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Nuclear Negotiations

August 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: This is the Isfahan nuclear plant south of Tehran, where workers today resumed converting uranium ore into gas. The work had been suspended last year, while Tehran negotiated with the European Union over its nuclear program.

Iran this weekend also rejected the new proposal from Britain, France and Germany, offering economic benefits if Iran would scrap its efforts to produce its own nuclear fuel.

These defiant moves were among the first acts of Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He also appointed a hardliner to replace Tehran’s envoy to the nuclear talks.

Iran’s resumption of nuclear work brought immediate warnings from the EU that United Nations sanctions could be the result. The speaker of Iran’s parliament had tough words in reply.

HADDAD ADEL (Translated): If logical arguments are replaced with a threatening approach, then I should say that the Iranian nation will defend its independence. Benefiting from science and different technologies is a symbol of defending a country’s independence.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran says its program is solely designed to produce nuclear energy for civilian use. But the West fears that once Iran masters the art of reprocessing, it could use that fuel for nuclear bombs.

A second nuclear negotiation, involving North Korea, also hit an impasse this weekend.

CHRISTOPHER HILL: It is clear that it’s time to leave.

MARGARET WARNER: U.S. envoy Christopher Hill left Beijing after two weeks of six-nation talks deadlocked over North Korea’s right to have civilian nuclear reactors. The U.S., China and others are trying to persuade North Korea to give up its entire nuclear program in return for economic and political incentives.

North Korea, which claims to have already produced several nuclear bombs, is insisting on its right to retain at least its civilian program. The suspended North Korea talks are due to resume Aug. 29.

And for more on this double impasse on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear fronts, we turn to Henry Sokolski, former deputy for nonproliferation policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the first Bush administration. He’s now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington; and George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. He formerly ran the Nonproliferation Initiative at the W. Alton Jones Foundation.

Welcome to you both.

MARGARET WARNER: George Perkovich, how alarming do you find these simultaneous developments on both the Iranian and North Korean fronts?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: Well, I would say there’s a difference between the two. In North Korea, actually, you had a relatively positive development which was the talks themselves where the U.S. joined the process. And though they were suspended they’ve agreed to continue the process. We don’t know what the outcome will be but it hasn’t ended in a disaster at the moment.

The Iranian move is bolder and does speed up the timetable and the necessity to bring the U.S. and others more actively into the process. So that one I think is more dramatic.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it? Do you see it as a sort of split decision here?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: No, I think it’s a double play. And it’s pretty clear, too, that the North Koreans and the Iranians have been somewhat coordinating their positions.

They both talk about rights to civilian nuclear energy. They both are concerned about the double standards of America’s treatment of India recently and saying, well, if you treat them well, we should be treated well.

So there’s some coordination, and I think it’s bringing to a head a general host of arguments and problems with nonproliferation policies. And actually, in my line of work, it’s somewhat of a relief because now we’re going to see how things will play out.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Perkovich, do you see common threads in these two situations? I know you said you thought they were different in outcomes, but do you see common threads as Mr. Sokolski does?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: I think Henry is absolutely right, that you do have both North Korea and Iran speaking in terms of their right to nuclear energy and arguing that the U.S. and others are trying to deny them this right. That’s a powerful kind of language and framework that the U.S. and the European Union will have to contend with.

So there’s that common denominator. And the other common denominator is that both North Korea and Iran were on the U.S. “Axis of Evil.”

Both governments feared the threat by the United States of forcibly changing their governments and so both are waiting in a sense through this process to see whether the U.S. is going to actually make deals, is willing to make deals with these governments or try to overthrow them.

And that’s kind of the fundamental question to test whether there’s a diplomatic solution in both cases.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Henry Sokolski, why do you think Iran did what it did today? Do you take this as a clear indication that they are determined to go ahead with their program or do you think this is … could still be a bargaining or negotiating tactic?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Yes to both questions.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes to both?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Yes. I think that they want to get as close as they can to the bomb. They’re gunning for that. And they’re also gunning after the rules that would otherwise make it clearer that they were getting close to a bomb.

They want the rules to read — the nuclear rules — that they have a right to do everything they need to get within hours, days of having an arsenal.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, if they can get as far as they would need to, to have what they need for a civilian program, which would put them this close.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Right. And our answer to this has been a little less than forceful. One of the reasons I look forward to the following days is to see whether the rhetoric sharpens a bit.

We’ve been very firm in the case of North Korea saying, light water reactors for power, you must be kidding. No way, you’re not going to get it. It’s too risky.

These machines have the fresh fuel and produce spent fuel that can be used as feed to make bombs and reprocessing and enrichment plants that we don’t know whether you have or not.

But we don’t quite make that argument yet with Iran; the French do. And I guess I’m a little in favor of following the French. They make a more principled argument.

MARGARET WARNER: How would you characterize what the U.S. is really saying vis-à-vis Iran?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: Well, we’re willing to take some risks in your case because you haven’t formally fully been found in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. If we can smoke your intentions out by making offers that we wouldn’t make to North Korea, all the better.

Then we go to the U.N. Security Council, only with a hammer. Now, whether we have the votes, whether we can do that is part and parcel of our willingness to be forward-leaning in helping the Europeans put out a friendly hand of generosity first. And we’ve done that.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think, Mr. Perkovich, that Iran is willing to pretty much thumb its nose at the Europeans and risk, when the Europeans are threatening, maybe sanctions from the U.N. Security Council or you know, the cut-up of European trade and investment?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: I think there are several reasons, and Henry alluded to some of them. First of all, the Iranian logic — and this has been explained by some of the leaders — is to figure out where they have a technical problem, in this case, the operation of this plant in Isfahan. And they paused that activity when they had a problem.

But then when they have it worked out, they then moved forward to see if they in fact have solved the problem. That may be what’s happening now.

Another reason is that the offer that the Europeans have made to Iran includes a guarantee of fuel supply for a nuclear reactor and a security guarantee.

But the Iranians know that those guarantees are meaningless if the U.S. doesn’t back them, and so the Iranians need to create a crisis, as they’re doing now, to see if the U.S. will come in and back up the European guarantees.

If the U.S. doesn’t back up the European guarantees, then I think the Iranians calculate that the rest of the world will look at it and say, yeah, well, the offer the Europeans made was no good, so it’s understandable that Iran is doing what it’s doing.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do you think’s going to happen when the International Atomic Energy Agency meets tomorrow in their emergency session, the Europeans and the U.S.?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: Well, I think the Europeans will stick to a promise they made to the United States, which was if Iran ended the suspension of activity, then the Europeans would be prepared to take the matter to the Security Council.

So the Europeans will take a tough line. The U.S. will. I doubt that the other states in the International Atomic Energy Agency will go along.

So my guess is that it will be kind of a compromise that will urge strongly that Iran stop the activity, resume the suspension that it had agreed to earlier, so that the IAEA can answer these lingering unanswered questions about Iran’s intentions. So it will be a little bit of pressure, but not as much as the EU or the U.S. would like to put on.

MARGARET WARNER: Henry Sokolski, that sounds like just words. Is that what you expect tomorrow?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: No. There will be a warning or — in their meeting late in the day — there’s still some jockeying. There could be even a slam-dunk move to the Security Council.

There are at least two-thirds of the members willing on the board of governors to vote for sanctions so if they have to take it to a vote — they don’t like doing it, they could and push to it the Security Council.

I think also the idea that the United States somehow has to pony up more, I don’t think that’s where the Europeans are.

I think in fact the problem is, is that the Iranians are demanding recognition of a right that the Europeans, with the possible exclusion of the Germans, really don’t want to recognize — and rightly so — which is to make everything but a bomb and get right up to the edge, and they don’t want to go there.

MARGARET WARNER: And the U.S. is saying they forfeited their right by having hidden their previous nuclear program.

HENRY SOKOLSKI: That’s what they’re arguing. As I say, the Europeans, some of them, the French, are making a more principled argument which is there’s no economic justification so this is not a benefit of peaceful nuclear energy.

There’s no benefits. It’s not peaceful. It’s dangerous.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Perkovich, in a nutshell, why did the North Korean talks collapse and is there any reason to think they’ll make progress when they resume — collapse is a wrong word, suspend — and any reason to think that they’ll make progress when they resume on Aug. 29?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: I didn’t think there was any reason to think they would succeed this time so it’s natural, it seems to me, that when you have such fundamental differences going back for more than a decade now that those aren’t going to all be, you know, reconciled and put into a nice neat box with a bow on it in one session.

So I think this is going to go on for a while. And we should expect that. And it’s going to be difficult all along the way.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Sokolski, your view of the North Korean talks, and also, you said you thought maybe Iran and North Korea were coordinating here. Do you think one set of talks affects the other, that somehow it gives each of these countries more confidence to defy the West, defy the nonproliferation regime?

HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think they do. Both countries are looking probably to Russia and China. We’re going to have to lobby and work hard to get Russia and China on our side. And I think they take solace in thinking we can’t get them.

I think, in addition, this whole argument of peaceful nuclear power plants and light water reactors — they’ve played that really well. And we have not handled it as forcefully as we need in the case of Iran.

That said, North Korea wants the bomb, has the bomb. Iran wants the bomb, doesn’t quite have it. And in both cases, if we have our wits about us, we should just say no. And we are preparing the ground for something more than just talks. We’ll continue to talk.

We’re getting into a long-term competition with two small countries. And we need to have our wits about us and not be provocative and try to do something reckless like start a war, but we are starting a cold war.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Perkovich, do you think these two sets of … these two situations are affecting each other, let’s say, in terms of what the West and the U.S. has as available options? Does it make it harder to deal with?

GEORGE PERKOVICH: Well, I agree with Henry. I think the Iranians and the North Koreans in ways are coordinating and are speaking in common languages of rights and appealing to much of the world’s belief in nuclear energy, including the United States.

So there’s a common ground there. And I think they pose both a threat to the idea that the international community can make rules and enforce those rules to protect itself, and that sometimes those rules have to be strengthened and reinterpreted, which is what Henry is alluding to. And these countries are both resisting, so there’s similarities.

I think the differences are that in Northeast Asia, where North Korea is, South Korea and Japan could decide to build nuclear weapons if it goes badly with North Korea. And there’s relatively little we could do because those are powerful, wealthy countries.

In Iran, you have a different situation where you worry about Egypt or Saudi Arabia potentially deciding to start proliferating if Iran gets away with it. And there the U.S. will face very hard dilemmas but has more power in those countries that are less technologically advanced to try to stop it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. George Perkovich and Henry Sokolski, thank you both.