GWEN IFILL: Now that Iran has agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities and permit spot inspections, what happens now? Have Iran's nuclear ambitions been permanently derailed?
We pose those and other questions to George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has written widely on the topic of nuclear nonproliferation. Welcome.
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: What brought about today's -- I guess I can't call it breakthrough. What brought about today's events?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Basically the international system is working the way it's supposed to work when someone breaks the rules.
There was a very intense investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency into allegations that Iran may have been acquiring or trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability. The inspectors found that there were problems. They made a demand with a deadline that Iran answer these questions and take steps such as freezing the suspect activity. The deadline was October 31.
Then we had a good cop/bad cop situation where three foreign ministers from Europe went to Iran saying, look, you're in a lot of trouble; it's going to get worse if you don't go forward with the demands and meet the demands. And that's where we are today.
GWEN IFILL: Significantly those foreign ministers included Germany and France -- which did not agree with us on the war -- and Britain, which did. So let's talk about what the demands are that they got Iran at least tentatively so far to accede to. One was -- and you mentioned this in passing -- the freezing of uranium enrichment activities. Describe that for us.
GEORGE PERKOVICH: That's the most important in many ways. The activity in Iran that had caused a great concern was they were building a large plant that was discovered earlier this year that would house centrifuges from which you produce highly enriched uranium. That's a material, one of the two principal materials, in atomic bombs. So, that was a cause of great concern because if that plant had been completed, it would give Iran capacity to build nuclear weapons.
GWEN IFILL: The second demand they have to disclose, basically, everything that they're up to?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Right. The other demand that you mentioned was there were these discrepancies in Iran's story. And as Iran tried to answer questions over the last few months, the discrepancies were increased because actually there were contradictory stories. So finally, come clean, tell us everything we want to know, answer all our questions.
The final demand, the third demand was that they sign something called the additional protocol which was basically an agreement to allow new inspections or inspections anytime anywhere that the international system wants and also to fully disclose all nuclear activities in Iran.
GWEN IFILL: So what has happened that changed things so dramatically? It was earlier this month that the Iranian foreign minister was arguing that Iran has the legitimate right to develop nuclear weapons or nuclear... for civilian purposes anyhow nuclear energy.
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Well, in some ways this is also the international system working too. Iran realized it was going to be utterly isolated and perhaps a pariah in the international system.
When they realized that the European Union was going to stick with the U.S. in these tough demands, their choice became very stark. On October 31, if they hadn't taken these steps, they could have been found in violation of the non-proliferation treaty. There could have been a move in the United Nations Security Council to basically declare them in violation at which point they could have been subject to sanctions. Iran is a very proud culture and state. It does not want to be isolated from the international community so they had to make a deal.
GWEN IFILL: It seems significant that the United States was not involved in this deal that they made, that in fact, they seemed to be sitting... you've mentioned good cop/bad cop.
GEORGE PERKOVICH: You know how on the police shows a lot of times the good cop goes in and talks to the suspect and says if you work with us here, we'll take care of you. And, the bad cop is standing outside basically waiting to come and get rough if the persuasive approach doesn't work. And, so the United States has effectively basically said we demand full compliance and we're almost itching for Iran not to do this on October 31, so we can take them to the Security Council and get a tougher judgment. So faced with that....
GWEN IFILL: Sanctions.
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Right, so faced with that prospect, you know, what the good cop is saying sounds better.
GWEN IFILL: Even today the president's spokesman said what is important now is not only the words by the Iranians but the action to fully implement what their international obligations are -- very skeptical kind of response from the U.S. administration.
GEORGE PERKOVICH: I think appropriately so. This is very serious business and promises aren't enough. Given the pattern of suspect activity, you want to see actual compliance.
GWEN IFILL: How does the International Atomic Energy Agency go about enforcing these agreements that Iran has signed off or is expecting to sign off on?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: I mean, some of it is, you know, again getting Iran to clarify answers to these questions. So that's a laborious expert process. The key issue here is that Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment. And they did it voluntarily as they insist.
Suspend isn't defined. We don't know how long that suspension lasts. The Iranian representative says it's totally at our discretion, we, Iran, our discretion. And so the big step now is how to make that a permanent act, a permanent halt, to enrichment and Iran is going to want something for that, something in return for that.
GWEN IFILL: Which was exactly my next question: What is Iran getting in return in the short term between now and October 31 and for the long term if they're going to continue to abide by these rules?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: In the short term what they get is being deemed not yet out of the good graces of the international community. In other words they don't get busted and sanctioned on the 31st.
GWEN IFILL: Which is important for them?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Very important to them. Iran, it's Persia, it's a great civilization. They don't like the idea of being a pariah.
GWEN IFILL: President Khatami, he is considered to be a moderate. He's the one making the deal here. How does he go about selling this at home, or is it an easy sell?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: I think it's very tricky to sell at home. It's murky, but I would assume that President Khatami would not make such a deal if it were not blessed, figuratively if not literally, by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini. But then the question is who sells it and how do they sell it? That's where the argument that they need something in return will come in.
GWEN IFILL: Missing from the table is Russia, which has actually had some active, ongoing trade involving nuclear energy or nuclear fuel with Iran. Where were they?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Well, what Russia has said... you're absolutely right.
Russia has some business interests in the Iranian nuclear program but what they've said is, look, if the IAEA and then the U.N. Security Council find Iran in breach of its obligations we will go along with any sanctions and if the international community says we have to therefore stop our cooperation with Iran, we're prepared to do that. So they were kind of sitting back and letting others figure out the terms and they say we'll comply.
GWEN IFILL: So now this is on the table. Everyone is agreeing that everyone is playing their role, the good cop, the bad cops, the sideline people in the case of the Russians. What has to happen next?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Well, the big thing is again how do you make this suspension permanent? For that I think the Europeans are going to offer Iran a deal that says, look, you can keep one nuclear power reactor that's 80 percent complete. You can finish that. You can have it. We'll even guarantee the fuel.
GWEN IFILL: For civilian purposes?
GEORGE PERKOVICH: For civilian purposes entirely. In return, though, you agree to have no suspect, no indigenous fuel cycle capability; that's a basic bargain.
Then the question is will the U.S. go along with that bargain? The administration has said thus far, at least some officials have said, no, we don't want any nuclear power plants in Iran. So that has to be sorted out.
Finally, what has to be sorted out is Iranian decision-makers have to decide can we live without a nuclear deterrent because if they can, there's a deal there. If they can't, then we've postponed a crisis to another day.
GWEN IFILL: George Perkovich thanks a lot for clearing it all up for us.
GEORGE PERKOVICH: Thank you.