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Iran’s Nuclear Program

August 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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LINDSEY HILSUM: Yesterday, Iran sent a formal note to the IAEA saying it will restart its plant at Isfahan, ending the suspension of uranium enrichment. The Europeans are aghast because they’re only a few days away from presenting a new set of proposals to persuade Iran to abandon uranium enrichment forever.

Today, European foreign ministers sent the Iranians a letter saying: “Were Iran to renew currently suspended activities our negotiations will be brought to an end and we would have no option but to pursue other courses of action.”

This morning, the French and German governments warned Iran not to restart its uranium enrichment program, or risk being referred to the Council of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

PHILIPPE DOUSTE BLAZY (Translated): If the Iranians still do not accept what the Council of Governors propose, then the international community, it seems to me, must turn to the U.N. Security Council. This is a major issue, and we will see what type of sanctions we impose on Iran.

CHANCELLOR GERHARD SCHROEDER (Translated): We have reason to be worried at the moment, and you know that I don’t tend to dramatize things, but we have to take very, very seriously what is happening in Iran. The recent decisions of the Iranian government are more than worrying.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Iran has the legal right to a peaceful nuclear program, but Europe, the U.S.A., and the International Atomic Energy Agency remain suspicious.

MELISSA FLEMING: Their suspension of their nuclear activities is voluntary. Everybody recognizes that, but Iran is a special case because of its 28 years of its clandestine activity, not all of the questions have been answered.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The IAEA says it will take at least a week to get its surveillance equipment in place, so there’s still time for Iran to back off. Ironically, a new U.S. national intelligence assessment suggests that Iran is probably at least a decade away from having the capability to build a nuclear weapon, if it is trying to do so. But the diplomatic crisis is immediate, and the next week will be critical.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has more.

MARGARET WARNER: So what’s behind the Iranian threat to resume its uranium enrichment program, and where could it lead? To assess all this, we’re joined by: Geoffrey Kemp, senior director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration — he’s now with the Nixon Center, a Washington think tank — and Paul Leventhal, founder of the Nuclear Control Institute, an independent research and advocacy group in Washington that promotes nuclear nonproliferation. Welcome to you both.

Geoffrey Kemp, explain to us, why would Iran be upping the ante this way, right now, just days before the Europeans are due to presently their proposal?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, I’m guessing, but clearly the Iranian public, although they don’t particularly like their government, do support Iran’s right to have a nuclear research program, a nuclear power program. The Iranian parliament has passed a new law essentially saying Iran has to restart its fuel cycle program. And Iran is going to have a new president in two or three days.

He (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), unlike the outgoing president (Mohammad Khatami), is not particularly cozy with the west. I don’t think he’s ever visited the West. He has visited Asia, he’s a man who talks about Asia rising, and that Iran’s future lies with countries like China and India, and that Iran shouldn’t be dependent upon the West. This may have something to do with it.

MARGARET WARNER: So briefly, because I want to get to Mr. Leventhal, but do you think then they’re going to go ahead and really resume, or do you think this is a bluff to sweeten the deal the Europeans may offer them?

GEOFFREY KEMP: I think it’s a mixture of the two. I think they do have this wiggle room, because as your report suggested it’s going to take several days before the IAEA gets its inspections in place, and during that period of time the Europeans will present a very detailed proposal to the Iranians. That would then give them the opportunity to forestall this action, and keep the negotiations going.

MARGARET WARNER: Paul Leventhal, what do you think is going on, why do you think Iran is doing this now and to what end? PAUL LEVENTHAL: I think Iran is exploring how much wiggle room they have, in terms of trying to start up activities, which are presumably suspended under the Paris agreement which set the stage for the ongoing negotiations. I think one thing that came out today, which is quite interesting is that while Iran tried to make a clear distinction between the conversion of uranium into a gas, for enrichment –.

MARGARET WARNER: Which is the immediate step they say they’re going to do?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: The absolutely essential step before you can get into enrichment and enrichment itself, they try to make this distinction. The Europeans were buying it not at all, which is actually quite encouraging. The significance of it is, is that if Iran is able to wheedle out permission to resume conversion, then if they have secret hidden enrichment facilities, as they may well have at military installations which the IAEA has not yet been able to visit, then the ability of the agency to detect diversion of the uranium gas to these secret facilities may not be as high as you and I would like, and therefore anything the Iranians do to try to promote the initial steps toward enrichment are extremely significant.

MARGARET WARNER: So Geoff Kemp, why – I mean, you explained slightly why you think perhaps they don’t care as much about the European reaction, but surely Iran doesn’t want to be taken to the Security Council.

Why would they risk driving the Europeans into the more hard-lined U.S. camp, which we know the position of the U.S. is, is Iran isn’t serious about permanently suspending this, and ultimately this will have to go to the Security Council?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Yes. I don’t think they really want it to go to the Security Council, but I do think they’re under a lot of public pressure to show a tough stand towards the Europeans. I think in the last resort they probably will compromise. But I think we should have no illusions about the fact that unless the Europeans are prepared to join the United States in imposing economic sanctions on Iran, the Iranians really aren’t going to take the Europeans too seriously.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Paul Leventhal, what did you make — the Europeans took a very tough line today and basically said if you go ahead and do this, as far as we’re concerned, negotiations are off, and we heard the French foreign minister say we’re going to have to do something more drastic. One, were you surprised at the Europeans’ tough line, and two, do you think they’ll stick to it?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Yes, I was surprised and I think it probably indicates closer cooperation with the United States than heretofore has been assumed. I think Iran may actually be prepared to force a showdown in the Security Council on the assumption that a sanctions regime will not be voted that will make any difference in the long run.

They can probably look to China and to Russia to resist the imposition of sanctions that would actually hurt, and Iran also has the card to play of threatening a pullout or an actual pullout of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. And therefore Iran may not be at the distinct disadvantage that everybody assumes if it goes into the Security Council.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about the report in the Washington Post today, and was widely reported elsewhere, that the new U.S. intelligence estimate is that Iran is not five years away from being able to produce a nuclear bomb, but ten years. One, as an expert in this field, do you find that plausible? And two, does it take a little bit of the heat off this immediate situation?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, I think the report, while it does extend from five to ten years the time it would take Iran presumably to become nuclear weapons capable, doesn’t alter the basic assumption that Iran by its own devices is determined to acquire nuclear weapons; it’s a question of whether it’s five years or ten years.

I frankly would have preferred the assessment give a range because intelligence is limited in a country that is proved to be as duplicitous as Iran, that’s successfully concealed a very sensitive nuclear fuel program essential for the development of nuclear weapons for nearly two decades, and then it was only a dissonant organization, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which brought this to light; whether this was known to the intelligence community or not isn’t clear. But at least these matters have come out.

MARGARET WARNER: Geoff Kemp what do you make of that report and do you think it has an effect on this current crisis, if we can call it that?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, I hope very much it’s not an overreaction to the huge mistakes they made with Iraq, and this time they’re underestimating Iran’s capabilities. But to be frank there have been other intelligence reports including the Israelis who said that it is going to take Iran longer than we initially thought.

The caveat of course, Margaret, is that Iran has a lot of money; Iran has a very poor track record in being honest about its activities, and it might be capable of buying nuclear material of bomb grade quality from the black market. They had relations with A.Q. Khan, so therefore we are absolutely right to be very suspicious about what they’re doing and we need to keep them under very, very close scrutiny, even if it takes them ten years going the legal route.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you agree with Mr. Leventhal that even if they say, look, all we’re doing at this one reactor, or plant, all we want to start doing next week is to resume this conversion of uranium ore into gas, that that is still very alarming?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, unfortunately, it is very alarming because their track record is alarming. If they had been honest about what they have been up to these past 20 years, then I think there’s many, many ways we could make an arrangement with Iran.

Certainly, if the regime changes behavior on other things such as terrorism, we might be able to make an arrangement with the regime. But given their track record, we are quite right to be very, very suspicious.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Mr. Leventhal, if you look at the letters that have been exchanged the past two days with the Europeans, the IAEA and Iran, Europe is saying — the Europeans are saying — you have to forego your right to enrich uranium, and the Iranians are saying we have the perfect right under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to do that and we intend to do it. Do you see a way out of that really basic impasse?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, I think they don’t have a perfect right under the treaty, given the fact that they violated the treaty’s safeguard provisions for nearly two decades.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s the U.S. position, right, is that they’ve lied in the past and their forfeited their right.

PAUL LEVENTHAL: That’s right. But I’d like to emphasize one thing about whether any agreement is worth the paper it’s written on, and that is it has to be stated in this agreement that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to Iranian facilities should be unlimited, should be unfettered, it should be any time, any place inspections.

Otherwise, given the record of Iran, one has to assume that they will still use military installations where they have barred IAEA inspectors to date to continue secret bomb making and enrichment activities.

MARGARET WARNER: And brief, final comment from you, Geoff Kemp, if this does end up going to the Security Council, if this impasse isn’t broken, do you think that even if you could get, if the U.S. could get sanctions that that would dissuade Iran?

GEOFFREY KEMP: I don’t think it will dissuade them in the long run, but I think the key issue is not so much what happens at the U.N. but what happens in Europe. If the Europeans actually have more clout over the Iranians than the U.N., and I think all you’d get from the U.N. is probably some watered down sanctions agreement that wouldn’t hurt them, and under those circumstances they could ride it out. They’re sitting on a lot of oil money.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Geoffrey Kemp and Paul Leventhal, thank you both.