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Iranian Nuclear Program: Will U.S. Concede Anything in Talks?

December 6, 2010 at 6:14 PM EDT
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Iran struck a defiant note as talks began anew with the U.S. and five other countries over its nuclear ambitions. Margaret Warner talks with former State Department official Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution about Iran's nuclear program and the state of diplomatic efforts.

MARGARET WARNER: And, for more, we turn to Suzanne Maloney, a former U.S. State Department official who dealt with Iran issues. She’s now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

And, Suzanne Maloney, thank you for being with us. So, with this — all this defiant language, what is it that drove Iran to return to these talks after more than a year?

SUZANNE MALONEY, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution: (AUDIO GAP) result of the U.N. sanctions and a number of unilateral measures undertaken by the U.S., the Europeans and other governments.

But the other issue that I think really brought the Iranians back is their hope to use this kind of a dialogue to splinter the international coalition, to undercut sanctions, and to ensure that they’re still dealing with the world beyond Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you do think that, in part, this is being used by them to buy time, but they are also feeling the heat?

SUZANNE MALONEY: They’re certainly feeling the heat.

And we know that the standards of doing business today in Iran are much more difficult, much less convenient, much more expensive than they used to be, simply because they can’t undertake the normal sort of banking procedures that they typically would.

But, obviously, the Iranians don’t appear to be in a mood to concede. They don’t — they are not talking about making any real concessions. And it’s not even clear that they’re willing to talk about the nuclear program at all. So, I think they’re less interested in serious negotiations, more interested in trying to see what they can get out of this process.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what do you think and what do you assess, from — from observing and listening to what they’re saying over there, has been the impact of the WikiLeaks documents that have been released on their mind-set going into this?

SUZANNE MALONEY: You know, my suspicion is that it’s a kind of binary impact.

On the one hand, it’s got to play to their Paranoia and increase their concerns about the level of hostility that they face in the region and about the success that the U.S. has had in sort of pulling together both a regional and an international coalition to oppose Iran to deal with some of the concerns posed by Iran.

But I suspect, on another level, the Iranians are also feeling somewhat inflated by having access to all this information. This is a kind of dream come true for the folks who spent years piecing together shredded documents from the seized embassy back in 1979. They have access to all the calculations, all of the discussions, the deliberations of U.S. policy-makers and of other states.

And that’s something that they can use against some of their — their neighbors. So, I imagine that it — that it’s playing to some of that arrogance that we have seen.

MARGARET WARNER: But for them to hear, for instance, how emphatically a lot of the Arab states have been urging the U.S. to strike sites inside Iran, do you think that makes them feel a bit exposed and maybe vulnerable, or — or defiant?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Defiant, in part because the Arabs say something very different when they come to Tehran. If you had a WikiLeaks dump of the Tehran cables, it would read very differently.

And they — they recognize that the Arabs say one thing to Washington, say something different to them, and that they can play on the constraints that the Arab states have in making that kind of a position public in order to assert themselves.

I think, in fact, probably the larger factor at this stage is the killing of the nuclear scientist last week. That played very significantly in the statement that they made today at the talks, and appears to have put them in a more combative mood than they were in even before this.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what do you think is the best we could hope for, one could hope for to come out of these two days of talks?

SUZANNE MALONEY: I think the administration has tried to keep expectations low. And what they’re looking to gain from this is a process, any kind of a mechanism for continuing dialogue on the nuclear program, and ideally something that builds towards some confidence-building measures, including some revised version of the fuel swap that would remove most of Tehran’s LEU from the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Low-enriched uranium.

But the idea that the U.S. and its partners have always tried to insist on, which is, to do any deal, you have to freeze enriching uranium, is that still in the cards, at all possible?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Well, that’s hanging in the backdrop, I think, to all of the calculations of both sides, whether or not the U.S. is prepared to concede anything on the demand expressed in four U.N. Security Council resolutions that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.

The Iranians have said they will never do so. And they have almost 5,000 centrifuges running at this stage. So, it’s an uncertainty. At this stage, the U.S. has leaned forward, but it has stuck to that demand. And I think the political pressure here in Washington will ensure that they continue to do so.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Suzanne Maloney from Brookings, thank you so much.