TOPICS > Politics

U.S. Proposes Talks with Iran on Nuclear Weapons

May 31, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks for being with us. This is a major turnaround for the United States. Why is the administration doing this now?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the United States has been very clear that it wanted to support these negotiations for more than a year. And, in fact, we made some moves several months ago to say that we would allow the Iranians to apply for WTO membership, that we would be prepared to give some spare aircraft parts, because we wanted to support the negotiations, so the president has wanted to do that.

This is simply another way, a more effective way, we believe now of supporting the negotiations at a different phase, a time when Iran has been moving steadily along with its nuclear program, when by the end of the year the Iranians talk about being at industrial-scale production of centrifuges.

And I think it’s important that we know whether or not there is truly a negotiating option or not. It’s time to give the Iranians a clear choice: If they’re prepared to negotiate, then the world should be prepared to negotiate. We should be prepared to negotiate.

But if they’re not, then we need to get on with the kinds of penalties that can be brought through the Security Council so that we can bring enough pressure on the Iranian regime to make it make a different choice.

MARGARET WARNER: How persuasive were America’s allies, Kofi Annan, all of whom have been urging you all, both privately and increasingly publicly, to get involved in these talks?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, we’ve been thinking for some time — the president and I have been talking about what we could do to get the negotiations moving forward if, in fact, negotiations are going to move forward. And this was a logical next step.

We have been as supportive of these negotiations as we could without being at the table. We’ve been in the very closest coordination and contact with our allies; not much has gone on in these negotiations that we didn’t know about and weren’t involved with, but it seemed like the logical next step.

And what we did not want to do is to break apart what has been a very careful effort to make this a multilateral approach, with bilateral talks with the Iranians, or so-called direct talks.

We believe that joining the multilateral forum makes a good deal of sense, but we don’t want Iran to make this an issue between the United States and Iran. This is an issue between Iran and the international community.

Iran has choices

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
The key here is that the international community is united in its view that Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon.

MARGARET WARNER: So explain very briefly how this would work. The very first step, really, has to be Iran's, is that right?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: That's right. The Iranians now have a choice. They can say that, yes, they're prepared to suspend and thereby get into negotiations, or they can say that they're not prepared to suspend.

And the suspension requirement is not an American requirement. That was a requirement by the Europeans. It's a requirement in the Board of Governors resolution. It was a requirement in the U.N. Security Council presidential statement.

MARGARET WARNER: And this is suspend, what, all enrichment and reprocessing?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: It's enrichment and related activities. We all know what we're talking about. They need to stop all of their enrichment and reprocessing activities and then go back to the table.

MARGARET WARNER: So if they said, yes, if they did suspend and did agree to inspections, then the United States would join these talks?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The United States is prepared to become a party to the talks with the Europeans, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And how active do you envision the United States would be? Would the U.S. be at the table directly talking with the Iranians, which the U.S. hasn't done since before 1979?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, we've said that we would be prepared with our European partners to meet the Iranian representative, because we are prepared to give these negotiations as much energy and as much push as possible. We need to know if this is a real track or not.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if the Iranians say no, then what?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: If the Iranians say no, then we're going to know that they're not serious about negotiation. We're going to know then that the option before the international community is to go back to the Security Council, where we've been working and we'll continue to work, for resolution and to begin to impose costs on Iran for its bad choice.

And, hopefully, Iran then, facing that kind of isolation, will still make a different choice.

The key here is that the international community is united in its view that Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon, that it has a right to a civil nuclear program, but that that civil nuclear program cannot be one that is hiding nuclear weapons development activity. And so we have a consensus about that.

What we hope this move will do is to accelerate the moment at which Iran's choice is clear to everyone, because we can't let this continue to drag out with the Iranians saying one day, "Oh, yes, we're interested in the Russian proposal. Oh, yes, maybe we're interested in going back to talks with the E.U."

We need to know, and we need to know now.

Security Council agreement

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
We've been very clear that the president reserves his option for military force but that we believe the diplomacy has a long way to go still.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you are leaving for Vienna later tonight.


MARGARET WARNER: And that is for talks with all the Security Council permanent five on Iran.


MARGARET WARNER: How does that relate to this offer you all are making today?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, the package that we are working on and will hopefully finalize when we're in Vienna is a very clear set of incentives that Iran could have, if it's prepared to negotiate and have a civil nuclear program that is acceptable to the international community, but also a very clear set of penalties if Iran is not willing to negotiate.

And so that has been on a track of development since we had the meetings in New York a few weeks ago. We've made good progress, substantial progress on that package.

And, once that package is ready, then it can be there for the Iranians to consider. But it is on the basis of that package, of course, that negotiations would have to take place, and so they are related, but we've been developing that package for some time now.

MARGARET WARNER: This idea of a package of carrots and sticks, in the shorthand everyone uses, the Russians and Chinese at the Security Council have just resisted any kind of resolution that would serve as a pretext for either sanctions or military action.

Now, when President Bush talked to President Putin yesterday, did he get an indication from President Putin that, in fact, in return for what the United States is offering now, that the Russians are prepared to go along with sanctions?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I think the Russians understand fully and we understand together that the Iranians now have a new opportunity to demonstrate that they're seriously ready to negotiate.

And if they don't, then it is incumbent on the international community to go to the Security Council, to get a resolution, and to begin to look at what actions we can take that might make the Iranians make a different choice. And that's understood with our European partners and...

MARGARET WARNER: But is it agreed? Is it agreed by the Russians?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The Russians are a part of developing this package that has both carrots and sticks in it; that is also going to be a Russian proposal, not just a European proposal.

MARGARET WARNER: There are some reports, unconfirmed, that the U.S. is ready to modify the language of a Security Council resolution in a way that would, without getting into all the technicalities, that would make it clear that military action is not an immediate potential consequence. Is that true?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, we're having negotiations in New York, and I don't want to talk about negotiations that are going on. I think we'll leave that to the negotiations.

But we've been very clear that the president reserves his option for military force but that we believe the diplomacy has a long way to go still. People have said to me, "Well, is the diplomacy at an end?" Well, today we demonstrated that there was, indeed, another arrow in the quiver that could be put into play.

And we believe that the diplomatic track has a lot of life left in it and that we're going to pursue that and pursue it aggressively, but nothing suggests the president takes military force off the table.

A resolution in the Security Council at this point is really not a resolution about the use of force. It's a resolution about how to get the Iranians to change their behavior, probably through sanctions or other means.

Does this legitimize the regime?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
I would say that it is the nature of this regime that makes its even more important that we prevent the acquisition of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

MARGARET WARNER: Will the Russians be invited to join these new, expanded talks?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, there has been some discussion of -- potentially, P-5-plus-1 is a possibility.

MARGARET WARNER: Permanent Five.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Permanent Five, plus one, which Russia, of course, is a member of the Permanent Five.

MARGARET WARNER: So China, also?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Possibly. I think those countries will have to make their decision about how they will support the negotiations. Let me just say that they are both supportive of the negotiations and have worked in concert with us in supporting the European negotiations, but it will have to be up to them how they -- if they intend to join or not.

MARGARET WARNER: In the past, members of this administration have said one reason you didn't want to start talking to this government in Iran was that it would legitimize this regime. Do you think this offer, and if you sat down and have talks with them, does add legitimacy to this regime?
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I'd make a couple of points, Margaret. First is the legitimacy here is to the process of negotiation. The United States is supporting this process, and we're determined to try to make it work.

Secondly, we have no illusions about the nature of this Iranian regime. This is a state sponsor of terror; this is a state whose president speaks about Israel in the most awful ways; this is a country that is causing difficulty in Iraq for the Iraqi people and for our forces; and it's a country that denies the basic rights to its own people.

So we have no illusions about that. That's why we are talking, not about a grand bargain here, not about the normalization of relations, not about something that somehow legitimizes activities of the Iranian regime that we find abhorrent and dangerous, but rather talks that are aimed at stopping a nuclear weapons program for a regime that is dangerous.

In fact, I would say that it is the nature of this regime that makes its even more important that we prevent the acquisition of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

MARGARET WARNER: Many observers of Iran and why they're pursuing nuclear weapons -- if, in fact, they are -- opine that one reason they are is that Iran feels a threat, as the U.S. is encircling them in all kinds of ways, and that it feels it needs nuclear weapons to protect itself.

But is the U.S. ready to give, as part of this whatever negotiation is held, any security guarantees to Iran, that it would not attack Iran?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, first of all, I sometimes find that a lot the Iranians say they want a civil nuclear program and then people talk about security guarantees. Those two don't add up.

If they want a civil nuclear program, that they can have. In terms of security, the problems of security in the region are first and foremost caused by Iranian behavior; they're caused by an Iranian regime that cannot recognize the right of Israel to exist; they're caused by an Iranian regime that engages in terrorism; by an Iranian regime that is not transparent in its behavior in Iraq.

That's the problem with security, not an American threat somehow to Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: But if the Iranians say they want security guarantees?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: We and the Iranians are not in a position to even talk about security guarantees, because the Iranian behavior is what is causing the security problem. If Iran would stop its behaviors in the region, then the entire region would be more secure and safer.

Is this Iran's last chance?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Iran has the chance to demonstrate that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon. The way to do that is to suspend its current activities, come back to the negotiations, and to build a civil nuclear program that does not have proliferation risk.

MARGARET WARNER: Does this administration want to see regime change in Iran?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The president has spoken clearly that people all over the world, no matter who they are, in what corner, deserve basic freedoms, what he calls the non-negotiable demands of human dignity.

The Iranian people are no different. And they are a great people, and they deserve that.

We are working now to change the behavior of a regime that is seeking -- has nuclear ambitions that the world finds dangerous and disconcerting. And we hope, over time, to change also Iranian behavior on terrorism and towards its own people.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you say -- is it fair to say that this offer you're making is Iran's last chance?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, I do think it's the chance that we have to find out whether Iran really intends to negotiate. We can't let it go on.

If Iran intends to negotiate, it's time for them to suspend and come back and negotiate. If they don't intend to negotiate, then we need to move on. And we need to move on to and generate greater pressure on Iran so that it will change its mind.

MARGARET WARNER: One final question, coming off the intelligence failures in Iraq. How certain are you that, in fact, Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Well, it's not only the United States that is very concerned about the hidden activities that Iran has engaged in, for 18 years hiding their enrichment activities, unwilling to allow the inspectors full access to their program and to their facilities.

I would note that, whenever the Iranians have been offered a civil nuclear option, it has been whether it was the option Russia offered or the options the Europeans offered. It was one that did not anticipate the fuel cycle on Iranian soil; that says that it is not just the United States that is concerned about Iranian intentions.

And so Iran has the chance to demonstrate that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon. The way to do that is to suspend its current activities, come back to the negotiations, and to build a civil nuclear program that does not have proliferation risk.

MARGARET WARNER: Madam Secretary, thank you.