Iran Now Tops List of Major U.S. Security Concerns

The Bush administration has updated its national security strategy for the first time in four years — and now Iran tops the list of major security concerns. Alex Chadwick speaks with NPR senior diplomatic correspondent Mike Shuster about security threats and the status of negotiations between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

The Bush Administration has released the latest version of its national security strategy. And Iran is now the top security concern of the U.S. The document calls Iran an ally of terror, and says it must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. But there is this development as well. A senior Iranian leader said today that Iran is ready for direct talks with the U.S., but those talks should be narrowly restricted to the situation in Iraq.

NPR's Mike Shuster on a reporting trip to Iran in the last month is with us here now. Mike, what about the new national security document and Iran?

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Well, the officials of the Bush Administration have been using fairly serious language about Iran as the gravest challenge to American national security. This has been coming out in the last few weeks. Particularly Secretary of State Rice. And so this document shows that they've actually enshrined it as the top threat to American security. And it's significant because it echoes language from a few years ago, before the Iraq invasion, of the way the Administration viewed Iraq. That is, seeking weapons of mass destruction, more particularly nuclear weapons, and allied with terrorism. And that's the same kind of analysis that is now in this new national security strategy vis a vis Iran.

CHADWICK: Well, you mention terrorism. What about al-Qaida in this document and North Korea and its news?

SHUSTER: Well, both North Korea and al-Qaida are mentioned but they seem to be downgraded as threats to the United States to some degree. The administration acknowledges that North Korea is a serious nuclear proliferation challenge, and they also say that al-Qaida still represents a more de-centralized challenge around the world, but that al-Qaida's been significantly degraded. So the emphasis in this national security strategy is on Iran.

CHADWICK: Okay, well, back to that subject. What about this kind of possibility of talks with the U.S. that's raised today by an official in Tehran?

SHUSTER: Well, it's actually a response to an offer by the United States. President Bush authorized the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, this goes back to last November, to seek talks with the Iranians over Iraq because it, the administration, acknowledged that Iran has a significant interest in what's going in Iraq and may be able to help. Apparently, Khalilzad has asked the Iranians or felt out the Iranians several times since then about these kind of talks.

I think that the difficulty in forming a government, a stable government in Iraq, has put more pressure on Khalilzad to work with the Iranians, and just recently one prominent Shiite Iraqi politician Adbul-Aziz al-Hakim who's head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was a beneficiary of the elections, one of the big winners in the elections in Iraq in December, called for Iran-U.S. talks on this. I should also point out that the official in Iran who said that Iran is open to talks is Ali Larijani, the National Security Advisor, a counterpart to Steve Hadley in the United States and the Bush Administration. And when I was in Iran a few weeks ago, Larijani was talking about being interested in talking to directly to Hadley, the National Security Advisor here.

CHADWICK: What's interesting is, you see these articles in the Los Angeles Times this week and the New York Times this week, somewhat in the Washington Post, about the kind of division in the government in Iran that suggests maybe suddenly there are people to talk to there.

SHUSTER: There's no question that there is a division in the government in Iran, and I think loosely we can call it the hardliners around the new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which this faction and the President does not seem to be interested in talking to the United States. And then there's the more pragmatic conservatives, it's probably fair to say that, around the supreme religious leader, Ali Khamenei. And Larijani is allied with Ali Khamenei, and they seem to be willing to talk to the United States on a certain set of issues. But it's a big question whether they're interested in talking to the United States directly over the nuclear issue.

CHADWICK: And that is what we would like to talk about.

SHUSTER: Well, it's not clear, actually. The Bush Administration was very eager to get the issue out of the International Atomic Energy Agency and to the UN Security Council. A couple of weeks ago that was done successfully. Now there are talks in the UN Security Council, mostly among the permanent five members, the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia, about what to do. And they can't agree, so there is pressure coming from around the Iranians in both these factions, on the nuclear issue seem to be united, putting pressure on the Security council, and right now the security council is divided on this issue.

CHADWICK: NPR's Mike Shuster on the situation in Iran and the President's new national security statement. Mike, thank you.

SHUSTER: You're welcome, Alex.

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