Options in Dealing with Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

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Iran has removed seals from nuclear equipment used to enrich uranium, over objections from the international community. Now some European Union countries have broken off talks with Iran and are pushing for possible U.N. sanctions. Guests on the program examine the options available in response to Iran's resumption of nuclear activities.

NEAL CONAN, host:

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

Iran's decision to defy UN inspectors and resume uranium enrichment was under discussion at an emergency meeting in London today. Representatives from six countries--the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany--discussed what to do next. Last week more than two and a half years of negotiations between Iran and the so-called EU3--that's Britain, France and Germany--reached a dead end. Today the European powers said they plan to call an emergency meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors in early February to refer Iran to the Security Council and possibly economic sanctions.

Up until now Russia and China have been reluctant to press this point. But after a meeting in Moscow today with the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, President Vladimir Putin said that Russia's position is very close to that of the Europeans and the US. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for electrical power only and vows to pursue enrichment technology as a sovereign right. Critics worry that the program is designed to produce nuclear weapons, which Iran pledged not to develop when it signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Our main focus today is Iran, nukes and what next. Later, writer Rich Benjamin is on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. In yesterday's Boston Globe, he argued that Martin Luther King's more uncomfortable messages sometimes get lost amidst the parades and department store sales.

But first, Iran. If you have questions about Iran's nuclear program and the prospect of sanctions, give us a call. Our number, (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And we begin in London with Richard Beeston, the diplomatic editor of the Times of London. He's been covering this story.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. RICHARD BEESTON (London Times): Thank you very much.

CONAN: What's the latest from today's meeting of these six countries--the perm five, plus Germany?

Mr. BEESTON: Well, the meeting's over, I can tell you that, and I would say that modest progress has been recorded. Two points, really: First of all, the European Three have announced that they will be seeking an emergency meeting of the IAEA on February 2nd and the 3rd--next month and--at which they will seek to have Iran referred to the UN Security Council. And all six representatives at the meeting today came out clearly and said that they thought that Iran should freeze its nuclear work and suspend what had been suspended, particularly the enrichment. So a statement of, well, what we knew, but nevertheless the fact that I think all these parties were sitting in the same room was of some significance.

CONAN: Did they spell out the `or else'? In other words, they said Iran should not develop enrichment technology. Did they say `or else'?

Mr. BEESTON: No, they haven't said what possible measures the Iranians could be facing. I suspect what we're going to have between now and the 2nd of February is a lot of behind-the-scenes diplomacy at work to see where the 35 member states of the IAEA's Board of Governors are going to sit. Basically, you need a simple majority to refer a country to the UN Security Council. I think they've already got that simple majority. But what they really would like would be a near unanimous vote in favor, to put as much pressure as possible on Iran.

CONAN: And up until now, as we said, China and Russia, for their various reasons, have been reluctant. In part--China's part, it gets a lot of oil from Iran.

Mr. BEESTON: Yes. I mean, this is, I think when we're going to come down to the real nuts of the matter. People are willing to go along with statements of condemnation and referrals and this sort of slow diplomacy that we've seen operating, really, for the last three years. When it's going to hurt people's pockets or their economy, if we're talking about sanctions involving Iran's oil exports or the purchase of weapons in the case of Russia, which sells a lot of conventional arms to Iran, then I think we're going to find out what the real bottom line position is of these countries that have been rather reluctant to come along with the Western position.

CONAN: Russia was also involved in what seemed like a last-minute sort of face-saving dodge that might have gotten a solution to this. They said, `Look, if Iran wants to enrich uranium, we will do that for them here in Russia, where everybody can monitor all this activity and know exactly how much the stuff is being enriched to and how much has been enriched. And Iran could then have its nuclear electricity industry, and the world can be sure that this stuff is not being diverted into nuclear weapons.' Is that deal at all alive anymore?

Mr. BEESTON: It's barely alive. President Putin put the most optimistic spin he could on it today. He said that he had heard from members of the Iranian Foreign Ministry that, as far as they were concerned, it was still a live offer that they were studying. And indeed it hasn't been completely officially rejected, although in every statement by everyone who matters in Iran over the past few weeks, they've been absolutely clear that they regard enriching uranium part of the fuel cycle as their right under the NPT and that they're going to press ahead with this.

Having said that, maybe at the 11th hour when Iran is finally facing a united international position, maybe they would fall back on this. But at this stage there's absolutely no evidence to suggest they would.

CONAN: If you have questions about what's going on with Iran's nuclear power program, if you insist on calling it that or nuclear program--I guess we can fudge the issue that way--or about what the international community's going to do about it, our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And let's start with Eric. Eric is calling us from Winston-Salem in North Carolina.

ERIC (Caller): Yes. My question was: With a country as rich in oil as Iran, I mean, are the other leaders of, you know, our world actually thinking this is just for, you know, electricity purposes? I mean, is anyone actually buying that, do you think?

CONAN: Richard Beeston?

Mr. BEESTON: No, I think this is one of the most compelling arguments that's being made against the whole Iranian nuclear scheme right from the start. And it's worth remembering that the initial search for nuclear technology dated back to the shah's period when Western countries were quite happy to help him. But, obviously, if a country is a huge exporter of oil and gas, it does seem ridiculous that it would be prepared to spend billions of dollars researching building an entire nuclear infrastructure when it has its own natural resources that it can use very cheaply and easily.

Having said that, there are international rules that apply, and if you sign the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, as Iran has done, you are allowed to develop a civilian nuclear capacity and dozens of countries have done exactly that. So, legally speaking, Iran has a right to pursue this within the rules of the treaty, but obviously it does leave people highly suspicious to Iran's motives.

CONAN: Eric, thanks for the call.

ERIC: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation now. Joining us is Jon Wolfsthal. He's a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a non-profit research organization here in Washington, DC. He's with us here in Studio 3A.

Thanks for spending part of your holiday with us. Appreciate it.

Mr. JON WOLFSTHAL (Center for Strategic and International Studies): My pleasure.

CONAN: So why do you think--tell us a little bit, first of all, about the uranium enrichment process and how it can work both for nuclear power programs or possibly for nuclear weapons programs.

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: Well, I think it's important to remember that when uranium is mined out of the ground, it's not usable in a nuclear weapon. It has to be very carefully processed, and it's a process similar to sort of sorting out sugar and sand. You want to get the--you want to get the sand out from the sugar, and you have to go through a number of different processes. The Iranians are using a process--use centrifuges, which they acquired illegally through the black market run by Pakistan and A.Q. Khan, the father of their nuclear program. And they secretly acquired this technology over about 20 years, which is the legal basis that the international community would use to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.

CONAN: The secrecy of this whole program, that they kept it under cover, didn't report it as they were also required to do under their commitments under the NPT.

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: That's right. I mean, as Richard just pointed out, under the Non-proliferation Treaty, the almost universal international law that guides nuclear commerce, states are allowed to engage in peaceful nuclear commerce, but it has to be open to inspections by the IAEA. And if it's not, it's a violation of the treaty and therefore grounds for sanctions or other punishment.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now why do you think--after two and a half years of talks with the EU3 on this point, why do you think Iran decided to stop its--well, to stop the talks or, put it another way, to restart its enrichment program now?

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: Well, I think there's one big change that's happened since the talks started over two and a half years ago, and that's that we have a new president in Iran. President Ahmadinejad, who was formerly the mayor of Tehran, has no foreign policy experience; comes from the Republican Guard and a very conservative, true revolutionary portion of Iranian society. And he's obviously prone to brinksmanship. The statements he's made about Israel, about the Holocaust being a myth and trying to play the nationalistic card in Iranian politics is, I think, a new reality we're going to have to face. And he's clearly playing to both a domestic audience while trying to stand up to what he sees as the West's efforts to strip Iran of their rights.

CONAN: But, Richard Beeston, let me ask you, from everything I've read, if he's playing a nationalistic card in Iran, it's going to work. Everybody in that country is determined on this point of nuclear technology.

Mr. BEESTON: That's absolutely right, it is a nationalist issue rather than obviously a religious one. I suspect, though, in the back of their minds, they must have--be calculating what the fallout will be. And the pillar of his election victory last year was promises of jobs and economic stability and a redistribution of wealth in Iran and sharing the fortunes that they are amassing from the sale of oil. Now obviously if some sort of economic sanctions are imposed or if they're unable to trade or deal with the international community on the level that they're enjoying now, that may equally backfire on him further down the line.

CONAN: Yet oil prices are--have been very high this past year and more, and obviously that helps him to cash in on some of those economic promises he made during his election campaign.

Mr. BEESTON: Absolutely. And I think he's also seen other examples of countries that appear to be pursuing a nuclear weapons policy, and North Korea's come out much better than Iraq has. And he's got US forces now on his eastern and western borders, and maybe he's calculated that it's a much better policy to push for this thing, build it and then he'll be in a far stronger position to negotiate in the region.

CONAN: Not just the United States on two of his borders but nuclear powers: Pakistan on one side and a little bit further to the west Israel. And, of course, that has to add into the equation. Of course, India also on the subcontinent has nuclear weapons as well--all points which we welcome you to ask questions about. If you'd like to give us a phone call: (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

We're going to take a short break now and return with more of your calls and more with Richard Beeston of the Times of London and Jon Wolfsthal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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

We're talking about Iran's efforts with nuclear technology. Representatives from Britain, France, Russia, China, the United States and Germany met in London today to discuss what action to take over Iran's decision last week to remove seals from equipment used to enrich uranium. We're expecting that the matter will now come up before an emergency meeting of the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, that would be in the early part of next month in about two weeks time.

Our guests are Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of the Times of London, and Jon Wolfsthal, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington, DC. Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Kate. Kate's calling from Glouster, Ohio.

KATE (Caller): Yeah. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KATE: This morning on BBC, they had three different representatives from India, Russia and--now I've forgotten; maybe China. But one of the fellows said that in the last six months there have been 1,400 IAEA inspections in Iran and that sanctions would be completely counterproductive and back Iran into a corner. So I'd like you to address that about the ongoing inspections. And where is the hard evidence in regard to the claims being made? Hopefully it's not from Niger (pronounced nigh-jeer). And I've also asked NPR to do a program on Israel's, Pakistan's and India's nuclear, technological and chemical weapons. So I hope NPR does some fair and balanced reporting on those countries.

CONAN: OK. I assume she meant Niger (pronounced nee-jair), the country involved in the--turned out to be incorrect contribution of yellowcake, a form of uranium to Iraq. And so that was part of the WMD conversation before the war. Jon Wolfsthal, what about her point about international inspections of Iran?

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: Well, I think this is an important point because I would imagine most of the people listening are saying, `Wait a second. I've heard this before. You know, I've seen this movie recently.' There's a big difference between what we thought was happening in Iraq and what is clearly happening in Iran. We have inspections that are part of the normal inspection process in Iran. We do have inspectors going not everywhere they would like to go; Iran is still not fully cooperating, but they are providing a lot of access. And the inspectors are there showing that Iran has acquired these centrifuges; that they are about to begin the process of mastering the enrichment process. They will be there to tell us when they've reached a point that they could use this material for weapons. And so this isn't, you know, just in the purview of intelligence communities that you have to sort of piece together. We have people on the ground.

The concern, of course, is that Iran is threatening to throw inspectors out if they are referred to the UN Security Council, and that could make the situation a lot cloudier. But, in the end, we don't have the same sort of questions marks we do about Iran's capability. What we're really trying to guess at is intentions, and the fact that they've broken out of this self-imposed freeze is adding to the concern that their intentions are, in fact, not peaceful.

CONAN: And pushing Iran into a corner, Richard Beeston, as Jon Wolfsthal was just saying, they've said if referred to the Security Council, they will end all cooperation with the IAEA.

Mr. BEESTON: Yes, so obviously a window that we do have. Indeed when they took the seals off and resumed their--what they said was research work into enrichment, we were able to see that on television and to have a report by Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA, the following day. So these are--it's an important access into understanding what--how far Iran has moved in developing technology and whatnot.

KATE: May I...

Mr. BEESTON: Referring to your other point, from your caller, though, about Israel, India and Pakistan, of course, they were not signatories to the NPT, so they developed their nuclear technology by themselves. And they--whatever you may think of it, they didn't break any international laws in the sense that they were seeking cooperation for developing a civilian program, which they--we now suspect they've diverted to a military one, and I think that's an important point.

But, nevertheless, it is important, I think, in the eyes of many Arabs and many Muslims around the world to regard--to see Iran's move to possibly acquire a weapon as, `Well, Israel's done it, and why shouldn't we do it? You're operating double standards.' I saw Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, here last night for an interview, and that was one of the main points he was making. And it's obviously something that does rankle in the Arab world; that the West appears to be applying double standards to this issue.

CONAN: I'm sorry, Kate. I thought I heard you trying to get in there.

KATE: Yeah. I'm wondering what part, like, for instance, John Bolton has played at the UN in regard to kind of lining up the other countries? And doesn't he become the president of the Security Council in the next month, and what part does that play in the direction that we're headed?

CONAN: Yeah. Security Council presidency rotates on an alphabetical basis, and the United States' turn is coming up. John Bolton--was he there in London, Richard Beeston?

Mr. BEESTON: No, he wasn't. The US was represented by Nicholas Burns, so it was sort of political directors meeting. Obviously, if you have the chair of the Security Council, you are able to sway the debate and how things move. Having said that, my distinct impression, from speaking to people today, including Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, is that just getting the referral to the UN Security Council is going to be quite a diplomatic accomplishment. They are not planning to sit down and start talking about sanctions as soon as they get there. Everybody--Putin, the British, others--imagine this is going to be a slow process. We're not talking about something that's going to happen in February. And they're hoping in a way that just a referral in itself will act as a sort of incentive on the Iranians to moderate their position.

CONAN: Kate, thanks very much.

KATE: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now on the line from Brussels is Pierre Goldschmidt, deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency who was in charge of the Safeguards Department until leaving last June.

And thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. PIERRE GOLDSCHMIDT (Deputy Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency): You're welcome.

CONAN: Yesterday your former boss, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, was quoted as saying that he cannot confirm whether Iran's nuclear program is designed for peaceful purposes only, this after three years of verification work by the IAEA. How--why is that?

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: Well, this is due to the fact that it is extremely difficult to approve and demonstrate that nuclear activities are related to a nuclear weapons program because you can do a lot of things for civil purposes that--like mastering the enrichment process that would be also useful if you decide one day to produce high-enriched uranium that would be necessary for nuclear weapons. And to link the two is extremely difficult. For that, you would have to access probably military sites to see whether there is any indication on those sites that a country is undertaking nuclear weaponization activities, even not involving necessarily nuclear material in the first stage. So...

CONAN: Because if you wanted to make nuclear weapons practical, you have to have a delivery system for them, either aircraft or missiles or something like that, other activities would be going on is what you're saying.

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: Right. Right. And, of course, as you mentioned, the delivery means is important, too, and clearly Iran is working very hard on developing ballistic missiles with long-range and--capable of transporting nuclear weapons.

CONAN: Is there anything to dissuade you from the point of view that Iran might be developing nuclear weapons?

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: Well, there is no proof as the IAEA has said. There is no proof. But also after eight reports to the board and eight resolutions to the board, it is very disconcerting that after three years, there is still this--so many important open questions, unresolved questions. And to me, this demonstrates the need to widen the agency's verification authority, at least until such time as the IAEA has been able to conclude that there is no undeclared nuclear activity in Iran.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. When you mean `widened its authority,' what do you mean by that?

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: Well, to increase the verification authority of agencies, inspectors, to go to--to have access more easily to relevant locations, to interview people at their place of business, to see original documents where they are usually stored or used and so on.

CONAN: Would it also be useful--at this point the only teeth that the IAEA would have is to refer one of its member countries to the Security Council. Would some power in the IAEA itself be helpful?

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: Well, what is important is to understand that the Board of Governors has issued a number of resolutions asking for Iran to cooperate and be transparent with the agency. But the board has no legal authority to impose anything on Iran that Iran has not signed with the agency. And this is why to provide more authority to the agency, only the UN Security Council and its Chapter 7 can do such a thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: And when--I think what is important is referring a country to the UN Security Council does not necessarily mean sanctions. And in 2004, for instance, Libya was found to be non-compliant with the safeguards agreement and was immediately reported to the UN Security Council. And thanks to Libya's full cooperation at the time, the council took no adverse measure against Libya, and the whole issue was largely resolved within less than nine months. So, you know, it depends very much on the attitude of the country.

CONAN: Any suggestion so far that Iran would be willing to contemplate such a backdown?

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: No. They don't seem to be prepared to do that. On the contrary, they are threatening to diminish the voluntary offer to implement the additional protocol, which gives more authority to the agency if they are referred to the Security Council or at least if the Security Council requests sanctions against Iran.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let me ask one final question and that's sort of to approach the issue from the other way around. Negotiations, diplomacy has been steadily engaged certainly by the EU3 and Iran for the past two and a half years and more and has resulted in a dead end. Indeed, some people said all along all Iran was trying to do was spin these talks along and spin out the whole process to give themselves more time to work on more technology.

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: Yes. That's the fear, and that's why the international community has come now to the conclusion that it is time to try to convince Iran to take seriously the international community request and therefore to refer the case to the Security Council. So far I believe Iran has thought that it can reach its goal and continue to develop its uranium enrichment program without the risk of being referred to the Security Council, or if they are referred to the Security Council, that they would--China or Russia would exercise their veto right and that there would be no consequence. Now that's what the test will be in the coming days.

CONAN: Pierre Goldschmidt, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.

Mr. GOLDSCHMIDT: You're welcome.

CONAN: Pierre Goldschmidt recently retired as deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He joined us on the line from Brussels. If you'd like to join the conversation, it's (800) 989-8255. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Jon Wolfsthal.

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: I just wanted to pick up on something that Pierre said, which I think is very important. The negotiations that Iran was engaged in with the EU3 were viable as long as Iran was under its self-imposed freeze. No one wanted to negotiate with a proverbial gun to their heads, and it's really the fact that Iran has now unfrozen its program unilaterally which has meant that the negotiations really have to come to a halt. We don't want another situation like North Korea, where North Korea continues to advance its nuclear program every day and we try and have talks every six months or so. That plays to North Korea's advantage. We want to make sure that time is on our side, not on Iran's side.

CONAN: Oh, and I guess, Richard Beeston, that's the question. Even at this stage, would there be an opportunity for more diplomacy that might spin out yet into another series of talks that would go on for another couple of years?

Mr. BEESTON: Well, I'm afraid that's been the record so far of this process. We've had two and a half years of the EU process before it finally died. But I suppose when world leaders consider this conundrum, they conclude that that's the best option there is on the table, as unpleasant and as unpalatable as the whole process is. The only way that we're going to resolve this without resorting to force, which is, of course, the specter at this whole negotiation table--people say, `No, it's not on the table. It's not even being considered and whatnot.' But I suppose down the line, as we get to a point where people believe that Iran is actually going to build a bomb, then those questions will become more and more relevant. And so, hence, diplomacy really is vital, and it's important to have as many people and important players on the world stage involved at this point.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Eshon(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correct--Eshon calling us from Tehran in Iran.

ESHON (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hello. You're on the air. Go ahead please.

ESHON: ...(Technical difficulties) for your program. Yeah, my name is Eshon. You pronounced it correctly. You know, the program about, you know, nuclear enrichment in our country should not need to be condemned from outside. We condemn it ourselves here. If you take a referendum, majority of people will condemn this program because it's not a nationalistic plan, you know. It is just a religious program to actually--to make them stronger. You know, minority of people have the power, who are religious, and, you know, we are so against them. And I just want to voice my criticism and objection, and you can just, I don't know, get it across to the world.

CONAN: OK, Eshon. Thanks very much for the call. Good luck to you.

ESHON: OK. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go now to Oscar, and Oscar's calling us from Boston.

OSCAR (Caller): Yes. Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

OSCAR: My question has to do with: What if Iran simply withdraws from the atomic treaty?

CONAN: Well, North Korea withdrew from the National Non-Proliferation Treaty. Jon Wolfsthal, what happens if Iran pulls out?

Mr. WOLFSTHAL: It--the treaty itself does allow states to withdraw. There are certain legal procedures. There's--I believe it's a six-month notice that has to be given. But that does not eliminate the ability of the UN Security Council to respond to actions that countries took while they were members of the treaty. Under the way the UN is set up, all member states are subject to the will of the UN Security Council. And the council could vote to impose sanctions, to require inspections permanently, even if the treaty is withdrawn from. And, again, it's that 20-year period where Iran secretly acquired nuclear technology without inspections that might be the legal grounds to impose those sort of steps.

CONAN: And, finally, Richard Beeston--I'm afraid we only have a few seconds left, but asked about this stuff yesterday on American talk programs, senators were saying, `Hey, last resort. Nobody wants to do it. We're a long way between here and there.' But, last resort, somebody may try to take out Iran's nuclear program.

Mr. BEESTON: Well, that's obviously the last resort. I was talking to some Israeli officials the other day. They were extremely concerned about any talk of military action, even though some people have said that Israel might do it, because they know that the day after that happens, half of their country's probably going to be under fire from Hezbollah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, and they could even, in fact, be under direct fire from Iraq. So it's a very unpleasant prospect, which is why diplomacy is still being given a chance to work.

CONAN: Oscar, thank you for the call. Richard Beeston, thank you for your time this evening. Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of the Times of London.

And, Jon Wolfsthal, thank you for joining us today--Jon Wolfsthal of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington, DC.

When we come back from the break, it's the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. This is NPR News.

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