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Iran Gives Nod to Inspections, More Nuclear Talks

October 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Iran has agreed to a second round of discussions over its disputed nuclear program following a meeting in Geneva on Thursday with diplomats from the U.S. and other world powers.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, Iran at the negotiating table with the U.S. and other major world powers. That happened today in Geneva, where Iran’s nuclear program was the main issue. President Obama talked about the talks this afternoon at the White House.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today in Geneva, the United States, along with our fellow permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — namely, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, as well as Germany — held talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran. These meetings came after several months of intense diplomatic effort.

The P5-plus-one is united, and we have an international community that has reaffirmed its commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament. That’s why the Iranian government heard a clear and unified message from the international community in Geneva: Iran must demonstrate its commitment to transparency.

Earlier this month, we presented clear evidence that Iran has been building a covert nuclear facility in Qom. Since Iran has now agreed to cooperate fully and immediately with the International Atomic Energy Agency, it must grant unfettered access to IAEA inspectors within two weeks.

We support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear power. Taking the step of transferring its low-enriched uranium to a third country would be a step towards building confidence that Iran’s program is, in fact, peaceful.

Going forward, we expect to see swift action. We’re committed to serious and meaningful engagement, but we’re not interested in talking for the sake of talking. If Iran does not take steps in the near future to live up to its obligations, then the United States will not continue to negotiate indefinitely, and we are prepared to move towards increased pressure.

If Iran takes concrete steps and lives up to its obligations, there is a path towards a better relationship with the United States, increased integration for Iran within the international community, and a better future for all Iranians.

So let me reiterate: This is a constructive beginning, but hard work lies ahead. We’ve entered a phase of intensive international negotiations, and talk is no substitute for action. Pledges of cooperation must be fulfilled.

We’ve made it clear that we will do our part to engage the Iranian government on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect, but our patience is not unlimited.

This is not about singling out Iran. This is not about creating double standards. This is about the global nonproliferation regime and Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy, just as all nations have it, but with that right comes responsibilities. The burden of meeting these responsibilities lies with the Iranian government, and they are now the ones that need to make that choice.

JIM LEHRER: Jeffrey Brown takes the story from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to talk about the negotiations and state of relations, we turn to Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. She served on the policy planning staff at the State Department from 2005 to 2007.

And James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, he’s participated in talks with the Iranians in the past and held top State Department and White House posts under four presidents.

And welcome to both of you.

A constructive beginning, but hard work lies ahead. Does this sound like a successful start out of negotiations?

'A successful start'

Suzanne Maloney
Brookings Institution
It's both a successful start and it is exactly the right tone for the Obama administration to be adopting at this point in what is going to be very early and long process and one that is likely to be quite difficult.

SUZANNE MALONEY, Brookings Institution: I think it's both a successful start and it is exactly the right tone for the Obama administration to be adopting at this point in what is going to be very early and long process and one that is likely to be quite difficult.

But, really, going into these talks today, I think expectations were very low as a result of the tensions that had been raised over the past week or so after the revelation of this facility in Qom and that the Iranian response, which involved some saber-rattling.

And so, as far as I know, no one at the State Department went into the talks today with a really high expectation of getting specific responses from the Iranians, and so that, obviously, was the goal and the idea that these talks will continue and involve some real concessions, some real steps by the Iranians to meet international concerns about their nuclear program is a very positive start.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Dobbins, we heard the president, the emphasis on unfettered access by the IAEA, the international watchdog group, within two weeks. That part of it sounds like an ultimatum.

JAMES DOBBINS, Rand Corporation: I don't know that it's an ultimatum. I mean, the Iranians have said they're prepared to give the IAEA access to this new facility that they're building, so I don't think that was a great surprise.

I think, as Suzanne said, expectations were low. There was a serious danger that the Iranians would simply refuse to talk about their nuclear program, which they don't seem to have done. They seem to have reaffirmed in a positive sense things they've said in the last few days. And the tenor of the discussions seem to indicate that there was some give-and-take.

And so, I mean, my minimal expectation was they might agree to meet again. They seem to have done a little more than that. They seem to have had a serious discussion on what we think is our principal issue. Iranians don't seem to have said, no, we want to talk about a lot of other things and we won't talk about that.

And I think, as Suzanne said, the president in his remarks, which were firm, but also addressed the Iranian concern, which is that they not be singled out, that they not be treated differently from every other country in the world, and that their right to a peaceful nuclear program be acknowledged. He did that all those things.

Sitting down with the Iranians

James Dobbins
Rand Corporation
We've not negotiated with the Iranians for so long that there's a feeling that they're so exotic and they're so different and this is so unique. It isn't.

JEFFREY BROWN: He did that actually several times, refer to their right to a peaceful nuclear program. So, I mean, to my ear, there was this sort of balancing of the got to get in there within a couple weeks, but we're talking about things like that, the peaceful right.

SUZANNE MALONEY: Well, I think, again, the Obama administration has been working hard to set out this idea that they're willing to engage. They set aside the precondition for U.S. participation in the talks. They come without the baggage of the Bush administration, which actually had made this reversal and changed U.S. policy to embrace the idea of an Iranian civil nuclear capability.

So the Obama administration came in with a certain leaning-forward mentality and posture, given that the president had already sent several communications to the government of the Islamic republic.

But the mood over the past few weeks has been a very negative one. There's been pressure building, a lot of talk of sanctions, and it wasn't clear, as Ambassador Dobbins has suggested, whether the Iranians would come in and simply be recalcitrant, simply, as they have in the past, use this meeting as an opportunity for diatribe.

And so I think that the Obama administration obviously has gotten something right about this balance between pressure and opportunity offering to the Iranians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you have, as I said, negotiated with Iranians before, but not this government, it should be said, right? What insight would you bring to the right approach to them?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I negotiated with the Iranians after 9/11. We had a common interest in defeating the Taliban and installing a new government, in pacifying Afghanistan, and we worked quite closely and quite effectively together. I found them very professional, candid and forthcoming.

Now, it was a reformist government, rather than the current more conservative government. We had a clear coincidence of interest.

But, you know, we've not negotiated with the Iranians for so long that there's a feeling that they're so exotic and they're so different and this is so unique. It isn't. It's just like negotiating with any other country with whom you have some serious differences and some potential coincidence of interest.

We did this with the Russians for the Soviet Union for 50 years. And we've done it with a lot of regimes that are even more irrational, unstable and threatening than Iran.

So I think we ought to stop looking at this as something exotic and different and just recognize, this is a serious negotiation with a country we have differences with, but if it's conducted in a professional and consistent fashion, there's some reasonable prospect that we'll make progress.

Determining Iranian motives

Suzanne Maloney
Brookings Institution
Often when we perceive them to be weak, that's exactly when they strive to be as aggressive and assertive as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the Iranian position now? What do you see them wanting? You mentioned the recent acknowledgment of the new nuclear plant, of course, the elections and the opposition that continues to broil along there. What are they coming to the table with? Are they in a weakened positioned, a better position? How do you see it?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Well, I think they are in a weakened position, in a sense that there is a greater degree of global consensus about the threat that the Iranian nuclear program poses. There is a greater, I think, cooperation between the members of the P5-plus-one, in particular the Russians and the Americans, and with that, presumably some additional cooperation from the Chinese.

It's not clear, though, whether the Iranians always understand that their position may be weaker. And often when we perceive them to be weak, that's exactly when they strive to be as aggressive and assertive as possible. And so I think that is why many of those of us who've been watching these talks were not particularly hopeful about today.

We also have a fairly hard-line leadership that is in the midst of an enormous amount of political turmoil, both the aftermath on the streets of the June election, which was quite dramatic and violent, but this continuing division and rifts among the elite, among the clergy, among all the political actors who've formed the sort of basis of the Islamic republic.

I think that the Iranians chose to cooperate today. It's not clear whether that will necessarily mean that they'll continue to cooperate in a really robust fashion, but they obviously recognize that there were some pressures on the horizon, particularly economic ones, that they needed to pay attention to.

JAMES DOBBINS: I think what's interesting is that, you know, there was some concern that, given their domestic turmoil, they would be too distracted to put together a serious position and engage in a dialogue. It seems that, on the contrary, the fact that their position domestically is weakened, their legitimacy is in question, and they do face a certain degree of domestic turmoil, has made them more serious about negotiations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, there's also some concern, there's some who say that are we -- are we legitimizing them by sitting down with them at a time like this, when they are under such strain at home?

JAMES DOBBINS: If there was a reasonable prospect that in a few weeks before they could complete their nuclear program they might be replaced, I think you would have a case.

If you assume, however, that, however weakened they are, they're not about to be overthrown in the next few weeks or even months, and that this is the government that is conducting the nuclear program about which we are concerned, I don't think we have much choice but to engage them.

And it's interesting that even the opposition in Iran is not urging us to not talk to them and is certainly urging us not to engage in large-scale sanctions that will affect the Iranian population. So I don't think we're acting in a way that's inconsistent with the interests of the democratic opposition.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, a final word. The president emphasized our patience is not unlimited. So what is the next step here?

SUZANNE MALONEY: Well, I think the timeframe that the president has articulated in the past is one that probably runs through the end of this year. And that's not to say that we have to have a final solution to the Iranian nuclear threat by that time, but we have to see that they're continuing to cooperate, that they're actually following through on whatever commitments they may have made today.

And let me just add to Jim's point: As I understand, the issue of human rights was raised in these discussions today, and I think that was an important and an appropriate step for the administration to take.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We'll leave it there. Suzanne Maloney and James Dobbins, thank you both very much.