JEFFREY BROWN: Today's action by Britain, France and Germany signaled their final frustration with Iran after two and a half years of negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program.
The Berlin meeting of foreign ministers followed Iran's announcement earlier this week that it was resuming work on nuclear enrichment. The Europeans said they would ask the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, to take Iran to the United Nations Security Council which could impose sanctions.
FRANK-WALTER STEINMEIER, Foreign Minister, Germany (Translated): We have decided today to let the Council of Governors of the AIEA know that our talks with Iran have come to a dead point. We are asking the Council of Governors to deal with this situation. We are willing as before to solve this problem in a diplomatic, multilateral frame, and with peaceful means.
JEFFREY BROWN: Hours later a top Iranian official told state television, "Iran is not worried about our nuclear case being sent to the Security Council."
On Tuesday Iran broke the seals on equipment at a nuclear plant in Natanz about 150 miles south of Tehran. That would enable Iran to develop small-scale uranium enrichment, one step toward civilian reactors or nuclear weapons.
The AIEA installed the seals, some as recently as November 2004. Iranian officials including its hard line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have insisted Iran has the right to pursue its nuclear program for peaceful means.
Less than three hours after the Europeans' decision Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blamed Iran for bringing down international wrath on itself.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: The government of President Ahmadinejad has done nothing but confront the international system ever since he came into power, confront the international system and their behavior on the nuclear issue, confront the international issue with outrageous statements that I don't think have been made in polite company in many, many, many years.
And so this is about the Iranian regime, and it is the Iranian regime that is isolating Iran.
JEFFREY BROWN: While Rice agreed with the Europeans that U.N. Security Council action is now necessary, she insisted western nations are still pursuing a diplomatic approach.
CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I have heard some people say that diplomacy has failed. Well, this particular phase with a specific set of negotiations has not succeeded but we now enter a new phase in diplomacy. And as we prepare to try and achieve a referral, our diplomatic efforts have been quite intense.
JEFFREY BROWN: And late today U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Iran's top nuclear negotiator had told him that Tehran remained interested in, quote, "serious and constructive negotiations" with EU countries. But it wanted a specific deadline.
Next week, all five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plan to discuss what to do about Iran.
JEFFREY BROWN: For more on all of this, we go to: David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, which studies nuclear programs worldwide. He's worked with the IAEA on programs in Iraq; and Trita Parsi, a Middle East specialist at Johns Hopkins University. He was born in Iran and raised in Sweden, and served in the Swedish mission to the United Nations. Welcome to both of you.
Mr. Albright, starting with you in layman's terms help us understand the implications of what Iran did on Tuesday in breaking those seals. What exactly does that mean?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, it's re-launched its effort to enrich uranium. It is a very major step. It's not simply research.
They've now launched an effort to try to learn how to run centrifuges -- overcome the last technical hurdles to building a centrifuge plant and, in fact, probably move to the time when they can start the industrial operation of centrifuges, namely put in enough that they could make enough enriched uranium either for some power fuel or for nuclear weapons.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that is, of course, one of the key questions. Does it necessarily mean a move towards making weapons, or is it the capability of making weapons?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: What Iran is doing is developing the capability to make nuclear weapons. We don't know what their final intentions are. There is a lot of suspicions that they want nuclear weapons. They have not cooperated adequately with the International Atomic Energy Agency. There remain several outstanding questions on Iran's past activities. They remain in violation of the nonproliferation treaty. And so there is suspicion that they intend to get nuclear weapons.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Parsi, what is driving Iran's move on Tuesday and in these negotiations?
TRITA PARSI: Well, I think what you've seen over the last couple of years in Iran is that as the negotiations have proceeded you have basically two schools of thought in Tehran: the ones that believe that Iran has less to gain by playing nice with the West; and the ones that believe that by playing nice, it is an option for compromise.
The ones who believe that Iran has to play tough are gaining strength precisely because of the fact that they believe that the overtures to the West, particularly to the United States have passed unrewarded.
Now they may have a tremendously exaggerated view of the utility of those things that they have done, such as the help they provided the United States in Afghanistan.
But the perception that they have is that whatever they do, the United States will try to bring it to the Security Council or try to dismantle its program, and probably also try to get rid of this regime. And these are the fears that are driving their progress in the nuclear program right now.
JEFFREY BROWN: So do you see it, for these people at least, this is an attempt to play a kind of hardball, or do you see any clues that there is a real desire to move towards creating a program of nuclear weapons?
TRITA PARSI: I think the Iranians are not going for weapons at this stage. As Dr. Albright said, I think they are going for the capability to have the option to weaponize if they face a major threat.
The shah did exactly the same thing, although he wasn't as advanced in his programs as the current regime is. But, on the other hand, he actually had the blessing of the United States when he was doing so.
The only threats that they actually face that the nuclear weapons would be useful against is the threat from the United States. They don't have a need for that for any of the other threats they may be facing in the Middle East including Israel, because they have enough deterrent capabilities against those states. But the United States, however, is the only country that they don't have adequate deterrence against from their perspective.
Now, they may cause a lot of problems in Iraq. They may cause a lot of problems in the oil market. But it's that capability that I think they are trying to get in order to ensure that they won't face the same fate as Iraq did.
JEFFREY BROWN: What is your reading of what happened in the breakdown today in the negotiations?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: It is a little different. I mean, I think there are some people in Iran who want to get the capability and they don't want to give up enrichment and because finally what the Europeans have been asking is that they don't have that capability because Iran has violated the nonproliferation treaty, because it lives in a very dangerous part of the world, countries shouldn't have the capability and be tempted later to use it to make nuclear weapons quickly.
And so I think there are some people in Iran who do want that capability now. Some believe that there are others within that group that just want nuclear weapons and I think they feel they can beat the West. They can outlast the pressure. And I think they -- personally I think they've miscalculated, but I do believe that there are some in Iran who feel that in this struggle they can outgun the West.
JEFFREY BROWN: Based on what we know now, Mr. Albright, how -- if Iran wanted to create a weapons program, how long would it take for them to develop nuclear weapons?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: They are still several years away. It's a black box. And you have to try to assess and guess and so -- but most estimates are there are several years. I mean, the U.S. Intelligence Agency has said they think they are a decade away. I mean, I think they could be closer.
I also think if a confrontation develops, they could try to accelerate their program. And so I do think that there is a need to try to keep this from getting out of control, keep working diplomatically, avoid discussions or implementation of military options, and try to keep engaging the Iranians while you start turning it up the pressure.
JEFFREY BROWN: So today all of this got ratcheted up to the possibility of going to the Security Council and that means potential sanctions. What are the pluses and minuses, Mr. Parsi, of a -- or implications of going to the Security Council?
TRITA PARSI: Well, I think the consideration of going to the Security Council without having active American participation in the negotiations is not really going to be much different from what we have been seeing so far, a process that doesn't really work precisely because of the fact that the key country that Iran needs to have this deterrence against from their perspective is not an active participant in the negotiations.
The United States has more or less outsourced this to the Europeans. The Europeans have not been terribly happy about it because it is almost an impossible position for them.
But if we go through the Security Council and even if there are some sanctions imposed on Iran, most likely it will not be very harsh sanctions because the Chinese, the Europeans, the Russians have too many financial interests in Iran to be able to withstand the cost of imposing such sanctions.
So there would be a continuation of this process in which the pressure will increase, but there won't be any balance between the pressure and the incentives that are offered to Iran to be able to get out of this. And those incentives are the incentives that only the United States can offer.
And I think the fear that many people have is if you go to the Security Council without a significant change in which the United States also starts to participate actively in the negotiations, the risk for a military confrontation will increase significantly over the year.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about the move to the Security Council, is that good move?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: It is a necessary move. The IAEA did not report the issue to the Security Council because they delayed that because there were negotiations and a suspension was in place.
The IAEA has to report Iran's violation of the nonproliferation treaty to the Security Council and now is the time to do it or else the West will look weak.
In terms of the United States I would just add, the United States is moving on this. When this first happened, the crisis first developed in 2002, the United States was largely outside the negotiation process throwing stones. Its point was you can't achieve anything.
They then joined in the effort. And in that they started to say look, Iran, we're not going to try to eliminate your nuclear program.
They haven't changed their policy fundamentally on regime change but it has softened. And I think that -- I see a movement toward more U.S. engagement on this. Where they do -- the U.S. has to do more is start to realize that they have to say regime change isn't the goal; it is not enough to be silent on it.
And they need to be prepared to engage more with Iran, although I would say at this point in time it's time to set -- step back and start to increase the pressure.
JEFFREY BROWN: But let me ask you, what about the risk of military confrontation that Mr. Parsi just raised by ratcheting it up to the Security Council and potential sanctions?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: I think -- I don't -- people don't really have a strategy to really launch a military strike against Iran. I mean, no one wants to invade -- that I can tell, seriously wants to invade Iran.
They -- the strikes against the nuclear facilities are very hard to pull off because they are spread out. Items, key items in those sites can be moved if there is just a few days of warning which you would probably get in -- as a confrontation escalates.
And so I don't think military options are very realistic. They are also not necessary at this point. And so I think it's better not even to consider them, and I think people should look upon this as what could turn into one or two years of trying -- instead of trying to reward Iran for giving up something -- that was essentially the European approach -- to now there is going to be an attempt to isolate Iran and it needs to think through what it's doing and has to make a decision: is it going to rejoin the international community or is it going to live isolated and faced with a containment policy?
JEFFREY BROWN: And we just have about 20 seconds. As we said, Kofi Annan said today that Iran says it still wants to come and negotiate. Is that significant?
TRITA PARSI: Well, it does indicate that basically the position that the Iranians have had is that they believe that the ultimate game is to be able to change a regime or completely eliminate their program.
And unless there is a deadline for the negotiations, which is what they've asked for, they believe that the Europeans will just drag on the talks until the balance of power has changed, the situation in Iraq is stabilized and the U.S. can strong arm Iran.
So Iran prefers to have this confrontation now when it is in a relatively stronger position than to wait, as long as they are convinced that the end game from the West is to deny them what they believe is their right under the NPT. And a lot of countries do agree that Article 4 gives Iran the right to have a fuel cycle.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Trita Parsi and David Albright, thank you both very much.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: Thank you.
TRITA PARSI: Thank you.