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China, Russia Call on Iran to Heed U.N. Nuclear Demands

March 26, 2007 at 6:30 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Four days after Iran seized 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf and took them to Tehran for questioning, Iran showed no sign of backing down from its foreign minister’s tough words yesterday.

MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI, Foreign Minister, Iran (through translator): The Iranian authorities intercepted these sailors and marines in Iranian waters and detained them in Iranian waters.

MARGARET WARNER: The British government says they were in Iraqi waters.

Tehran also ratcheted up its defiance this weekend over its nuclear program, saying it would cut back cooperation with the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, the IAEA.

Tehran’s announcement followed a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote Saturday imposing additional sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment. Many in the West believe Iran’s nuclear research program is aimed at developing weapons; Tehran maintains it’s strictly for civilian energy use.

DIPLOMAT: The draft resolution received 15 votes in favor. The draft resolution has been adopted unanimously.

MARGARET WARNER: The resolution wasn’t as tough as the United States originally wanted, but it does ban Iranian arms exports and freezes the overseas assets of 28 people linked to Iran’s nuclear program.

Acting U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Alejandro Wolff.

ALEJANDRO WOLFF, Acting U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.: The reason we are doing this resolution is because Iran continues to refuse to comply. So, as you know, this resolution reiterates the same provisions as we have in 1737, suspension for suspension.

As soon as Iran suspends its enrichment activities in a verifiable manner, the council will suspend its actions, and we will be able to address this issue politically again. So it’s not a high bar for Iran to meet.

MARGARET WARNER: Iran’s foreign minister rejected the U.N.’s action.

MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI (through translator): The Security Council is being abused to take an unlawful, unnecessary and unjustifiable action against the peaceful nuclear program of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the U.S. and Europeans are still ready to talk with Iran, if it first suspends its nuclear activities.

But Iran’s nuclear program continues at three plants around the country, including one, at Bushehr, with assistance from Russia. Construction there was suspended recently in a dispute over whether Iran is paying its bills.

British sailor incident

MARGARET WARNER: And for analysis of Iran's weekend moves, we turn to Abbas Milani, co-director of the Iran Democracy Project at the Hoover Institution. He's also a professor and director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University. He left Iran in 1986.

And 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.

Welcome to you both.

Professor Milani, first, let's take these in order. Let's start with the seizure of the British sailors. What's behind that? Why did Iran do that?

ABBAS MILANI, Iran Democracy Project: I think that decision has come at the conjunction of several patterns. One is the arrest of a number of Iranians in Iraq; the other one is the defection of a high-ranking or the arrest of a high-ranking Revolutionary Guard. The regime was very worried about what these people might be telling the Western intelligence agencies.

Secondly, the Revolutionary Guard used the same waterways that are in the place where this incident took place for a lot of their illicit contraband activities. We know that the Revolutionary Guards are involved in sale of all manners of goods to Iraq and from Iraq to other parts of the Persian Gulf.

So for them, it was a chance to take a political stance and maybe exchange these 15 sailors for their soldiers and their operatives, at the same time maybe disrupt what was becoming a very disruptive action by Britain in those waters.

MARGARET WARNER: Cliff Kupchan, is that how you see it, that at least the Revolutionary Guard, one, would like to do a swap, and, two, really didn't want these British sailors and marines looking into what they were doing?

CLIFF KUPCHAN, The Eurasia Group: I actually have something of a different take. In the first place, I think it was a shot across the bow, the day before the U.N. Security Council vote, to scare who they could.

Secondly, after President Bush's 10 January speech announcing the surge in Iraq, which in my mind was really a speech about a new Iran policy, a very aggressive new Iran policy -- I mean, we've been kidnapping. And the president has reportedly authorized the killing of Iranians in Iraq.

I think the supreme leader himself said, "Enough's enough. We're going to hit back, and we're going to take some of our own. Two can play this game."

And, finally, when I'm in Iran, and I ask Iranian leaders what they really want, they tell me they want respect. And I say, "Oh, come on, what do you really want?" And the answer is respect. And I think it's time the leader thought to get some respect. So I think those are my three.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Professor, do you accept that, that it's a bid for respect? And how do you think it will end? Do you think that Iran will play hardball here until it does get some kind of a prisoner swap?

ABBAS MILANI: It depends on how the rest of the community, international community plays this, and it also depends on how the possibility of a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue will evolve.

There is talk that Iran has an offer to make. Ahmadinejad claimed to be coming to the U.N., the trip that did not take place, because he says he has a new deal. And there's increasing noise in the background that Mr. Biloy Atti (ph), who is the chief adviser on foreign policy to the spiritual leader, is working on a new proposal on ending the nuclear issue.

So I think the Iranians clearly wanted to increase their cards by holding these 15, but they might have overplayed their hand. And that, too, I think, is part of a pattern that one sees in their behavior. Sometimes they underestimate the reaction that other countries will have to their belligerence and to their illegal actions.

Iranian nuclear standoff

MARGARET WARNER: How do you think, Cliff Kupchan, this incident connects to the nuclear standoff? And do you think the Iranians really thought that something like this would, if they did have another proposal to make, that it would somehow sweeten the atmosphere or improve the atmosphere for that?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, I'm not sure the Iranians are interested in a suspension or any proposal. We keep hearing these rumors, and I'll believe it when I see it.

I think they overplayed their hand, as Dr. Milani just said. They certainly scared the Brits, the British. But, moreover, they scared their allies, the Russians and the Chinese.

And the Russians, in cutting off aid to Bushehr, the nuclear power plant that they're building for the Iranians, I think decided that fronting for the Iranians, building Iranian reactors, is not the best advertisement if you want to break into the Asian and the European markets. And they said, "OK, enough is enough."

I think nabbing five Brits is just going to make it that much worse for the Iranians in the Security Council as the nuclear issue proceeds forward.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think that the Iranians mean it when they say, and in response to the new sanctions, "We're going to limit our cooperation with the IAEA"?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, the Iranians are smart. I mean, I like to say they're more Kissingerian than Kissinger. And what they did today is they did limit cooperation with the IAEA, but they broke a voluntary 2002 agreement that obligated them to inform the IAEA about new construction sites.

So they didn't break their safeguards agreement. They didn't break the NPT, but yet they scared the West even further, because they're going to do a lot of stuff having blinded the IAEA in Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Milani, what sense do you have of what this new restriction that Iran has announced will do to the IAEA's ability to know what's going on with the nuclear program?

ABBAS MILANI: Well, you know, my sense of the regime is that, in fact, strategically it is not very smart. Tactically, it is smart, as Mr. Kupchan said, but strategically they keep getting themselves and the Iranian nation in very serious bind.

And I think the response that the Russians have given, the response that Russia and China today announced, the demand that Iran should comply, have all indicated to them that they are in a very, very serious bind.

And I think an increasing number of leaders within Iran are beginning to openly -- and, under the current circumstances, it is truly incredible that they would openly talk about it. But they're openly talking about the wisdom of going down the path of confrontation, going down the path of non-negotiation.

And those hints, I think, are things -- are hopeful signs that maybe the regime has, indeed, after all of these years of having promised and not delivered, changed its mind and wants to find a negotiated solution to the nuclear problem.

Sanctions are 'biting'

MARGARET WARNER: Cliff Kupchan, how do you read what's going on in Tehran? And what impact have the existing sanctions that were put on in December, and also the U.S. has been using its leverage with international banks to squeeze Iran further, what impact has that had, both economically and politically?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Well, it's certainly biting. The Iranian oil sector is flat, as far as production goes, and poised to decline. Both the Iranian oil minister and the deputy oil minister have said that. The average Iranian business, it's much harder to get a Western bank guaranteed loan.

I mean, my concern is that we're hitting a lot of Iranians. We're not hitting the right ones. We're not hitting Ahmadinejad's constituency. So while things are getting tired, while Dr. Milani is correct, dissent is increasing, though I would note that most of the dissent is about Ahmadinejad's economic policy and about his style, not about the substance of his nuclear or foreign policy.

I haven't seen that yet from the conservative Iranian establishment. So I think there is a bite that's being taken out of the Iranian economy; I don't see any sign that it's changing the prize, Iranian nuclear policy.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you, Professor, see any sign that what seemed to be a pretty much a consensus in Iran about Iran's right to pursue this has been lessened or weakened? I know you said there's some questioning about the way Ahmadinejad is handling his relationship with the West. But in terms of really turning away from that goal, do you see any sign of that?

ABBAS MILANI: I think, if we take the political elite in a larger meaning, and not limit it to only those who are at the center of power today, and include people who were once in power, people like Mr. Basad Anagabi, who was a person that signed the release of the hostage agreement with the United States, if you consider the people who formed the first government of Iran, the freedom movement, many of these people, including both of these organizations, have declared that Iran needs to rethink its priorities, Iran needs to accept the U.N. resolution, and stop this confrontational attitude.

These ideas, these rather daring positions, I think would have been unimaginable a few months ago. And I think the professor is absolutely right: Ahmadinejad has allowed these people to become more forceful and more forthright, because his ignorance and his endangering of the system and of the country is becoming more and more apparent to not just his opponents, but many of his supporters, including, I suspect, the most important supporter he has. That's Mr. Khamenei, the spiritual leader.

MARGARET WARNER: The supreme leader. All right, Abbas Milani and Cliff Kupchan, thank you both.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Thank you.