

CONAN: Ahmad Sadri?

Prof. SADRI: Actually, I could not agree more with Chuck. Indeed, I believe that our president deserved a great accolade, if not the Nobel Peace Prize, for the very fact that he brought us back to the language of disarmament. Without some confidence building by the members of the so-called nuclear club, everybody in the world is going to try to raise at least for nuclear capability in order to create a deterrent for themselves and gain some prestige. I entirely agree with Chuck.

The only way forward is not the quality of diplomacy. It's not these double standards that are being imposed on Iran. Iran, all of a sudden, has to come clean and have no state secrets and do everything in the limelight where nobody else is doing that. Rather than this, I think the best way to move forward in order to preserve our planet from a nuclear disaster is, actually, first and foremost by nuclear powers, in order to create some confidence, they really have to be serious about reducing nuclear stockpiles. And then they can say to other nations, OK, we are going in this direction. Why don't you join us?

But when you keep, you know, using your nuclear capability to flex your muscles and talk down to everybody and then asking them not to go nuclear, it is a little bit like telling people to do as you say, not as you do.

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

CHUCK: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we'd like to thank our guest, Ahmad Sadri, you just heard, professor of sociology and chair of Islamic World Studies at Lake Forest College in Chicago, joined us today from the studios at Chicago Public Radio. Thanks very much for your time.

Prof. SADRI: It's my pleasure. Thank you very much.

CONAN: And NPR foreign correspondent Mike Shuster, with us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Mike, as always, we appreciate it.

SHUSTER: You bet, Neal.

CONAN: Coming up: the difference between the balance on your Visa card and the national debt - other than a few dozen zeroes, of course. So where does all that money come from? Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, and this is NPR News.

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