RAY SUAREZ: Iran's announcement today that it would freeze its uranium enrichment program for just a few months was the latest twist in a months-long international drama.
Just yesterday the International Atomic Energy Agency endorsed Iran's agreement to suspend its enrichment-related activities for an unspecified period. The agency said it would continue to monitor Iran's nuclear program.
The head of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, sounded a cautiously optimistic note.
MOHAMED ELBARADEI: This is clearly a positive step in the right direction. It will help mitigate international concern about the nature of Iran's program, and over time, should help to build confidence with regard to Iran's nuclear program.
RAY SUAREZ: The U.S. had advocated stronger action by the U.N. watchdog agency to keep Iran from processing nuclear fuel. The United States says the fuel is for nuclear weapons, and Iran insists it's intended for scientific research and for making electricity.
Yesterday's IAEA resolution was the sixth passed by the 35-member group concerning Iran over the last 15 months. The agency noted good progress on correcting past breaches, but said it could not rule out clandestine Iranian activities.
It calls for Iran's voluntary cooperation, a key provision Iran bargained for. There are no penalties for noncompliance. In return, Iran avoids, for now, an American demand that their nuclear case be sent to the United Nations Security Council and possible sanctions.
In announcing Iran's intentions today, the Islamic republic's top nuclear negotiator called the deal a defeat for the United States.
HASSAN ROWHANI (Translated): Quite contrary to U.S. propaganda, the Islamic Republic of Iran has neither abandoned the fuel cycle today, nor will do at any other time.
Iranians are neither frightened by U.S. threats nor by the threats of any other countries. The Islamic Republic of Iran insists on its legitimate right of benefiting peaceful nuclear technology, and will implement it.
RAY SUAREZ: President Bush was asked about the Iranian nuclear issue at his press conference in Canada this afternoon.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Iranians agreed to suspend but not terminate their nuclear weapons program. Our position is they ought to terminate their nuclear weapons program.
I view the decision by the Iranians yesterday as a positive step, but it's certainly not a... it's certainly not the final step.
And it's very important for whatever they do to make sure that the world is able to verify the decision they have made. So we've obviously got more work to do.
RAY SUAREZ: There's more work scheduled in December. That's when the next round of talks will be held between the European Union and Iran.
RAY SUAREZ: How has the deal played out on the Iranian political and public scenes and what are the chances the agreement will prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb?
For that, we're joined by Shaul Bakhash, a former journalist in Iran, now a history professor at George Mason University. He's written widely about the country and its politics.
And Henry Sokolski, deputy for nonproliferation policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense during the first Bush administration. He's now executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington research organization.
Professor Bakhash, after long months of negotiations, first day out of the box, a representative of the Iranian government says, "Well, we're going to stop, but not for very long." Is this agreement a significant thing?
SHAUL BAKHASH: Oh, I think it's a significant thing. The tone you heard from Iran's representative obviously is one they feel they need to adopt partly for domestic consumption, partly because there's still tough negotiations ahead.
What the agreement does do is enmesh both the Europeans and the Iranians in a longer negotiation out of which each side has benefits to acquire, and that is the hope that the agreement presents, although clearly as President Bush said, it's a first step, not a final one.
RAY SUAREZ: Henry Sokolski, what do you make of this agreement and its significance? Do you agree with Professor Bakhash?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I this think what's been conceded by the Europeans and to a limited extent the IAEA as well, that Iran has a legal right to pursue these enrichment activities and that the suspension is neither legally binding nor anything more than a confidence-building measure is much greater than whatever might be gained by the temporary suspension.
After all, the Iranians themselves have made it very clear that they believe they have a right to this, and the president has come back and only said that they only lack a right to nuclear weapons. They believe they have a right to the full fuel cycle, which will bring them within a screwdriver's turn of the arsenal.
And as long as they have that, they have insisted that their political status will change and the United States will be shamed by their progress.
RAY SUAREZ: Iran is a member of the nonproliferation agreement.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there such a thing as the right to enrich?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Not in the treaty. You won't find the words. Every journalist I've seen, however, has been persuaded by the Iranians, and I suspect the Europeans, as well, that there is such a right.
Having studied the history, and even written history of the negotiations of that treaty, I can tell you, quite to the contrary, they talked about possibly making it a duty to give the full cycle to countries that didn't have it, and those proposals were struck down.
And the reason why is they understood when they negotiated this that that would be an enormous loophole that would be intolerable.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, you heard Henry Sokolski that the EU gave away a lot when it conceded that right to enrich. What's going on inside Iran that makes it so important for the country to insist that it can go ahead and produce nuclear fuels?
SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, the Iranians, I think, have convinced themselves that nuclear technology is the cutting edge of technology in the 21st century.
And they're very eager to maintain it, aside from any considerations about a nuclear weapons capability.
There's also a faction within the ruling group that actually believe that Iran should acquire a nuclear weapon and have even proposed that Iran should withdraw from the MPT and pursue it.
They look at India, which for a while was isolated because of its nuclear program, and now has excellent relations with the west. They think the damage to Iran could be much more limited.
But I think the leadership, the majority have reached the conclusion that pursuing these negotiations with the EU, exchanging suspension of fuel enrichment for the possibility of the carrots that the Europeans are now offering Iran, is not a bad deal, so we're at the beginning of this negotiation, and really have to see where it goes.
But it seems to me for the time being a regime of very intrusive inspections has been put in place, and Iran is committed by agreements that of course they can break, but nevertheless, they've committed themselves to, to maintain, to suspend fuel enrichment.
RAY SUAREZ: The Iranian government has called this a defeat for the United States. Is that another example of a message for internal consumption, or do you see this as a defeat for the United States?
SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, partly because the U.S. insisted or hoped to take Iran to the Security Council for the possible imposition of sanctions. That's certainly not on the cards now.
And the U.S. has taken such a rhetorical hard line that not achieving its purpose may appear as a defeat. But in fact, Iran has also agreed to commitments it was not willing to agree to just several months ago.
RAY SUAREZ: A defeat for the United States?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I think a defeat for the United States and a defeat for those that would want to see the nuclear nonproliferation treaty enforced.
The reason why is if we view this treaty as permitting a country like Iran, which has a record of 18 years of failure to report, as it's described by the agency, really noncompliance with its safeguard agreements as required by the treaty, then the game is over.
I mean, essentially every other country will pursue a nuclear-ready status that will bring them very close to having bombs, as well. And everything will be legal. And they'll say the treaty in fact guarantees them the right to go this route.
I think in addition we need to understand that with regard to these large facilities that do enrichment, the idea that you can inspect them in a way that will set off a warning bell in time for you to prevent the material from being diverted to make weapons is just not in the cards.
We're not talking about a reactor where you shut it down, you haul fuel out, you enrich it, then you make a bomb. You're within hours, in the case of an enrichment plant, of being able to make bomb material.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk more about that, because a lot of attention was paid to centrifuges that get fuel out of gases.
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: And Iran doesn't have enough to yield enough fuel for one warhead a year. It seems to have been frozen, and the ones that are in operation are under video surveillance. Is this insufficient in your view?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: It is because you do not know what you do not know. In this case, we didn't even know about the facility that everyone's saying is the full extent of the program two years ago.
We discovered it. It was revealed by dissidents. What else they have and where else they have it is not going to be found out very likely under the inspection procedures laid out by this latest resolution because they were pushing to have all-time, all- location type inspections of the sort we had in Iraq, and that was struck down.
So we are still in the dark as to the full extent of the program, and even ElBaradei has said we might be surprised yet.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, your colleague has put lots of emphasis on how little the Iranians have to do to comply. If we accept that, is there still a risk for Iran in all of this in backing out, in not complying even with the provisions that were worked out with the EU and the IAEA?
SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, there is a risk because the Iranians have attached much value to the relationship they've developed fairly carefully and painstakingly with the Europeans over the last few years.
There's the promise of a trade agreement and broader economic relations with Europe, the promise of European support for an Iranian application to join the World Trade Organization, the promise of cooperation on security matters.
Now, the fact that the Iranians have expended so much time trying to lock this in place would suggest they do value these commitments by the Europeans, and the fact that the Europeans were able to negotiate a suspension of enrichment activities at all indicates that the Europeans have some leverage with the Iranians which the U.S. really doesn't have because there is no relations with Iran.
RAY SUAREZ: So very briefly, you think those things are significant enough to keep Iran from going nuclear?
SHAUL BAKHASH: I think they're significant enough to keep Iran negotiating. We're in the first step of the negotiating process, yes, which may woo Iran away from this ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, although they're always going to want to have a nuclear program.
RAY SUAREZ: In your view, does this postpone indefinitely or at least delay the day when Iran might produce a nuclear weapon?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: I don't think it will. I think they're nuclear-ready now. They've made it very clear they are not going to suspend for very long. They're going to resume enrichment, and as long as that's the case, they will be a wink and a nod from a bomb from here on.
RAY SUAREZ: What kind of time frame are we talking about? Do you believe they're close?
HENRY SOKOLSKI: Yes. I would say we're talking not in years, but more like months: Eighteen months, six months, but not three or ten years.
RAY SUAREZ: And you disagree?
SHAUL BAKHASH: Well, I don't think many experts or a great many experts disagree with Mr. Sokolski about the length of time it may take Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, Henry Sokolski, good to see you both.