TOPICS > Politics

U.S. Agrees to Iran Incentives

March 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Today at the State Department, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained the new U.S. policy toward Iran and Europe’s efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program. Here is an excerpt.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The key here was to establish with our European allies a common agenda, a common approach to the issue of getting Iranians to live up to international obligations which they have undertaken. And, again, let’s just be reminded that the Iranians have an obligation to demonstrate that they are not trying, under cover of civilian nuclear power development, to develop a nuclear weapon. So the European Union 3 have undertaken these negotiations. We have said for a quite a long time now that we’ve supported this diplomatic effort and that we wanted it to succeed, and that Iran ought to take the opportunity given to it.

RAY SUAREZ: Late today Sirius Naseri, Iran’s nuclear negotiator, responded to the U.S. offer, saying: “What is being suggested is very much insignificant. In fact, it is too insignificant to comment about.” The Bush administration has been skeptical about chances for success in Europe’s negotiations with Iran, and up until today, it’s opposed offering incentives to aid those talks. Today’s announcement comes three weeks after President Bush visited Europe, where European leaders asked for such support.

For more on this latest development we get two views. Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. From 2002 to 2004 he was a staff assistant on Iran policy in the office of the secretary of defense. Vali Nasr is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He was born and raised in Iran, but is now an American citizen.

Professor Nasr, given America’s skepticism about the European effort and its scathing criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, what do you think is behind this change in policy?

VALI NASR: Well, there is obviously dynamics in U.S.-European relations in terms of how to approach Iran and also how to strengthen Europeans’ position in dealing with Iran. But also at some level there are regional issues, including Iran’s relations with Hezbollah, which are important given the developments in Lebanon and also the domestic change in Iran as Iran is preparing to move towards the presidential election.

The announcement from Washington will have a great deal of impact on the public discussion in Iran about democracy as well as the nuclear weapons issue.

RAY SUAREZ: So you find this a positive move forward?

VALI NASR: Yes, it is a positive move forward. It is not given that it will actually lead to the desired end, but at least it has put on the table a challenge to the Iranian government, before its own population, as well as in terms of its negotiations with Europe.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Rubin, do you agree that this is a positive step and do you share Professor Nasr’s analysis that there were reasons building up for this change in tone?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Oh, there most certainly were reasons building up, but I don’t share Professor Nasr’s outlook. I do think it’s a setback. The reason being isn’t just what was mentioned but what wasn’t mentioned.

In the past, we’ve always talked about Iran as an impediment to Arab-Israeli peace — to terrorism, Iran’s relations with al-Qaida and democracy, and this wasn’t mentioned. And the fact that we set — we made an offer to Iran, but we didn’t talk about democracy, we didn’t talk about any of the dissidents in Iranian’s political prisons will be seen in Iran and by the Iranian government as a sign of weakness on our part and a sign of strength on the part of the Islamic Republic.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Nasr, does the United States have the leverage to address any of those questions since there are frozen commercial assets, no trade and no diplomatic relations between the two states?

VALI NASR: Well, those issues that were mentioned are issues of importance and they’re of importance to the Iranian public as well. This announcement, however, was specifically about nuclear weapons issue and Iran’s giving up plutonium enrichment. What was offered to Iran is politically significant, particularly the part about membership in WTO, because it will go to the regime’s ability to address serious domestic economic issues in Iran. And I do agree that, in fact, those are tantalizing for the regime in Iran because if it’s able to break out of economic isolation that it’s suffering from currently, it would be able to address political issues in Iran much more successfully as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Rubin, do you think this really has any chance given that, from the outset, the United States has demanded that in return for these easing of certain restrictions, it wants unconditional promises from Iran that it will stop enriching uranium and Iran has, for its part, promised that it will never make a promise to stop enriching uranium.

MICHAEL RUBIN: That’s why I’m not sure that I have too much faith in this process. When I’m in Europe talking with Europeans at conferences, oftentimes they bash the United States for not engaging with Iran during the official proceedings but in the hallway they will say that they think it’s inevitable that Iran will get nuclear weapons and that’s sort of a sign that they don’t see these negotiations as being sincere.

What I worry about is that, to make a football analogy, we’re at the two-minute warning and Iran is running down the clock. Now, if Iran does get nuclear weapons, then that matters more for Iran domestically. From the standpoint of Iran’s rulers, this is about domestic Iranian politics and not necessarily about foreign affairs.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Nasr, is there a fundamental disagreement between the Europeans and the United States on where this all ends? Have the Europeans, as Michael Rubin suggests, already secretly concluded that Iran is going to end up a nuclear power while the United States has not?

VALI NASR: Well, those sentiments have been expressed, that it would be very difficult to prevent Iran from going nuclear. But the key issue is that what kind of a soft landing there would be in terms of the negotiation process.

The Iranians are — what matters to the Iranians essentially is regime survival. More than the nuclear issue, they want to make sure that there would not be either a military or a political push to topple the regime in Tehran. And they’re going to bargain very hard with the Europeans and the Americans to get guarantees about the regime survival, both with regard to military action against Iran as well as supporting a democratic movement within Iran before they’re going to make any concessions about the nuclear weapons issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, when you talk about regime survival, which Iranian regime? Aren’t there some serious divisions and different point of views at the very top of the Iranian power structure?

VALI NASR: That’s very true. And that’s partly why we’re not going to get a very clear answer to the initiatives today out of Iran today. There are different vested power centers within Iran. They react to the U.S. position very differently.

But it’s very clear that the Iranians are — the Iranian government, the regime around the supreme leader, the revolutionary guards and the power elite, are very worried both about the democratic movement within Iran but also about the axis of evil rhetoric that the U.S. had since the Sept. 11 bombings and what they perceive as encirclement of Iran by the U.S. troops within the Middle East and a push by the United States to remove this regime.

For them, survival matters most, and they’re going to bargain very hard for that.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree, Michael Rubin?

MICHAEL RUBIN: I agree. And the Iranian — we’re not only coming up to presidential elections in June, 2005 in Iran and, of course, the Iranians are going to contrast their experience and their voter turnout with what happened in Iraq, but we’re also coming up to the 100th anniversary of the constitutional revolution in Iran. Iranians are very conscious of history and the Iranian government is very afraid right now that Iranians might look back at a fairly liberal constitution of 1906, very liberal basic laws, and question why, for example, women had some rights then that they don’t have now and so forth.

RAY SUAREZ: Given the foment that Professor Nasr was talking about even if you do start this process and get some positive reaction from Tehran, do you believe that Iran is a reliable partner in a negotiation like this?

MICHAEL RUBIN: Unfortunately, to have successful negotiations and successful diplomacy, it assumes the sincerity of both parties. We have already given Iran four last chances. I’m not convinced that Iran is very sincere, and that’s why I worry that we took certain issues such as democracy, such as acknowledging dissidents, off the table. It wouldn’t have been that hard to do.

In my many ways, this is isn’t just about Iran’s nuclear program, this is becoming a test case for the Bush doctrine.

RAY SUAREZ: How about you, Professor Nasr, is Iran likely a partner that’s reliable on such a serious matter as nuclear nonproliferation?

VALI NASR: I think it’s too early to tell. However, there are a lot of incentives for Iran to play ball with the United States and the Europeans on this issue provided that it believes that the outcome would preserve the regime. And that’s why the things that were not on the table today may actually make this succeed with the Iranian government; namely, the Iranian government may take these economic incentives believing that the only issues that it will have to discuss with the Europeans will be economic and the nuclear issue — to see a future in which opening of trade with Iran will actually provide the regime with greater stability to create, if you will, another form of Middle East authoritarianism where it has relations with the West and it has successful economic arrangements with the West.

Iranians talk all the time about their future being that of a China model. Namely, the future they would like is non-democratic but engaged economically with the West. And the author of their membership in WTO is a step in that direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there upsides for you if you take Professor Nasr’s view that openness to WTO, keeping an aging plane fleet in the air, that these are things that might soften the Western-Iranian relationship?

MICHAEL RUBIN: I’m not so sure it will. Iranians do talk all the time in the official journals and the newspapers about the China model which the professor talked about. The problem is, with the China model you also have the threat of Tiananmen Square and when before we talked about the Iranian nuclear programs being more important domestically than in terms of foreign relationships, one of the key pillars which the Iranian regime might use to keep itself afloat is the fact that if they have a nuclear deterrent, that if they crack down on their own, if they crack down on the reform movement, the democrats and the dissidents, that no one in the outside world can do anything to stop them. I actually do think we’ve taken a major stem back with this initiative.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.


VALI NASR: Thank you.