NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Last November, Iran agreed to freeze production of nuclear material and voluntarily allowed UN monitors to place seals on sensitive equipment to ensure that no work went ahead. Today, Iranian technicians removed those seals and resumed a process that transforms uranium ore, called yellowcake, into uranium hexafluoride, a gas that can be further refined to provide fuel for nuclear power plants or, if it's enriched even further, to make explosives for nuclear weapons. As Iran moved ahead, diplomats in Vienna tried to figure out their next step. Iran rejected a proposal from the so-called EU3--Britain, France and Germany--that offered Iran economic concessions in return for an agreement to stop nuclear activities altogether.
In a moment, we'll find out if that process is still alive. We'll also go to Vienna, the headquarters of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, and we'll speak with a BBC reporter who's visited some of Iran's nuclear facilities. And finally we'll talk with an analyst to ask how the issues of nuclear power and nuclear weapons play out in Iran.
Later in the program, an intellectual adventure that begins with a 19th-century British admiral who turned science into poetry, "Defining the Wind."
But first, if you have questions about Iran's nuclear program, what we know about it and how, or about the hopes of a diplomatic resolution, our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com.
And we begin with Michael Binyon, foreign affairs specialist for The Times of London. He joins us from that newspaper's offices in London. It's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. MICHAEL BINYON (The Times of London): Many thanks.
CONAN: Now this diplomatic effort by the EU3--Britain, France and Germany--where does that stand now?
Mr. BINYON: It doesn't really stand anywhere at the moment. It's not got much more life in it unless the Iranians respond in a more positive manner. They've simply dismissed the EU offers as insulting, and that, I think, is rather surprising because the EU was making some quite generous offers in the--both financial, economic and even in the nuclear field, offering to help with their civilian program. But it's quite clear that Iran doesn't actually want anything more from the EU, they just want to spin out the talks because they don't want to be the ones saying, `We're breaking them off,' but they would like time, I think, to develop the nuclear potential that has been their intention all along.
CONAN: Well, breaking those seals today in Isfahan, the plant that we're talking about, and going ahead with refining of nuclear fuel--is that a slap in the face of the Europeans?
Mr. BINYON: It certainly is, yes. And Iran, I think, had been calculating that they could play the Europeans off against the Americans, thinking that the Europeans, who've traditionally been rather suspicious of hard-line policies in Washington, would actually see Iran's viewpoint and stay the hand of America. In fact, the very opposite has happened. Americans have given the EU their full support in these negotiations. And in turn, the European Union has said that they now see absolutely eye to eye with Washington and are resolved, if necessary, to take this issue to the United Nations.
CONAN: Now there was a meeting of the IAEA governor's board, 35 nations, scheduled for today. That's not going ahead.
Mr. BINYON: No. Well, there's very little, in fact, that can be done. The board has had emergency talks already just to assess what the situation now is and I think in a last-ditch attempt to persuade Iran not to make the move that it's now taken. But the next move, of course, is to go from Vienna to New York, to the Security Council. But there again of course it's rather difficult to see what could happen. The next step would be the proposal of sanctions, and it's not clear that this would get through the Security Council. China, for one, isn't very keen on imposing sanctions on Iran because it needs Iranian oil.
The other problem, of course, is that it isn't very logical to take Iran to the Security Council while not taking North Korea, which is in fact guilty of much more serious breaches of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
CONAN: Indeed. And some people might point to other countries that flout the Non-Proliferation Treaty--India, Pakistan and Israel.
Mr. BINYON: Certainly. And of course the fact that Israel has an undeclared nuclear capability is something that is very much driving the Iranians to push them into getting a bomb themselves. But for the Iranians, I think the logic is impeccable. The West can do its worst, but it wouldn't really hurt Iran very much, short of a total embargo on Iran's oil, which I simply cannot see happening in the present oil shortage in the world. And the possession of nuclear weapons does give any country considerably more leverage and clout in the political field. One has only to look at India and Pakistan, which had sanctions imposed on them for a short while but have emerged, I think, with greater leverage everywhere.
CONAN: The Washington Post recently reported that the US government's best guess is that Iran is about 10 years away from making a nuclear weapon. Is that the assumption there in Europe?
Mr. BINYON: Yes. I think this comes from various scientific analysis groups. And there's a certain amount of intelligence information that's gone into that. It's very difficult to say exactly how long it would take them to develop a weapon, and it depends really whether they have all the ingredients to do everything themselves or whether they need further outside help. They certainly wouldn't be getting much outside help. The Russians, who are supplying the fuel for the Iranian power station and who've been instrumental right from the start in helping the buildup of this facility, are being very, very cautious now. The jump to actual nuclear weapons capability would have to come from within the Iranian scientific establishment, and there I think it's pretty unknown what stage they've reached.
CONAN: One final question before we let you go, Michael. Britain, France and Germany invested quite a bit of diplomatic clout, I guess, in these negotiations. What do they do now?
Mr. BINYON: Well, I think they feel that it was worth the effort, if only to show whether or not Iran was sincere. And sadly it turns out that Iran was never sincere. There've been some last-minute talks about postponing of things and Iran still ready to talk and ready to resume dialogue, but frankly this is pretty squalid and it's more like somebody trying to sell a carpet in a souk rather than a proper diplomatic negotiation. Iran wants to stay somehow in the game, but I think the Europeans have been fairly tough-minded about this and they've said, `Well, you've had your chance, we've had negotiations, we got nowhere, and now we are going to look at something else.'
CONAN: Michael Binyon, thanks very much.
Mr. BINYON: Thank you.
CONAN: Michael Binyon, foreign affairs specialist for The Times of London. He joined us from that newspaper's offices there.
At the center of this controversy is the International Atomic Energy Agency, which initially placed the seals on the machinery at Iran's nuclear facility in Isfahan. Joining us now from Vienna, Austria, is Mark Gwozdecky, spokesperson for the IAEA.
And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. MARK GWOZDECKY (Spokesperson, International Atomic Energy Agency): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: The foreign minister of France said the world would face a major international crisis if Iran did not accept the European proposal. It did not accept it and now has gone back to work. Is a potential crisis looming?
Mr. GWOZDECKY: Well, I think there's a potential crisis down the road, but also a potential opportunity for a lot of good to flow if the dialogue between the Europeans and Iran can be put back on the rails and to make some progress over the months and years to come. But this is a long process, and no one ever said it was going to be easy. And no one ever imagined that there wouldn't be bumps in the road. And I'm hoping that this activity in the last couple of days is a bump in the road and not a permanent rupture.
CONAN: So you're hoping that Iran will subsequently decide to freeze those activities again and return to the negotiating table, or do you think negotiations can resume while Iran continues to process fuel?
Mr. GWOZDECKY: Well, I think the window for diplomacy is still very, very wide and there is still a great deal of time. You mentioned earlier that by some estimates, Iran, if they are indeed pursuing a nuclear weapon, could be 10 years away from it. I think that shows that this is a long-term effort. What we're facing is, you know, 25 years of strained relations between Iran and the West. We're facing a nuclear program that for 20 years was underground and concealed from the rest of the communities, so there's a good deal of distrust that's developed. We're not going to create confidence overnight and there are going to be some glitches that turn up, but over the last year, there has been progress in the dialogue between Iran and the Europeans and we just think that the only good option is through negotiation, through diplomacy. No one else has put forward any other way to resolve not just the nuclear issue, but there's a lot more at stake here as well in the economic sphere as well as the broader issue of security and stability in the Middle East, where Iran plays a very, very prominent role.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our number again is 1 (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's here from Sue. Sue calling from Portland, Oregon.
SUE (Caller): Yes. Hello?
CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, Sue. Go ahead.
SUE: Thank you. What I would like to know is what exactly is it that Iran is doing that is illegal under international law?
CONAN: Mark Gwozdecky.
Mr. GWOZDECKY: Well, that's a very good question. What we've discovered so far is a lot of evidence, but nothing that either points directly to a verdict of innocence or guilt. Iran, like all the countries who have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, have a right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes--that is to generate nuclear energy--and that's what they say they're doing. We've been investigating for two years all aspects of their program trying to satisfy ourselves that that's the case. Now we've come a long way, but we're not yet at the point where we can say with real strong confidence that every part of their program is accounted for and we're satisfied that every part of their program is only for peaceful purposes.
So right now no one's proved any illegality, but by virtue of the fact that they concealed their program for about 20 years and there's been a lot of other circumstantial evidence that points to the possibility of illegal activity, there is this distrust and there is this lack of confidence that a lot of countries in the West feel.
CONAN: And is it fair to characterize the negotiations with the EU3 as an effort to get Iran to renounce some of its nuclear rights in exchange for concessions?
Mr. GWOZDECKY: Indeed, yes, the Europeans do want Iran not to give up the option of nuclear energy in total, but just to give up the option of producing its own nuclear fuel, which is the sensitive part of the nuclear fuel cycle, which can be used alternately for creating fissile material for bombs.
Iran takes a different view. It says that it has a right to all aspects of the fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment, and intends to proceed down that road. And the whole negotiation between the two sides has been to try to find a way to create a situation where both sides see that it's in their overwhelming interest to come to an agreement not just on the nuclear issue, but on these other areas of economic relations...
CONAN: Mark Gwozdecky, we're running up against a break. I hope you can stay with us to take another call after the break.
Sue, thank you very much for the call.
More when we return. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking today about the standoff that continues over Iran's nuclear capabilities. Is it true nuclear brinksmanship, or a means to gain ground on other fronts? Is Iran's intention to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes, or to develop atomic bombs? (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is email@example.com. We're speaking right now with Mark Gwozdecky, chief spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency, the branch of the UN that is responsible for monitoring compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
And, Mark Gwozdecky, going back to the previous caller just before the break, could you explain Iran's obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a signed member to that treaty?
Mr. GWOZDECKY: Sure, Neal. As a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is obliged to declare to us any nuclear activity that it has and to allow our inspectors access virtually to any of those facilities and those activities. And that's exactly what we've been doing, even though they have said that they're going to operate this conversion plant at Isfahan. The good news is that plant is fully monitored by us. We've installed a surveillance system of cameras and inspectors that will ensure that we're in close tabs with what's happening there on a 24-7 basis.
CONAN: Let's take one more call with you, if you wouldn't mind. This is Ben. Ben calling from Wayne, North Carolina.
BEN (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi, Ben, you're on the air.
BEN: Look, it seems to me rather silly that we should believe Iran about developing nuclear fuel. They have enough oil, for example, to run their power plants for probably a thousand years or more. So what other reason could they have to want to develop a nuclear program, because that would be the largest use of nuclear energy? All other programs are just, like, hardly anything in comparison to that.
BEN: So I think we're being fooled, and there's no reason for us to think that they're not interested in doing anything but develop nuclear bombs.
CONAN: Mark Gwozdecky, Iran certainly has a lot of oil.
BEN: Yeah. And first of all, I should say that we're not here to second guess a national government's decision to pursue nuclear energy or not. What I can tell you is what Iran would say to your caller, which is that their oil reserves are not a thousand years' worth but more likely to last a matter of decades, and that they're doing nothing more than what a number of other countries rich in oil and gas have been doing for decades. And they would point to countries like Russia, Canada, even the United States, all three of which are rich in oil and gas and yet have very well-developed nuclear industries.
CONAN: Ben, thanks for the call.
And, Mark Gwozdecky, thank you for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. GWOZDECKY: Thank you for having me, Neal. Appreciate it.
CONAN: Mark Gwozdecky is chief spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency, and he joined us on the phone from their offices in Vienna.
The IAEA's monitoring of Iran is usually a secretive enterprise. Earlier this year, BBC investigative reporter Paul Kenyon received permission to directly cover IAEA inspectors' work. His documentary, "Iran's Nuclear Secrets," aired on the BBC then as a PBS "Frontline" special in May. Paul Kenyon joins us now from the studios of the BBC in London.
Nice of you take the time to speak with us today.
Mr. PAUL KENYON (BBC): Good to speak to you.
CONAN: For this documentary, I wonder, did you visit that facility in Isfahan that's at issue today?
Mr. KENYON: Yeah, we went to Isfahan. In fact, we got permission from the Iranian authorities before we left the UK. We decided we weren't going to do the thing covertly; we would be open with them. So we put in an application, it took several months and at the end, Iran said, `Yes, you can come in.' We were very surprised.
Mr. KENYON: We went with the UN inspectors down to Isfahan, but by the time we got there, Iran had changed their mind and decided we couldn't go into any of the nuclear facilities. But we went to see the vice president and we were told what you can actually do is film on the exterior of each of our nuclear facilities, which we did. But then as we left the country, we were detained for two days and all our footage taken off us. And when I said, `Well, we've got permission to do this from the vice president,' the secret police said, `Well, he doesn't run the country; we do.'
CONAN: Hmm. Did you ever get your film back?
Mr. KENYON: We got about half of it back. What we'd done, which journalists do tend to do--it probably sounds slightly devious--but we decided earlier that because there was always a possibility that might happen that our most sensitive pictures we would copy in the hotel room. So we put them through the TV and filmed them on a mini-camcorder through the television straight off screen and then we smuggled them out of the country a different way.
CONAN: Hmm. There has been a lot of concern expressed by people that both the scale of Iran's nuclear facilities and the fact that it was kept a secret for 20 years--those two things combine to give a lot of people dark suspicions about Iran's intentions here. What did you make of their facilities? Were they well advanced? Were they--what did you think?
Mr. KENYON: Yeah. I mean, they are well advanced. And we were fortunate. Because we were with the UN inspectors, we were able to sort of debrief them each evening and talk about what they'd seen. Now--I mean, Isfahan is a conversion facility, as you say, which is where they get yellowcake and they change it into a gas. And then they have to take it 200 miles or so to a place called Natanz, and that's the enrichment facility. Now Natanz is in the middle of the hills, it's quite a steep climb, then you come out onto a plateau. It's buried underground. So Natanz, as you drive past, there's lots of gun positions. It's quite dangerous territory. The people we were with were determined that we shouldn't really go anywhere near there, and we finally persuaded them that this was important that the world saw a bit of Natanz. So enormous underground area.
Now the Iranians would say, `The reason that we've put it underground is just because we fear air attacks, not because we deserve air attacks, but because the world may get the wrong idea about what we're doing here.' But there's no scientific reason to have it underground. And obviously, this has added to the concern about Iran doing things secretly. And it's worth pointing out that Natanz is the place where--the world didn't know about it. They hadn't declared this to the UN inspectors. The only way the UN discovered it was when an opposition group based outside Iran tipped off the UN and various other authorities that they ought to go and check out Natanz.
And I'll just say one very brief thing about Natanz. Isfahan, as I say, is the place where it's converted, but Natanz is the place where it's enriched. And this is the area where they've got 50,000 centrifuges in there. Now the UN inspectors tell me that's large; that's a big establishment, 50,000 centrifuges. They spin at something like a thousand 000 revolutions a second. The gas is put into these centrifuges and at the end, it comes out as certain degrees of enrichment. If you want to just have nuclear energy for--if that's what you're trying to do, you would go to about 5 percent enrichment. To get nuclear weapons grade uranium, you would have to continue for much longer and get it to about 85, 90 percent, something like that.
One of the concerns the inspectors had is at one of the establishments they looked around in Iran, they found enriched uranium particles to the level of 54 percent. Now there's no need for Iran to go beyond 5 percent. So obviously, this was a very awkward question for the Iranians. And the Iranians would say, `Well, that's because we actually got the apparatus from a third country. So the apparatus must have been contaminated when we brought it here from, we think, Pakistan.' But they're saying, `We didn't develop it here; those particles are from somewhere else.' That's never been resolved, and the UN inspectors are still concerned about it.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Here's an e-mail question we have from Jalia(ph) in Kansas: `I would like to know why now in regards to stopping Iran's nuclear program? Shouldn't something have been done a long time ago? I personally know people who worked on some of these plants 25 years ago. How was this kept secret from everybody for 20 years?'
Mr. KENYON: It's a good question. The UN inspectors say, `Well, they kept the bulk of it secret for something like 20 years, but some of it they were open about,' so UN inspectors were going in and looking at some of these things. But it was Natanz which really caused them concern. To hide something that's underground with 50,000 centrifuges and is capable of making weapons-grade uranium was of great concern.
But why now? I'd find that difficult to answer. It's come to a head for a number of different political reasons, but I think it's mainly because when Natanz was discovered by the UN inspectors--that was two years ago. And if you think about the time line since then, they had to go in, inspect it, discover what was going on and then, by last November, they persuaded Iran to suspend their nuclear program. So you can see that it's all really happened in the last two years and it's been building up.
CONAN: What did Iranians tell you about their intentions for their nuclear program? And, you know, if there was talk even in private about a bomb, I mean, Iran's neighbors--Pakistan, India, Russia and Israel--are all nuclear weapons states.
Mr. KENYON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, on the street--the difficulty is with doing any filming in Iran is that you tend to be followed around by the secret police everywhere you go, and the locals are aware of this. So we interviewed a number of people outside a bazaar in central Tehran, and they all came out with the government line, which is: `Why shouldn't we have nuclear energy? We have no reason to turn into nuclear weapons.'
But what was interesting is as we did those series of interviews, one woman ran over, broke through the crowd and shouted, `Nobody here can speak the truth or else they'd be killed,' and ran away again. And I spoke to a number of Iranian dissidents only yesterday here in London, and they were saying, again, that, you know, you can't really test public opinion very easily in Iran, and actually there will be a lot of people that are very concerned that Iran has taken them in a direction which is causing so much suspicion in the US and Europe that it's going to end in some kind of crisis, which they obviously don't want to be involved with.
CONAN: Paul Kenyon, thanks very much.
Mr. KENYON: Thank you.
CONAN: Paul Kenyon, an investigative reporter for the BBC. His coverage of Iran's nuclear situation ran on the BBC and then on PBS last May. And he joined us from the BBC studios in London.
And with us now is Bahman Baktiari, director of the International Affairs Program at the University of Maine, a specialist in Iranian politics. He's with us from his home in Orono, Maine.
Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Professor BAHMAN BAKTIARI (University of Maine): Thank you very much.
CONAN: We just heard Paul Kenyon's story of investigating Iran's nuclear program. Interesting what he said about the Iranian public reaction. How well informed is the public about Iran's nuclear ambitions?
Prof. BAKTIARI: Well, I think the Iranian public today is not very much informed about the distinction between nuclear energy and nuclear capability and a nuclear weapon. So they Iranian regime has done a good job to encourage nationalistic feelings for Iranians' right to have nuclear energy and have stayed away from any kind of references to nuclear weapons and capabilities that are concerns of the West. So in a sense, I think just like any other issue in Iran, the Iranian population today is divided on the nuclear issue just similar to their division on religion, economy and everything else that is happening. There's no clear public consensus on this issue.
CONAN: I had thought, though, that at least on nuclear power that this was very much a nationalist issue. Obviously, this goes back to the days of the shah, a very different Iranian government, but many in Iran who came to power after him--a very different group--still in favor of nuclear developments--well, to be frank, in the shah's case, nuclear weapons as well as nuclear energy.
Prof. BAKTIARI: Well, I think--as you know, the Iranian population is a young population, and the growth of the Iranian population has been significant, so energy consumption is very high. And I think it was one of your callers earlier that talked about why Iran needs nuclear energy. But if one really looks at Iran's oil fields today, they have completely been depleted in terms of technology. The impact of sanction has been huge. So there is a legitimate need for energy consumption and alternative energy for Iranian population. But I doubt the young Iranians today will go as far as confronting the West on this issue, because there is also a consensus among the young Iranians that their country should not take any policy that creates acrimony or confrontation with the West.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Ruth. Ruth calling from Pensacola in Florida.
RUTH (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hello, Ruth, you're on the air.
RUTH: Yes, hi. I'm just curious. I bet there are a number of Persians in this country who consider themselves refugees from the current regime. And to my understanding, our country was--supported getting these clerics in. And I'm just wondering--I gathered the shah would have been building a bomb to someday get us, whereas the clerics are probably going to be Islamist sympathists, and I think that's a bad situation.
CONAN: Well, thanks for the call, Ruth.
A--how--there is a new government in Iran that's been elected since you were last there, Bahma Baktiari. This is a much more conservative regime.
Prof. BAKTIARI: Yes, it is, and I think part of the story that has not been explained very well in the West is the fact that how, in the past year, this transformation of Iranian politics that was moving forward--behind the scene, there was a major struggle over how Iran should go about its dialogue on the nuclear issue. And the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who's known to take the hard line, was arguing that Iran should not have any preconditions or accept anything that will give up its rights for uranium-enrichment whereas supporters of Rafsanjani and the pragmatists were arguing for negotiations and making their case that only through negotiations they can lift Iran's economic isolation.
But this is a struggle behind the scene which finally ended with Rafsanjani not winning the election and kind of being pushed back, surprisingly, by hard-liner, that actually resulted in the feeling of victory for Khomeini and his supporters, that maybe Iranian population, who voted for this new president, do not favor any kind of negotiation that has preconditions.
CONAN: We're talking with Bahman Baktiari about Iran and nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Let me ask you what significance we should put into--there has been, of course, with the new government, a shuffle of some offices, and, indeed, now in charge of Iran's nuclear power program, or nuclear program, is a man named Larijani, the former head of the Revolutionary Guards. What significance should we read into that?
Prof. BAKTIARI: Well, it seems like the new president is very much geared toward putting people in government who have the complete trust of the supreme leader. And it seems, again, from his selections of people for his Cabinet, that he's not interested having any kind of bureaucracies or ministers who would take a position different from the supreme leader so it seems to be a greater centralization of power inside Iran. And the selection of Larijani as the secretary of the National Security Council, replacing a pragmatist, is a reflection of this greater centralization from Ayatollah Khomeini's office and his power that is coming down.
I really don't think in the long term that even this hard-line Iranian regime will be able to withstand the international pressure right now and not come back to the negotiating table. I think they're playing with fire here. They're pretty much aware of the geopolitical situation. American troops are surrounding Iran and Afghanistan and Iraq, and they can only push this only so far without risking some major threats or threats to their national security.
CONAN: Yet the negotiations with the EU3, Iran already seems to have a great deal of what it wanted from Europe--diplomatic recognition, commercial contracts, that sort of thing. The one holdout thus far is the United States.
Prof. BAKTIARI: Yes, I think what we have in this case is that you have three levels of negotiations taking place and the negotiating teams do not have 100 percent backup from their home countries, and in the case of EU3, he has taken a long time to bring the US aboard. And, in that sense, for Iranian negotiators, they know that US holds important veto power for economic sanctions lifting or imposing more sanctions, and without the United States' tacit approval of any negotiations, they're not going to get any concessions.
So Europeans have to give in a lot to the Americans to keep the Bush administration happy that they're not giving too much to Iranians, and Iranian negotiators have to continuously drum up their support inside Iran to show that they're not giving into the Europeans. So in the middle of all these negotiations, the most important issue of how to keep the negotiations going and keep the Iranians in the dialogue, it seems to be lost. And maybe this opportunity has been lost by Iranians again.
CONAN: Bahman Baktiari, thanks very much for joining us.
Prof. BAKTIARI: thank you.
CONAN: Bahman Baktiari directs the international affairs program at the University of Maine. He's the author of "Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran: The Institutionalization of Factional Politics," and he joined us from his home in Orono, Maine.
When we come back from a short break, the elegance and `poetry' of the Beaufort wind force scale. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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