A Diplomat's View on Engaging Iran

Former Ambassador Thomas Pickering has had unofficial meetings with Iranian academics and policy advisers for the past several years on everything from the war in Iraq to Iran's nuclear program. Pickering discusses his diplomatic efforts.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Representatives of six nations seeking to restart nuclear talks with Iran met this week, hoping to come up with a new negotiating package to present to Tehran. The diplomats were unable to come to an agreement, and the meeting in Shanghai ended in failure.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says that Tehran will come forth with a plan of its own, but he also announced a major expansion of Iran's nuclear capacity.

Thomas Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to several nations under different U.S. presidents, has met directly and privately with a group of Iranian academics and policy advisers over the past five years. Ambassador Pickering joins us in our studio.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. THOMAS PICKERING (Former U.S. Ambassador): Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Can you tell us who you met with or at least what kinds of people?

Mr. PICKERING: We're not talking about the people we met with because we're continuing to meet with them. We have said that we have met with people who come from academic institutions and other institutions inside Iran and outside Iran.

SIMON: Can you tell us if you report what happens to anyone in the U.S. government?

Mr. PICKERING: Oh, yes. We do, and we were neither discouraged nor encouraged to do the talks, but we do speak to the U.S. government and give them our impressions of the talks and what went on.

SIMON: What do you talk about?

Mr. PICKERING: We talk about everything. But interestingly enough in the way this all arose was that three of us did an article of the New York Review of Books, and our proposal was that the U.S. ought to talk to Iran now, and others feel that way, too - I just read an interview by the Russian foreign minister who said the same thing - that those talks should focus very, very broadly but also cover the nuclear question, and why don't we take a look at examining the idea that there could be multinational enrichment inside Iran with low levels to give it some transparency and to give it, obviously, a firewall between the enrichment process and a nuclear weapon, something we thought was very, very important. And that to reinforce that, our third point was that there ought to be broad, complete, efficient, international inspection of Iran so that breakouts, clandestine facilities to reproduce what they were doing, would not become part of the scene.

SIMON: Do you have any reason to believe that the government that's presently in power in Tehran that has seemed to tie its nuclear program very much to a sense of national identity would in any way make that subordinate to any kind of multilateral arrangement?

Mr. PICKERING: I don't know. In effect, of course, it would not be subordinate because it would produce what Iran says it wants to produce, using Iranian technology in a way that was completely compliant with what Iranians' wishes were.

As you know, Iran has been first in line to say we don't want a nuclear weapon, and so it's basically saying let's take them at their word because they're permitted to have a civil nuclear power program. The U.S. has supported that. But let's find the best way to fence that off from a military program.

SIMON: What would the effect be, in your mind, of the U.S. sitting down and talking to Iran? Would it have the effect of rewarding a regime that the United States doesn't want to reward?

Mr. PICKERING: I think there is an idea abroad that if the U.S. talks to somebody, it's a reward. That's never been part of diplomatic practice. It's never been part of the relationships between nations.

Countries usually don't pay a price to talk to other countries, and countries usually don't extract a price to talk to other countries because it's in their mutual interest.

In a sense, they're all sovereign states. In the eyes of the world, they're all equal. But many in this country seem to feel that that's the case, and obviously it's been said for many years if you want to find a way to deal with your most difficult problems, you have to talk with the people who are causing them.

And we said the same thing about North Korea. We're now talking with North Korea directly and bilaterally as well as multi-laterally, and all we're proposing with Iran is that we look forward to doing the same thing.

SIMON: Ambassador Pickering, thanks so much.

Mr. PICKERING: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: The undersecretary of state for political affairs and has served as U.S. ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, Nigeria, Jordan and El Salvador. Did I forget any?

Mr. PICKERING: I don't think so.

SIMON: NPR News.

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