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IAEA Voices ‘Serious Concern’ on Iran’s Nuclear Ability

May 27, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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The International Atomic Energy Agency released a report Monday stating that Iran's suspected research into nuclear weapons remained "a matter of serious concern." Analysts examine what actions the international community should take.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report yesterday that Iran may be withholding information from investigators that would establish whether or not the Islamic republic is continuing to try to develop nuclear weapons.

The U.N. agency expressed serious concern over suspected Iranian nuclear weapons research and said Iran should provide substantive explanations to support its contention that it is not working on weapons.

Of particular concern to the IAEA: a new generation of centrifuges that Iran is developing that were seen in photos released by the Iranians last month.

Perhaps the more tangible threat from Iraq are its actions in Iraq, in supporting and arming Shiite militias. At a Senate confirmation hearing for his promotion to head of Central Command, David Petraeus, the top general in Iraq, told senators that Iran continued to be a destabilizing force in Iraq.

But, contrary to the administration’s stated refusal to engage Iran directly at high levels, Petraeus also said diplomacy should be a goal.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, commander, U.S. forces in Iraq: However, we must also explore policies that over the long term offer the possibility of more constructive relations, if that is possible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whether those constructive relations are possible has roiled debate in the U.S. presidential campaign. John McCain and Barack Obama have had a running colloquy on the wisdom of diplomacy with Iran.

McCain last week.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Ariz.: An ill-conceived meeting between the president of the United States and the president of Iran and the massive world media coverage it would attract would increase the prestige of an implacable foe of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama answered him, just hours later.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Ill.: Demanding that a country meets all your conditions before you meet with them, that’s not a strategy. It’s just naive, wishful thinking. I’m not afraid that we’ll lose some propaganda fight with a dictator.

Diplomatic effectiveness debated

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on how to deal with Iran, we get two views. Flynt Leverett covered the Middle East at the CIA, the State Department, and the National Security Council from 1992 to 2003. He's now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

And Patrick Clawson is director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us. First of all, how would you describe the current policy of the Bush administration toward Iran? And given this new report, everything else you know, Flynt Leverett, is this policy working?

FLYNT LEVERETT, The New America Foundation: I would describe current U.S. policy toward Iran as consisting of three elements: one, diplomatic isolation of Iran; second, economic pressure on Iran, through both unilateral and multilateral sanctions; and, third, the encouragement of political forces inside and outside Iran who want to undermine the current political order, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is that policy working?

FLYNT LEVERETT: No, I don't think it is working to achieve any important U.S. objectives in the region.

It is not containing the development of Iran's nuclear program. It is not containing the increase of Iranian influence in various regional arenas. And it is denying to the United States any possibility of trying to turn Iran's not-insignificant influence in the region in the direction of American interests rather than working against American interests.

So, no, I don't think the current policy is working.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Patrick Clawson, assuming you agree with the description of the policy, what do you think about whether it's working or not?

PATRICK CLAWSON, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: U.S. policy is working primarily with the Europeans and through the United Nations in a broad, international effort which has resulted in now three rounds of Security Council sanctions without a single dissenting vote.

And putting together that broad, international coalition has been quite effective at slowing down Iran's nuclear program, which is proceeding at a very slow pace compared to the bold claims that the Iranians make, and the fears that we had.

So I see quite a bit of success on that front, but I also think that the United States has a moral obligation to criticize Iran's human rights abuses. Things like a stoning to death of people is something that we ought to be denouncing, and I'm proud that the U.S. is doing that.

Direct or European-led dialogue?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Flynt Leverett, what about his point that it may not be perfect, but it is slowing down what would otherwise be a much more worrisome set of policies?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Well, I see no evidence that the current multilateral efforts in the Security Council are slowing down Iran's nuclear development. I think the Iranians are still proceeding as fast as they are able to and want to, so I see no benefit there.

And the fact remains that Iran is becoming a more important actor in a number of regional arenas, with the Palestinians, in Lebanon, in Iraq, et cetera, and the current policy is doing nothing to contain that influence or turn it in a positive direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the notion, Flynt Leverett, that what the U.S. is doing should be part of a larger and international effort that Mr. Clawson mentions?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I certainly have no problem with multilateralism in U.S. foreign policy, but I think the real issue is, is the policy working?

There's nothing to say that, if the United States engaged Iran directly, even on a bilateral basis, that doesn't preclude multilateral mechanisms in which the U.S. might participate. It's not an either/or proposition. It really should come down to a question of what is working to advance American interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you respond?

PATRICK CLAWSON: That after four years now of a European-led effort, if the United States were to come charging in like a rogue elephant saying that we're in charge here, we're going to take over, it's not surprising that people in Paris and London and Berlin would feel undercut by what the United States would propose to do, that the Europeans have stepped forward to take a bold stand on this matter.

They've brought along the Russians and the Chinese. Heck, the French were able to persuade Libya to vote at the Security Council in favor of sanctions on Iran. The United States could never do that.

Let's face it: The Bush administration, in particular, is not particularly trusted when it talks about weapons of mass destruction. The Europeans, on the other hand, have much more international respect about these issues.

So when they lead this international effort, it's much more likely to be successful. That's why the report out from the U.N. agency two days ago says that Iran, for all its claims, only has a few hundred centrifuges up and working, not the thousands that it talks about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you want to respond to that?

FLYNT LEVERETT: Iran's difficulties in developing its fuel-cycle infrastructure are largely indigenous difficulties. They are not the result of multilateral actions, certainly not the sanctions that have been put in place...

JUDY WOODRUFF: From the outside?

FLYNT LEVERETT: ... by the Security Council from the outside. And I think what Patrick is doing is essentially making a tactic -- he's giving that primacy over strategy.

The strategy should be: What is going to work to advance American interests, to reverse Iranian behaviors that are problematic for our interests, and to encourage Iranian behaviors that would actually enhance our interests?

There clearly is a role for multilateralism in that, but you cannot do those things without a very robust, direct engagement by the United States with the current Iranian leadership.

Do threats work against Iran?

JUDY WOODRUFF: There is an article today, Patrick Clawson, in the Washington Post, an op-ed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, who argues, among other things, that the U.S. should abandon what he describes as its threats of military action and its calls for regime change in Iran.

PATRICK CLAWSON: Mr. Brzezinski does not quote a single U.S. official who's calling for regime change in Iran, and that's because he couldn't. What the Bush administration repeatedly says is that it wants a change in Iranian policy.

The Iranian regime, on the other hand, throws in jail 67-year-old American grandmothers because it says that they are the leading edge of a plot to overthrow the regime. And the Iranian government explains that George Soros and George Bush meet every week to conspire together about how to overthrow Iran.

That's what I call paranoia. That's the regime-change talk that comes out of Tehran, accusing us, when we criticize human rights violations in Iran for regime change.

President Bush, by contrast, doesn't talk about regime change in Iran. He talks about support for civil society groups, which I think is a good idea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying that what they're saying is not backed up by what the administration has done or said?

PATRICK CLAWSON: Exactly. They're accepting Tehran's definition of what the U.S. is doing. They're not looking at what the U.S. is actually doing.

And there's a reason the Iranian government is so paranoid about this regime-change stuff, is because the Iranian government knows that it does not have the support of its people, so it worries that there could be some kind of an overthrow of the Iranian regime from within.

The U.S. government can't overthrow Iran's regime and doesn't have any illusions about that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about this call for policy change?

FLYNT LEVERETT: I actually agree very strongly with that passage in the editorial by Dr. Brzezinski and General Odom.

If you look at what the United States has done, first of all, the president, President Bush, has never said that regime change is not U.S. policy and has explicitly declined opportunities to say that, but more significantly, in terms of the kinds of incentive packages that the U.S. is willing to endorse, along with international partners to be put forward to Iran, the U.S. has consistently insisted, under this administration, that provisions that would address Iran's security needs -- namely, a commitment not to attack Iran, not to use force to overthrow the Islamic republic -- the Bush administration has insisted that those kinds of offers be kept off the table.

What message should Iranian leaders take from that?

Between engagement and isolation

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a worry -- bottom line here, Patrick Clawson -- how much of a concern is it if Iran does develop a bomb? What, ultimately, are the Iranian intentions, do you believe?

PATRICK CLAWSON: My great worry if Iran develops a bomb is that so would Saudi Arabia and so would Egypt, and we'd start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

And, plus, if the nonproliferation system falls apart, there would be many other countries around the world -- Japan, Taiwan, for that matter, Argentina and Brazil -- that would be interested in reactivating their nuclear programs.

We'd end up in a world with 20 nuclear-powered states or more. And that would be a very unstable world where there could be miscalculations, misperceptions, and the risk of a war.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying current policy is doing the best of any conceivable policy, practically speaking, to keep that from happening?

PATRICK CLAWSON: I agree with National Security Adviser Steve Hadley, that the strategy we need right now is unity of the great powers, and that the unity of the great powers offers the best prospect of persuading the Iranians that they have to back down.

FLYNT LEVERETT: As I said, I don't think the current policy is working. I don't want Iran to get a nuclear weapon either.

But the best way to keep Iran or any other state from going down that path is to take away their incentive for getting the nuclear weapon in the first place, and that is not going to happen unless there is a deep strategic understanding between the U.S. and Iran.

And we won't get that understanding unless there is seriously strategically grounded diplomacy directly between the United States and Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Engagement, in other words, in some form?


JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Flynt Leverett, we thank you for joining us.

Patrick Clawson, thank you.