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IAEA to Vote on Referring Iran to the Security Council

February 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The United Nations nuclear watchdog agency gave no official reason for postponing a vote today to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.

A two-day emergency meeting of the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, began yesterday. On the agenda: How to respond to Iran’s decision to resume work on a nuclear program.

Iran removed U.N. seals from uranium enrichment equipment last month and resumed research at a nuclear plant at Natanz, about 150 miles south of Tehran and two other facilities. That ended Iran’s two-year freeze on its efforts to enrich uranium either for civilian reactors or nuclear weapons.

Iran insists its nuclear program is aimed at producing civilian electricity, but U.S officials confirmed suspicions raised in a New York Times report this week that the IAEA has Iranian documents showing work on a missile warhead design.

As international anxiety has grown over the Iranian nuclear program, the major powers stepped up their warnings and diplomatic pressure. The most public declaration came from President Bush during his State of the Union speech Tuesday.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Iranian government is defying the world with its nuclear ambitions, and the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Tonight, let me speak directly to the citizens of Iran: America respects you and we respect your country. We respect your right to choose your own future and win your own freedom. And our nation hopes one day to be the closest of friends with a free and democratic Iran.


RAY SUAREZ: The president’s comments followed an agreement reached late Monday by the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S., Britain, China, France and Russia — calling on the IAEA to report Iran to New York immediately.

Iranian officials, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have responded defiantly.

PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Translated): In nuclear energy, our nation will continue its path until full realization of its rights. Nuclear energy is our right, and we will resist until this right is fully realized.

Our nation can’t give in to the coercion of some bully countries who imagine they are the whole world and see themselves equal to the entire globe.

RAY SUAREZ: And Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator warned the IAEA yesterday that his country would block future surprise U.N. inspections of key Iranian nuclear sites and would move ahead with uranium enrichment if it was reported to the Security Council.

The IAEA Board is expected to continue meeting over the weekend.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on where this showdown might lead, we go to: Cliff Kupchan, director for Europe and Eurasia at the Eurasia Group, a risk consulting firm — he served in the Clinton State Department and has met officials in Iran several times in recent years; Karim Sadjadpour is the Tehran-based Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization — he holds Iranian and American passports; And Gary Sick served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Reagan, Ford, and Carter — he was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Cliff Kupchan, there’s been a delay. The vote was supposed to be today. What have you heard held things up at the last minute?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, the non-align movement — a group of developing countries — in this case the initiative lead by Egypt — wants to include in the referring language a notion that the proposal what have to cover the entire Middle East, that they want to create a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. This won’t be acceptable to the U.S. They want to capture Israel in the net.

RAY SUAREZ: So by implication that would include any Israeli program in the —

CLIFF KUPCHAN: This is well-known code language: A nuclear free weapons — nuclear free zone in the Middle East means no nuclear weapons for Israel.

RAY SUAREZ: Gary Sick, is that a significant roadblock to a majority vote from the IAEA board?

GARY SICK: Well, it’s the position that a number of Arab countries have been taking absolutely from the beginning. There has been some lessening of the pressure to basically have a uniform position with basically bringing Israel into that net.

I suspect that the people who raise this know that they are not going to succeed in that, and the question is whether they are willing to have a complete breakdown of any vote in order to insist on that.

I — you know, I would be surprised because this is an issue that has been around for a very long time. Everybody knows that they’re not going to get a weapons free zone in the entire Middle East.

Actually talking about a weapons-free zone in the Persian Gulf, however, is one that is a subject that attracted a great deal of attention recently. And that might be a way for them to proceed. We’ll see. I suspect that they will be doing a lot more very serious talking over the weekend.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, sources, ambassadors from the permanent five, Karim Sadjadpour, say that they will be able to keep this coalition together, get a majority vote and send this report from the IAEA to New York. Then the ball is in Iran’s court isn’t it?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Yeah, I think, you know, what happens is that there will be a report for referral tomorrow. But it will give Iran another month until the IAEA chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, comes out with his report the first week of March.

And I think depending how Iran behaves in this one-month interim, you know, if they want to escalate, there is a stronger likelihood the measures in the U.N. Security Council will be stronger, if they want to step back down from the ledge, I think it offers the international community time to present some more diplomatic negotiation with Iran.

RAY SUAREZ: But this is one step short of the strongest kind of referral that they could send to New York.


RAY SUAREZ: All along, Iranian leaders have been quoted in the worldwide press saying they wouldn’t accept any form of this kind of report.


RAY SUAREZ: Does this paint them into a corner? Do they then have to break off negotiations? Or is there some room for them to say well, they haven’t done the most serious kind of reporting?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well In many ways Iran is its own worst enemy because it sets the bar very high for itself with its rhetoric and then it’s forced to behave in a way to back that up.

I think that from the European perspective they always believed that if and when there was a strong likelihood that there would be a referral to the Security Council that Iran would back down from the ledge.

Now it’s unclear. I think that, you know, Iran remembers very strongly the days of the Iran-Iraq War when it was very much in diplomatic, political, economic isolation. They don’t want to relive those days but how they can find a face saving solution right now is very unclear.

RAY SUAREZ: Gary Sick, do you think the Iranians are looking for a graceful exit from this – this knot they’re tied in?

GARY SICK: Actually both sides, the Americans in the West and the Iranians on the other have both been taking very tough positions in public, passing little threats along the side unofficially but letting everybody know what they could do, and what they might do if worst comes to worst. But both sides have shown an interest in multilateral diplomacy, actually.

The Iranians, curiously enough, if they’re going to succeed in their effort to stop the push by the West, by the United States in particular, they’ve got to get Russia and China on their side. And I think the United States was very clever over the last week in getting Russia and China to sign up to an agreement that at least sent a message to Iran that they can’t absolutely count on those two votes.

If, in fact, they lose those two votes, China and Russia, their situation is going to be much bleaker than it is today. So I think there’s — that the Iranians have got to think about that. And I’m not sure how they’re going to come out.

RAY SUAREZ: We’re talking, Cliff Kupchan, about two members of the Security Council, Russia and China, two nuclear powers, two Asian powers. Why are they so hard to bring in to an agreement; wouldn’t they almost automatically not want another nuclear power on their southern flank?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Each has its own interest and very special relationship with Iran. In Russia’s case there is a good deal of money to be made by selling nuclear fuel and reactor technology to Iran. China gets 11.5 percent of its imported oil from Iran, and 4 percent of its total consumption. So to cut to the chase here, I think when we get into the serious negotiating about serious sanctions on Iran down the road, I’d be very surprised if China, Russia, even some of the European countries were on board with the U.S.

RAY SUAREZ: Karim Sadjadpour, is that what Iran is counting on, that the principals are not as thick as oil, you might say?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think, you know, this has been Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, that the West needs us or the international community needs us far more than we need them.

But I think at the same time Iranians are mindful of the fact that throughout, you know, contemporary Iranian history there has been a strong sense of mistrust vis-à-vis the Russians.

So I think they are putting themselves in a position right now where Russia is their primary ally — you also do have the Chinese — and I think you do have more pragmatic minds within Iran like former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who say, in fact, we very much need relations with the Europeans, with the Americans, and we can’t paint ourselves in a corner where we just are relying on the Russians and the Chinese.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Russians, Karim, promised to be a part of a solution by saying they would refine the uranium if Iran wants it for an electric power program. And for a while that seemed like a promising step, what happened?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I don’t think it actually from the Tehran’s perspective is not so promising. I think, you know, from their perspective if they see the Russian proposal as an offer to enrich uranium on Russian soil until Iran can enrich their own, I think they might be amenable, but as it has been presented, it has been an offer in lieu of domestic Iranian enrichment.

And I think Iran’s whole argument is that we can’t be dependent on outside sources. So this doesn’t resolve that dilemma.

RAY SUAREZ: Gary Sick, do you think the Russian offer is really not going to happen now?

GARY SICK: I think what the Russian offer did was suggest that there may be intermediate solutions. Basically the West has decided to draw the line absolutely, that there shall be no enrichment at all. That’s a good, clear line to draw. But it’s hard to maintain, given the fact that so many countries in the world have enrichment, and United States lives with that.

We have something like 40 countries in the world that could produce a nuclear weapon in very short order if they wanted to. We accept that. It’s very difficult to say to the Iranians you are the only countries in the world that can’t do that.

So I think there’s — Iran is going to be to insist on some kind of enrichment, and the Russian position provides an intermediate, at least a beginning of an intermediate solution for that. And I think that that’s where the negotiations are probably going to go in the long run.

RAY SUAREZ: You say it’s difficult for the United States to put to the Iranians that they can’t do it. But what about these recent revelations of diagrams for warhead designs, for increasing the payload and distance of their missile program, does that at least undermine the Iranian suggestion that they only want to do this for domestic electricity and strengthen the Americans’ hand?

GARY SICK: It undermines their position and in fact, is the clearest example of the kind of problems that Iran is having with its negotiating position.

On one hand, it wants to insist on its rights. It wants to insist that it is cooperating fully. And then on the other hand, they are dribbling out little bits and pieces of stuff that raises new questions at each stage.

And so in this case, I think what has happened is just like Libya, Iran was in touch with AQ Khan, the network in Pakistan that was providing the black market supplier; he was the black market supplier to the world. Iran was in touch with him, and those people seem to have provided a kind of package deal.

They give you all of these diagrams and other things whether you need them or not. I’m not sure whether that was true or not. And you have to be suspicious of Iran. But the most suspicious thing is that they have not made all of that available to the IAEA before, got it off their back and come clean. And I think this makes them look very bad.

RAY SUAREZ: Cliff Kupchan do you have any doubt that Iran wants to develop a nuclear weapon?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I don’t think the Iranians, in my own judgment, know for sure whether they are going to weaponize their nuclear technology or not. I think it’s clear, increasingly evident, that they want the option to develop a nuclear weapon. Whether they cross that threshold or not, I think will depend in large part on the threat environment that surrounds them at the time they have to make that decision. But certainly they have shown that they are interested.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that a legitimate point, that it is a dangerous neighborhood and we want a weapon for the same reasons that Pakistan developed one, that India developed one?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: From the international community standpoint it is not a fair point. They have a right to this under the national Nonproliferation Treaty. But it is kind of like a guy with a bad credit rating going to a bank wanting a loan. He deserves the loan under the law but he is not going to get it because the banker doesn’t trust him. The same with Iran, they’ve just lost the trust of the international community.

RAY SUAREZ: Karim, there has been some question about whether President Ahmadinejad is really in charge and whether the guy across the table when you are negotiating with Iran speaks for all the power centers in the country.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Yeah. I mean I think — Iran is not ruled –Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader in Iran, is really the person who is steering, I think, the Iranian nuclear ship.

President Ahmadinejad can be influential on the fringes. I think the concern right now for the Europeans and Americans is that if we put certain incentives on the table that we haven’t — that we didn’t do during President Khatami’s period, then we in a way validate this belligerent, bellicose rhetoric and behavior of President Ahmadinejad. So it is really a dilemma, as Cliff said earlier, and I think the Europeans and Americans probably would have been better off trying to reach a diplomatic accord during President Khatami’s era.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, Thank you very much.